In the Caroline period (the age of Charles I—1625-49) there was a remarkable outburst of lyrical activity. Most of the lyricists, with the very notable exception of Herrick, were courtiers. On account of their leanings towards the King and the court party as against the Puritans or Roundheads, these lyricists-cum-courtiers have come to be classed in the history of English literature as Cavalier poets or Cavalier lyricists.
However, it may be pointed out that they did not use their Muse as a tool of propaganda-political or religious. They kept their Royal ism away and apart from their poetic activity. Among the Cavalier poets may also be mentioned the names of Faulkland. Meyne, Cleveland. Habinston. Mav. Randolph and manv more aiso; however here our purpose is to deal with only the more important ones. They are Herrick, Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace.
Some Common Features:
The output of the Cavalier poe*c falls in a class on account of certain qualities which may be discerned, though in varying degrees, in the work of each one of them. Butjt may be pointed out that it is only the minor Cavalier poets who are merely representative with comparatively less well-defined individualities of their own. Even-one of the four major Cavalier poets named above has his own individual approach and flavour and that is the reason why he is a “major’ poet. Yet they share some characteristics. For instance, they all wrote very short poems, very few of them comprising above a hundred words. Further, even though they are both l _/an and urbane they show an undisguised, and sometimes intense, love of such natural objects as trees, plants, birds and country scene in general. Then, all of them exhibit an admiration for simplicity as against the sophisticated culture of the court. Again, none of them shows any real intensity of feeling or rapturous spontaneity we have come to associate with Elizabethan lyricists. Lastly, their idiom and diction reflect the flavour of aristocratic speech-fluent, though a little slipshod and unamenable to the dulling discipline of any formal education. The conversational flavour of the following lines needs no emphasis :
Now you have freely given me leave to love,
What will you do? Carew
Hark, reader! wilt be learn’d fth ‘wars? Lovelace I tell thee, fellow, who’er thou be,
That made this fine sing-song of me. Suckling Thou art a rhyming sort.
The Twin Influence of Donne and Ben Jonson:
This conversational note which imports a kind of dramatic quality into poetry might have been due to Donne’s influence. Donne himself was fond of imparting drama to lyrics. Witness such lines as the following:
I wonder by my troth what thou and I
Did, till we lovd?
But Donne’s influence on the Cavalier poets went farther than this. His use of the “metaphysical conceits” prompted emulation. The Cavalier poets sometimes directly imitated Donne’s conceits. The following lines from Carew’s “Upon a Riband” are directly based on Donne’s “The Funeral”:
This silken wreath, circled in mine arm,
Is but an emblem of that mystique charm,
Wherewith the magic of your beauties binds
My captive soul…”
Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, going beyond the Seas” and Suckling’s -To Mistress Cicely Crofts” echo Donne’s “The Extasie” and “A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning.” In more general terms, Donne gave the Cavalier poets the tendency of introspective self-analysis, so conspicuously lacking in most courtiers, and the tendency of ratiocinative argumentation using examples from all branches of learning. Donne was also respected by them for his exuberant fancy of which some samples may be found in their own works too. Like Donne’s poems some of the Cavalier poems show a rare blend of passion and ratiocination. Some of the Donnean kind of cynical realism also is to be found in these poems.
But Donne was not the only guiding spirit for the Cavalier poets. There was Ben Jonson, too. Indeed most of them felt proud of calling themselves “Sons of Ben” or members of the “Tribe of Ben”. The “rare Ben Jonson” was the first classical lyricist in English literature. He himself wrote under the influence of the Latin lyricists of antiquity-particularly Catullus. Like all classicists he set store by lucidity and general beauJyoT expression, chastened and chiselled imagination, and balance-and proportion of design. The Cavalier poets were especially indebted for the clarity of expression to Ben Jonson. They disowned the turbidity of Donne’s poetic expression. Their control of emotion, felicity of phrase, and sophistication of tone were some other Jonsonian qualities. Many of them wrote tributary verses to Ben Jonson as they did to Donne. In fact, Donne and Jonson both influenced the Cavalier poets in almost equal proportion-and mostly for the better. Geoffrey Walton observes in this connexion : “As the poetic masters of these poets, Donne and Jonson formed an almost ideal partnership, at once stimulating and disciplining, arousing exuberant feeling and ingenious elaboration of the fancy and exerting a dignified restraint and sensitive literary tact.”
