John Suckling 1609-1641
English poet, playwright, essayist, and epistler.
Suckling is commonly considered the quintessential Cavalier Poet—a soldier-poet associated with the court of Charles I. His poems, like those of his fellow Cavalier Poets Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, and Edmund Waller, are noted for their sophisticated wit, urbanity, and exaggerated gallantry, often tinged with cynicism and irony. Suckling was also infamous for his gambling, womanizing, and involvement in political conspiracy, and the image of him as a libertine courtier who effortlessly composed highly polished verse earned him the epithet “Natural, easy Suckling.” Suckling was also an accomplished amateur playwright whose first play, the richly extravagant Aglaura (1638), was both a critical and a popular success.
Suckling was born in 1609 in Twickenham, Middlesex, the eldest son of an aristocratic and influential family. His father, John Suckling, was a prosperous landowner and member of Parliament who held various court positions; his mother, Martha Cranfield, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and the sister of Lionel Cranfield, who became Lord Treasurer of England. Suckling entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1623, but left without obtaining a degree. As a student, Suckling led a dissolute life, gambling and carousing. In 1627 he was admitted to Gray's Inn, where he hoped to continue his education; however, the death of his father soon afterward put an end to his studies. After inheriting nearly the whole of his father's large estate, Suckling entered the military. He fought during the Thirty Years' War, accompanying the Duke of Buckingham to the Island of Ré in 1627, and joining Lord Wimbledon's expedition to the Low Countries in 1629. Suckling returned to his studies at the University of Leydon for a brief time in 1630, and was knighted in the same year by King Charles. He then entered the service of Sir Henry Vane, ambassador to the King of Sweden, until he returned to England in 1632. Upon his return Suckling led an extravagant life, conducting numerous affairs with women and incurring massive gambling debts, which forced him to sell off much of his inherited estate. At this time he began to pursue the heiress Anne Willoughby, probably seeking to replenish his wealth, but he ultimately failed in his effort after years of intrigue and violent opposition from her father and rival suitors. Suckling began writing poetry in the early 1630s, but the majority of his works were not published until after his death; his first published work was Aglaura, a play which was produced in 1638 by the King's Company at court and at the Blackfriars Theatre. His appointment as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber Extraordinary in 1638 may have been connected to the flattering depiction of courtly life in Aglaura, which was meant to catch the attention of the court. Suckling became active in the military again in 1639, during the First Bishops' War, and served as the captain of a troop of carabineers in 1640. Around this time Suckling was elected to Parliament, but his political life was cut short by his involvement in the Army Plot of 1641—an attempt to free condemned prisoner Sir Thomas Wentworth, an advisor to the King and an opponent of Parliament. After the plot failed, a writ for Suckling's arrest was issued, but he fled to France. He was subsequently convicted, in absentia, of high treason. Suckling died soon after his escape to France. Although there are conflicting accounts of his death, the most credible evidence suggests that he committed suicide by drinking poison.
The canon of Suckling's poems is uncertain because they were not collected during his lifetime; the first volume of his works, Fragmenta Aurea, (1646) was not published until five years after his death. Suckling wrote poetry in a variety of forms, including satires, songs, sonnets, verse epistles, epithalamia, and epigrams. Thematically, his poems often reflect his libertine outlook. A great many of his poems concerned with love, courtship, and the relationship between the sexes—such as his early work “Loving and Beloved”—illustrate his humor and cynicism. One of Suckling's most famous poems, “A Ballade. Upon a Wedding,” parodies the typical epithalamion in honor of a bride and groom and demonstrates that even such a sacred event was not safe from his satiric wit and cynical view of romantic relationships. “Woman's Constancy” presents a similarly jaded view of love and characterizes women as untrustworthy, deceitful, and inconstant—a common stereotype of women during the Renaissance. One of Suckling's most important and often imitated poems is “The Wits,” a satirical depiction of a group of poets who are competing for the crown of poetic excellence. Suckling uses the poem to ridicule his contemporaries—as well as himself—by mocking their poetry, attitudes, and physical appearance. In addition to writing poetry, Suckling also composed three plays, all of which were popular in their time. Aglaura, his most successful play, is a dazzling spectacle that was first staged in a lavish production apparently paid for by Suckling himself. A tale of excessive love, jealousy, and infidelity, the play centers on the title character, a Persian woman who is wanted in marriage by both a king and his son. Suckling wrote two versions of the final act—a tragic and tragicomic ending. The tragic version ends with the death of all the main characters; the tragicomic version features forgiveness and repentance. The play was evidently written to impress an aristocratic audience. Not only was the production at court opulent in its costuming and painted sets (a theatrical innovation), Suckling gave a printed folio copy of the play to each of the audience members and presented a manuscript copy to the king. The tragicomic version was probably composed to please Queen Henrietta Maria, who disliked tragic endings.
