Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Sir John Suckling (16091642)
[Suckling was born at Twickenham, and committed suicide in Paris in 1642. He published during his lifetime the drama of Aglaura in 1638 and the Ballad of a Wedding in 1640. His other works were first collected posthumously in 1648, under the title of Fragmenta Aurea.]
IT is impossible to consider the poems of Suckling without regard to his career. No English poet has lived a life so public, so adventurous and so full of vicissitude as his. Nothing short of an irresistible bias towards the art of poetry could have induced so busy and so fortunate a man to write in verse at all. Beautiful and vigorous in body, educated in all the accomplishments that grace a gentleman, endowed from earliest youth with the prestige of a soldier and a popular courtier, his enormous wealth enabled him to indulge every whim that a fondness for what was splendid or eccentric in dress, architecture and pageantry could devise. Such a life could present no void which literary ambition could fill, and Sucklings scorn for poetic fame was well known to his contemporaries. At the age of nineteen he went away to the continent, and wandered through France, Italy, Germany and Spain for four years, seeking adventure. He offered his sword to the King of Sweden, fought in command of a troop in front of Glogau and of Magdeburg, performed astounding feats of prowess in Silesia, and returned before the battle of Lützen simply because his imperious fancy began to find the great war a tedious pastime. He proceeded to London, and lived for six years in a style of such gorgeous profusion that at last he contrived to cripple one of the amplest fortunes of that age. He retired for a while, ostentatiously enough, into a literary seclusion at Bath, taking the obsequious Davenant with him as a sort of amanuensis. During this brief time, no doubt, his tragedies were composed. The King, however, fretted for his return, and he emerged as the leader of the Royalist party in its earliest troubles. After the crisis, Suckling fled to France, and thence to Spain; at Madrid he fell into the clutches of the Inquisition, and underwent horrible tortures. He escaped to Paris, with a mind probably unstrung by these torments, for he poisoned himself in his thirty-fourth year. Such was the career of a man whose light verses, carelessly thrown off and half forgotten, have outlived the pomp and public glitter of his famous adventures, by which he now seems to us rather dwarfed and injured than exalted.
Written under such circumstances, and preserved in a fragmentary state by friends, it would be surprising if the poems of Suckling presented any great finish or completeness. In point of fact, they display to us but the ruins of his genius. A ballad of wonderful brightness and sweetness, half-a-dozen songs full of the most aery and courtly grace, these alone of all he has left behind him are in any sense worthy of their authors splendid fame. His contemporaries, and the men of the next generation, remembering his shining qualities of personal presence, his wit, his fluent fancy and, perhaps, many fine poems that we shall never see, spoke of him as an epoch-making writer, in terms that we reserve for Herrick, of whom they never speak. His name still lives in the popular ear, as the names of poets far greater than he will never live. His figure takes a place in poetic literature which the student fresh from his pages is apt to consider unduly high, and which his golden fragments scarcely seem to justify. But the instinct of the people, in this as in so many other cases, is probably right, and though the imperfections of his poems may cloud it, there is no doubt that his genius existed. It shows itself even more in his disciples than in himself; his manner of writing affected the course of English literature, and showed its strength less in his own lyrics, than in the fact that for the next fifty years no one could write a good love-song without more or less reminding the reader of Suckling. To the very end of the century natural, easy Suckling was the type of literary elegance to the Millamants and Lady Froths of fashion.
His existing works consist of a slender collection of lyrical and complimentary poems, and of four plays, one of them incomplete. Suckling, who had a creditable adoration for Shakespeare, inherited none of his dramatic genius. A worse playwright is scarcely to be found, even in that miserable period, among the Gomersalls, Lowers, and Killigrews. Aglaura, a monster of tedious pageantry, was arranged with a tragic and a comic ending, according to choice: but this was not so unique as has been supposed, for we find the same silly contrivance in Howards Vestal Virgin and in the Pandora of Sir William Killigrew.
The only drama of Sucklings which is at all readable is Brennoralt, which is incoherent enough, but does contain some fine tragic writing. The only real merit of these plays however consists in the beautiful songs they harbour.
The lyrical pieces of Sucklings which were collected under the title of Fragmenta Aurea present considerable difficulty to the critic. Never was a volume of poems so unequal in merit presented to the public. Side by side with songs that will be enjoyed as long as the English language exists, we find stanzas which it is impossible either to scan or to construe, and which would disgrace the Poets Corner of a provincial newspaper. The famous Session of the Poets, one of those pieces which were most admired in the age that saw its production, is full of laxities of style that fairly astonish the modern reader. Such a stanza, for instance, as that dedicated to Jonson, limps and waddles along with a strangely gouty gait:
The first that broke silence was good old Ben,
Prepared before with Canary wine,
And he told them plainly he deserved the bays,
For his were called works, while others were but plays.
In the case of other poems, in which we find awkward and confused passages, we may suppose that Suckling left the verse confused or incomplete, and that the text suffers from inartistic revision, but The Session of the Poets is one of the few pieces published in his lifetime, and we are therefore inclined to suppose that he was but little affected by errors of style that are palpable to us. When, however, he is at his best, he throws off all awkwardness and obscurity; his versification becomes liquid and nimble, and in one instance, the famous Ballad upon a Wedding, he has contrived to keep up his tone of airy vivacity through twenty-two incomparable verses. But as a rule his lyric flights are brief. His songs owe their special charm to their gallantry and impudence, their manly ardour and their frivolous audacity. The temper expressed in Why so pale and wan, fond lover? was in sympathy with the age, and gave a delight which seems to us extravagant; Sucklings admiration for Shakespeare not preventing him from being one of the chief heralds of the poetry of the Restoration. He sings like a royalist gentleman; he leaves the weaving of conceits to learned contemporaries, such as Cowley and Lovelace; he inaugurates a simpler, most straightforward expression of inflamed fancy and amorous discontent. This is in his songs only; in his moral pieces, such as that beginning
My dearest rival, lest our love
Should with eccentric motion move,
he is as quaint and conceited, if not so ingenious, as the best of the poets once called Metaphysical. His great praise is his manliness: after all the rhymesters who for a century had been sonneting their mistress eyebrow, and avowing the most abject deference, the attitude of Suckling strutting with his impudent smiling face through the galaxy of ladies, struck the contemporary mind as refreshing, and a new fashion in gallantry set in. What had been good sense in Suckling, soon however became effrontery in Sedley, and cynicism in Congreve, and the base sensual feast to which the poets of the Restoration sat down we feel to have been a sorry exchange for the Arcadian diet of the Elizabethans. Even here also there was some brisk music of a gallantry not wholly base, and for this we have to thank Suckling and his sprightly mood.