"Traditions of Précieux and Libertin in Suckling's Poetry,"

Critic: Fletcher Orpin Henderson
Source: ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 4, No. 4, December, 1937, pp. 274-98.
Criticism about: John Suckling (1609-1642), also known as: Sir John Suckling

Nationality: British; English

[(essay date 1937) 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 letters of Suckling. The lover is constant, although he recognizes a "curious permissive exception." Finding "Aglaura" gone from town, he writes,2

though you have left behind you faces whose beauties might well excuse perjury in others, yet in me they cannot, since to the making that no sin love's casuists have most rationally resolved that she for whom we forsake ought to be handsomer than the forsaken, which would be here impossible.

The lover expects no reward. He serves for the love of service, and nothing more.

After all, the wages will not be high, for it [his heart] hath been brought up under Platonics, and knows no other way of being paid for service than by being commanded more; which truth when you doubt, you have but to send to its master and your humble servant,3

J. S.

He will follow her will blindly, without asking the reason.

Yet, hearing you have resolved it otherwise for me, my faith shall alter without becoming more learned upon it, or once knowing why it should do so.4

He protests his humility, and recognizes that he has no more claim to her favour than all men have to light and beauty. Secrecy is essential, and although he is not ashamed to worship at her shrine,

yet since the world is full of profane eyes, the best way, sure, is to keep all mysteries from them, and to let privacy be (what indeed it is) the best part of devotion.5

Professor Lynch dealt with précieuse influence on Suckling's verse.6 She found that since he was "brought up under the Platonics," there are numerous poems by him where that influence overbalances all others.7 "The poet has a Platonic mistress whose 'Love's philosophy' he endeavors to accept. Love's flame, he promises, shall purge him of 'the dross--desire.'" His two poems "Against Fruition" seem to echo the familiar arguments of Astrée. Professor Lynch believes that this is also true of the lines "Against Absence." In one poem addressed to his rival, he warns that their only reward from their mistress for past service will be the opportunity for future fidelity. In a second, he proposes that the first one to die shall leave his stock of love to the surviving lover, since,

... no one stock can ever serve

To love so much as she'll deserve.8

It is well known that the origins of the Caroline précieuse cult are to be found in France, in the salon of Madame de Rambouillet. But another contemporary French movement made its appearance in England. French libertinage crossed the Channel. Libertinage9 is a word which has more than one meaning. The sixteenth century used it to describe the belief of those who were no longer able to accept the old faith. It was applied to those independent spirits who followed neither Rome nor Geneva. In the seventeenth century this meaning persisted; libertinage was freedom of thought. So the word was used by Garasse, Charron, Pascal, and others. But in the first decade of the seventeenth century it took on a new meaning. A libertin came, as was natural enough, to be a man who was irregular not only in his faith, but in his conduct as well. Morality has always been the handmaid of religion, and when a man's beliefs are attacked for being too free, his conduct is suspect as well. Probably the libertins were as moral as their adversaries, but the known excesses of the few brought condemnation on the whole group.

Pour être compris aujourd'hui quand nous voulons rendre au vocable décrié sa signification primitive, nous en sommes réduits à l'expliquer, sans espoir de séparer jamais, dans le langage courant, les deux acceptions qu'il a successivement reçues: indépendance de l'esprit et dévergondage des moeurs.10

Montaigne was the immediate ancestor of the libertins. While he can hardly be said to be the originator of the skeptical notions of the Essays, they came with some novelty. It is to their popularity that we may trace much of the ethical naturalism, either directly or indirectly, which we find both in England and in France in the seventeenth century.

Montaigne began as an adherent of Stoicism, which, with Platonism, had been interwoven with Christian thought and become a part of Renaissance idealism in both personal and political ethics. But Stoicism was not long to his taste. His nature was too supple for its restraints, and too easy and tolerant to submit long to its discipline or to feel long the attractiveness of its elevation. ... But his apostacy from Stoicism was hastened when about 1575 he became enthusiastic over Greek scepticism, as expounded in the Hypotyposes of Sextus Empiricus. ...

For a short period, Montaigne, under the influence of the philosophy of Sextus, regarded custom and tradition as his best guide. But such a philosophy is a worse tyranny than Stoicism, and contains in itself the acid of dissolution; Montaigne soon passed through it, to his third and mature philosophy of individualism based on "Nature." Nature then meant to him primarily his own nature, which he regarded as his own unique lawgiver. ... Distrustful of all speculations in ethical idealism, thoroughly sceptical regarding conventions and traditions, he followed nature in everything, and in case of doubt, "nature" meant his own nature.11

To this "Nature" Montaigne's "libertine" followers turned, but they found there authority for thought and conduct which might not have been approved by their master. In religion, Montaigne's skepticism led him, not toward atheism or deism, but toward the authority of the Roman Church. His questioning had undermined his faith in the human reason, but this did not plunge him into intellectual anarchy. Rather, his distrust of reason strengthened his trust in what was for him the oldest, the native, and hence the strongest tradition.