The Cavalier lyric does not, by any means, enjoy an inconsiderable position in the history of English literature. It is customary to compare the Cavalier poets with Elizabethan lyricists. Doing this, Swinburne puts the former above the latter. Comparing the growth of the drama and that of the lyric in England, he points out that the kind of drama which started with Marlowe at once reached its apex in Shakespeare, and immediately suffered a steep decline in the Jacobean and Caroline periods till it died with Sheridan. On the other hand, the lyric, starting with Wyatt and Surrey, developed slowly, reached a high point in the Elizabethan age, but went on rising still higher and reached its apex in the work of the Cavalier poets, and started declining only after them. Most critics do not accept this placement of the Cavalier poets above Elizabethan lyricists. The Cavaliers have certainly more of polish and even ingenuity, but they lack the spontaneity and emotional intensity of the Elizabethans. The “wood notes wild” of Shakespearean song are not to be heard in their efforts, even though’they have quite a few attractive substitutes to offer.
Let us now consider briefly the work of the four major Cavalier poets we have named above.
Robert Herrick (1591-1674):
Herrick by the consensus of critical opinion enjoys the highest status among the Cavalier poets. This is the status which Douglas Bush also gives him in English Literature in the Earlier XVIIth Century. However Geoffrey Walton in his essay on the Cavalier poets in Vol. II of the Pelican Guide to English Literature would place Carew above him. Harrick was the only Cavalier who was not a courtier. He was the first of the “Sons of Ben” who came under his influence. Hardin Craig observes in A History of English Literature, ed. Hardin Craig: “He became Jonson’s greatest disciple and actually realized a greatness in the field of the classical lyric superior to that of Jonson himself.” Along with Jonson, Herrick took for his model and inspiration the clear, objective, spirited but perfectly ordered and lucidly worded poetry of the Latin poets like Ovid, Horace, Catullus, Martial, and the Greek poet Anacreon (possibly, in his Latin version done by Henri Estienne). He does not seem to have paid much -attention to Elizabethan lyricists before him. But his first guide was “Saint Ben” whose aid he invoked in his poem “Prayer to Ben Jonson.”
Herrick was perfectly convinced of his immortality as a poet and therefore very assiduously he preserved each and every scrap of his writing. His only book Herperides: or the Works both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. which appeared in 1648 contains about twelve hundred poems few of which extend beyond a hundred lines. Most of them are of the “occasional” type or of the nature of epigrams. Herrick is a poet of moods and moments and is perhaps incapable of sustained poetic expression. But he is seldom frivolous, inelegant, or unsophisticated. As F. H. Moorman observes, “he reveals lyrical power of a high order: fresh. passionate and felicitously exact, but at the same time meditative and observant.” However, we have to agree with Geoffrey Walton that Herriek is “a poet of a charmingly fanciful rrt simple sensibility.” His moods and themes have variety but no complexity. The true metaphysical manner is beyond him. He sings —ostly of woman, love, wine, and song. But he also exhibits a -efreshing love for trees, plants, and flowers and often looks at them as emblems of human predicament, as for instance in Divination by a Daffodil”:
When a daffodil I see,
Hanging down his head towards me,
Guess I may what I must be. First,
I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I snail be dead;
Lastly, safely buried. Or, again, see the last stanza of “To Blossoms”: But you are lovely leaves where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne’er so brave:
And after they have shown their pride.
Like you, awhile, they glide
Into the grave.
But Herrick has not one but Protean moods and is equally dexterous in the expression of them all. “Cherry Ripe,” “To Julia” and “To Althea” are some of his best known poems. He is, indeed, the delight of all anthologists.
