John Suckling's Semi-Serious Love Poetry

Critic: Michael H. Markel
Source: Essays in Literature, Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 152-58
Criticism about: John Suckling (1609-1642), also known as: Sir John Suckling

Genre(s): Satires; Plays; Tragicomedy; Poetry; Songs; Tragedies

[In the following essay, Markel contends that Suckling's "skillfully maintained public pose" prevents readers from understanding the poet's true sentiments.]

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." 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 often by the poet's critics, rather, as a comment on the theatricality of Suckling's carefully wrought public image. Congreve has become, in a sense, Suckling's most influential commentator, for the poet was the type for one of the stock characters of the Restoration stage. In both his life and his poetry, Suckling seems to have attempted to demonstrate the same idea: the meaning of style. His pose was that of a highly skilled amateur who would impulsively decide to try his hand at any activity and then, without much trouble, do better than almost anyone. His emphasis seemed constantly on the process of his attempt, not on the actual result. In the first Scottish war of 1639, for example, Suckling came to the King's aid with exactly one hundred horsemen, all elaborately outfitted and beautifully coiffured, who were immediately overrun. In "A Sessions of the Poets," he chided his friend Thomas Carew, calling him an author whose poetry "Was seldom brought forth but with trouble and pain," while praising himself as the poet who "loved not the Muses so much as his sport"....

For the most part, there is little reason to doubt Suckling's assertions about the essential relationship between the way he lived and the way he wrote; most of his poetry might very well have been composed quickly and effortlessly. Certainly the persona of most of the verse is casually at play in the world he has made up. But behind this mask of studied indifference, a disturbing seriousness and even pathos pervades some of the poetry. No less a commentator than George Saintsbury has noticed this seriousness. After stating that "everything with Suckling turns to a ripple of merriment...," Saintsbury adds, almost as an afterthought, "there are poems, and good ones, of his which might pass muster as serious, but one always suspects that they are not." Significantly, Saintsbury does not elaborate, as if to disturb the consistent pattern of Suckling's life and his poetry would be needlessly pedantic; the critic, Saintsbury implies, somehow ought to be less rigorous in discussing the work of a poet who, after all, seems to ask so little of him.

But the poetry, of course, has to remain in focus, and Suckling's love poetry is not all of a kind. Suckling created, in addition to the well-known Cavalier who invents and defines social mores while heralding his own Promethean sexual appetite, a persona who divorces himself from the ritual which has become for him claustrophobic. These poems are Suckling's most interesting ones, for they begin as do his usual Cavalier exercises. During the course of the poems, however, the aloof and objective social commentator becomes the very concerned and introspective lyric poet. But just as we prepare for a view of the man behind the mask, the poems end; their potential for serious analysis remains undeveloped. These poems, as yet unexamined by the critics, are the enigma toward which all of John Suckling's love poetry progresses.

The famous "Loves Siege" ("Tis now since I sate down before") is a good example of Suckling's more characteristic style. The framework of the poem is a sustained conceit; the speaker's courting of a lady becomes a siege on a fort. While this is one of the traditional metaphors for courtship, Suckling's version is self- consciously fashionable. The first stanza, for example, portrays a weary and uninterested lover:

Tis now since I sate down before

That foolish Fort, a heart,

(Time strangely spent) a Year, and more,

And still I did my part....

Calling the fort "foolish," and counting the days he has wasted, the speaker cannot understand why the siege has not succeeded, for he has done his part, has delivered the lines. Finding that starving "the place / By cutting off all kisses" ... is also ineffective, he is stymied.

When the speaker lears that "Honour was there," he immediately orders his troops to fold their tents:

To such a place our Camp remove

As will no siege abide;

I hate a fool that starves her Love

Onely to feed her pride.

The speaker's attitude is revealing: he is simply asserting that she vainly refused to yield. We see no evidence, and expect that there is none, to support his claim. One critic suggests that the speaker's retreat signals his failure: "in a situation he cannot entirely control, (he) is the real victim of pride; and his disdainful scorn is an obvious attempt to salvage his ego." The speaker is certainly the victim of pride, but it is wrong to say that he is in a situation he cannot control. He has not achieved here what he wants--he is not able to control the lady--but he does actually remain in complete control of the situation: he simply stops trying to win her. There are other forts to conquer. His nemesis is Honour, and when he meets it he makes up a facile excuse, and simply moves on. His emotional investment in the courtship is so small that her refusal does him no harm. That is control; in this poem he has not only defined his ethic of nonchalance, but also demonstrated its great flexibility.

