Cavalier Poetry and Drama Essay - Critical Essays

Cavalier Poetry and Drama


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.

Representative Works

Thomas Carew
The Poems of Thomas Carew with His Masque Coelum Britannicum [edited by Rhodes Dunlap] (poetry and drama) 1970

Robert Herrick
The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick [edited by J. Max Patrick] (poetry) 1963

Richard Lovelace
The Poems of Richard Lovelace [edited by C. H. Wilkinson] (poetry) 1953

John Suckling
*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].

Criticism: Overviews

Felix E. Schelling (essay date 1913)

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...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)

Thomas Clayton (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 3814 words.)

Joshua Scodel (essay date spring 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 15832 words.)

Marjorie Swann (essay date 1996)

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,...

(The entire section is 6845 words.)

Criticism: Cavalier Drama

SOURCE: Aggeler, Geoffrey D. “The Rebellion in Cavalier Drama.”1Western Humanities Review 32, no. 1 (winter 1978): 53-75.

[In this essay, Aggeler discusses Cavalier drama of the interregnum and notes that it is rich in political and religious content.]

In spite of the great contributions by Hyder Rollins, Leslie Hotson and Alfred Harbage, the history of the drama between 1642 and 1660 remains “perhaps the obscurest chapter in the history of English literature.”2 Students still commonly assume that the ordinance of September 2, 1642, ordaining that “publike Stage-playes shall cease, and bee forborne,” succeeded in halting the activities...

(The entire section is 10682 words.)

Criticism: Major Figures

Manfred Weidhorn (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Weidhorn, Manfred. “Reputation and Achievement.” In Richard Lovelace, pp. 160-71. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.

[In the essay that folllows, Weidhorn discusses Richard Lovelace's critical reputation and considers his body of work as a whole.]


Lovelace's reputation as a poet begins early indeed—in his twenty-first year. Though he had left Oxford two years earlier, his lines on the Princess Katherine were inserted into copies of a volume of elegies by Oxford students. Similarly, when Fletcher's Wild Goose Chase appeared in 1652, Lovelace's prefatory verses were printed in larger type than the others'...

(The entire section is 5185 words.)

Warren W. Wooden (essay date November 1977)

SOURCE: Wooden, Warren W. “The Cavalier Art of Love: The Amatory Epistles of Sir John Suckling.” West Virginia University Philological Papers 24, no. 5-1 (November 1977): 30-36.

[In the following essay, Wooden examines John Suckling's love letters and contends that they demonstrate control, awareness, sophistication, and unconventionality.]

To our era as to his own, Sir John Suckling seems the quintessential Cavalier, “the greatest gallant of his time, and the greatest Gamester,” in John Aubrey's phrase.1 Today, however, his reputation rests almost exclusively on the body of lyrical verse—witty, masculine, playfully irreverent—which was collected...

(The entire section is 3095 words.)

Lynn Sadler (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Sadler, Lynn. “Carew's Life and ‘School’ of Poetry.” In Thomas Carew, pp. 11-23. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

[In the essay below, Sadler offers a biography of Thomas Carew, considers his reputation, and praises him for showing variety and care in his work.]

As one can see from the Chronology, facts about the life of Thomas Carew are rare. The would-be biographer is further hampered by the confusion and ambiguities that lace such “facts” as do exist. Was he born in 1594 or 1595? Where was he born? Which of the three contemporaries, Thomas Carew/Carey, is the poet? Was his college Merton or Corpus Christi? Did he die in 1638 or 1639 at age...

(The entire section is 6246 words.)

Michael H. Markel (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Markel, Michael H. “Perception and Expression in Marvell's Cavalier Poetry.” In Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, pp. 243-253. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Markel discusses poetry by Andrew Marvell that engages the Cavalier mode while at the same time exploring its conventions and limitations.]

As Marvell's major lyrics have become better understood, commentators have turned their attention to his later, satirical poetry, in search of the balance and paradox that characterize his more famous works.1 In his curious...

(The entire section is 3899 words.)

Further Reading


Bush, Douglas. “Jonson, Donne, and Their Successors.” In English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century 1600-1660, pp. 104-69. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945.

Traces the currents of Cavalier and metaphysical poetry in the seventeenth century.

Butler, Martin. “Lovers and Tyrants: Courtier Plays 1637-42.” In Theatre and Crisis 1632-1642, pp. 55-83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Rejects popular notions about English drama in the decade before the closure of the theaters.

Deneef, A. Leigh. “The Courtly Ceremonial.” In “This Poetick Liturgie”:...

(The entire section is 508 words.)