Sir George Etherege Poetry: British Analysis - Essay

Sir George Etherege Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 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...

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