Sir Charles Sedley Critical Essays


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Most of Sir Charles Sedley’s songs deal with familiar love themes. There are a number of ladies who are alternately encouraging or discouraging, and whose beauty is so striking that it has turned the poet’s fancy. The poet is concerned not so much to praise the lady’s charms as to persuade her to yield to the pressing demands of time and nature. Sedley was known in his day for the love invitation. Rochester, in “An Allusion to Horace,” praises Sedley as a master of persuasion: “Sidley, has that prevailing, gentle Art,/ That can with a resistless Charm impart,/ The loosest wishes, to the chastest Heart.” A number of Sedley’s poems are obviously intended to encourage a lady to yield her virtue. Here, for example, is a short untitled piece on the way the poet passes lonely nights:

Awake, my Eyes, at Night my Thought[s] pursueYour charming Shape; and find it ever new;If I my weary Eyes to Sleep resign,In gaudy Dreams your Love and Beauty shine;Dreams with such Extasies and Pleasures fill’d,As to those Joys they seem can only yield;Nor do they yield perhaps, wou’d you allow,Fair Amidea, that I once might know.

Rochester might have been thinking of this poem when he wrote his tribute to Sedley’s art. The poem could be part of the sophisticated love games that were played in the comedies of the day, including Sedley’s The Mulberry Garden and Bellamira. To create a feeling of longing within Amidea’s heart, the poet employs an argument involving the lover’s thwarted expectations of “Extasies,” “Pleasures,” and “joys,” which are realized only in dreams. If one were to extend the argument beyond the poem, one would say that it goes against nature to thwart the fulfillment of such pleasures.

This argument is one more version of an important theme in most of Sedley’s love lyrics: the pursuit and realization of pleasure. In a Sedley lyric, there are no metaphysical flights that take the reader into another country; the poet is concerned with securing his ease and pleasure in this world. In “An Essay on Satyr,” John Sheffield, earl of Mulgrave, later duke of Buckinghamshire, notes that “little Sid” “Pleasure has always sought, but seldom found:/ Tho’ Wine and Women are his only Care,/ Of both he takes a lamentable Share.” Most of Mulgrave’s portrait, which dates from 1679, involves a nasty attack on the reforms in Sedley’s personal life. Nevertheless, for all its venom, it contains a basic truth about Sedley the poet: He always sought pleasure. This statement applies to the late as well as the early works.

“To Liber” and “Out of Lycophron”

This strain of Epicureanism is more than only a ploy in the love game; it is a philosophical principle that was widely held in the Restoration. Sedley presents an Epicurean philosophy most explicitly in two translations from the ancients: “Out of Lycophron” and “To Liber.” Sedley’s translation of Lycophron, an Alexandrian dramatist who lived in the third century b.c.e., stresses the limits of human understanding. Man does not know

Whither he goes to Heaven or Hell; Or after a few moments dear, He disappear, And at last,Perish entirely like a Beast.

He should therefore not waste his time pondering what is unknowable; rather, he should give himself over to “Women, Wine and Mirth.” The tone of this poem is complacent and urbane. There is none of the questioning and rage that one finds in Rochester when he confronts the possibilities of “Nothing.” For Lycophron, life is reduced to “a few Moments dear.” Even though man in death may be reduced to the status of a beast, Sedley’s smooth verse takes the rough edges off this grim knowledge. He uses the possibility of nothing only as an argument to encourage man to secure his pleasure in this life. This Epicurean philosophy is even more emphatically stated in “To Liber,” a translation of a Martial epigram. The speaker could be one Restoration gentleman giving another gentleman advice on how to spend his time most profitably. Thus, Liber should think “on charming Objects” and let “easie Beauty warm” his heart. The pursuit of pleasure and the easy satisfaction of appetite are sufficient as guiding principles.

Pleasure and flirtation

The love lyrics fall into two main categories: those in which the speaker self-consciously considers his own pleasure and ease and how well they are served and those in which the speaker is an active participant in a flirtation, using his art and cleverness to secure the interest of a particular lady. Part of the charm of the poems in this second category is Sedley’s obvious delight in the progress of a flirtation.

Two songs addressed to Phillis—“Phillis, let’s shun the common Fate” and “Phillis is my only Joy”—fall into the first category. The speaker is as concerned with his own pleasure and ease as with the feelings or needs of Phillis. In the first song, the speaker states his theme in the opening lines: “Phillis, let’s shun the common Fate,/ And let our Love ne’r turn to Hate.” The speaker defines the limits of love, the point at which love ceases to be a pleasure and becomes a burden. The only way to avoid love turning to hate is to leave off loving at the first signs of boredom or disinterest. Thus, the speaker will “dote no longer” than he can, and the couple will part when they begin “to want Discourse,/ And Kindness seems to taste of Force.” The speaker envisions love in terms of mild, if...

(The entire section is 2490 words.)