John Cleveland Essay - Critical Essays

Cleveland, John


John Cleveland 1613-1658

English satirist, elegist, and poet.

John Cleveland is recognized as one of the most popular satirists and poets of the seventeenth century. With over twenty-five editions of his poems appearing between 1647 and 1687, he was respected as a lyrical genius and a valuable asset to the Royalist party during the English civil wars. His work has provided a detailed examination of the history and politics of the mid-1600s through his caustic satire, somewhat biased by his allegiance to the king. Cleveland is also acknowledged as one of the last metaphysical poets, often utilizing the technique of extended metaphor.

Biographical Information

Cleveland was born in Loughborough, Leicestershire, to Elizabeth Hebbe and Thomas Cleveland, an assistant at both the parish church and at Burton's Grammar School. In 1621 Cleveland's father was appointed vicar in the neighboring town of Hinckley, where John studied under Richard Vines, a respected and highly influential Puritan preacher. Cleveland entered Christ's College in Cambridge in 1627, receiving his B.A. in 1631 and his M.A. in 1635. In March of 1634 he was elected to the Hebblethwaite Fellowship at St. John's College. There, he began a career educating undergraduates while also writing some of his most famous satires. Although he remained in Cambridge, Cleveland was named Rhetoric Reader at Oxford University from 1635 to 1637, where some of his Latin orations have been retained. In 1643, he relocated to Oxford for two years, joining many of his contemporaries at the hub of Royalist action. His writing of both poetry and prose intensified and became more politically focused. In February of 1645, Cleveland's fellowship at St. John's was revoked, but he was quickly appointed judge advocate of the garrison at Newark by the Royalists. There, he likely presided over legal cases between military and civilian residents. In May of the following year, however, Newark was besieged by the Scots, forcing Cleveland to leave. For the next nine years, he wandered throughout England, depending on the aid of more prosperous Royalists. Little is known regarding this period of his life, although conjectures have been made that he lived with fellow Royalists Edmund Thorold and Edward Cooke for periods of time, and that he wrote for Royalist mercuries in London. On November 10, 1655, being “a person of great abilities, so able to do the greater disservice” to the government, Cleveland was arrested for actively protesting Parliament during the Civil War. After three months in Yarmouth prison, he appealed to Oliver Cromwell, arguing that he would not have been arrested had he not been poor, and that his loyalty to the Royalist party was a reflection of the loyalty he would now have to the current government. Upon his subsequent release, he lived in Gray's Inn, London, until his death of a fever on April 29, 1658.

Major Works

Cleveland began his literary career while at St. John's, where he contributed to two collections of poems: a tribute to Edward King upon his death in 1638 and a volume honoring King Charles's return from Scotland in 1641. Both are relatively mediocre in comparison to contributions from other authors; however, they denote the inception of Cleveland's stylistic techniques, which would be developed in his later works. Numerous other poems were written during his time at Cambridge, though exact dates are uncertain. Among his lyric poetry are “Fuscara; or The Bee Errant,” “The Hecatomb to his Mistresse,” “Square-Cap” and “Upon a Hermophrodite.” “Fuscara” is a lengthy narrative of a bee deserting a field of flowers for the sweeter mistress of the poet. “The Hecatomb to his Mistresse” also adulates its subject, but through a negative approach, contrasting the assumedly faultless mistress to distasteful entities. “Square-Cap,” though another love poem, paints a portrait of contemporaneous Cambridge men. In the poem, a woman is courted by numerous men wearing different types of hats: a soldier, a fashion-monger, a Puritan, a clerk, and a lawyer. However, she declares that if she ever loves a man, it will be a “square-cap,” or university graduate like the narrator, who digresses into a portrayal of university life as Cleveland likely experienced it. “Upon a Hermophrodite” deviates from his amorous poetry, instead focusing on comparative images of historically sexless characters. It is acclaimed as a unique, insightful work, not comparable to any literary piece from that period. Cleveland's first significant satire, “A Dialogue between two Zealots, upon the &c. in the Oath,” scorns fictional Puritan clergymen who spend hours discussing the “&c.” in an oath written by a convocation in 1640. Similarly, his “Smectymnuus, or the Club-Divines” ridicules five Puritan authors who wrote a controversial pamphlet in 1641; the title “Smectymnuus” is actually a fusion of the writers' names into a mockery, setting the tone of the composition. Cleveland also composed three other noteworthy works of prose, The Character of a London Diurnall, (1644) The Character of a Country Committee-man, with the Ear-mark of a Sequestrator (1649) and The Character of a Diurnal-maker (1654). All deride their subjects, much as Cleveland did the Puritans in his first two satires. Cleveland's final works became almost entirely politically focused. The most prominent include “The Mixt Assembly,” illustrating the Westminster Assembly to reform the church, “The Rebell Scot” on the Scottish invasion in January 1644, and “The King's Disguise,” detailing the secret travels of King Charles for eight days before surrendering to the Scots in 1646.

