John Suckling Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.