George Etherege

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Sir George Etherege Poetry: British Analysis

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Of the approximately thirty poems in Sir George Etherege’s canon, the majority focus on the game of love, the prominent theme of his comedies. Etherege delights in investigating the wooing, the rejecting, and the successes and failures which characterize the game. In the true spirit of Restoration poetry, however, these investigations are never conducted in a personal mode; Etherege is not interested in examining love philosophically or personally. He is most often objective and detached, sometimes bemused, but never intensely involved in his subject matter. Consequently, his investigations of love appear in conventional, readily recognizable forms: the pastoral dialogue, the carpe diem theme, the “forsaken mistress” theme, and the satire based on standard Horatian and Juvenalian forms. Despite the variety of his forms, Etherege’s poetic intent remains constant: to depict the game of love in all its manifestations, joyful or sorrowful, poignant or ludicrous.


With this theme in mind, perhaps Etherege’s most significant poem is one of his “Songs,” which appears in his play She Would if She Could. In this song, Gatty confesses her love for Courtall. Following her song, Gatty is chided by her sister for her frank admission of affection; her sister feels she should dissemble. In this episode, one can find many of the implicit themes of Etherege’s poetry in a nutshell. The rules of the game of love call for pretense rather than a sincere declaration of love. To heed this warning is to play the game successfully.

Pastoral poems

Etherege occasionally wrote in the pastoral mode, loosely following a long tradition of poetry which utilizes the theme of rural bliss in uncluttered, paradisiacal settings. The artificiality of pastoral paradises was congenial to his poetic tastes since he apparently never desired to explore anything of topical, immediate significance. Instead, he preferred the timeless world of the pastoral and its often inherent paradox of unhappiness amid pastoral perfection. In his “Song: Shepherd! Why so dull a lover?” the poet exhorts the passive, lethargic shepherd to “lay your pipe a little by” and spring into action lest a life of loving pass him by. Etherege’s other attempts at the pastoral, however, are bittersweet, even tragic.

In his “Song: When Phillis watched her harmless sheep,” sung by Aurelia and her lady-in-waiting Letitia in Etherege’s play The Comical Revenge, the poet opens in a rural paradise where the shepherdess Phillis happily occupies her time keeping guard over her sheep. Trouble brews, however, when “her silly heart did go astray,” and her sheep, symbolizing her lost innocence and bliss, scatter. By the poem’s end, the rejected Phillis wishes only to die. Thus, Etherege creates a tension between the bliss of rural retirement and the quickness with which such happiness can vanish. His exploitation of this tension is not intended, however, to carry with it any didactic message of the need to free one’s life from the tyranny of love’s transitoriness. Readers are meant to pity Phillis and to consider that such pain might be inflicted on them, but not necessarily to gird against the caprices of fate.

The identical theme is found in “When first Amintas charmed my heart,” sung to Harriet by her lady-in-waiting, Busy, in Etherege’s play, The Man of Mode . Again, pastoral bliss is threatened when Amintas steals the shepherdess’s heart. In this poem, however, Etherege’s message is slightly more allegorically constructed. While the shepherdess dallies with Amintas, a pack of wolves that symbolizes the evils of a lack of responsibility devours her “heedless sheep.” The shepherdess, who narrates her own sad tale, views the wolves’ attack as a foreshadowing of her own...

(This entire section contains 2291 words.)

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lost happiness with Amintas as she concludes ominously, “And all will now be made a prey.” Again, Etherege’s message is simply the inevitable transitoriness of happiness.

The themes of these two poems afforded Etherege ample opportunity to use his poetry to expound further on the necessity of protecting oneself and others from love’s destructive transitoriness. He felt no urge, however, to moralize. His sole poetic impulse was to examine the game of love from all sides. Only the playing of the game matters—a game at which no one wins.