Now by the knowledge of my volubilitie, I have by accidence engendred some constancy of opinions in my self; yea have not so much altered my first and naturall ones. For, what apparance soever there be in novelty, I do not easily change, for feare I should lose by the bargaine: And since I am not capable to chuse, I take the choise from others; and keep myself in the seat, that God hath placed me in. Else could I hardly keepe my selfe from continuall rowling. Thus have I by the grace of God preserved my selfe whole (without agitation or trouble of conscience) in the ancient beliefe of our religion, in the middest of so many sects and divisions, which our age hath brought forth.12

Although this method of justifying faith in tradition because of a lack of faith in the human reason was to prove fruitful in later writers, it was not his fideism which attracted the libertins to Montaigne. Even he seems more to have accepted Catholicism than to have developed a deep and noble religious feeling, as Pascal, and, to a certain extent Dryden, did at a later date, working in this skeptical tradition. It was the appeal to nature which made the Essays the handbook of the libertines. But nature has many meanings; to Montaigne and his followers, it had at least two. First, as Professor Bredvold has shown, nature was the nature of each individual. Second, it was a nature uncorrupted by man. The Golden Age was the time when man was uncorrupted by custom and law, and it was to this hypothetical Golden Age that man should turn to find his way of life. The freedom of a soft primitivistic society such as this, where every man lived according to the dictates of his nature, appealed strongly to the gentle soul of Montaigne. Some of his followers, amongst whom Théophile de Viau has attracted most attention, expounded this view of nature in their verse.13 For the most part, however, "libertine" poetry did not assume the robes of philosophy. Rather, the naturalism of Montaigne served as a source for a light and cynical justification for their verse and their conduct.

In many cases, justification was needed. Centering around taverns and cabarets such as the Pomme de Pin, the dissolute life led by the beaux esprits was notorious. At this time, the cabaret filled the place of the coffee house of the eighteenth century. There the libertins would gather to drink too much wine and to recite their skeptical and indecent verses.14 It was verse of this sort which crowded the recueils of the first quarter of the century. Le Cabinet Satyrique, for example, is almost entirely composed of obscene verses. Théophile contributed to that anthology, and the inclusion of some stanzas believed to be his in the Parnasse Satyrique led to his condemnation. The poetic standard of these two works is on about the same level as in the drolleries of the Restoration.

One must not forget that the libertins were not strictly a school. At best, they were a loosely connected group, the members of which differed widely in seriousness and in poetic ability. Their common inheritance from Montaigne was a distrust and disbelief in any form of ethical idealism. They further had in common an Epicurean naturalism which coloured their life and work. The extent to which this naturalism was recognized and expressed varied with the individual poet. Few seemed to argue in verse as deliberately as did Théophile. Even he can not be called a philosopher. Like that of his fellows, most of his poetry is light in manner.

Théophile et son disciple Des Barreaux étaient, en bonne santé, incapables de rechercher autre chose que le plaisir et la volupté; leur intelligence trop mobile n'aurait pu s'arrêter longtemps à des spéculations métaphysiques.15

We may look upon the libertins as a group because of their common appeal to nature to justify their pleasures. Because of the immorality of their verse, which only reflected their lives, we may accept M. Lachevre's definition:16

Un libertin est un homme aimant le plaisir, tout les plaisirs, sacrifiant à la bonne chère, le plus souvent de mauvaises moeurs, raillant la religion, n'ayant autre Dieu que la Nature, niant l'immortalité de l'âme et dégagé des erreurs popularies.

En un mot c'est un esprit fort doublé d'un débauché.

To this "libertine" tradition John Donne seems to have belonged for a time.17 His Songs and Sonnets, which enjoyed a great popularity both before and after printing, are permeated with a skeptical naturalism. The restraints of society have no justification, save in custom. In olden days, plurality of loves was perfectly proper. It is in our man-made laws that we have gone astray from nature.

How happy were our Syres in ancient times,

Who held plurality of loves no crime!

With them it was accounted charity

To stirre up race of all indifferently;

Kindreds were not exempted from the bands:

Which with the Persians still in usage stands.

