John Cleveland Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Cleveland 1613-1658

English satirist, elegist, and poet.

John Cleveland is recognized as one of the most popular satirists and poets of the seventeenth century. With over twenty-five editions of his poems appearing between 1647 and 1687, he was respected as a lyrical genius and a valuable asset to the Royalist party during the English civil wars. His work has provided a detailed examination of the history and politics of the mid-1600s through his caustic satire, somewhat biased by his allegiance to the king. Cleveland is also acknowledged as one of the last metaphysical poets, often utilizing the technique of extended metaphor.

Biographical Information

Cleveland was born in Loughborough, Leicestershire, to Elizabeth Hebbe and Thomas Cleveland, an assistant at both the parish church and at Burton's Grammar School. In 1621 Cleveland's father was appointed vicar in the neighboring town of Hinckley, where John studied under Richard Vines, a respected and highly influential Puritan preacher. Cleveland entered Christ's College in Cambridge in 1627, receiving his B.A. in 1631 and his M.A. in 1635. In March of 1634 he was elected to the Hebblethwaite Fellowship at St. John's College. There, he began a career educating undergraduates while also writing some of his most famous satires. Although he remained in Cambridge, Cleveland was named Rhetoric Reader at Oxford University from 1635 to 1637, where some of his Latin orations have been retained. In 1643, he relocated to Oxford for two years, joining many of his contemporaries at the hub of Royalist action. His writing of both poetry and prose intensified and became more politically focused. In February of 1645, Cleveland's fellowship at St. John's was revoked, but he was quickly appointed judge advocate of the garrison at Newark by the Royalists. There, he likely presided over legal cases between military and civilian residents. In May of the following year, however, Newark was besieged by the Scots, forcing Cleveland to leave. For the next nine years, he wandered throughout England, depending on the aid of more prosperous Royalists. Little is known regarding this period of his life, although conjectures have been made that he lived with fellow Royalists Edmund Thorold and Edward Cooke for periods of time, and that he wrote for Royalist mercuries in London. On November 10, 1655, being “a person of great abilities, so able to do the greater disservice” to the government, Cleveland was arrested for actively protesting Parliament during the Civil War. After three months in Yarmouth prison, he appealed to Oliver Cromwell, arguing that he would not have been arrested had he not been poor, and that his loyalty to the Royalist party was a reflection of the loyalty he would now have to the current government. Upon his subsequent release, he lived in Gray's Inn, London, until his death of a fever on April 29, 1658.

Major Works

Cleveland began his literary career while at St. John's, where he contributed to two collections of poems: a tribute to Edward King upon his death in 1638 and a volume honoring King Charles's return from Scotland in 1641. Both are relatively mediocre in comparison to contributions from other authors; however, they denote the inception of Cleveland's stylistic techniques, which would be developed in his later works. Numerous other poems were written during his time at Cambridge, though exact dates are uncertain. Among his lyric poetry are “Fuscara; or The Bee Errant,” “The Hecatomb to his Mistresse,” “Square-Cap” and “Upon a Hermophrodite.” “Fuscara” is a lengthy narrative of a bee deserting a field of flowers for the sweeter mistress of the poet. “The Hecatomb to his Mistresse” also adulates its subject, but through a negative approach, contrasting the assumedly faultless mistress to distasteful entities. “Square-Cap,” though another love poem, paints a portrait of contemporaneous Cambridge men. In the poem, a woman is courted by numerous men wearing different types of hats: a soldier, a fashion-monger, a Puritan, a clerk, and a lawyer. However, she declares that if she ever loves a man, it will be a “square-cap,” or university graduate like the narrator, who digresses into a portrayal of university life as Cleveland likely experienced it. “Upon a Hermophrodite” deviates from his amorous poetry, instead focusing on comparative images of historically sexless characters. It is acclaimed as a unique, insightful work, not comparable to any literary piece from that period. Cleveland's first significant satire, “A Dialogue between two Zealots, upon the &c. in the Oath,” scorns fictional Puritan clergymen who spend hours discussing the “&c.” in an oath written by a convocation in 1640. Similarly, his “Smectymnuus, or the Club-Divines” ridicules five Puritan authors who wrote a controversial pamphlet in 1641; the title “Smectymnuus” is actually a fusion of the writers' names into a mockery, setting the tone of the composition. Cleveland also composed three other noteworthy works of prose, The Character of a London Diurnall, (1644) The Character of a Country Committee-man, with the Ear-mark of a Sequestrator (1649) and The Character of a Diurnal-maker (1654). All deride their subjects, much as Cleveland did the Puritans in his first two satires. Cleveland's final works became almost entirely politically focused. The most prominent include “The Mixt Assembly,” illustrating the Westminster Assembly to reform the church, “The Rebell Scot” on the Scottish invasion in January 1644, and “The King's Disguise,” detailing the secret travels of King Charles for eight days before surrendering to the Scots in 1646.

Critical Reception

While Cleveland was extremely popular among his contemporaries, his overall critical response has been subdued and often harsh. In the eighteenth-century, John Dryden condemned the work in Cleveland's canon as “a clownish kind of raillery.” Dryden defined his use of catachresis as “Clevelandism” or the “wresting and torturing” of words out of their ordinary usages. Many critics of the ensuing century accepted Dryden's perception as accurate and denounced Cleveland's work for its decadence and exhaustive rhetoric and intellectualization. However, in more recent years, Cleveland's burlesque style and wit has been reevaluated as a product of his era, appropriate for the academic society with which he contended. His political satire has been deemed bitter yet shrewd, perhaps some of the best produced during the English Civil War. Though misunderstood for many years, Cleveland is now regaining critical appreciation as a master of rhetoric and satire and, according to Lee A. Jacobus, as “one of the most inventive lyricists of his time.”