Suckling was widely admired in his own day, and his reputation rose to great heights during the Restoration with the frequent and successful revivals of his plays. Although his literary stature has diminished since that time, modern critics still regard Suckling as an important poet of the seventeenth century, and note his influence on later poets. Critics have observed that, like most Cavalier Poets, Suckling was influenced by Ben Jonson's unadorned style and use of iambic pentameter and tetrameter. In addition, scholars such as Fletcher Orpin Henderson have explored how the works of John Donne and the libertin poets of France also affected Suckling's poetry. Michael P. Parker has compared Suckling's poems to those of fellow Cavalier Poet Thomas Carew, contending that while Carew's poetry looks back to earlier seventeenth-century poets, Suckling's poetry looks forward and anticipates future trends. Many twentieth-century critics have searched for deeper meaning in Suckling's poetry, beneath its surface cynicism and wit, and have discovered a more serious layer to many of his works. Frans Dirk de Soet has studied several of Suckling's songs and poems and has found that “at times he could be inspired by sublime and elevated thoughts.” Like de Soet, Raymond A. Anselment has argued that Suckling was not a typical Cavalier Poet. In his examination of Suckling's love poetry Anselment found that beyond their apparent cynicism lies “a complex and even sensitive search for the wisdom in love.” Other modern critical studies have focused on the establishment of a canon of Suckling's works; examinations of his letters and the short essay, An Account of Religion by Reason (1637); and assessments of his dramatic works. In general, modern critics have been less impressed with Suckling's plays than his poems. Many commentators have suggested that his plays do not translate well to today's readers and audiences, and some have found that their plots are absurdly convoluted. However, Charles L. Squier has defended Suckling's abilities as a playwright, maintaining that his dramatic genius may be found in his “distinctive and brilliant” dialogue.
An Account of Religion by Reason (essay) 1637
Aglaura (play) 1638
The Goblins (play) 1641?
Brennoralt, or The Discontented Colonel (play) 1641?
*A Coppy of a Letter Found in the Privy Lodgeings at Whitehall (letter) 1641
The Coppy of a Letter Written to the Lower House of Parliament Touching Divers Grievances and Inconveniences of the State & c. London (letter) 1641
Fragmenta Aurea. A Collection of all the Incomparable Peeces (collected works) 1646
The Last Remains of Sir John Suckling. Being a Full Collection of His Poems and Letters (poems and letters) 1659
The Works of Sir John Suckling: The Non-Dramatic Works (poems and letters) 1971
The Works of Sir John Suckling: The Plays (plays) 1971
*This work was republished as “To Mr. Henry German, in the beginning of Parliament, 1640,” in Fragmenta Aurea in 1646.
Frans Dirk de Soet (essay date 1932)
SOURCE: de Soet, Frans Dirk. “Chapter IV.” In Puritan and Royalist Literature in the Seventeenth Century, pp. 117-23. Delft, Netherlands: N.V. Technische Boekhandel en Drukkerij J. Waltman Jr., 1932.
[In the following essay, de Soet provides a brief overview of Suckling's life and praises his talents as a poet.]
A very important place among the cavalier poets who wrote between the accession of Charles I and the Restoration must be allowed to Sir John Suckling,1 the son of the secretary of state and comptroller of the household of James I.
He was born in his paternal house at Twickenham, in 1609. What we know of his life commences with...
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Fletcher Orpin Henderson (essay date 1937)
SOURCE: Henderson, Fletcher Orpin. “Traditions of Précieux and Libertin in Suckling's Poetry.” ELH 4, no. 4 (December 1937): 274-98.
[In the essay below, Henderson explores how the works of John Donne and French poetic traditions influenced Suckling's works.]
The few students of recent times who have mentioned Sir John Suckling have uniformly recognized that he was influenced by the précieuse cult which grew up around Henrietta Maria. Among the first to discuss his poetry was J. B. Fletcher, who, in “Précieuses at the Court of Charles I,”1 shows that one may draw up a code book of platonic love from the letters of Suckling....
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L. A. Beaurline (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: Beaurline, L. A. “The Canon of Sir John Suckling's Poems.” Studies in Philology 57, no. 3 (July 1960): 492-518.
[In the following essay, Beaurline addresses authorship issues related to a number of poems ascribed to Suckling.]