Women were then no sooner asked than won,

And what they did was honest and well done,

And since this title honour hath been us'd,

Our weake credulity hath been abus'd;

The golden laws of nature are repeald,

Which our first Fathers in such reverence held;

Our liberty's revers'd, our Charter's gone,

And we're made servants to opinion,

A monster in no certain shape attir'd,

And whose originall is much desir'd,

Formelesse at first, but goeing on it fashions,

And doth prescribe manners and laws to nations.18

In these early poems, Donne looked upon love as an appetite, not a spiritual relationship. But he does not condemn it for that reason. Rather, he appeals to nature not only to justify that view, but to excuse the inconstancy which he proudly flaunts. In "Confined Love"19 he points out the freedom of other elements of nature, and compares man's position with them.

          Are Sunne, Moone, or Starres by law forbidden,

To smile where they list, or lend away their light?

          Are birds divorc'd, or are they chidden

If they leave their mate, or lie abroad a night?

                                        Beasts do no joyntures lose

                                        Though they new lovers choose,

                                        But we are made worse than those.

But Donne is set off from the main body of libertines by his passion, his learning, and the keenness of his wit. No doubt, as Professor Bredvold concludes, he was too susceptible to idealism to remain long a worshipper of the earthly Aphrodite. With his marriage, he became the devoted husband, and repented of his early life. It is to his spiritually slighter successors that we must turn to find the continuation of the "libertine" spirit in England.

Although Donne's philosophy of love underwent a great change between the composition of the Songs and Sonnets and the composition of his deeply sincere poems to his wife, it was the first group that made him the great influence that he was in the seventeenth century. When Carew wrote

Here lies a king that ruled as he thought fit

The universal monarchy of wit;20

he meant the Donne of the gay, youthful skepticism. These early poems served to spread widely the ideas of the "libertine" spirit. Montaigne, of course, also reached a large audience. And in England, as in France, skeptical thought can not be considered merely as a philosophical movement.21 Minor poets who followed in Donne's footsteps echoed the ideas of their master.

Such a follower was Sir John Suckling. His indebtedness to Donne is obvious. Although he professed to be a great admirer of Shakespeare, it is the echoes of Donne which are heard most frequently. Occasionally he borrows directly from the Dean of Paul's, as in "The Guiltless Inconstant."22 His wit, never so piercing nor so impassioned as Donne's, is reminiscent. Although less intellectual, he does employ the so-called metaphysical conceit in the same manner. Most striking is his flippant inconstancy; it is the same amoral inconstancy of the Songs and Sonnets. In his "Farewell to Love" he dallies with the metaphysical frisson, as had Donne in The Funerall and The Relique. Upon the internal evidence of his poems, Suckling could be classed with the English "libertine" successors to Donne.

Suckling was also familiar with the French libertins. It is known that he traveled abroad when he was young. A letter dated November 18, 1629, indicates that he was in Dunkirk at that time. Another letter dated 1632 proves that he had just returned from Germany.23 By 1630 he seems to have visited France, Germany, and Italy. From the few known facts of his life, it appears evident that he had spent a good deal of time on the continent before he settled down at court in 1632.

Perhaps it was while he was abroad that he made his acquaintance with French literature. That he had some acquaintance may be proved from his poems. The first collected edition of his work was entitled Fragmenta Aurea, and was issued in 1646 by Humphrey Moseley. This volume, and the second edition of it, which came out in 1648, contain little more than a half of his poetry and letters. The fourth edition of Fragmenta Aurea, published in 1659,24 adds forty-two new poems, twelve new letters, and an imperfect play. Among these new poems is a little French piece called "Desdain." Following it is Suckling's translation. The Reverend Alfred Inigo Suckling, in the Life which he appended to his edition of the Works in 1836 (and which Hazlitt lifted for his editions), remarks that Sir John's translation "unites much freedom and grace with very great fidelity to the original, and leaves us to regret that more of the light ballads and odes of our neighbours had not engaged his attention."25 Except for this, little attention has been paid to the poem. As far as I can discover, no attempt has been made to identify it. In the Last Remains, the following version is printed:26


A quoy servent d'artifices

Et serments aux vent iettez,

Si vos amours & vos services

Me sont des imprtunitez.


L'amour a d'autres voeuz mi appelle

Entendez jamais rien de moy,

Ne pensez nous rendre infidele,

A mi tesmoignant vostre foy.


L'amant qui mon amour possede

Est trop plein de perfection,

Et doublement il vous excede

De merite & d'affection.


Je ne puis estre refroidie,

Ni rompre un cordage si deux,

Ni le rompre sans perfidie,

In d'estre perfidi pour vous.


