Sir John Suckling, like many of the other writers at the court of Charles I, was an inheritor of the poetic traditions of both John Donne and Ben Jonson, literary masters of the preceding generation. From Donne came the tone of gay cynicism that pervades Suckling’s love lyrics, while the classical smoothness of Jonson’s verse is reflected in the clarity, precision and easy flow of the brief stanzas of his successor. There is, however, very little of Donne’s tough intellectualism in Suckling’s poetry; though he occasionally develops a poem as an extended rational argument, his aim seems to have been to produce amusing, polished verses for the entertainment of Charles’ court, and the revelation of his own emotions has no place in his lyrics.
Critics have pointed out Suckling’s relationship to the precieux and the libertins, the court and “society” poets of Louis XIII, writers who valued spontaneity, fluency, and witty conceits in the verses they composed for the ladies who headed the popular literary salons. Their concern was, in general, with the manner, not the matter, of poetry; it would have been inconceivable for one of them to write, as Donne did, of the paradoxes of the Incarnation or of his quest for faith. Suckling’s appreciation for their kind of spontaneity can be seen in his comments on both Jonson and his friend Thomas Carew in his witty survey of the literary figures of his time, “A Session of the Poets”:
Tom Carew was next, but he had afaultThat would not well stand with a lau-reate;His muse was hide-bound, and th’ issueof’s brainWas seldom brought forth but withtrouble and pain.
The best known of Suckling’s poems are his songs and his “sonnets,” which are not sonnets in the technical sense but love lyrics in stanzaic form. Almost any one of these poems would illustrate Suckling’s skill with the genre. One of the most familiar is this lyric from his Last Remains:
Out upon it! I have lov’dThree whole days together;And am like to love three more,If it prove fair weather.Time shall moult away his wings,Ere he shall discoverIn the whole wide world againSuch a constant lover.But the spite on ’t is, no praiseIs due at all to me:Love with me had made no stays,Had it any been but she.Had it any been but she,And that very face,There had been at least ere thisA dozen dozen in her place.
The abrupt colloquial opening lines are reminiscent of a number of Donne’s early poems, where a similar dramatic effect captures the immediate attention and interest of the reader. Suckling’s own particular talent is especially evident in the musical flow of the whole, the carefully worked out assonance and rhyme. The repetition of sound in love, prove, discover, lover, in the first two stanzas is reinforced by the smooth, slow movement of whole, more, moult, world especially in the second, where the stately meter emphasizes Suckling’s mock constancy. The rhythm picks up in the last two stanzas, where the poet uses shorter sounds.
The kind of wit that pervades even the sound patterns of his lyric is characteristic of Suckling’s work. The reader cannot take seriously the stately stanza, whose dignified movement implies eternal fidelity, when he knows that this much-vaunted constancy is of three days’ duration. Suckling has...
(The entire section is 1688 words.)