Cavalier Poetry and Drama Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.