Vos attentes sons toutes en vain,

Le vous dire est nous obliger,

Pour vous faire espergner vos peines

Du vous & du temps mesnager.

This version is so corrupt that it is largely nonsense. The copy may have been in bad autograph,27 and whoever saw the Last Remains through the press could have had very little French. Some of the lines will not scan, some words are misspelled, and there are mistakes of sense in the use of pronouns.28

Suckling translates fairly closely. He changes the stanza form slightly, but maintains the same rime scheme.


To what end serve the promises

                    And oaths lost in the air,

Since all your proffer'd services

                    To me but tortures are?


Another now enjoys my love,

                    Set you your heart at rest:

Think not me from my faith to move

                    Because you faith protest.


The man that does possess my heart,

                    Has twice as much perfection,

And does excel you in desert,

                    As much as in affection.


I cannot break so sweet a bond,

                    Unless I prove untrue:

Nor can I ever be so fond,

                    To prove untrue for you.


Your attempts are but in vain

                    (To tell you is a favour):

For things that may be, rack your brain:

                    Then lose not thus your labour.29

While he has not deviated very much from his French original, he has changed its spirit. The English version is flippant, an effect heightened by his stanza form. It is also a good deal more matter of fact. He has missed the almost mordant tone of the French; and the fourth stanza, which has a definite cumulative effect in the original, is just a little silly in English. The last stanza in the French has a cutting effect; Suckling's last stanza is awkward with no effect. One can hardly agree with the Reverend Alfred Suckling's opinion of his ancestor's ability as a translator.

There were a number of places where Suckling could have found this poem. It first appeared in a recueil called Les Muses Gaillardes. This was first published in 1609; a second edition followed the same year, and a third edition exists which is undated. The poem may also be found in the Satyres Regnier, one of the most popular collections of the century.30 A third possible source for Suckling is the Recueil des Plus Excellans Vers Satyriques de Ce Temps, published in 1617. There is no signature attached to the poem in either of the first two recueils, but it is attributed to Motin in the third.

Pierre Motin (1566?-1613?) was one of the minor libertins. He was a friend and disciple of Regnier, and of de Berthelot and de Sigognes. He was among the crowd of beaux esprits who frequented such taverns as the Pomme de Pin, the Fosse aux Lions, and the Croix de Lorraine. His verse has never been collected; it was published in the various recueils along with that of other libertine writers. In general, it is light, brisk, and markedly anti-feminist. Although it is seldom philosophical, he is typical of the group.31

On at least one other occasion Suckling borrowed from across the Channel, this time without acknowledgment. In The Last Remains, immediately preceding "Desdain," is a poem called "Profer'd Love rejected." It has been printed in this position in subsequent editions.

It is not four years ago,

                    I offered forty crowns

To lie with her a night or so:

                    She answer'd me in frowns.

Not two years since, she meeting me

                    Did whisper in my ear,

That she would at my service be

                    If I contented were.

I told her I was cold as snow,

                    And had no great desire;

But should be well content to go

                    To twenty but no higher.

Some three months since or thereabouts,

                    She that so coy had been,

Bethought herself and found me out,

                    And was content to sin.

I smil'd at that, and told her I

                    Did think it something late,

And that I'd not repentance buy

                    At above half the rate.

This present morning early she

                    Forsooth came to my bed,

And gratis there she offered me

                    Her high priz'd maidenhead.

I told her that I thought it then

                    Far dearer than I did,

When at first the forty crowns

                    For one night's lodging bid.32

As in the case of "Desdain," the original for this is to be sought in the French recueils. Its first printing, so far as I have been able to discover, was in the 1614 editions of the Satyres Regnier. Subsequently it turns up in three other recueils. These are Les Satyres Bastardes et Autres Oeuvres Folastres du Cadet Angoulevent, the Recueil des Vers Satyrique, and the Cabinet Satyrique. In the Recueil des Vers Satyrique it is attributed to Desportes.

Suckling's translation does not follow the French version very closely. As the verses are printed in the Satyres Regnier,33 they read:

Il y peut auoir quatre années

Qu'à Phillis i'ay voulu conter

Deux mille pieces couronnées,

Et plus haut i'eusse peu monter,

Deuz ans apres elle me mande

Que pour mille elle condecent,

Ie trouuay la somme si grande

Ie n'en voulus donner que cent,

Au bout de six, ou sept sepmaines

A cent escus elle reuint,

Ie dis qu'elle perdoit ses peines

S'elle en pretendoit plus de vingt,

L'autre jour elle fut contente

De venir pour six duatons,

I'ay trouue trop haute la vente

S'elle passoit quatre testons:

Ce matin elle est arriuée,

Gratis voulant s'abandonner

Ou ie l'ay plus chere trouuée

Que quand i'en voulus tant donner.