Carpe diem theme

Two of Etherege’s poems focus specifically on the carpe diem theme, a favorite in the seventeenth century, especially among the Sons of Ben and the Cavalier poets. In “To a Lady, Asking Him How Long He Would Love Her,” which, as James Thorpe mentions, was probably influenced by Abraham Cowley’s “Inconstancy,” the lady Cloris has just asked her lover if he can pledge to her his endless love. The lover gives her the traditional answer that because all life is transitory, he can make no such guarantee. In the spirit of the carpe diem tradition, however, he urges her not to be sad but to anticipate their future bliss together, limited though it may be. This poem is noteworthy because it is one of the few times Etherege ventures forth from his amorality to assert a message of warmth. The poem concludes with the lover addressing his mistress: “Cloris, at worst you’ll in the end/ But change your lover for a friend.” In his other carpe diem poem, entitled simply “Song,” however, his message is typically amoral. In an effort to charm his mistress out of her reticence, he compares her kisses to “those cordials which we give/ To dying men, to make them live.” His motive is clear: to bedazzle his mistress into succumbing to his desires.

Lament of the suitor

Counterbalanced by his two pastoral poems, wherein it is the ladies Cloris and Phillis who suffer love’s rejection, are his poems which center on the laments of suitors, heartlessly spurned by their cold mistresses. Like the ludicrous lover in The Man of Mode, Sir Fopling Flutter, who luxuriates in his role as rejected suitor (“I sigh! I sigh!”), Etherege’s poetic suitors seemingly enjoy their defeats. In his “Voiture’s Urania,” an imitation of asonnet by the French poet Vincent Voiture, the rejected lover virtually revels in his despondency: “I bow beneath her tyranny.” There is no trace of a resolve on the lover’s part to overcome his defeat, but merely a decadent wish to pine: “Hopeless I languish out my days.” The masochistic lover surfaces also in “Silvia,” which, as Thorpe points out, was perhaps Etherege’s most popular poem. Silvia’s heartlessness is traditionally depicted: “With a frown she can kill.” The poem is noteworthy, however, for its exercise of irony. With typical Restoration wit, Etherege has written the poem in a bouncy anapestic meter, the sprightliness of which ironically undermines the sadness the lover is expressing. Thus, Etherege’s game of love is frequently one in which rejection can serve as an energizing force. An equally accomplished poem is his “Song,” artfully constructed in two stanzas, wherein the first stanza depicts the wooing lover as a singing voice, while the second stanza portrays the mistress as a lute who, he hopes, will “tune her strings to love’s discourse.”

Feminine beauty

In his continuing investigation of the game of love, Etherege also wrote two poems in the tradition of praising feminine beauty. “To a Lady Who Fled the Sight of Him,” influenced, as Thorpe points out, by a Horatian ode, glorifies the beautiful lady whose natural grace and beauty, like Diana’s, are sufficient to ward off lust and sexuality. Etherege’s commonplace treatment of this tradition, however, is superseded in his poem “To a Very Young Lady.” In this poem, the girl’s beauty is compared to the rising sun, and the poet wonders how mortals will be able to view the splendor of her beauty’s sun as it reaches its noon. Implicit in his praise of the girl’s beauty, however, is the inevitability that her beautiful sunrise and glorious noon will eventually become a fading sunset in which the splendor of her beauty will vanish. As is so often the case with Etherege’s poetry, this implicit message is not intended as a moral mandate to discourage the lady from worldly preoccupations. If anything, the poet’s intent is to remind her uncharitably and with no small trace of cruelty that at any time an “untimely frost” can decay “early glories.”

