Sir John Suckling was a poet of reaction. Assuming the role of roaring boy at the Caroline court, he assaulted with an almost adolescent glee the conventions, literary and amatory, that prevailed during the 1630’s. Suckling challenged the fashionable cult of Platonic Love with a pose of libertinism. He rejected the sophisticated Continental models employed by Jonson and Thomas Carew in their lyrics, introducing in their stead native, “subliterary” forms such as the ballad and the riddle. Finally, Suckling rejected the title “poet,” vaunting his amateur status in a pursuit that he implied had become increasingly dominated by ungentlemanly professionals. For the greater part of his short poetic career, Suckling was an iconoclast rather than an innovator, more certain of what he was attacking than what he proposed to offer in its place. In the final poems, however, he achieved a balance between the successive waves of idealism and cynicism that rocked his short life. This newfound confidence in his art manifests itself most clearly in the good humor and good sense of “A Ballad upon a Wedding.”
Thomas Clayton divides Suckling’s poetic career into four periods. The earliest poems, discovered by L. A. Beaurline in manuscript in the late 1950’s, consist of a Christmas devotional sequence and two meditations on faith and salvation written before or during 1626. These pieces are derivative and not of great literary value, but they do suggest the young Suckling’s receptiveness to influences and stylistic options open to him. Two of the eleven poems are important inasmuch as they forecast the themes that would run through Suckling’s best-known lyrics. In “Faith and Doubt,” the speaker contemplates the Christian mysteries of the incarnation and redemption; suspended between a desire to believe and an inability to move beyond the rational, he prays for the experience vouchsafed the apostle Thomas—the confirmation of faith through the senses. The speaker’s troubled doubt serves as a prologue to the pose of libertine skepticism that Suckling later adopted in his amatory verse. Even more central to Suckling’s poetic vision, perhaps, is the exuberant description of rustic customs and superstitions in “Upon Christmas Eve.” With a sensitivity reminiscent of Robert Herrick, Suckling testified to his rural upbringing and his obvious delight in country life. Beneath the elegant courtliness of later poems this theme will persist, eventually reemerging in “A Ballad upon a Wedding.”
The poems that Clayton assigns to the years 1626 to 1632 are a mixed lot, suggesting that the young Suckling was still in search of a personal style. While a number of these pieces represent essays in popular, usually humorous, forms—the riddle, the character, the ballad—others are serious attempts at the type of lyric that flourished at court. A final group fuses the popular and courtly strains in parody or, more rarely, in a delicate mixture of humor and compliment. With only a few exceptions, the poems exhibit a preoccupation with love and sexuality.
“A Candle” and other bawdy rhymes
The short riddle “A Candle” is essentially an adolescent joke that allows the poet to talk bawdy but evade the consequences. In a series of double entendres, Suckling describes the “thing” used by “the Maiden Female crew” in the night; to the discomfiture of the reader, the answer to the riddle proves to be “a candle.” The poet is obviously intensely interested in sex, but apparently too unsure of his poetic powers to deal with it directly. The same type of double entendre informs “A Barley-break” and three characters—“A Barber,” “A Pedler of Small-Wares,” and “A Soldier.” In “A Soldier,” the speaker offers his love to an audience of ladies, combining bluster with a winning naïveté. The assertion “I cannot speak, but I can doe,” with its obvious pun on “doe,” well describes Suckling’s own position in the early 1630’s—willing and eager to besiege the ladies, but unskilled in the language of amatory gallantry.
Suckling’s attempts to write conventional love lyrics underscore the truth of the admission in “A Soldier.” While technically correct, these pieces seem flat after the exuberance and leering smuttiness of the riddles and characters. “The Miracle,” for example, is an uninspired rehash of the Petrarchan fire and ice paradox. “Upon the first sight of my Lady Seimor,” an exercise in Caroline Neoplatonism, is a stillborn blazon. In “Non est mortale quod opto: Upon Mrs. A. L.,” Suckling tackles the same theme that Carew treats so successfully in “A Divine Mistress,” that of the woman who is so perfect that the poet can find no way to approach her. Whereas Carew wittily solves the dilemma by praying to the gods to grant his lady “some more humanitie,” Suckling blunders badly with his closing couplet, “I love thee well, yet wish some bad in thee,/ For sure I am thou art too good for me.” The acquisition of “some bad,” unlike “humanitie,” can only mar the lady’s perfection. Carew effects an accommodation between poetic convention and amatory pragmatism without compromising either; Suckling, facing the same dilemma, is forced to choose between them.
What is interesting about these poems written in an unblinking Platonic vein is that they are contemporaneous with the characters and ballads. The disjunction between love and sexuality, moreover, assumes a literary form inasmuch as Suckling reserves his bawdiness for the “subliterary” genres. In Suckling’s mature style, the gap is bridged: Courtly verse forms are employed to set off the very grossness of the “country matters” they discuss. In “The deformed Mistress,” Suckling weds the high-flown diction and exotic imagery of the serious blazon to the most unattractive physical blemishes with striking effect:
Her Nose I’de have a foot long, not above,With pimples embroder’d, for those I love;And at the end a comely Pearl of Snot,Considering whether it should fall or not.
(The entire section is 2567 words.)