There can be no question but that Suckling's verses are translated, but it is interesting to notice the changes which he has introduced. His version is almost half again as long, but it is less concentrated. Deliberately or through ignorance he has avoided the implication contained in the last lines of the French. Perhaps it is debatable, but Suckling's poem seems to be the expression of the Cavalier refusing something easy to get which he desired when it was more difficult. I do not feel that he is making the what may be called clinical observation of the French.34 Whatever the reason, his version is more pleasant and gay. It is conversation in verse--the quality which made him the poet whom Millamant praised.

Where Suckling read these poems cannot be easily determined. As we have seen, "Desdain" appeared in three different recueils, and "A Phyllis" in four. It will be noticed that they are both found in two collections. These are the Satyres Regnier and the Recueil des Vers Satyrique. While it is quite possible that Suckling could have read one poem in one anthology, and the other in another, the inference is, lacking further evidence, that he read them both in the same place.

Where Suckling came across these poems is, after all, not important. That he did come across them at all is definite proof of his acquaintance with the lighter poetry of the libertins. All of the anthologies in question were given over to their verse. Their publication came at the first peak of the movement, and they are its chief monuments.

... Dénombrer les recueils libres des premières années du XVIIe siècle c'est suivre pas à pas l'extension du libertinage, ils marquent en quelque sont les degrés de la moralité publique, plus dernière baisse, plus les recueils se propagent.35

Motin, whose career was outlined above, is typical of the libertins. "A Phyllis" is a poem of a beau esprit, and illustrates admirably the moral tone induced by the skeptical background. That it is by Desportes may be questioned. The manner is not his, and the poem was not attributed to him until 1617, eleven years after his death. It is questionable whether a poem would appear for the first time in an anthology eight years after its author's death. It does not seem to be in the Michiels edition of 1858. In any event, attribution to a poet of an older generation by the editor of a recueil carries slight authority.36 But whether by Desportes or not, Suckling must have got it from some libertine anthology, and hence was familiar with other poems of the school.

Most of the verse found in these collections are light, a good many of them are indecent, and some of them are witty. It is poetry which is not unlike the poetry of Suckling. It is no wonder, then, that scholars have commented on the French-like quality of Sir John.37 Knowing that he was familiar with this aspect of libertinage, an examination of his works will show that he worked this tradition independently.

In crossing the Channel ideas often lose some of their definiteness. We should hardly expect to find the same thing in England as in France. Perhaps the greatest single difference between the "libertine" spirit in the two countries lies in the respective attitudes toward religious matters. This is somewhat emphasized by the reaction of the Roman Church in one country and the Episcopal in the other. The Jesuit, Father Garasse, vigorously condemned the beaux esprits for many reasons. Not only did he accuse them of immorality in their life and letters, but he found evidence of what he considered heresy and atheism. Looking only to Nature for guidance, the libertins often expressed a vague pantheism. On this score Théophile was attacked by Garasse, who attempted to prove that Théophile denied the immortality of the soul. On the other hand, Théophile was accused of writing certain poems which certainly were both immoral and sacrilegious.38 In England, the Church was less strict. Both Catholics and extreme Protestants were granted a greater degree of freedom than in France, provided that they did not take part in political intrigue. "Libertine" arguments based on an appeal to nature did not seem to have been considered as dangerous as in France. This liberal attitude toward the poets may, perhaps, have resulted in the poets' liberal attitude toward the Church. In any event, there are fewer of the deliberately flippant epigrams on sacred topics in England than in France, and the implicit heresy of skeptical naturalism passed uncensored.

The essential element of libertinage is, however, to be found in England. Donne, perhaps knowing Montaigne as Professor Bredvold suggests,39 had popularized skeptical naturalism, and had not only expressed it in his light verse, but had upon occasion argued seriously for it in some of his longer poems.40 The combined influence of the Dean of Paul's and of Montaigne spread this complex of ideas widely. Although the history of ethical naturalism in the seventeenth century is yet to be written, enough examples have been gathered41 to prove its currency.

Suckling was not a philosophical poet, in even the remotest sense. Hence, he does not argue in his poetry that love is an appetite, as had Donne. Rather, he accepts that as his first premise, and argues from there. His attitude toward the relations between the sexes is entirely physical. In a "Song"42 he stated his view, using a figure which was a favorite of his:

Some youth that has not made his story,

Will think, perchance, the pain's the glory;

And mannerly fit out love's feast;

I shall be carving of the best,

Rudely call for the last course 'fore the rest.