Thomas Carew (15987-1639):
Whereas Herrick looked to Jonson alone, Carew blends in his poetry the metaphysical manner of Donne and the classical spirit of Ben Jonson. His poems on Donne and Jonson express admirably his keen appreciation of his two guides. Jonson was to him the man “greater than all men else” and Donne the poet “worth all that went before.” As Geoffrey Walton observes, “the two influences of Donne and Jonson are fused in him by a considerable native talent.” Hardin Craig observes: “He borrowed from them to the extent in wliich a poet of his po’wers could: from Jonson the great lesson of classic polish, and from Donne a sense of the exciting power of a figure.” As an instance see the following lines:
I am a dial’s hand, still walking round,
‘You are the compass; and I never sound
Beyond your circle, neither can I show
Aught but what first expressed is in you.
(from “To Celia, upon Love’s Ubiquity”)
So, though a virgin, yet a bride
To every grace, she justified
A chaste polygamy, and died.
(from “Maria Wentworth”)
Carew shows more of critical intelligence and sense of pattern than Harrick, but he suffers in imaginative power which gets a substitute in a kind of courtly wit. Among his popular poems may be mentioned “Upon a Ribbon Tied about His Arm by a Lacjy”…a very delightful lyric In long lines, “Ask me no more where Jove bestows when June is past^$he fading rose”…a famous song, and that very good “didactic” lyric “Be that loves a rosy cheek.”
Sir John Suckling.(1609-1642):
It is customary to characterise Suckling as both an irresponsible man and an irresponsible poet. Thus says Legouis:
“Sir John Suckling typifies the Cavaliers, their loyalty, dash, petulancy, frivolity, easy morals and wit. Rich, spendthrift, valiant, a gamester and a gallant, an amateur of the drama who wrote four not unsuccessful plays and a faithful admirer of Shakespeare, Suckling mocked at the pains Carew took to polish his verses. He was himself an improviser, one whose work is very unequal but who writes with .irresistible swing.”
Hardin Craig thinks such’criticism to be unjustified. “His verses,” says this critic, “show no evidence of carelessness, and his dramas are rather carefully wrought. On the personal side also the estimate is a little misleading, since Suckling was”a man who respected religion and wrote a treatise on the subject.” Hardin Craig is more correct than Legouis who follows the traditional assessment of Suckling. Suckling in his poetry shows the twin influence of Jonson and Donne. His cynical observations on female capriciousness and inconstancy and his hard, introspective realism remind one of Donne. His general attitude is well-leavened with what Geoffrey Walton calls “his uninhibited and boisterous cynicism” and “a good sense of horse.” This attitude, determines the “spirit of his poetry, trie controlling wit.” Suckling’s delicate sense of observation is exemplified by the following lines from “A Ballad upon a Wedding”:
Her feet beneath her petticoat
Like little mice, stole in and out,
As if they feared the light.
His best-known poem is the song from Aglaura, “Why so pale and wahfond lover?” which expresses a somewhat Donnean sentiment.
Richard Lovelace (1618-58):
Lovelace is the least important of the foursome of Cavalier poets named above. He was a very.well educated courtier, and was even sent to prison for favouring the king actively in the Civil War. It was in 1648 that while in prison he prepared for the press his volume entitled Lucasta : Epodes, Odes, Sonnets, Songs, etc., to which is added Amarantha a Pastoral (1649). Though his poems are full of freshness and exuberance he lacks the fancy of Herrick, the force,qf-Suckling, and the polish of Carew. “He was”, says Hardin Craig, “not so skilful and sustained as Carew, perhaps not so forceful as Sukling, but has the greatness of having achieved a few immortal utterances” His “Ellinda’s Glove” is the prettiest of his short pieces.
Thou snowy Farm with thy five tenements!
Tell thy white Mistris.here was one
That calFd to pay his daily rents:
But she a-gathering Flowers and Hearts is gone,
And thou left void to rude Possession.
His “To Althea, from Prison” has for the concluding stanza the following famous lines:
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take,
That for a hermitage!
If have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,—
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such liberty.