"'At Bottom a Criticism of Life': Suckling and the Poetry of Low Seriousness,"

Critic: Thomas Clayton
Source: Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, pp. 217-41.
Criticism about: John Suckling (1609-1642), also known as: Sir John Suckling

Nationality: British; English

[(essay date 1982) In the following essay, Clayton endeavors to redeem Suckling from usual critical consideration as a minor poet by exploring his irony and wit, as well as the depth of his poetic criticism of life.]

"Natural, easy Suckling"--with two lines of "Out upon it, I have loved / Three whole days together" and two of "Why so pale and wan, fond lover? / Prithee why so pale?"--is so apt and usual an opening for a discussion of Suckling that I have now used it myself, naturally. But the phrase is not my focus, though it is tempting. In fact, it is remarkable and somewhat disquieting how much functional--and often reductive--literary history and criticism can be effected by orotund phrases and obiter dicta. T. S. Eliot cramped Grierson's "metaphysical poets" into the planisphere of "the massive music of Donne" and "the faint pleasing tinkle of Aurelian Townshend," and F. R. Leavis had at Milton with such élan that his opening thrust has been serving in paraphrase for epitaphs and otherwise ever since: "Milton's dislodgement, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss"--but Leavis's (and Eliot's) reports of Milton's demise were greatly exaggerated.1 As for Suckling, Millamant's formula is ubiquitous, and so telling, as far as it goes, that it seems to tell all, and seeming often leads to misbelieving. But the spirit of the phrase, and Congreve's words for that spirit, are very meet and right, and they are welcome.

In identifying and placing any poet, the received contexts of literary history and interpretation include among others the primarily diachronic ones of sources and influences, the poet's place in the tradition or traditions, and "originality"; the synchronic ones of the poet's friendships and enmities, literary affinities and disaffinities, and relations generally with social and intellectual contemporaries at home and abroad; and the achronic or rather polychronic ones within the poems--matters of idea, scope, genre, form, style, and the like--and between poems and the other arts, and their audiences, contemporary and succeeding. All of these and other contexts have their claims upon the attention of serious students of literature. But in the real world, where practical exigency and individual psychology compete with ideals and theoretical commitments, it is usual for these same students to cultivate plots--or undertake "projects"--of expediency or preference within the gardens of the whole, and cover their seeds and tracks with whatever soil they can muster. The plot I am primarily concerned with here is one in which many kinds of study begin and some end, within the poems and in the field of their interrelationships, where the primary engagement is between the poem and its readership, however delimited.

In particular, I want to say a few things that have not been said before, or said in this way, in favor of a poet usually treated condescendingly or with moralizing disapproval when addressed at all, and to comment on theoretical considerations as occasion arises. Rare indeed today is the temerity and spirit of Tucker Brooke, who wrote in 1948 that "of all the 'Cavalier' group Suckling had the most interesting mind and the largest potentialities for poetry."2 I tend to agree with him, but invidious comparison of poets serves all ill, and I confine myself here to commenting on aspects of Suckling's art as a beginning of the end of extending appreciation of his range, not to try to make a major poet of a minor poet, but to let the minor be a poet in an age of such virtuosity that "minor" unfairly belittles achievements of some magnitude: the earlier seventeenth century was a peerless period for the lyric. This is a fact commonly lost sight of in the circumstances, almost exclusively academic, in which "we" today read--or, rather, often do not read--poets like Suckling, unless, eventually, as academic period-specialists, by which time some have become sufficiently accustomed to the mill that Suckling and others are only so much more grist to grin and bear. More's the pity, for reasons T. S. Eliot gives in "What Is Minor Poetry?" For "there are a great many casements in poetry which are not magic, and which do not open on the foam of perilous seas, but are perfectly good windows for all that"--and better than magic casements for some purposes, eminently close to home and ranging, too.3

In 1880, in "The Study of Poetry," Matthew Arnold characterized a poet as "a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best," and "poetry" as "a criticism of life." He was surely right about "poetry" as "a criticism of life," and this formulation distinctly improved upon the one he had given in 1879 in his study of Wordsworth, where poetry was "at bottom a criticism of life."4 "At bottom" is idiomatic and innocuous, of course, but there is a hint of obliviousness in his failing to notice this potential double entendre, though it is as nothing to that in a recent exposition of sociobiology, where the author asks, "What is the essence of maleness? What, at bottom, defines a female?"5 Still, the habitual heights of Arnold's later vision inclined him to presbyopia: he made "true classic" status depend entirely upon "high seriousness" and "absolute sincerity," and he denied the first rank to Chaucer and Burns. Burns's poetry, he wrote, has "truth of matter and truth of manner, but not the accent of poetic virtue of the highest masters. His genuine criticism of life, when the sheer poet in him speaks, is ironic." Arnold was a circumspect critic, and one can even concede secondary rank to Chaucer and Burns, in the context of his reasons; but both Chaucer and Burns are too good, taken all in all, to stand in the second rank, so there must be some weakness in the reasons: the depreciation of irony, perhaps, and still more the earnest insistence on "high seriousness" and its supposed source in "absolute sincerity," which can never be known but by appearances and God.

If Arnold had an attenuated appreciation of irony, his Victorian antitype, Oscar Wilde, did not. In "The Critic as Artist," Wilde declared that "the primary aim of the critic is to see the object in itself as it really is not." Furthermore, Arnold's annunciation of poetry's advent as the agency to succeed Christianity in the office of salvation was answered in effect in "The Decay of Lying," where Wilde prophesied the second coming of the archliar: "some change will take place before this century has drawn to its close. ... Bored by the tedious and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be present, society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar. ... Whatever was his name or race he certainly was the true founder of social intercourse. For the aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society."6

Wilde was no less serious than Arnold, but their ways of seriousness are different, whether we prefer Arnold's lofty lectern or Wilde's playful Socratism. What ever would the mature Arnold have replied to the suggestion of Wilde's Cyril that we "go and lie on the grass, and smoke cigarettes, and enjoy nature"? Certainly something printable. Wilde noted that "in Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff." He himself played Falstaff to Arnold's Hamlet, and Suckling played something of both to his court, his age, and his posterity. It is appropriate as well as variously significant that in the great Van Dyck portrait Suckling is holding a Shakespeare Folio open to Hamlet.