Here love is reduced to its lowest common denominator. Woman is no more than a good dinner. Frequently he expresses this idea in one way or another.43 He attacks a lady who will not succumb to him because of her honor, and the tacit implication is that she is unnatural.44 He scoffs at the idea that a man must love any particular woman.45 In a poem in which he professes to be in love, he laughs at the idea of dying for love.46

I visit, talk, do business, play,

And for a need laugh out the day:

Who does not this in Cupid's school,

He makes not love, but plays the fool:

          She's fair, she's wondrous fair,

          But I care not who know it,

          Ere I'll die for love, I'll fairly forego it.

Several poems remind one of verses in the Satyres Regnier. "Perjury Excused"47 seems to be a reworking of the ideas expressed in "Desdain." The concluding lines of "Love and Debt Alike Troublesome"48 resemble in spirit "De L'Amour des Chambrieres."49 In this poem, as well as in the fourth act of Brennoralt and the fourth act of The Goblins,50 Suckling expresses his preference for the simplicity of the country maid to her more sophisticated urban sister. Like many another renaissance poet, he rings his changes on the old theme of "Gather ye rosebuds,"51 and here his "libertine" naturalism is explicit. The lady in question was not formed to die a maid. Not only is she beautiful, but nature has designed her beauty to be used. It would be worse than "murder, and a greater sin" to stay chaste until marriage; to remain single and chaste would be an inexpiable sin. She must follow "wise nature's" commands, for "one is no number, till that two be one."

Since love is but an appetite, with no spiritual values, his inconstancy follows naturally. He is guiltless in this, he argues,52 and places the blame squarely on his first mistress who scorned him. She first aroused passion in him, and since then he has sought her perfection in all womankind. One he loves for her face, another for her shape; he can find a reason for loving all. But women are no less inconstant. All mankind is alike to them.53 They are accessible to all men, and their so-called sympathy is their love for any and every man. The only chaste women are those who have never had the opportunity to be unchaste. Since he is convinced that a woman can love any man, he is further justified in his philandering.54

I'll give my fancy leave to range

Through everywhere to find out change;

The black, the brown, the fair shall be

But objects of variety;

I'll court you all to serve my turn,

But with such flames as shall not burn.

Even in Suckling's plays his naturalism intrudes itself. When Orbella, the guilty queen in Aglaura, wishes to justify her love for her brother-in-law, she appeals to nature:55

                               ... Ye're but my husband's brother:

And what of that? do harmless birds or beasts

Ask leave of curious Heraldry at all?

Does not the womb of one fair spring

Bring unto the earth many sweet rivers,

That wantonly do one another chase,

And in one bed kiss, mingle, and embrace?

Man (Nature's heir) is not by her will tied,

To shun all creatures are allied unto him.

Since Sir John's view of the relation between the sexes is so entirely a physical one, it would be surprising if he had taken much stock in the new Platonic love of the précieuses. That he shows the influence of the cult is no doubt true; but in his case, the influence was almost entirely in the form of reaction. Professor Lynch found56 that in Aglaura all of the ladies are Platonics, and she quotes a speech of Aglaura which seems to bear this out. But Aglaura marries the prince Thersames early in the play, and two of the minor climaxes arise from his visits to her to consummate their love. The tragedy, as it first was written, is a direct result of his third visit, when under cover of night, his wife stabs him by mistake. On his second attempt, when he is in danger of his life, he tells her57

Come to bed, my love!

And we will there mock tyranny and fate.

Those softer hours of pleasure and delight

That, like so many single hearts, should have

Adorn'd our thread of life, we will at once

By love's mysterious power and this night's help,

Contract to one, and make but one rich draught

Of all.

                    Agl. What mean you, sir?

Ther. To make myself incapable of misery,

By taking strong preservatives of happiness:

I would this night enjoy thee.

                    Agl. Do, sir, so what you will with me;

For I am too much yours to deny the right

However claim'd ...

To what extent Orbella, the queen, was a Platonic may be determined from her second-act soliloquy which I have quoted above.

In this play, the only true Platonics are the minor female members of the cast, and the fad is in general held up to ridicule. One courtier calls the new religion of love "a mere trick to enhance the price of kisses."58 His friend replies that the "silly women," by feeding their expectations so high, are unable at last to grant their favors, for fear of not satisfying those expectations. Orithie, one of the Platonics, has one of the few sympathetic speeches. Her love for Thersames is gratified by his happy marriage, and she does not grudge his wife her fortune. On the whole, the cult does not do well in Aglaura.