Critical Reception

While Cleveland was extremely popular among his contemporaries, his overall critical response has been subdued and often harsh. In the eighteenth-century, John Dryden condemned the work in Cleveland's canon as “a clownish kind of raillery.” Dryden defined his use of catachresis as “Clevelandism” or the “wresting and torturing” of words out of their ordinary usages. Many critics of the ensuing century accepted Dryden's perception as accurate and denounced Cleveland's work for its decadence and exhaustive rhetoric and intellectualization. However, in more recent years, Cleveland's burlesque style and wit has been reevaluated as a product of his era, appropriate for the academic society with which he contended. His political satire has been deemed bitter yet shrewd, perhaps some of the best produced during the English Civil War. Though misunderstood for many years, Cleveland is now regaining critical appreciation as a master of rhetoric and satire and, according to Lee A. Jacobus, as “one of the most inventive lyricists of his time.”

Principal Works

The Character of a London Diurnal (prose) 1644

The Scots' Apostacy (prose) 1646

The Character of a London-Diurnall: With severall select Poems: By the same Author (prose and poetry) 1647

The Character of a Moderate Intelligencer, with Some Select Poems (poetry) 1647

The King's Disguise (poetry) 1647

The Character of a Country Committee-man (prose) 1649

The Hue and Cry after Sir John Presbyter (poetry) 1649

Majestas Intemerata; or, The Immortality of the King (poetry) 1649

The Character of a Diurnal-Maker (prose) 1654

The Idol of the Clowns; or, The Insurrection of Wat the Tyler (poetry) 1654; as The Rustic Rampant (poetry) 1658; as The Rebellion of the Rude Multitude 1658

Petition to the Lord Protector (poetry) 1657

J. Cleveland Revived (poetry) 1659

Clievelandi Vindiciae; or, Clieveland's Genuine Poems, Orations, Epistles, etc. (poetry) 1677

The Poems of John Cleveland: Annotated and Correctly Printed for the First Time with Biographical and Historical Introductions [edited by John M. Berdan] (poetry) 1903

Poems [edited by Brian Morris and Eleanor Withington] (poetry) 1967


S. V. Gapp (essay date December 1931)

SOURCE: Gapp, S. V. “Notes on John Cleveland.” PMLA 46, no. 4 (December 1931): 1075-86.

[In the following essay, Gapp remarks on early twentieth-century information regarding Cleveland, including his family history, his career at Cambridge, reception of his early works, his connection with the Mercurius publications, and his death.]

Since the appearance of Professor Berdan's edition of Cleveland's poems1 little has been added to our knowledge concerning the poet's biography. The purpose of this paper is to present certain biographical data which supplement those given by Professor Berdan.


As to the...

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Harry Levin (essay date October 1934)

SOURCE: Levin, Harry. “John Cleveland and the Conceit.” Criterion 14, no. 54 (October 1934): 40-53.

[In the following essay, Levin reviews Cleveland's style of rhetoric and metaphor throughout his work, concluding that he is a truly brilliant poet who, while extolled by his contemporaries, has been neglected in historical acclamation.]

There are some writers who may not be mentioned without apology, and John Cleveland is definitely in that category. For about twenty-five years, no English poet was so strenuously cultivated; for the two hundred and fifty years between that time and this, none has been so pointedly ignored. Dr. Johnson, exercising his familiar talent...

(The entire section is 4187 words.)

John L. Kimmey (essay date October 1958)

SOURCE: Kimmey, John L. “John Cleveland and the Satiric Couplet in the Restoration.” Philological Quarterly 37, no. 4 (October 1958): 410-23.

[In the following essay, Kimmey praises Cleveland's rendering of satiric couplets, contending that his talent was a combination of burlesque and formal satire, inspiring movements by his contemporaries toward both genres.]

John Cleveland's part in the development of seventeenth-century poetry has never clearly or fully been recognized by either critics or scholars, who too often have dismissed him as a freak or a fool for his incorrigible and fantastic wit. Whereas no one reads him today except as a footnote to the decline of...

(The entire section is 5454 words.)