Suckling's art has seldom been denied, but his seriousness or sincerity is often in question, I think because it is rarely direct or obvious, never solemn or portentous, seldom conspicuous or high. If not to be high is to be low, if not to be Theseus is to be Bottom, then Suckling's seriousness is low; and, though not invariably, it is typically skeptical and ironic. Northrop Frye's low mimetic or ironic modes do not usefully accommodate him, but there is aptness in Frye's insistence that "'high' and 'low' have no connotations of comparative value."7 Suckling readily accepts--requires--ceremony, convention, decorum, circumstance, and sometimes even pomp. At the same time, he deplores--burlesques and ironizes--presumptuousness, affectation, vanity, and hypocrisy, violations of ethical and societal norms hardly confined to monarchies and aristocracies, or even "bourgeois democracies." The irony of manners of Suckling's muse is sui generis, and, if that phrase is audibly reminiscent of hog-calling, I cannot think his flexible wit would find it offensive or even impertinent, not least because country matters are among his proper business.

As a denizen of anthologies and literary histories, Suckling is customarily accorded the magisterial generalizations that put him in his place, and fleeting quotation of the odd couplet, quatrain, or stanza that keeps him there. The wages of restricted experience is a stereotype, one consequence of an anthology-tour of English literature without side trips or in-depth exploration: this is Tuesday, so it must be Herrick, Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace.8 It seems to me both regrettable and a fact, especially recently, that premodern--even pre-"postmodern"--poems and poets have come to be little read and more overstood than understood, often for the worse part of "overstanding," a term recently used by Wayne Booth in defense of "Alien Modes" of criticism.9 A corollary is a collective short shrift that is depriving even the major poets of their due--the seventeenth century's Donne, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, and Dryden, if one accepts the canon of twenty major English poets given by A. E. Dyson.10 So much, or rather so little, for Ben Jonson and the Cavalier poets. Here, instead of offering a survey in little or a general, guided tour of Suckling,11 I shall attend in some detail to four differently representative poems, each inviting a distinct critical perspective and treatment. It seems appropriate, too, to comment briefly on Suckling's two relatively "major" poems.

"A Ballad upon a Wedding" was probably written in 1637, the same year in which Suckling completed "The Wits" and An Account of Religion, when he was twenty-eight. "A Ballad" has been much praised and is among the most often discussed of his poems. Admired and often imitated in the seventeenth century, it belongs to a genre of Suckling's own invention that I have called the "rusticated epithalamion," a marriage poem that satirically rejects the received conventions of High Pastoral in favor of a (West Country) rural vision of nuptial events which concludes with a salty, invigorating, down-home emphasis on the mighty leveler, physical love:

At length the candle's out, and now

All that they had not done they do:

                    What that is, who can tell?

But I believe it was no more

Than thou and I have done before

                    With Bridget and with Nell.

A jocular dramatizing of a theme Herrick epigrammatizes as "Night makes no difference 'twixt the priest and clerk; / Joan as my lady is as good i' th' dark." "Rusticated" is useful also as the quasi-technical term for temporary banishment either from the city or, particularly, from university: to be rusticated is to be "sent down," and sending down is Suckling's characteristic mode of irony in sending up serious subjects, not to dismiss them but to reflect and refract them in comic and ironic perspectives.

"The Wits" is likely always to be better known as "A Sessions of the Poets," its almost certainly editorial title in Fragmenta Aurea (1646), published five years after Suckling's death. It has been appreciated and depreciated by turns, depending mainly on the kind of poem it is supposed to be. And it has been still more often quoted, especially by literary historians and biographers adopting Suckling's characters in little. Thanks to Suckling's gift for telling miniature caricatures, we have Carew's hard-bound muse, Davenant's lack of qualification for the laureateship in wanting a nose, the little Cid-ship of strong-lined Sidney Godolphin, and, best of all, Suckling himself, so finely sketched in consonance with the character--the ethos--of his fictions and with some of the facts of his life that the caricature is often taken for the whole historical person as well as the poet. If, as "all that were present there did agree, / A laureate's muse should be easy and free" (37-38), then in "The Wits" Suckling demonstrates his qualifications even as he declines to stake his claims, an artfully self-effacing gesture that identifies the wit as poeta generous: Cavalier noblesse oblige and an instance of graceful presence in absentia.

Suckling's supple conjunction of "fixed" form and ostensibly spontaneous expression is found in these two "major" poems as in most others. In "A Ballad," a hearty rustic effortlessly expresses himself with the aid of the constraints of the rime couée supplied him. In "The Wits," bob-and-wheel stanzas fuse the looseness of four-stress lines with an epigrammatic wit that is at once acerbic and congenial, deflating and constructive: a graceful group-monumentalizing of a convocation of competing wits given narrative life with a master craftsman's articulation of individual figures, including his own (73-78):

Suckling next was called, but did not appear,

And straight one whispered Apollo in's ear,

That of all men living he cared not for 't,

He loved not the Muses so well as his sport;


Prized black eyes, or a lucky hit

At bowls, above all the trophies of wit.