Even in the letters, where the manners of the précieuses are reflected, there is proof that in Suckling's case he has passed the bounds of Platonic love. One of the letters, presumably addressed to "Aglaura,"59 hints of something more than spiritual kinship.

Since you can breath no one desire that was not mine before it was yours, or full as soon (for hearts united never knew divided wishes), I must chide you, dear princess, not thank you, for your present; and (if at least I knew how) be angry with you for sending him a blush, who needs must blush because you sent him one. If you are conscious of much, what am I then, who guilty am of all you can pretend to, and something more--unworthiness. But why should you at all, heart of my heart, disturb the happiness you have so newly given me, or make love feed on doubts, that never yet could thrive on such a diet? If I have granted your request! O, why will you say you have studied me, and give so great interest to the contrary! ...

In several other letters, apparently addressed to the same person, he indicates by the warmth of his tone a deeper feeling than mere Platonic love. The difference between these letters and the strict attitude of the précieuses will easily be seen if one compares the so-called "Aglaura" letters with four of his more formal addresses.60 The mannered style is much the same, and the same conventions are employed, but the emotional content is much altered.

Professor Lynch noted that the importance of consummation in love is one of Suckling's favorite themes.61 In this I believe that she is quite correct, but Suckling has two approaches to this topic. One finds the question debated in the first act of Aglaura, where the familiar Platonic arguments are aired. Orithie, one of the Platonic ladies, would make the finer spirits different from the beast and the peasant.62

Will you, then, place the happiness but there,

Where the dull ploughman and the ploughman's horse

Can find it out? Shall souls refin'd not know

How to preserve alive a noble flame,

But let it die--burn out to appetite?

Her friend Semanthe adds

Love's a chameleon, and would live on air,

Physic for agues; starving is his food.

But I think Suckling's arguments against fruition in his poems are something quite different.

A number of his poems treat this subject. In all of them his observations are not those of a précieux, but of a sophisticate. He does not suggest that there is a higher type of love than the physical; rather, he insists that the most exciting part of love comes before actual fruition, and that once past, love tends to die. So it is in his first poem "Against Fruition."63

Fruition adds no new wealth, but destroys,

And while it pleaseth much the palate, cloys;

Who thinks he shall be happier for that,

As reasonably might hope he might grow fat

By eatining to a surfeit; ...

Women enjoyed (whate'er before t' have been)

Are like romances read, or sights once seen

Fruition's dull, and spoils the play much more,

Than if one read or knew the plot before;

In a poem addressed to a young man who has been unlucky in love,64 he urges him to go back to his mistress to be cured.

Return then back, and feed thine eye,

Feed all thy senses, and feast high.

Spare diet is the cause love lasts,

For surfeit sooner kills than fasts.

A second poem entitled "Against Fruition"65 seems to echo a speech from Act I of Aglaura. The additions, however, change the force of the argument. He warns his mistress that if she would hold him, she must deny him. Only by keeping up his hope can she keep up his interest. "Sonnet II"66 finds him more explicit.

Of thee, kind boy, I ask no red and white,

                                                  To make up my delight:

                                                  No odd becoming graces,

Black eyes, or little know-not-whats in faces;

Make me but mad enough, give me good store

Of love for her I court:

                                                  I ask no more,

'Tis love in love that makes the sport. ...

'Tis not the meat, but 'tis the appetite

                                                  Makes eating a delight,

Most definite of all are his lines "Upon A. M."67

Yield all my love; but be withal as coy,

As if thou knew'st not how to sport and toy:

The fort resigned with ease, men cowards prove

And lazy grow. Let me besiege my love,

Let me despair at least three times a day,

And take repulses upon each essay; ...

Take no corruption from thy grandame Eve;

Rather want faith to save thee, than believe

Too soon; for credit me 'tis true,

Men most of all enjoy, when least they do.

In these verses Suckling is not echoing the fine ideals of the Platonics. There is nothing Platonic, in any of the meanings of that much abused word, about his observations. He is restating something which had occurred to other writers on love.

Although he seems to argue against fruition, there is no question in any of the cited passages about ultimate fruition. He urges that the lover be held off as long as possible to heighten his pleasure; he does not propose that the lovers are to remain forever apart. It may be appetite which makes eating a delight, but he always has the eating in mind. Suckling plans no more than did the Cavaliers of his plays to worship a mistress with no hope of reward; he cared nothing for the struggles portrayed by his friend D'Avenant in the character of Theander.68

His theories on fruition in love are, in the main, the ideas of a young man who had no respect for women. They were not ideas new with him, and they are perfectly consonant with the rest of his "libertine" philosophy. Ovid had expressed almost the same notions in the Amores:69 "A love fed fat and too compliant is turned to cloying, and harms us, like sweet fare that harms the stomach." Closer at hand, Montaigne, in "An Apologie of Raymond Sebond,"70 followed the same path.

