Cavalier Poetry and Drama
The term “Cavalier” denotes a literary movement that flourished from 1625 to 1649, characterized by its practitioners' use of lighthearted wit, elegant mannerisms, amorous and sometimes erotic themes, and adherence to upper-class values.
The chief Cavalier writers were Thomas Carew (1594-1640), Sir John Suckling (1609-1642), Robert Herrick (1591-1674), and Richard Lovelace (1618-1657). Critic Thomas Clayton notes that Cavalier literature “is precisely the corpus of poems by these four ‘Cavalier Lyrists,’ and by that measure it is a composite of the qualities abstracted from their collected works.” Characteristically, the Cavaliers were cultured, carefree, behaved as courtly gentlemen, and avoided the overserious. Their works typically celebrate the commonplace and even trivial aspects of daily life.
Sometimes referred to as the “Sons of Ben” or the “Tribe of Ben” in recognition of their debt to Ben Jonson, the writings of the Cavaliers were also significantly impacted by John Donne. Lovelace and Carew were clearly informed by Petrarch. Politically the Cavaliers were Royalists, supporting Charles I against Parliament and the Roundheads in the Civil Wars. Three of the authors—Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace—fought for Charles I. Herrick was not a courtier at all, but an Anglican clergyman. His works show a strong influence by Jonson's adaptations of classical Latin forms.
The light poetry and drama of the Cavaliers has not fared well in general with modern critics preferring more serious material. To many current critics, Alexander Pope's description of the Cavaliers as a “mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease” is justification for a lack of scrutiny. Clayton, however, in his discussion of the lives and works of the major Cavaliers, points out that their purpose in writing was to please the king, not future critics. Manfred Weidhorn discusses Lovelace's reputation and achievements, noting that critical respect for him has fallen over the centuries but also pointing out that, of his poems, “some fifteen to twenty are effective and readable; repay study; change our view of life ever so little; leave us wiser, amused, or moved.” Lynn Sadler examines Carew's life and influences, and asserts that he is at his best when he takes elements from Jonson, Donne, the Elizabethans, and the other Cavaliers and makes something new from the combination. Warren W. Wooden concentrates on Suckling's love letters, in which, according to Wooden, the poet “is both playing and subverting the courtly love game.” Wooden calls for a critical reassessment, contending that the epistles are “more complex, sophisticated, and unconventional than generally assumed.” Geoffrey D. Aggeler provides context for the Cavaliers in his analysis of the plays of the period 1642 through 1660, when theaters were closed by ordinance. Aggeler notes that plays continued to be written, read, and also performed, although typically to small, private audiences. He finds the Cavalier plays of this period full of topical references to politics and religion. Michael H. Markel explores Andrew Marvell's Cavalier poetry, which employs standard Cavalier themes but with the injection of skepticism. Markel explains that Marvell felt the themes addressed by the Cavaliers were more complex than they seemed to realize and that they deserved fuller treatment. Marjorie Swann and Joseph Scodel examine the treatment of women by the Cavaliers. Swann considers how Herrick made objects of women and then either fragmented these objects into constituent anatomical parts or concentrated on adornments such as lace and jewelry in substitution for intimacy. Scodel explains that the ideal woman to the Cavaliers would maintain a delicate balance in her sexual attitude and behavior, neither totally frustrating nor satiating her lover.
The Poems of Thomas Carew with His Masque Coelum Britannicum [edited by Rhodes Dunlap] (poetry and drama) 1970
The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick [edited by J. Max Patrick] (poetry) 1963
The Poems of Richard Lovelace [edited by C. H. Wilkinson] (poetry) 1953
*The Works of Sir John Suckling 2 vols. (collected works) 1971
*Includes The Non-Dramatic Works [edited by Thomas Clayton] (poetry) and The Plays [edited by L. A. Beaurline].
SOURCE: Schelling, Felix E. “The Lyric in the Reigns of the First Two Stuart Monarchs.” In The English Lyric, pp. 73-111. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1967.
[In the following excerpt, first published in 1913, Schelling classifies the poetry of Carew, Herrick, and the other Cavalier poets as secular, and stresses its relation to the social life of the period.]
Analogies frequently mislead and disprove what they are invoked to illustrate; and yet the often-repeated comparison of the reign of Elizabeth to the spring, the period of peculiar and rapid quickening, the time of bloom and promise, is as useful as it is obvious and hackneyed. In such an age...
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SOURCE: Clayton, Thomas. Introduction to Cavalier Poets: Selected Poems, edited by Thomas Clayton, pp. xiii-xxii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
[In this essay, Clayton presents an overview of the four major Cavalier poets: Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace.]
Herrick, Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace share a continuing appeal that continues also to change as the times change. They are ‘for all time’, as Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, but they are also much more ‘of an age’; hence their varying critical fortunes with ages and audiences like and unlike theirs. They have always found most favour with those who prefer their...
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SOURCE: Scodel, Joshua. “The Pleasures of Restraint: The Mean of Coyness in Cavalier Poetry.” Criticism 38, no. 2 (spring 1996): 239-79.
[In the essay below, Scodel argues that Cavalier poets “playfully and sometimes outrageously” replaced temperance with “a mistress's tantalizing coyness or a man's tantalized desire” as the appropriate middle ground between abstinence and lust.]
Up through the middle ages, Christian attitudes toward sexuality combined an ascetic repugnance toward sinful carnality with a Christianized version of the pagan ethical focus on moderating bodily pleasures. The former celebrated celibacy as the purest state; the latter fostered...
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SOURCE: Swann, Marjorie. “Cavalier Love: Fetishism and Its Discontents.” Literature and Psychology 42, no. 3 (1996): 15-35.
[In the following essay, Swann examines how Cavalier poets fetishized women in their works and discusses what this reveals about masculine anxiety.]
Stephen Greenblatt has argued that the critic who examines Renaissance literature through the lens of psychoanalysis has gone badly astray. Greenblatt maintains that the mode of subjectivity, the “continuous selfhood” of the individual assumed by psychoanalysis was unavailable to men during the Renaissance. In Greenblatt's early modern world of hegemonic power, the community acts as subject,...
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