It often goes unnoticed that Suckling is present in absence--he "did not appear," but here he is indeed--and also that his character is supplied by a whisperer in Apollo's ear, a telltale, a gossip. Nevertheless, one cannot resist the testimony, because it fits so well the identity or the stereotype we seek and find, conveying bonhomie and sprezzatura to some, and other qualities to others, often changing with the times--from "a gambler, wencher, and general reprobate in the court of Charles I" in the first edition (1962) of the Norton Anthology to "the prototype of the Cavalier playboy" in the fourth (1979), for example. The stereotype itself invites discrimination in assessing what Suckling rejects here, especially "all the trophies of wit," the tokens and memorials of vanity or vulgarity, or both. Suckling "loved not the Muses so well as his sport"--process, action, living, society, and play. He "prized black eyes," with the flash of vital attraction, and "a lucky hit at bowls," not the victory or the winnings, but the very moment of happy chance. There is no profundity in these synecdoches of sociable pleasure, engagement, and joie de vivre, but they have their charms, and the harm in them is slight enough.

Suckling is thrice-judicious in his absence from the sessions--the formal trial--of the wits, first because he has "better things to do," but also because, on a different plane, he can the easier be present in his absence. The narrator retails a whisperer's report, which gives credit even with detraction, not surprisingly, since Suckling the poet is characterizing Suckling the delinquent; the wink in the characterization invites a special recognition from the eye of the beholder. Finally, Suckling was right to absent himself on any account: an alderman ultimately wins the laurel, because Apollo--of all deities to sell out!--declared that " 'twas the best sign / Of good store of wit to have good store of coin" (107-08). So much for wisdom, wit, and art in the world's ways, a view not very welcome but abundantly in evidence throughout recorded history, as well as in literary reflections on lived experience. Suckling is often a keener observer of society and values than he is given credit for by persons more favorably disposed to Malvolio's garb than Feste's.

The first two of my four representative poems are scarcely given short shrift, let alone riddling shrift, by critics: "Upon St. Thomas's Unbelief" and"An Answer to Some Verses Made in His Praise." The first, a juvenile sestain (written c. 1626, when Suckling was sixteen or seventeen), is the first poem in the Oxford English Text; the second is #75 of the seventy-eight canonical poems.12 One would readily associate neither poem with such standard anthology-pieces as "A Ballad upon a Wedding," "Out upon it," and "Why so pale and wan," by which Suckling is best or only known. But these two poems are equally though differently representative, perhaps especially so in being evidently lesser poems.

"Upon St. Thomas's Unbelief"

Faith comes by hearsay, love by sight: then he

May well believe, and love whom he doth see.

But since men leave both hope and charity,

And faith is made the greatest of the three,

All doctrine goes for truth; then say I thus,

"More goes to heaven with Thomas Didymus."

Suckling's abiding concern with religious belief is evident especially in eleven juvenile poems (about an eighth of the canon) and An Account of Religion by Reason, which he wrote four years before his death at thirty-two, in 1641. Engaging and characteristic aspects of "Upon St. Thomas's Unbelief"--aside from the expression of a will to faith, which modern readers will take or leave as such--are its energy and ingenuity, its muted paradox and irony, its apparent sincerity and earnestness, and Suckling's self-identification with Doubting Thomas, implicit here and explicit in another poem, "Faith and Doubt," where it is said that

Our faith, not reason, must us steer ...

Each man is Thomas here, and fain would see

Something to help his infidelity,

but I believe; Lord, help my faithless mind

and with St. Thomas let me pardon find.

From a modern perspective, the suggestions of existential angst are more evident and for most more compelling than the theological issues in the poem, but those issues are there, in the implied distinctions between "the faith believed in" (fides quae creditur) and "the faith whereby belief is reached" (fides qua creditur), which figures prominently in "Faith and Doubt"; and between "unformed faith" (fides informata) and "faith formed by love" (fides formata caritate).

The address of "Upon St. Thomas's Unbelief" is closely related to the account of Thomas's doubting, seeing, and believing in John 20:24-29: Suckling's "Faith comes by hearsay" in part interprets the Gospel, where "the other disciples said unto" Thomas, "we have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see ... I will not believe." And Suckling's "love [comes] by sight" reflects Thomas's response when the Lord reveals himself and says, in clear and present "hearsay," "be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, my Lord and my God," thus becoming the first explicitly to confess Christ's divinity. Suckling emphasizes the "eloquence" of sight, the primary sense proverbially associated both with truth and conviction and with love, for who ever loved that loved not at first sight? Thomas saw, believed, loved. But "since" the Ascension, willful men neglect two of the theological virtues, hope and charity; and make faith "the greatest of the three," like Lutheran believers in justification by "faith only" (the eleventh of the Thirty-Nine Articles without the twelfth, "Of Good Works"). By that reasoning, "All doctrine goes"--or passes current--"for truth," leading the young Suckling to the conclusion that "More goes"--that is, more go--"to heaven with Thomas Didymus" than with heterogeneous believers, many of whom must believe in vain, because those who differ in belief cannot all be right.

In fact, the poem seems to reach the same conclusion simultaneously by two different routes, using a striking duality of expression to make the case that they also deserve who only stand and wait in faithful doubt. One argument, that already paraphrased, concludes that faithful doubt is superior to dubious credence. The other has it that, if "All doctrine goes for truth" indeed, and "faith only" is acceptable to God as truth, then Thomas "More goes to heaven with Thomas Didymus"--the More who was no martyr for Suckling and his Anglican contemporaries, much less for the "true" believers in "faith only."13 St. Thomas almost displaces St. Paul as guide and model here, and if any was patron saint to Suckling's skepticism it was Thomas Didymus the Doubter.

Second, "An Answer to Some Verses Made in His Praise."