No scholar has attempted a systematic study of the authorship of Sir John Suckling's poems, and this is not surprising for the problems are very great. Modern editors frequently admit the confusion and doubt that surround the canons of most seventeenth century lyric poets. Many poets did not publish their work. Borrowing and imitating were common. Early editors and printers were sometimes not qualified to judge the attributions in...
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John Freehufer (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: Freehufer, John. “The Italian Night Piece and Suckling's Aglaura.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 67, no. 2 (April 1968): 249-65.
[In the following excerpt, Freehufer discusses a 1638 staging of Suckling's Aglaura, arguing that this piece was likely the Italian Night Masque mentioned by contemporary critic Henry Wotton.]
Of the plays known to have been acted with scenery by the Caroline King's men, all but one can be shown to differ from The Italian Night Masque as Robinson described it. Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess was by no means “new” in 1633/4. Cartwright's Royal Slave was withheld from...
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Thomas Clayton (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: Clayton, Thomas. “General Introduction.” In The Works of Sir John Suckling: the Non-Dramatic Works, edited by Thomas Clayton, pp. xxvii-lxxv. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1971.
[In the excerpt below, Clayton surveys Suckling's critical reception from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century.]
II. SUCKLING'S REPUTATION
Suckling's literary reputation was established by 1638, when he was twenty-nine years old. “The Wits” had been sung to the King the year before,1 and Aglaura, also completed in 1637, was ‘acted in the Court, and at the Black Friars, with much Applause’, during the...
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Raymond A. Anselment (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: Anselment, Raymond A. “‘Men Most of All Enjoy, When Least They Do’: The Love Poetry of John Suckling.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14, no. 1 (spring 1972): 17-32.
[In the essay that follows, Anselment considers both the idealism and cynicism evident in Suckling's love poetry, and argues that Suckling is not a typical Cavalier Poet.]
Among the group of poets conveniently labeled “Cavalier,” John Suckling has in particular been stereotyped. Largely because of the set anthology pieces and the limited critical studies, “Natural, easy Suckling” is commonly seen as an unabashed rakehell and a dilettante writer whose amateur love poetry is...
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Charles L. Squier (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: Squier, Charles L. “The Prose: A Bright and Elegant Surface” and “The Plays: The Goblins and Brennoralt.” In Sir John Suckling, pp. 33-56; 76-95. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
[In the first of the two following essays, Squier analyzes Suckling's prose output, including letters and nonfiction, and focuses on what insights these pieces reveal about Suckling's other works. In the second essay, Squier examines Suckling's plays, and praises his skills as a playwright.]
I. LETTERS AND THE HIDDEN SELF
Suckling's prose is limited in quantity, consisting of fifty-four or fifty-five letters, depending on one's view of a...
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Thomas Clayton (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: Clayton, Thomas. “‘At Bottom a Criticism of Life’: Suckling and the Poetry of Low Seriousness.” In Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben, edited by Claude R. Summers and Ted-Larry Penworth, pp. 217-41. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.
[In the essay that follows, Clayton examines four of Suckling's lesser known poems in order to illustrate his argument that the standard critical image of Suckling as a minor poet is shortsighted and limited.]
“Natural, easy Suckling”—with two lines of “Our upon it, I have loved / Three whole days together” and two of “Why so pale and wan, fond lover? / Prithee why so...
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Kees van Strien (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: van Strien, Kees. “Sir John Suckling in Holland.” English Studies 76, no. 5 (September 1995): 443-54.
[In the following essay, van Strien examines Suckling's letters in an attempt to piece together Suckling's time in Holland as a young man in his early twenties.]
Sir John Suckling (1609-1642) is one of the numerous British tourists who travelled in the Low Countries in the first half of the seventeenth century.1 Unlike Sir William Brereton (1634), Peter Mundy (1640) and John Evelyn (1641) Suckling has left no extensive account of his journeys. Only one letter seems to reflect his impressions of Holland and the Dutch.2 Suckling appears...
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Clayton, Thomas. “An Historical Study of the Portraits of Sir John Suckling.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 23 (1960): 105-26.
Examines the many portraits of Suckling, and provides biographical and works-related information.
Beaurline, L. A. “New Poems by Sir John Suckling.” Studies in Philology 59, no. 4 (October 1962): 651-57.
Considers the authenticity of the newly discovered poems of Suckling.
Benham, Allen R. “Sir John Suckling, ‘A Sessions of the Poets’: Some Notes and Queries.” Modern Language Quarterly 6...
(The entire section is 200 words.)