And that there is nothing so naturally opposite to our taste, as satiety, which comes from ease and facility, nor nothing that so much sharpeneth it, as rareness and difficulty. ... Rareness and difficulty giveth esteem unto things. ... Our appetite doth contemne and passe over what he hath in his free choise and owne possession, to runne after and pursue what he hath not. ... To forbid us any thing, is the ready way to make us long for it. ... Wishing and injoying trouble us both alike. The rigor of a mistris is yrkesome, but ease and facility (to say true) much more; forasmuch as discontent and vexation proceed of the estimation we have of the thing desired, which sharpen love, and set it afire: Whereas Satiety begets distaste: It is a dull, blunt, weary, and drouzy passion. ... Whereto serves this mayden-like bashfulnesse, this wilfull quaintnesse, this severe countenance, this seeming ignorance of those things, which they know better than our selves, that goe about to instruct them, but to increase a desire, and endeare a longing in us, to vanquish, to gourmandize, and at our pleasure, to dispose all this squeamish ceremonie, and all these peevish obstacles?

No one will suggest that either Ovid or Montaigne were advocating a Platonic relationship, nor was Suckling. It is quite possible that from one of these two sources he drew his ideas, but it was not necessary. All three men were sophisticates, and the point of view of all three was naturalistic. To write against fruition by advancing "libertine" arguments at a time when the subject was being treated more or less seriously by other court poets, is part of the wit of Sir John which has not been fully appreciated.

Occasionally Suckling wrote in the précieuse vein, but there is generally an astringent turn at the end which changes its apparent intention. Such is "To a Lady that Forbade to Love before Company."71 There the manners of courtly society are reported--the hidden glances, the sighs, the treasuring of the ribbons for favors, and the little services of the courtier. But after all are retold, he snaps out a last line which shows his real attitude. Similarly, the first of two poems addressed to his rival has been taken as an honest expression of Platonic love. In reality, he is gently ironic with the professed behavior of the courtly lover.

Very rarely was he serious in his love poetry. An exception is his "Song,"72 in which, reminiscent of Donne's "Ecstacy," he describes what he thinks is truly love. He recognizes that his mistress feels that she has completely spiritualized love, and that for her, souls can meet without the bodies. As for himself, he holds

... that perfect joy makes all our parts

                                                                      As joyful as our hearts.

Our senses tell us if we please not them,

Our love is but a dotage or a dream ...

There rests but this, that whilst we sorrow here,

                                                                      Our bodies may draw near:

And when no more their joys they can extend,

Then let our souls begin where they did end.

The poem lacks the intensity of Donne, to be sure, but he is repeating Donne's views. This is as near as Suckling ever comes to recognizing any spiritual element in love, except in his plays and in a few of his lesser poems.

Of these poems, perhaps the best is "Detraction Execrated."73 There he is the writer of the Platonics par excellence. The conventions of secrecy, of complete innocence, and of lack of physical desire are accepted wholeheartedly. The flippancy which one expects in Suckling is absent. For once he seems to have taken his tongue from his cheek; the poem opens vigorously, and although it does not maintain the level of the first few lines, it is an illustration of what he might have done had he cared to write more frequently in the purely artificial manner of the new religion of love. Amongst his other Platonic verses is "The Invocation,"74 a highly conventional piece, and little more than a jingle. The song "I prithee send me back my heart"75 is another stock bit of verse, although written with a good deal more grace. But by and large, it was not in the conventional précieuse tradition that Suckling did his best work.

An examination of the major portion of Suckling's love poetry has indicated that although he was one of the principal court poets of the reign of Charles and Henrietta, he seldom wrote in praise of the new cult of the précieuse, which the Queen had introduced from France. In practice, he either ridiculed it or ignored it. He was fully conscious of the ideas represented by this new Platonic movement, and in his plays are many allusions to the group. His usual expression in love poetry was guided by a "libertine" naturalism which he derived directly from Donne, whose poetic disciple he was, and from the minor libertin poets in France, of whom he had firsthand knowledge. Because of his popularity during the latter part of the century, his is not the least important place in the history of skeptical naturalism which may be traced throughout the Restoration.76


Source: Fletcher Orpin Henderson, "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.