This nonchalance is the hallmark of Suckling's familiar attitude, whether his siege is repulsed or the fort surrenders. But we see something quite different in a poem such as "Farewell to Love," which is based on a poem by Donne of the same title. But whereas the earlier poet uses the "farewell to love" idea as a starting point for an examination of man's attraction to women, Suckling uses it as a starting point for an attack on women's sexuality. "Farewell to Love" signals a disintegration of Suckling's ritual of nonchalance.

Donne's speaker takes responsibility for his former weakness for women; he uses the metaphor of an idolator:

Whilst yet to prove,

I thought there was some Dietie in love

So did I reverence, and gave

Worship; as Atheists at their dying houre

Call, what they cannot name, and unknowne power,

As ignorantly did I crave ...

Suckling's speaker, on the other hand, considers himself an innocent victim:

But, my dear nothings, take thy leave:

No longer must you me deceive,

Since I perceive

All the deceit, and know

Whence the mistake did grow.

Women's love is "deceit," "counterfeit," a "false star"; they use a "studi'd method" and a "wanton eye."

Donne's man calmly decides on a new course of action that reflects his new wisdom: "I'll no more dote and runne / To pursue things which had indammag'd me".... Suckling's speaker's tone as he devises a solution promises only to compound the original problem: "Oh, how I glory now, that I / Have made this new discovery!"... He promises to hate "more / Than e'er he lov'd before"....

Donne's man tries to moderate his own desires; Suckling's visualizes the decomposition of the women he sees around him:

If I gaze now, `tis but to see

What manner of deaths-head `twill be,

When it is free

From that fresh upper skin,

The gazers Joy, and sin.


The Locks, that curl'd o're each eare be,

Hang like two Master-worms to me,

That (as we see)

Have tasted to the rest

Two holes, where they lik't best.

A quick corse me-thinks I spy

In every woman; and mine eye,

At passing by,

Checks, and is troubled, just

As if it rose from Dust.

They mortifie, not heighten me:

These of my sins the Glasses be:

And here I see

How I have lov'd before.

And so I love no more

The barely-repressed sexual imagery--of the "Master-worms"--is linked with the grotesque decomposition; the women's decay becomes a punishment for their sexual crimes against the speaker. We can never know, of course, what Suckling intended in this poem; he may have been borrowing only a general situation from Donne. But this spasm of misogyny is frightening. Suckling had treated comically, in "Love turn'd to Hatred," an irrational hatred of women, but this speaker's hatred is apparently sincere, which makes the poem so disquieting. Unlike Donne's speaker, who was dissatisfied with his situation and tried to change his own behavior, this speaker simply lashes out at his partners in the ritual.

This dissatisfaction with the ritual he has created takes its most mature expression--and its most interesting expression poetically--in several poems in which Suckling's speaker does not blame the woman, but instead attempts to evaluate his own responsibility. Yet his new, introspective tone is established only at the conclusions of the poems, after the speaker's characteristic Cavalier pose begins to break down and he finds himself saying some uncharacteristically serious things. This new introspection doesn't lead to serious analysis, however, for the poems stop prematurely.

An example of this is the famous poem "Of thee (kind boy)," which contains the frequently quoted line, "`Tis love in love that makes the sport." This poem is often seen as proof of Suckling's happy hedonism:

`Tis not the meat, but `tis the appetite

makes eating a delight,

and if I like one dish

More then another, that a Pheasant is;

What in our watches, that in us is found,

So to the height and nick

We up be wound,

No matter by what hand or trick.

The final metaphor of the poem is curious, though. If Suckling is up to his usual tricks, how, we ask, could he possibly hope to improve on his speaker's gourmet metaphor, which so effectively conveys the cavalier ambience: the hunt, the capture, and finally, the satisfaction of the appetite? Although the clock-winding metaphor is logically consistent with this basic idea, its connotations are all wrong: it is a lifeless machine that the speaker is comparing himself to. He had become the passive partner, for while there are certainly sexual overtones to the figure of the hand winding the stem, it suggests impotency rather than vitality: we see the clock slowly winding down and finally stopping. Rather than concluding the poem with the cheerfully vibrant image of the gourmet about to carve into the juicy pheasant, Suckling ends it with the desolate image of a sterile piece of machinery which is completely dependent on a person for its utility. The final line of the poem, "No matter by what hand or trick," suggests an uneasiness with his alienation from the emotional sources of love. Like a clock which measures, but is not, time, the speaker sees his enthusiastically uninvolved sexuality as a celebration of nothingness.

