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?”
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.
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.
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