The ancient poets and their learned rhymes

We still admire in these our later times

And celebrate their fames; thus though they die,

Their names can never taste mortality:

Blind Homer's muse and Virgil's stately verse,

While any live, shall never need a hearse.

Since then to these such praise was justly due

For what they did, what shall be said to you?

These had their helps: they writ of gods and kings,

Of temples, battles, and such gallant things,

But you of nothing; how could you have writ

Had you but chose a subject to your wit?

To praise Achilles or the Trojan crew

Showed little art, for praise was but their due.

To say she's fair that's fair, this is no pains:

He shows himself most poet that most feigns.

To find out virtues strangely hid in me,

Ay, there's the art and learned poetry.

To make one striding of a barbed steed

Prancing a stately round (I use indeed

To ride Bat Jewel's jade), this is the skill,

This shows the poet wants not wit at will.

          I must admire aloof, and for my part

          Be well contented, since you do't with art.

"An Answer" is a pleasing disavowal of self-importance, with a skeptical eye on current celebrity by contrast with posthumous renown, whose evergreen laurels are secure. Suckling offers one solution to "the problem of nothing,"14 too, celebrating the poet as both maker and liar, and reconciling Aristotle and Plato in effect, though this is not an explicitly philosophical, much less weighty, poem--a modest kind one can appreciate in our own age, overstocked as it sometimes is with theory and Sir Oracles ("when I ope my lips, let no dog bark").

Homer and Virgil live by their own celebrations of "Achilles or the Trojan crew" and by encomiums extolling them; yet they showed "little art," because they "had their helps" in "gods and kings" and "gallant things," whose "praise was but their due." By contrast, Suckling's encomiast has made something of nothing and shown himself the greater poet, because "he shows himself most poet that most feigns," a tautological truism that resolves a problem of great antiquity with a flourish of paradox and ambiguity--or, if one likes, duplicity and polysemy. Sidney had written that the poet "nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth," as a poet. So Suckling's encomiast does, since he "writ ... of nothing," thus affirming it. Again according to Sidney, "it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else ... which must be the right describing note to know a poet by," a Renaissance redaction of mimesis notably Aristotelian in identifying poetry not with verse but with mimesis and poesis. In As You Like It Touchstone favors Audrey with the tidings that "the truest poetry is the most feigning, and lovers are given to poetry; and what they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign" (3.3.19-22).

Unlike Sidney's, Suckling's formal purpose is not to argue in defense of poetry, but to contribute a witty poetical instance in the apothegm applied: "To find out virtues strangely hid in me, / Ay, there's the art and learned poetry." And "to make one striding of a barbed steed / Prancing a stately round (I use indeed / To ride Bat Jewel's jade), this is the skill, / This shows the poet wants not wit at will." It is hard to imagine when or where Suckling's customary mount would have been "Bat Jewel's jade," with its amusing rustication of the Cavalier, nor do I know who, if anyone out of this fiction, that worthy, Bat Jewel, was: perhaps an otherwise unsung competitor of Thomas Hobson, the Cambridge carrier, offering choices even worse than Hobson's. The point is that the poet has made a noble equestrian figure of Suckling on a draft horse. LeSueur's statue of Charles I on horseback (1633) now at the top of Whitehall and Van Dyck's painting in the National Gallery (c. 1635) come to mind, whether they came to Suckling's or not; the nobility of horsemanship had its antiquity long before Suckling's day. The genial last couplet wittily and gracefully asserts Suckling's prescribed role as admiring spectator--"I must admire aloof, and for my part / Be well contented"--together with the accomplished fact of performance in his own artful expression of "artless" appreciation: he is audience articulate; the last word is his and his encomiast's, "since you do't with art," the art of the poet's showing through Suckling's telling, text and performance two in one.

"An Answer" merges aesthetic and philosophical concerns with colloquial familiarity through the intermedium of a social genre tinged with shades of Great Tew, where John Earles "would frequently profess that he had got more useful learning from his conversation ... than he had at Oxford."15 It is a formal mimesis of a spontaneous conversational expression of gratitude and admiration; refined into graceful informality, it complements the praised work of translating rustic equitation into Cavalier urbanity, giving to airy nothing a knightly bearing and a place.

Not surprisingly, "Why so pale and wan, fond lover?" has received its meed of analysis and praise, most substantially in L. A. Beaurline's well-known essay, "'Why So Pale and Wan': An Essay in Critical Method."16 Beaurline's study differs considerably from the other two major studies of Suckling of the past two decades, though all three belong to critical analogues of seventeenth-century analytical and poetical modes. Raymond Anselment's essay on "The Love Poetry of John Suckling" is an instance of what could be called "promenade" criticism, an appreciative survey of sundry flowers--about seventeen, to be specific.17 Charles L. Squier's volume, by contrast, is an example of the "topographical" survey, which is naturally more extensive and aims at summary comprehensiveness.18 Beaurline's analogues would be found rather in the sphere of natural philosophy and scientific investigation, and the scrutiny of telling detail, as "Critical Method" in part suggests. The essay is--happily, I think--less methodological than critical, an invaluable study that is the only detailed close reading of a poem by Suckling I know of. Does anyone not know the "Song,"

Why so pale and wan, fond lover?

                                        Prithee why so pale?

Will, when looking well can't move her,

                                        Looking ill prevail?

                                        Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute, young sinner?

                                        Prithee why so mute?

Will, when speaking well can't win her,

                                        Say nothing do't?

                                        Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit, for shame, this will not move,

                                        This cannot take her;

If of herself she will not love,

                                        Nothing can make her:

                                        The Devil take her.