Another striking example of tonal metamorphosis can be seen in "Loving and Beloved." The poem's statement remains consistent: true love must always contend with false love in any relationship. But in this poem the speaker almost seems to discover the consequence of what he is saying. In the first stanza, for example, he seems to flaunt his indifference to the problem he is describing; he is interested only in appearing sophisticated:

There never yet was honest man

That ever drove the trade of love;

It is impossible, nor can

Integrity our ends promove:

For kings and Lovers are alike in this

That their chief art in reigne dissembling is

So, we are surprised to see, in the third stanza, that the speaker seems to begin to evaluate the situation:

Oh! `tis torture all, and cozenage;

And which the harder is I cannot tell,

To hide true love, or make false love look well.

But the final stanza, in which he starts to look specifically at his own life, is most interesting:

Since it is thus, God of desire,

Give me my honesty again,

And take thy brands back, and thy fire:

I'me weary of the State I'me in:

Since (if the very best should now befal)

Loves Triumph, must be Honours Funeral.

Although the speaker has not yet begun to think of himself as a creator of his own destiny--he still blames the "God of Desire"--he has at least begun seriously to evaluate his situation. He has dropped the mask of the bemused court wit and admitted that he does indeed have some stake in life. The courtship ritual that he helped create and promulgate does have consequence.

But the poem does not go on to define that consequence. The self- assurance of the king-lover analogy is certainly gone; the speaker projects only a pathetic dissatisfaction. The world he uses to describe his condition--"weary"--remains too vague for us ultimately to understand exactly what he is trying to convey: were the speaker's earlier descriptions, of the "torture" and "cozenage" of his dissimulation, meant ironically, or literally? We come away from this poem only with the uncomfortable feeling that the speaker may be no more sure than we of his feelings.

This same movement--from the unconcerned to the intensely reflective--occurs in "Against Fruition [II]" ("Fye upon hearts that burn with mutual fire"). The poem begins with a very impersonal, public tone:

Fye upon hearts that burn with mutual fire;

I hate two minds that breath but one desire;

Were I to curse th'unhallow'd sort of men,

I'de wish them to love, and be lov'd agen.

Love's a Camelion, that lives on meer ayre,

And surfets when it comes to grosser fare....

Here the speaker is the urbane wit; he participates in the game of love, but less for any immediate pleasure than his desire to explain the game aphoristically to the rest of us poor drudges. At this point he is not emotionally involved in the problem he is describing; he is simply explaining it.

About halfway through the poem, however, he sums up his argument against sexual consummation with a characteristically hyperbolic couplet: "That monster Expectation feeds too high / For any Woman e're to satisfie...." We don't know exactly how to read this statement: we are reluctant to take the speaker seriously and get concerned, and yet the words "any" and "e're" show a precision that is not usually found in Suckling's self-conscious hyperbole.

It is not until the final four lines of the poem that we pick up Suckling's hints about this speaker's degree of seriousness:

Then fairest Mistresse, hold the power you have

By still denying what we still do crave:

In keeping us in hopes strange things to see

That never were, nor are, nor e're shall be.

The first clue is, again in this poem, the substitution of the private for the public stance. But more informative are the very effective rhythmic indicators in the second half of the quatrain quoted above. The juxtaposition of the two "s" sounds in "hopes strange" forces a caesura which slows the cadence of the line. This, along with the deliberately drawn out rhythm of the last line, gives this unequivocal statement a real sense of pathos. Again, as in "Of thee, (kind boy)," the speaker's actual statements have not changed throughout the poem, but we feel that only when he brings the argument down to the personal level does he begin to take an interest in and understand what he has been saying. Unable now to be witty, he can only plead to see things "That never were, nor are, nor e're shall be." Again the poem stops short of a successful resolution.

As readers we are disappointed not because a few of Suckling's poems remain inconclusive, and not even because a few serious love poems would have added substantially to his canon. The real reason is probably much less "literary" than that: it is the universal desire to glimpse the "real person" behind the engaging and very skillfully maintained public pose. Our speculations about the Suckling mystery follow two obvious directions: either he was lazy, and didn't have the time or maybe the inclination to develop these several poems, or he was--perhaps without even knowing it--afraid that serious analysis of his dissatisfaction would not only overshadow the Cavalier beginnings of the poems, but also destroy his own system of values. The truth, of course, cannot be known, but the ultimate irony of Suckling is that he nudges us into thinking him the sad clown behind the painted smile, while in reality he may very well have been chuckling all along.

Source: Michael H. Markel, "John Suckling's Semi-Serious Love Poetry," in Essays in Literature, Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 152-58.