The Cavalier Poets

During the last 15 years of Charles I (1625-49), the so-called Cavalier poets--who were also known as the "Tribe of Ben" because they drank with, rhymed with and modeled themselves after Jonson--wrote what we have come to recognize as a light, smooth and amorous verse during the last 15 years of Charles I (1625-49). They are associated with the court as cavaliers (like the Renaissance "courtier")--in philosophical opposition, clearly, to the Puritan Roundheads.

Although the Cavalier poets numbered more, the greatest of the lot were Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace. [Note: Suckling has been omitted from discussion because we are not reading his work.]

While the stylistic and thematic differences between Jonson and Donne are clear, their respective followers often combined the influence of the two poets, which came together more often and more easily than could be expected of essentially opposed poetic styles.

| Robert Herrick | Thomas Carew | Richard Lovelace |


Robert Herrick

Herrick (1591-1674) had a sensibility much less masculine than Jonson's, but like this literary forebear he turned to the classical lyric for inspiration and worked to achieve eloquence and precision of form.

He combined

to gave a special twist to his celebrations of country festivities and seasonal customs. Herrick's character is a unique blend of customs and traditions:

This varied background permits Herrick to produce his own synthesis of classical, Christian, and English traditions which is like nothing else in 17th century English literature.

To him, love is a delight rather than a passion. He wrote numerous short poems to "Julia" or some other classically-named mistress in which a degree of metaphysical ingenuity sometimes mingles with classical grace and formality.

His poems of seasonal celebration sometimes contain also a complimentary theme, as in "Corinna's Gone A-Maying." He shows an in-depth awareness of the different points in the rustic year, of the pagan or rural seasonal celebrations. He often combines elements of English folk lore with Roman myth.

In dealing with such obvious country subjects as flowers, Herrick often uses conceits which are not Petrarchanbut yet are not metaphysical either. Often he associates the short life of flowers with the transitory nature of human life and human affairs.

Herrick's religious poetry expresses an almost childish faith and a naive trust that God will see him through. The poems show a grace and clarity of expression; however, for the most part they are rather complacent in atttitude--in them we find none of the deepr conflicts that mark the religious poetry of other writers in his generation.

Thomas Carew

Carew (1594/5-1640) both praised Jonson for his successful use of the ancient classics and paid tribute to Donne as the poet who "ruled as he thought fit / the universal monarchy of wit." His work is thus influenced in some measure by both poets.

In combining the classical influence of Jonson with the metaphysical influence of Donne, Carew created a mixture that can be considered especially suited to the atmosphere of the court of Charles I: a dignified voluptuousness, an exquisite elegance.

Carew's work is true Cavalier poetry--polished, gay, witty.

His work reveals a personal kind of urbanity. His love poems have all the flourishes of Cavalier gallantry, yet they reveal a deep cynicism at their core.

In his carefully controlled stylization, Carew sometimes imitates Jonson. In his frank psychological curiosity about emotional or sensual situations, he imitates Donne. But he never quite achieves the sort of conceit that would make his work metaphysical, and he never is able to sustain the sort of fusion of passion and wit that characterizes Donne's best work.


Richard Lovelace

The truest Cavalier poet is Lovelace (1618-58). The gallantry that is the focus of his work has a strain of chivalry in it that links him with Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as with the older tradition of Renaissance courtesy.