Beaurline's central "contention is that the term elegant facetiousness ['defined historically,' after Quintilian's facetus] best illuminates this poem, for it fits the peculiar tone of the song, the air of the speaker, the quality of the language, and the color of our emotional reaction." He goes on to argue that the poem's meanings and effects depend prominently on its identity and place as a song sung within a play, Aglaura, where it has special dramatic significance. There the song has a "double audience":

it is sung in Act IV ... by a gallant named Orsames, a young "anti-platonic" lord ... who ... does not sing the song to a fond lover; rather he sings it to the platonic ladies, Semanthe and Orithie. ... After he sings, he says that this was a bit of advice given ["foure or five yeares agoe," 4.2.32] to a friend fallen into a consumption, and Orithie says that she could have guessed it was the product of Orsames' brain. ... To be sure, most Elizabethan plays use songs strictly for ornament, but in this play Suckling explicitly connects the song with the dialogue; the rhetorical situation, therefore, presupposes the presence of the ladies. ... The doubleness of the rhetorical situation is one of the reasons why this poem is so charming and playful. It gives us, the general readers or third audience, a special detachment, and it probably contributes to the conventional character of the speaker. The whole of the reader's relation to the poem is like a window-peeper watching an eavesdropper hearing a conversation--

a witty way of characterizing the regresses that would lead eventually to "we are such stuff as dreams are made on."

One would like to see left in what Orsames says in full in 4.2.31-32, that this song was "a little foolish counsell (Madam) I gave a friend of mine foure or five yeares agoe, when he was falling into a Consumption" (italics mine).19 Willa McClung Evans interpreted Orsames's lines to mean that "the musical setting ... would appear to have been written several years previous to the performance of the play and was already familiar to the audience,"20 and Beaurline himself had earlier referred to Orsames's lines as perhaps being "Suckling's way of apologizing for using an older piece of his verse."21 What is in question is the literary identity--or identities--of the "Song," and its history bears on its poetical, dramatic, and critical status. It is reasonable for Beaurline to emphasize "the whole of the reader's relation to the poem" as it is apprehended in and through the play, but it is somewhat misleading to imply that the poem takes its primary if not sole identity from this relation. "Suckling explicitly connects the song with the dialogue," or rather the reverse, but the connection identifies the poem as a "dramatic lyric" only when it occurs within the play. Suckling could have provided the contextualizing dialogue long after he wrote the poem, and there is nothing in the poem that spells Aglaura.

Whenever "Why so pale and wan" was written, it appears in Fragmenta Aurea as a poem (and "Song") in its own right, and it is an autonomous poem when so presented and received. Set to music, sung, and heard, it becomes an art-song. And it acquires--and may have first acquired--its identity and place as part in a dramatic nest of spheres within spheres when written into a play and sung to an audience within the play that is beheld by an audience witnessing the play. This state of artistic affairs it shares in part with Jonson's poem--and "Volpone's"--"Song to Celia" ("Come my Celia, let us prove"), a case still more complicated by its intimate relationship with Catullus 5, "Vivamus, mea Lesbia." In his edition, William B. Hunter, Jr., implicitly emphasizes the treble identity by giving Ferrabosco's music together with the poem and noting that "this song appears in Volpone III.vii.155-83, where Volpone uses it" (italics mine).22 Ian Donaldson notes in his edition: "Sung to Celia by Volpone ... ; in dramatic context, a more sinister invitation than its Catullan model" (italics mine).23

Both editors suggest the distinction that needs to be made between the poem as poem, as art-song, and as song within a play. Suckling's song and Jonson's are made to be "dramatic lyrics" by their incorporation in a special context: neither poem in itself implies an ontologically distinct world beyond the rhetorical situation, or "heterocosm," of the poem-in-itself, except by the wisdom of hindsight, which purports to find "in" the poem external referents due not to its content but to its location. As Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth have noted, "even without knowledge of its original dramatic context in Volpone, readers cannot fail to grasp Jonson's satiric mode here."24 Jonson's poem may seem more explicitly related to Volpone's than to an anonymous speaker's situation, but details within the poem take on particular reference in relation to the surrounding context that they do not have--or need--without it. For example, "Or his easier ears beguile" requires no antecedent for "his" because it is obvious from the poem's other details that "he" is "the husband"; the lyric monodrama makes its own necessary and sufficient sense.

The "root level" is the poem itself--within reason "the object as in itself it really is," subject to understanding, "overstanding," and misunderstanding by readers, sine quibus non. The other elements entering into combination with the poem are external and theoretically incidental, however different a poem's meanings and effects may be when it ceases to be the "whole" of a reader's experience and becomes a part of another whole, combining with music to make a song, or with a variety of elements to make a dramatic lyric in Suckling's Aglaura. In relation to song, a type of such combinations of elements, the issues have been treated in depth in Elise Bickford Jorgens's essay "On Matters of Manner and Music in Jacobean and Caroline Song": "at every level--meter and rhythm, versification and syntax, and formal and thematic structure--when there is a conflict between the formal and the semantic organization, a musical setting directs the listener's perception toward one or the other and lessens his awareness of the artful interplay between them designed by the poet. ... The 'song-like' state for a poem, then, is one in which a single line of development serves both matter and manner and can be formalized in music."25

This is the case, she says, with Jonson's "Still to be neat" (Epicoene), which is "clearly song-like," and with Shakespeare's "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more" (Much Ado): "if Sidney, or Jonson, or Donne" or Suckling "calls a poem 'Song,' whether it was designed for or ever appeared in a musical setting or not, we expect it to conform in some identifiable way with the conventions of the musical lyric." This generalization is no doubt sound enough even if many poems' titles were not supplied by the poets themselves, as seems to have been the case. By contrast, Jonson's poem in Cynthia's Revels, "Thou more than most sweet glove," is not songlike. "Although Jonson calls it 'Song,' that title must surely be taken as a conceit"; it "could of course be sung. But it breaks as many of the conventions as it embodies." Likewise, Carew's "Parting, Celia Weeps" is "simply not a suitable poem for musical setting. A through-composed setting could make rational sense of it, but only at the expense of its formal poetic structure. And since the poetic conventions of the period dictate that those features of formal structure remain as a visible and audible frame, as Carew obviously intended that they should, a setting that cannot do both is missing a significant feature of the poem"; Henry Lawes's "musical setting has virtually destroyed the poet's tenuous but altogether appropriate balance between versification and syntax." In short, the qualities of a poem, whether "song-like" or not, begin--and end--in the poetic art of the poem as "creation through words of orders of meaning and sound."26

