Sir John Suckling Suckling, Sir John - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Sir John Suckling 1609-1642

English poet, playwright, and essayist.

Suckling is numbered among the seventeenth-century Cavalier Poets, an informal group of English gentlemen writers—including Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace and Robert Herrick—whose elegant and witty lyrics where heavily influenced by the style of Ben Jonson. A member of the court of King Charles I, Suckling led the life of an aristocratic gallant and amateur poet. While his writing is generally viewed as minor by most scholars, Suckling produced a number of enduring works of satiric love poetry, brief pieces that generally feign indifference to passion and offer a cynical view of romantic relations between men and women. He additionally wrote sonnets, ballads, verse songs, and occasional poems to commemorate significant events and individuals, as well as several dramas, including Aglaura (1638), which contains his widely-known lyric “Why so pale and wan fond Lover?”

Biographical Information

While many of the details of Suckling's life are unclear, it is known that he was born into a wealthy family in Twickenham, Middlesex. His father, the elder Sir John Suckling, was a courtier and served variously as a member of Parliament and a government official; his mother, Martha Cranfield, was the daughter of a well-to-do London merchant. Suckling was apparently privately tutored in his youth, and entered Trinity College at Cambridge in 1623. He left Cambridge before earning his degree, but in February 1627 was admitted to Gray's Inn, where he sought to complete his studies. Guaranteed his father's lands and substantial fortune, Suckling lived a dissolute existence during his student years as a noted gambler, carouser, and spendthrift. The death of his father in March 1627 signaled yet another premature departure from schooling. Meanwhile, The Thirty Years War had begun, and in response Sucking entered military service, likely accompanying the Duke of Buckingham and his men to the Island of Rhé, and in subsequent years joined Lord Wimbledon on his expedition to the Low Countries. Suckling interrupted his service briefly to attend the University of Leyden in 1631. That year he was knighted by King Charles of England and returned to the European continent as a soldier under Sir Henry Vane, envoy to Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden. By the spring of 1632 Suckling was back in England, where he continued his life of profligacy. After amassing huge gambling debts, he began to pursue the heiress Anne Willoughby, probably to replenish his wealth, but failed after years of intrigue and violent opposition from her father and other suitors. Throughout his lifetime, Suckling engaged in the gentlemanly pursuit of poetic composition and also wrote a few stage works, several of which were produced in the late 1630s. Because of his involvement in the so-called Army Plot of 1641—proponents of the plot sought the release of the imprisoned Earl of Strafford—Suckling was forced to flee to Paris. Convicted of high treason in England, he seems to have died while in French exile that same year. Accounts of his death are contradictory, but scholars suggest that he may have committed suicide by drinking poison. Suckling's first collection of verse, Fragmenta Aurea was published in 1646, approximately five years after his death.

Major Works

Fragmenta Aurea contains a number of Suckling's poetic works along with his dramas and other writings. The volume opens with the occasional poem “On New-Years day 1640, To the King,” which is followed by sonnets, satires, love poetry, epithalamia, and songs. Typical of Suckling's early love poems, “Loving and Beloved” is reminiscent of the verse of John Donne, but displays Suckling's characteristic wit and cynicism toward matters of the heart. The same flippant tone is also apparent in the frequently anthologized “Why so pale and wan fond Lover?” which features the speaker's facetious advice to a youth suffering from unrequited love. Suckling wrote two pieces titled “Against Fruition” both of which forward the paradoxical theme that love, once achieved, can ultimately only lead to disappointment. This cynical, libertine pose informs most of Suckling's amatory poetry, including his sonnets—verses that contain inversions of Petrarchan patterns and conceits designed to mock the courtly love tradition. Misogynistic overtones appear in “Woman's Constancy,” a work that epitomizes the Renaissance stereotype of women as capricious in their passions. Among the later verse, Suckling produced several social and occasional poems, including “The Wits” (titled “A Sessions of the Poets” in Fragmenta Aurea). The work details a meeting of poets, intellectuals, courtiers, and scholars of Suckling's acquaintance for the purpose of granting laurel bays-symbols of poetic excellence. Using the device of a “sessions,” or literary trial, Suckling formed a narrative suited to his aim of criticism and satire. Indicative of the urbane tone of Suckling's later work, “A Ballade. Upon a Wedding” parodies the traditional country epithalamium.

Critical Reception

Suckling's writing certainly earned him the esteem of his literary colleagues in the court of Charles I. Indeed, his rakehell lifestyle and pose as a skilled amateur who effortlessly succeeded in whatever activity he engaged-literary or otherwise was raised to almost legendary status by subsequent writers who fueled the myth of “Natural, easy Suckling”; a myth that has remained the standard in criticism for years. By the twentieth century, Suckling continued to be regarded along with the remaining Cavalier Poets as a writer of elegant verses of minor consequence. While the image of Suckling as a libertine poet largely endures, modern critics have begun to piece together the scanty details of his life in order to produce a fuller representation of the man and his work. Typically, critics have considered Suckling's poetry as indicative of Cavalier cynicism and playful wit. Nevertheless, some have interpreted a sense of anguish and frustration beneath his insouciance, prompting scholars to slightly modify the popular conception of the carefree poet and search for additional levels of meaning in his work

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

* Fragmenta Aurea. A Collection of all the Incomparable Peeces (poetry, letters, essay, and dramas) 1646

The Last Remains of Sir John Suckling. Being a Full Collection of All His Poems and Letters (poetry and letters) 1659

The Works of Sir John Suckling, The Non-Dramatic Works (poetry, letters, and essay) 1971

Aglaura (drama) 1638

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

The Discontented Colonel (drama) 1642

The Works of Sir John Suckling, the Plays (dramas) 1971

*This volume includes the essay An Account of Religion by Reason and the plays Aglaura, The Goblins, and Brennoralt, or The Discontented Colonel, in addition to Suckling's poetry and letters.