Misogynist themes

This hint of misogyny, ironically embedded in a poem praising feminine beauty, bursts forth with greater intensity in his “Song: Ladies, though to your conquering eyes,” which appears in his play The Comical Revenge. In this poem, Etherege steps out of his normally cool, detached tone to deliver an angry message to ladies who enjoy spurning their suitors. He snarls, “Then wrack not lovers with disdain/ Lest love on you revenge their pain.” Similarly, in a “Song” that appears in a tavern scene in The Comical Revenge, the message is clearly stated that men should stay away from aloof women as they are only good for wasting one’s time. Instead, men are instructed to “Make much of every buxom girl/ Which needs but little courting.” Finally, in his “Song: To happy youths,” which, as Thorpe notes, was patterned after Juvenal’s sixth satire, Etherege’s misogyny is most evident. He warns youth that happiness can be attained only through avoidance of women. No matter how beautiful the woman, he warns, “The snake’s beneath the flower.” In these three poems, the game of love has lost its charm for Etherege. Tender flirtation and wanton affection are replaced by crudeness and even cruelty toward the woman. Once again, however, no moral message is intended in the poet’s disgust. These dark looks at love merely express a temporary loss of a desire to play the game, not a realization of the emptiness of such pursuits.

An uncharacteristic work among Etherege’s love poems is “The Divided Heart,” in which the poet is worried that his mistress, Celia, will not always be as faithful as she is now. “The Divided Heart” stands alone stylistically as Etherege’s only experiment in the courtly tradition of love poetry. It is written in a consciously elegant, stylized manner, which differs from his usual effortless, easy style. On the opposite end of the spectrum is “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” which, as Richard E. Quaintance believes, belongs to a genre initiated by Ovid: A lover, initially frustrated by the reluctance of his mistress, is overjoyed when she suddenly becomes receptive to his sexual advances. At the critical moment, however, he is unable to perform the sex act, and again he is left to languish in frustration. Not surprisingly, the genre underwent a modest revival during the Restoration. In Etherege’s poem, the lover concludes that none of this would have happened if his mistress had been “less fair.” Although the poem is not bawdy, the low comedy of the lover’s misfortunes is far removed from the lofty, stylized elegance of “The Divided Heart” and is yet another indication of the diversity with which Etherege explores the game of love.

Satiric poetry

In addition to the many poems in which he investigated the game of love, Etherege tried his hand occasionally at satire. Like his love poems, his satires are not didactic attempts at exposing and reforming the hypocrisies of humankind but merely exercises in light, frivolous ridicule. The fervor with which people can become involved in card games is mocked in his poem “A Song on Basset,” and the reader is tempted to wonder whether Alexander Pope had read it prior to his account of the game of ombre in The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714). Etherege also composed four satires on John Sheffield, the earl of Mulgrave, the first and most noteworthy of which is entitled “Ephelia to Bajazet.” Bajazet is the earl of Mulgrave, who, according to Thorpe, was so extraordinarily ugly that he verged on the grotesque. To compound the absurdity of the man, he was insufferably vain as well. The forsaken Ephelia mourns her rejection at the hands of her cruel Bajazet. Again, one can detect no reforming impulse in the satire, only ridicule. Etherege leaves the decision up to the reader as to who is the more ludicrous: the grotesque, loathsome Mulgrave or the pitiably absurd forsaken mistress who would lament the loss of such an undesirable scoundrel.

Perhaps his most intriguing satire, “A Prologue Spoken at the Opening of the Duke’s New Playhouse,” reflects Etherege’s concern as a dramatist with the problems of having to pander to the public’s taste. In this satire, the speaker is a typical Restoration theater owner who proclaims his delight in catering to the extravagant, even vulgar tastes of his audiences. Much of his defense of his pandering centers on his metaphor comparing a play to a kept woman. Just as the woman demands increasingly ornate surroundings, so also do the play and the theater demand more ostentation to appeal to their audiences. The poem is noteworthy as a reflection of Etherege’s concern that the dramatists of the period were being increasingly pressured to construct their plays as vulgar extravaganzas.

In both his love poetry and his satires, Etherege accurately reflects the poetic tastes of the Restoration. His poems are witty, sophisticated, detached—without a trace of personal investment. His investigations of love are sometimes poignant, sometimes comic, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes arrogant. At no point, however, does Etherege allow a moral tone to creep into his poetry. He does not demand that the reader consider the moral responsibilities of love, only the game playing itself. Effortless shaping of his poetry, not didactic content, was Etherege’s chief goal, and he accomplished it as successfully as any of his more famous Restoration contemporaries.


Etherege, George (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))