In his "Essay on Critical Method," Beaurline gives a detailed exposition of the dialectic of the poem as an expressive mimesis centering on "the strategy of the speaker," whom he characterizes as a worldly-wise, formally "libertine" exponent of "playful cynicism," whose counsel in the third stanza he describes thus: "At that point where force is needed, Suckling's" poem "has force. When speaking well will not 'take' (i.e. charm) a lover or a friend, a man must change and speak bluntly. The gallant [speaker] not only recommends 'speaking well,' but his own words are a model of how to speak well and a demonstration of when to be blunt. Both his words and his actions show the value of ease, brevity, urbanity, agreeableness, elegant facetiousness, and all the other ornaments of wit." Beaurline gives an admirable exposition of the qualities of the poem in itself and its modes of operation in Aglaura, but he leaves the force and wit of the conclusion to interpret as well as speak for themselves, as indeed they do. But they also invite comment, first to the effect that the speaker does not say that "a man must change and speak bluntly"; it would be odd if he did, since doing so would almost certainly prove as inefficacious as ungracious. This seems to rest on a misunderstanding of the last line of the second stanza--"Prithee why so mute?"--which is concerned not with a need to speak out but with the futility of silence (like paleness in the first stanza) as a gambit; in fact, in the third stanza the would-be lover is urged to give up, move on, and leave her--not, with Gertrude, to heaven, but--to hell.

The argument of the master of experience to his novice is this: when neither the "fond lover" 's "looking well" or "ill" and "pale" can "move her" (stanza 1), nor the "young sinner" 's "speaking well" or "saying nothing" and staying "mute" can "win her" (stanza 2), then he should

Quit, quit, for shame, this will not move,

                                        This cannot take her;

If of herself she will not love,

                                        Nothing can make her,

                                        The Devil take her.

The redoubled "quit," each "quit" for an antecedent stanza and inquiry, as it were, is rhetorically felicitous as well as forcefully imperative, and the final three lines epitomize the whole poem. If "Why so pale and wan" were a freshman essay, one might admonish Suckling for a vague use of "This," but it refers, plainly enough, to the entire game of courtship epitomized by typical moves in the first and second stanzas. "When" (3 and 8) and "If" (13) hold the identical "linear" as well as dialectical position within stanzas, as temporally and conditionally emphatic expressions of the cause. The conclusion is certain: "Nothing can make her," an elliptical locution frequently misunderstood in recent years through the application of current colloquial usage, but perhaps an occasion for "overstanding" that both William Empson and Wayne Booth might countenance, though one would hope not.

"The Devil take her" is the poem's pièce de résistance. If "nothing can make her" love, may she go to the devil: let "the Devil take her"--bear her away to have her as the subject of his nether reign and to hold as the object of his rude affection, le droit sinistre du seigneur. Or simply and keenly as Suckling has it: may "the Devil take her" to hell and "take her" himself, enjoying the love she selfishly withholds from the persistent but unsuccessful suitor addressed by the speaker in and of the poem.

There are many ways of interpreting and evaluating the ethics, politics, and sociology, as well as the aesthetics, of the relationships and situation, but most would agree that the fictionalized sentiment is consistent with "normal" and "natural" frustration in analogous circumstances: if one can't have her, him, it, whatever--to hell with the same; the perennial case of the fox's grapes, Aesopically speaking.

Sonnet 2 is also a standard anthology-piece, but one that often draws fire for its supposed cynicism, ugliness, brutality, licentiousness, and crudity--bad enough qualities, but not so bad as Suckling fares in a Puritan assault upon him as "a scum of ungodliness from the seething pot of iniquity."27 The poem is frequently compared invidiously with its partial source, Donne's "Community," which Charles L. Squier finds "hardly any less brutal" in concluding, "Changed loves are but changed sorts of meat, / And when he hath the kernel eat, / Who doth not fling away the shell?" Here is Suckling's poem:

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.

There's no such thing as that we beauty call,

                                        It is mere cozenage all;

                                        For though some long ago

Liked certain colors mingled so and so,

That doth not tie me now from choosing new;

If I a fancy take

                                                                                To black and blue,

That fancy doth it beauty make.

'Tis not the meat, but 'tis the appetite

                                        Makes eating a delight,

                                        And if I like one dish

More than 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.