A. Hamilton Thompson (essay date 1910)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in The Works of Sir John Suckling in Prose and Verse, George Routledge & Sons, 1910, pp. ix-xvii.

[In the following excerpted introduction to The Works of Sir John Suckling, Thompson characterizes Suckling as a minor poet, and offers a brief summary of his life and work.]

The Fragmenta Aurea of Sir John Suckling were published in 1646, four years after their author's death, ‘by a friend to perpetuate his memory.’ A second edition followed in 1648, and in 1658 a third edition contained an additional collection of poems and letters and the unfinished tragedy of The Sad One. The success of these volumes was aided...

(The entire section is 2871 words.)

F. W. Moorman (review date 1911)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Works of Sir John Suckling, in Modern Language Review, Vol. VI, No. 1, January, 1911, pp. 123-24.

[In the following review, Moorman sees Suckling as John Donne's “direct successor,” and comments on Suckling's poetic influence.]

In this volume [The Works of Sir John Suckling] Mr Hamilton Thompson has given us a careful reprint, based on the early editions of the Fragmenta Aurea, of all Suckling's writings in verse and prose. In a short Introduction—which might with advantage have been longer—he relates the chief facts in the author's life, and forms a sane and liberal estimate of the man's character. He also makes some...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Edward Bliss Reed (essay date 1912)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jacobean and Caroline Lyric,” in English Lyrical Poetry From Its Origins to the Present Time, Yale University Press, 1912, pp. 223-301.

[In the following excerpt, Reed considers Suckling's wry attitude toward his poetic muse.]

One of [Thomas] Carew's intimate friends at court was Sir John Suckling (1609-1642). He studied at Cambridge, where he was known as “a polite but not a deep scholar”; travelled abroad for three years; and joined the forty English gentlemen volunteers who fought under Gustavus Adolphus. In 1632 he returned to Whitehall, where his gaiety, his wit, and his lavish expenditures made him a favorite. He was a spendthrift; he squandered...

(The entire section is 1438 words.)

Fletcher Orpin Henderson (essay date 1937)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Traditions of Précieux and Libertin in Suckling's Poetry,” in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 4, No. 4, December, 1937, pp. 274-98.

[In the following essay, Henderson studies the influence of libertinism and the derision of Platonic love in Suckling's poetry.]

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 entire section is 8906 words.)

L. A. Beaurline (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Why So Pale and Wan': An Essay in Critical Method,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. IV, No. 4, Winter, 1963, pp. 553-63.

[In the following essay, Beaurline analyzes Suckling's poem “Why so pale and wan fond Lover?”]


Sir John Suckling's song “Why so pale and wan fond lover” is one of the most famous lyrics in English. It is seldom left out of an anthology and has received attention from every generation of musicians, who seem to find it especially attractive for musical setting.1 But to the critic it is a challenge—obviously a fine poem; yet what can a critic say about it? Beyond an...

(The entire section is 4789 words.)

Raymond A. Anselment (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Men Most of All Enjoy, When Least They Do': The Love Poetry of John Suckling,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XTV, No. 1, Spring, 1972, pp. 17-32.

[In the following essay, Anselment critiques the traditional assessment of Suckling as merely a cynical love 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 synonymous with libertine cynicism.1 This...

(The entire section is 6145 words.)

Michael H. Markel (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “John Suckling's Semi-Serious Love Poetry,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 152-58.

[In the following essay, Markel investigates the irony of Suckling's pose as a nonchalant, Cavalier love poet.]

People who write about Sir John Suckling find it almost impossible not to mention the fact that Millamant, in Congreve's The Way of the World, refers to the poet as “Natural, easy Suckling.”1 The reference to Suckling is brief, and although it tells the play's audience a little about Millamant's taste in literature, it is not necessary for an understanding of her character. The Millamant-Suckling link is mentioned so...

(The entire section is 3086 words.)

Charles L. Squier (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sir John Suckling, Twayne Publishers, 1978, 171 p.

[In the following excerpt, Squier discusses Suckling's late “essentially urbane, urban, and social” poetry.]


The last four years of Suckling's life include the writing of Aglaura, An Account of Religion by Reason, The Goblins, Brennoralt, and nine poems, including “The Wits,” “A Ballade Upon a Wedding,” and “Upon my Lord Brohalls Wedding.” These years also include the raising of his hundred horse for the First Bishops' War, appointment as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, election to Parliament, participation in the Second Bishops' War,...

(The entire section is 4873 words.)

Thomas Clayton (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘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, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, pp. 217-41.

[In the following essay, Clayton endeavors to redeem Suckling from usual critical consideration as a minor poet by exploring his irony and wit, as well as the depth of his poetic criticism of life.]

“Natural, easy Suckling”—with two lines of “Out upon it, I have loved / Three whole days together” and two of “Why so pale and wan, fond lover? / Prithee why so pale?”—is so apt and usual an opening for a discussion of Suckling that I have now used it...

(The entire section is 10769 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bruce, Donald. “The War Poets of 1639: Carew, Suckling and Lovelace.” Contemporary Review 259, No. 1511 (December 1991): 309-14.

Mentions Suckling's dissolute lifestyle as a member of Charles I's court.

Green, Allan P. “An Unnoticed Fact of the Life of Sir John Suckling.” Notes and Queries New Series, Vol. 24, No. 3 (June 1977): 205.

Presents documentary evidence which suggests that Suckling's military career began in 1629.

Hazlitt, W. Carew, ed. The Poems, Plays and Other Remains of Sir John Suckling with a Copious Account of the Author, Notes, and an Appendix of...

(The entire section is 281 words.)