Brian Morris and Eleanor Withington (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Morris, Brian and Eleanor Withington. “The Poetry of Cleveland.” In The Poems of John Cleveland, edited by Brian Morris and Eleanor Withington, pp. xv-lxxvii. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

[In the following essay, Morris and Withington analyze Cleveland's poetry in the context of the English Civil War.]

In his own age Cleveland was distinguished as a writer of ‘strong lines’. The two poems in H18 [a commonplace book containing eighteen of Cleveland's poems] which respectively attack and defend his ‘How the Commencement grows new’ mention this aspect of his art. John Saltmarsh writes:

Can thy strong Lines, those mighty Cartrope...

(The entire section is 7345 words.)

Paul J. Korshin (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Korshin, Paul J. “The Evolution of Neoclassical Poetics: Cleveland, Denham, and Waller as Poetic Theorists.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 2 (1968): 102-37.

[In the following excerpt, Korshin briefly considers Cleveland, John Denham, and Edmund Waller as neoclassical poets, then focuses on Cleveland's use of irony and satire and his contributions to neoclassical poetics.]


The universally accepted division of seventeenth-century English poetry into schools, metaphysical or baroque and neoclassical or Augustan, presupposes the conception of literary and hence theoretical change from the intellectual bases of one prevalent poetic style...

(The entire section is 5579 words.)

Margaret Forey (essay date June 1975)

SOURCE: Forey, Margaret. “Cleveland's ‘Square-Cap’: Some Questions of Structure and Date.” Durham University Journal 36, no. 2 (June 1975): 170-79.

[In the following essay, Forey discusses the meaning of the “Calot-Leather-cap” in Cleveland's poem, “Square-Cap,” and the consequent questions of structure and date which it raises.]

In the latest edition of the poems of John Cleveland,1 the fantastic Caroline, commentaries by earlier editors have been usefully amplified by Brian Morris and Eleanor Withington. It can nevertheless be shown that in one respect the new editors have followed their predecessors into error. The correction with which...

(The entire section is 6185 words.)

Lee A. Jacobus (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Jacobus, Lee A. “The Critical Reputation.” In John Cleveland, pp. 146-53. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.

[In the following essay, Jacobus summarizes the reactions of critics and editors of different eras to the works of Cleveland and makes his own assessment by considering the poems' historical context.]


Though the critical literature on Cleveland is not very extensive, the judgments which have been made about him have usually been impassioned, long-lasting, and sometimes simply prejudiced. Certainly the foundation of all criticism of Cleveland has been John Dryden's casual attribution to him of...

(The entire section is 3203 words.)

A. D. Cousins (essay date winter 1981)

SOURCE: Cousins, A. D. “The Cavalier World and John Cleveland.” Studies in Philology 78, no. 1 (winter 1981): 61-86.

[In the following essay, Cousins contextualizes Cleveland within the “cavalier” world of kingship and the royal court, and illustrates how his shrewd satire distinguishes him from his predecessors and contemporaries.]

To repeat a commonplace, there is no innovative formal verse satire between Marston and Cleveland. Rankins, Rowlands, and Wither continues the Attic satiric manner which passes from Wyatt through Lodge and Hall.1 Guilpin, “T. M.,” and Fitzgeffrey build on the style of Marston.2 For the most part, those...

(The entire section is 10149 words.)

Daniel Jaeckle (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Jaeckle, Daniel. “From Witty History to Typology: John Cleveland's ‘The King's Disguise’.” In The English Civil Wars in the Literary Imagination, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, p. 71-80. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Jaeckle analyzes Cleveland's “The King's Disguise” typographically and as a historical record of the flight of Charles I from Oxford, deeming it Cleveland's best political poem.]

At three in the morning on April 27, 1646, Charles I fled from Oxford. It was a difficult moment for the king. At Naseby in the previous year the New Model Army had defeated the Royalist forces, and...

(The entire section is 4375 words.)

Further Reading


Bruce, Donald. “An Oxford Garrison of Poets in 1642.” Contemporary Review 261, no. 1522 (November 1992): 250-56.

An abstract of the positions of the Oxford poets during the reign of King Charles I, particularly focusing on the careers of Cleveland, William Cartwright, and Sir John Denham.

Dewey, Thomas B. “Some ‘Careless’ Seventeenth-Century Rhymes.” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 69, no. 3 (March 1965): 143-52.

Examines Cleveland's “careless” usage of non-rhyming pairs of words in his poetry.

Morris, Brian. Introduction to John Cleveland (1613-1658): A...

(The entire section is 322 words.)