If a poem like this is to be given a fair hearing, it helps to recall that it is a fiction and to make due adjustments in perspective: it is neither a hymn for the sons of Belial nor a versified slice of autobiography. David Hume supplied appropriate guidance, mutatis mutandis, over two centuries ago in "Of the Standard of Taste": "every work of art, in order to produce its due effect upon the mind, must be surveyed in a certain point of view, and cannot be fully relished by persons, whose situation, real or imaginary, is not conformable to that which is required by the performance. ... A critic of a different age or nation ... must place himself in the same situation as the audience, in order to form a true judgment," and should place "himself in that point of view, which the performance presupposes." Dr. Johnson wrote to much the same purpose in his Preface to Shakespeare: "Every man's performance, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own particular opportunities." With respect to the ethics of art and the politics of sin in real life and history, I am content to invoke Elizabeth Burton, who notes in The Jacobeans at Home that "the pleasures of whoring, wantonness, and drink, contrary to popular belief, do not cause nations to fall."28

Sonnet 2 was addressed initially to a coterie of literate and literary wits well acquainted with libertinage in poetry and life, whether as practicing libertines, philosophizing platonics, or otherwise: an audience of variously behaved sophisticates--who were arguably much less "decadent," especially in relation to their Jacobethan predecessors and Restoration successors, than literary historians have often made them out to be. A. J. Smith has written, for example, "that in mid-seventeenth-century England sexual love had become categorically distinct from the love that holds the universe in sway, and that a choice compelled itself between a fashionable amorousness and the imperative search for truth"--a view that sounds rather like an extrapolation from poetry read under the influence of The Elizabethan World Picture and Eliot's notion of the "dissociation of sensibility."29 According to Lawrence Stone, by contrast, "after about 1590 ... there developed general promiscuity among both sexes at Court," though "the real break-through into promiscuity at Court ... occurred under James. The popular reaction was that of Simonds D'Ewes, who spoke of 'the holy state of matrimony perfidiously broken and amongst many made but a May game ... and even great personages prostituting their bodies to the intent to satisfy and consume their substance in lascivious appetites of all sorts'. As early as 1603 Lady Anne Clifford said that 'all the ladies about the court had gotten such ill names that it was grown a scandalous place.'"30 Indeed, "it was not until the reign of Charles I and Henrietta Maria that a serious effort was made to sublimate this sensual promiscuity in the ideal of neoplatonic love, which rose above both animal lusts and the turbulent passions of love, to enter the calm arena of a spiritual union of souls"!31

The disparity between received and recent revisionary views of the Caroline social ethos--together with extraordinarily diverse estimates of our own--points up more than one shortcoming of negative critical judgments made prominently on moral grounds--the Moral Majority's or which Other's, for example? The evidence also leads to the reasonable inference that Charles I's courtiers were not exceptionally vicious--and perhaps that "we," taken all in all, are not preeminently virtuous, however sparing of cakes and ale. All "absolutes" as well as relativities include the beholder as well as the object beheld, perhaps especially the former, as subject, as hermeneutic theorists are wont to emphasize. And all critical observation has need not only of historical, ethical, aesthetic, and, I should say, sociobiological circumspectness, but for due allowance to be made for such significant variables as time past, time present, the poet and his medium, the idiosyncrasies of readership, and the nature of human nature, whatever it is or might be.32 It seems quite possible that such "brutality" as there is in Sonnet 2, which is first of all fictional and otherwise relative, is in part the subjective product of anachronistic attitudes and unsuspended disbeliefs, credible and even creditable in themselves but variously applicable to the case.

As I read it, Sonnet 2 wittily blends ethology, philosophy, technology, insouciance, and joviality in a "natural, easy" fictional address every bit as "courtly writ" and reflective of "the conversation of a gentleman" as Dryden's Eugenius found Suckling's lyrics when he pronounced them superior to those of the "last age." And it is not easy to find "ugliness" in a witty monodramatizing of the truism that affectional beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This, I take it, is what Suckling is talking about "at bottom," not as a jaded sexual gourmet but as a robust culinary realist: a case of haute cuisine vis-à-vis cuisine bourgeoise; or, one person's McDonald's is another's Tour d'Argent; or, as Suckling (or someone else) puts it in a poem not certainly by him, "this each wise man knows: / As good stuff under flannel lies as under silken clothes" ("Love and Debt Alike Troublesome"). The principle is of course not gender-bound.

Sonnet 2 is likely to be distorted by overlaid resonances of late-twentieth-century usage, semitechnical, colloquial, and vulgar, in respect especially of "meat," "appetite," "dish," "watches," and "trick." But what might most offend some modern sensibilities must have afforded Suckling's audience a mild shock of recognition tempered with amusement and delight. Because instinctual human responses are spontaneously reflexive, they can be aptly expressed in terms of mechanism; thus the clock or watch is a fitting figure, even a pleasing one, for, "in the seventeenth century, when the Scientific Revolution exploded in all its exuberance and vigour, the champions of the new science manifested an avid interest in horological matters," and "in their eyes the clock was the machine par excellence and it fascinated them."33 Indeed, "in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the clock as a machine exerted deep influence on the speculations of philosophers and scientists. Kepler asserted that 'The universe is not similar to a divine living being, but is similar to a clock,'" and God Himself was spoken of as a master clockmaker.34 "Portable" clocks, or watches, were relatively new, fashionable, costly, and intriguing.

It is this ambience that informed Suckling's poem in its origins, not that of A Clockwork Orange, Jan Kott's Grand Mechanism, or even that cybernetic Adam and Eve of the media, the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman.35 The effect was to convey provocative empirical observations on instinctual drives and behavior through the vehicle of a would-be precision instrument of certain design but--in Suckling's day--still variable working and performance. It is not farfetched to say that the essential analogy of the watch, not as used but as analogy, is the technologically attuned Caroline counterpart of "what a piece of work is a man" in Hamlet, where the Prince says he is Ophelia's "evermore, whilst this machine is to him" (2.2.123-24), and whose pulse "doth temperately keep time" (3.4.140). In this connection, "trick" itself is a quasitechnical term for "the mode of working a piece of mechanism, etc., the system upon which a thing is constructed" (OED, sb. 1.8c), with specific application to clockworks. A clockwork popperin pear is perhaps how Suckling thought of his amorous watch-man, quite without depreciation or depreciability.

