Sir William Davenant began his career as a versatile, technically competent poet, adept at producing à la mode verse guaranteed to please his patrons. His shorter works, many of them clearly bearing the stamp of Donne’s or Jonson’s influence, cover the entire range of forms fashionable in Caroline England: odes, satires, panegyrics, songs, and occasional poems. His themes were essentially what one would expect from a man destined to become poet laureate: the heroism of Prince Rupert and the king, the importance of friendship and the good life, the nobility of any number of aristocrats, and the beauty of a variety of noble ladies, especially the queen. As a lyric poet, Davenant was a competent craftsman, one of the best of that “mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease” and who surrounded Charles I. In later years, however, he became a trailblazer, and his heroic poem, Gondibert, taken in conjunction with its The Preface to Gondibert with An Answer by Mr. Hobbes, is one of the most important poems of the middle years of the seventeenth century.
Although many of his early verses had appeared in poetic miscellanies or editions of his or others’ plays, the first collection of Davenant’s poems to be printed was Madagascar in 1638. It consisted of the long (446-line) title poem and forty-two shorter pieces, including poems addressed to the king and queen, to aristocrats such as the duchess of Buckingham and the earls of Portland and Rutland, and to friends such as Endymion Porter, Henry Jermyn, and Thomas Carew. Also present are satiric works, several poems commemorating deaths, including those of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Davenant (a false rumor), and a number of prologues, epilogues, and songs from plays. The volume opens with commendatory verses from Porter, Sir John Suckling, Carew, and William Habington.
Like Michael Drayton’s “To the Virginian Voyage” of 1606, Davenant’s “Madagascar” is a patriotic poem designed to stir Englishmen to great deeds of exploration and conquest. Whereas Drayton’s poem is occasional—although three voyages were undertaken to Virginia in the year the work appeared—Davenant’s piece honors a nonevent, Prince Rupert’s proposed but never attempted expedition to South Africa, a voyage that his uncle Charles I eventually forbade and that Rupert’s mother compared to an adventure of Don Quixote.
As the poem opens, Davenant recounts his soul’s dream journey south to the tropics, where he beholds Rupert, his “mighty Uncles Trident” in hand, disembarking on the island of Madagascar with an army. The natives immediately surrender, awed as much by Rupert’s beauty as by his military prowess. Other Europeans, perhaps Spaniards, also invade, and each side chooses two champions to determine ownership of the island by single combat. The English champions, for whom “The God-like Sidney was a Type,” are Davenant’s friends Porter and Jermyn. Their conflict is recounted in typically “high, immortall verse,” charged with elaborate conceits. The English champions are victorious, but the treacherous Spaniards renege on their vow to surrender, thus proving the justice of the English claim and providing Davenant with material for further elaborately depicted battle scenes. Eventually, Rupert is proclaimed “The first true Monarch of the Golden Isle” and Madagascar’s great riches are described at length, its value to the English crown confirmed. Exhausted, the poet’s soul returns to his body.
At bottom, the Madagascar proposal was not very well thought out, and when it was submitted to the East India Company, that body responded with what Davenant’s biographer, A. H. Nethercot, calls “diplomatic caution,” essentially refusing to have anything to do with it. Virtually all of Charles I’s advisers pointed out the impossibility of the project, and Archbishop Laud even went so far as to offer Rupert a bishopric to replace his supposed governorship. Thus, the historical background lends to the poem a faint air of the ridiculous. Perhaps realizing this, Davenant concluded it with a whimsical description of himself, twirling a chain of office, growing goutish, sitting on the island’s judicial bench. The poem’s intent, however, is clear. With an eye toward the main chance of preferment, the soon-to-be poet laureate was quite obviously cultivating Rupert, the rising young star of the Caroline court.
Many of the poems that Davenant addressed to individual courtiers and noblemen, such as the typically if somewhat simplemindedly Jonsonian “To the King on New-years day 1630,” are occasional verse. This poem begins by praising Charles I as a ruler who teaches by example, and by offering him all the joy inherent in such standard Cavalier touchstones as “Youth . . . Wine, and Wealth.” It continues by wishing the king and the nation, first, peace, but peace “not compass’d by/ Expensive Treaties but a Victorie,” and, second, a successful Parliament, one consisting of...
(The entire section is 2072 words.)