In the round, Sonnet 2 is an urbane wit's dramatic monologue about nature, art, attraction, appetite, pursuit, and play. It opens dramatically in mid-conversation, as it were, and the "kind boy" so familiarly and genially addressed is a compound of confidant, Eros, quartermaster, huntsman, apothecary, and procurer, of whom the speaker seeks nothing special, least of all affected, in the object of his love--no fashionable cosmetic arts and coquettish mannerisms, but only "good store / Of love," a simple, homely, but generous provision, "for her I court, I ask no more: / 'Tis love in love that makes the sport." This is a psychologically astute observation expressed appropriately in terms of the dual sports of venery: amour and the hunt. All the attractions the speaker rejects either are or involve fashionable artificialities, the first reducing the traditional "rose and lily" of the conventionally attractive complexion to the mere colors of makeup, "red and white." The commonplace of love as madness figures, too, but the emphasis of sense and meter falls on love as maker of the sport: the primary agency is the will to courtship, not the arty-crafty movements and appearance of the courted.

The second stanza deprives beauty of objective existence by dividing the verbum from the res in good Baconian form: "There's no such thing as that we beauty call" briskly dismisses an ancient and vermiculate question. "Cozenage" sums up the kindred tricks of the trade, and the claims of custom and precedent are next denied, making a bridge from the currently fashionable "red and white" of the first stanza to the blank "so and so" of any age's arbitrary fashion, by contrast with the exercise of individual preference given primacy here. "Black and blue" has an emblematic force more dramatically vital than that of "red and white," because it is natural, whereas the latter is merely abstract and conventional. It is a whimsically apt paradox for expressing the subjectivity of beauty that one might prefer the natural "black and blue" of bruises to an artfully "perfect" complexion. (There could be shades of "S&M;" in "black and blue," but I doubt it.) The stanza's last line parallels its fellow in the first stanza, and "That fancy doth it beauty make" intensifies the creative force of the wit and will by repeating "make" and placing it here as the emphatic last word: beauty is the creature of the fancy.

The first quatrain of the last stanza realizes the field side of "sport," and the second abruptly technologizes the poem with the unexpected image of the lover as timepiece, an image we may see as darkened by our own spectacles, anachronistically, as I have already suggested.36 Within the poem, however, the controls are such that emphasis falls not on the tenor or the negative aspects of the vehicles but on the speaker and the positive aspects: the "appetite" here is the counterpart of "love" in the first stanza and "fancy" in the second. It, too, "makes"--"makes eating a delight"; and "if I like one dish / More than another" reinforces, in the gustatory sphere, "if I a fancy take / To black and blue" in the visual. Taste expressed as a function of the imagination, "that we beauty call," materializes here as a source of true delight in a gustatory delicacy: "If I like ... , that a pheasant is." This is the art of the heart's desire. Suckling was probably not thinking of Sir Edward Dyer's famous poem "My mind to me a kingdom is" when he wrote this line, but thematic similarities suggest the appropriate paraphrase: "My bird to me a pheasant is, however fowl."

The concluding quatrain is a miniature masterpiece of combined analogy, anatomy, physiology, phenomenology, horology, technology--and apt and harmless ribaldry. The first twenty lines of the poem have conversationally explained the facts of human attraction and the conclusions to be drawn from them. These four now explain why they are as they are, with focus on the phenomenon of desire aroused. The fusion of tenor and vehicle in itself validates the analogy of man and watch, and the terms apply almost equally to both, without alternation or transference: "height" and "nick" as "point, stage, degree"; "wind up," meaning in part "to excite" (OED, sb. 1.22f)--the effect of which is conveyed also by the idiomatically strenuous inversion, "up be wound"; the technically horological along with the amatory senses of "trick," read even without resort to its current cottage-industrial association with the piecework of the oldest profession. The poem ends with a variation on the theme of the whole of Suckling's poem, "Love's Clock": "What in our watches, that in us is found" is the technological fons et origo, the mainspring, of course, a term applied also to the spring that drives the hammer in a gunlock, a sense used with cheerful grossness by Massinger ("né" Beaumont) and Fletcher in The Custom of the Country,37 and akin to the force that through the green fuse drives the flower and drove Dylan Thomas's green age. Thus Sonnet 2 concludes as it began, on a strikingly upbeat note.

A speculative point just possibly worth adding about the last stanza is that there may be an implicit unifying allusion to the "jack" as a Jack-of-the-clock, "the figure of a man which strikes the bell on the outside of a clock" (OED, sb. 1.6), itself said to be "wound up," and "a machine for turning the spit in roasting meatt" that was "wound up like a clock" (OED, sb. 1.7). That there should be a subliminal poet's signature for Jack Suckling, Norfolk Londoner and man of parts, in a poem also concerned with every man-jack and woman-jill is appropriate enough, but this may be to consider too curiously. If there are no such Suckling-jacks in the poem, a couple of them could nevertheless have been at the back of the poet's mind, prompting him by mechanical association when he moved from the image of a meal's meat to the temporal measure of amorous man and woman.

Remember the words of Henry Vaughan, how he said, "How brave a prospect is a bright backside."38 The seriousness and sincerity in Suckling require surgical removal from their vital and engaging poetic incorporation if they are to be seen as such, but they are there with the manifest criticism of life, and they are fundamental, keeping a low profile in an art the brighter and the better for its irony and wit. All work and no play would make Sir Jack not only a dull boy but never an inch of Suckling: that he is Sir John Suckling, let him a little show it, even in this. In fine, one may well be reminded of Duke Theseus's terminal directive to the hempen-homespun players, "let your epilogue alone," and be glad of twenty words in conclusion from one of James Howell's Epistles: "Be pleased to dispense with the prolixity of this discourse, for I could not wind it up closer, nor on a lesser bottom."39


Source: Thomas Clayton, "'At Bottom a Criticism of Life': Suckling and the Poetry of Low Seriousness," in Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, pp. 217-41.