The Discontented Cavalier: The Work of Sir John Suckling in Its Social, Religious, Political, and Literary Contexts.
It has been thirty years since the only full-length study of the whole range of Suckling's life and works appeared, Charles L. Squier's Sir John Suckling (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978). Since Squier's work, and the further assimilation of the 1971 Oxford standard edition of Suckling, edited by Thomas Clayton and L. A. Beaurline, the large shift in literary studies away from the New Criticism's focus on style and close reading has transformed the scene for studies of Suckling and his age. Following in the wake of work by such literary and historical scholars as Martin Butler, Kevin Sharpe, R. Malcolm Smuts, Timothy Raylor, and Thomas Corns, and the ground-breaking work on manuscript production and circulation by Arthur Marotti, Harold Love, H. R. Woudhuysen, Margaret Ezell, Mary Hobbs, and others, Robert Wilcher envisions The Discontented Cavalier as answering the need for "a more sustained application to Suckling's complete oeuvre of the interdisciplinary approaches and contextualizing strategies [that] have effected a radical change in our understanding of the literary dimension of society and culture during the reign of Charles I" (19). In this enterprise, he hopes to extract Suckling "from the lists of 'Cavaliers,' 'Sons of Ben,' 'Caroline court poets' and 'mannerists' in which his individuality as a writer has been submerged" (18).
At the outset, Wilcher distances himself from the "synchronic and monolithic model of culture favored by new historicists" (20) as well as from the old-fashioned sorting of earlier seventeenth-century poets into broad groups of "Metaphysicals" and "Cavaliers" or followers of Donne and "Sons of Ben." The avowed methodological underpinnings of his approach are those provided by critics such as Lauro Martines, J.G.A. Pocock, Kevin Sharpe and Stephen Zwicker, and particularly Robert D. Hume. Wilcher especially credits Hume's articulation of "archaeo-historicism" as the best method for "both the reconstruction of context and the interpretation of texts within the context thus assembled" (23, quoting Hume). For Wilcher, the project to "'make sense' ... of the texts associated with the name of Sir John Suckling" involves both careful excavation and reconstruction of all the "distinct but often overlapping worlds ... in which his experiences as individual and author were embedded," and a consideration of the light that literature can shed on what Martines has called "the mysteries of the historical world" (28-30).
Wilcher is a careful scholar whose wide-ranging command of the secondary material in both literary and historical scholarship is everywhere apparent and amply footnoted; he seems to have read everything pertinent, though sometimes abundant quotations of other scholars seem to substitute for original analysis and judgment. There is an attempt to make a new attribution of The Coppy of a Letter to Suckling, which must remain speculative (appendix 1), but there are no real new archival discoveries. However, Wilcher discriminatingly synthesizes the work of the last quarter century on the literature of the period and its contexts, and applies persuasive correctives to both easy (and generally dismissive) characterizations of Suckling and his work, and psychologizing interpretations of the brief lyrics. The reader of The Discontented Cavalier will come away with the most comprehensive understanding so far achievable of the contexts and contemporary meaning of Suckling's literary efforts. The light shed by Suckling's writings in turn illustrates the complex valences of those historical, social, and literary contexts.
What the reader does not get, frustratingly but perhaps inevitably, is the kind of psychological presence, the understanding of motive and personality, to which Suckling's life and texts alike so tantalizingly tempt us. Because of the absence of proper textual evidence in private documents and reminiscences of friends and family, such assessment is largely impossible for figures from the early modern period, and Wilcher is too careful a scholar to indulge in speculative flights of fancy on such matters (28). Even what might seem to the modern student the likeliest site for self-revelation, the letters, as Wilcher points out, are usually exercises in a literary kind, or contributions to the competitions of "the world of clubs and taverns," when they are not merely communications of news or intelligence. And Wilcher's interest is in literary history, not biography, the author, not the "individual being" (29).
Nevertheless, The Discontented Cavalier constructs a largely chronological narrative of a life and literary career through nine chapters and an epilogue, following Suckling through his literary traces from his precocious but already seemingly distanced and ironic youth to his premature and desperate end in Paris as a condemned royalist plotter. The subtitles of Wilcher's chapters reveal the range of Suckling's involvements in those "overlapping milieus and discourses that made up the Caroline world" (dustjacket): "Student and Soldier," "Traveler and Diplomat," "Gallant and Gamester," "Poet and Satirist," "Courtier and Controversialist," "Playwright and Showman," "Lover and Captain," "Malcontent and Man of Honor," and finally "Counsellor and Conspirator." However, on the basis of the evidence so exhaustively displayed here, the best that can be said of Suckling's performance in most of these roles would be that he was an aspiring gentleman amateur; he remained a persistently marginal figure, a situation which was perhaps both a contributor to and a consequence of his consistently distanced, ironic, even cynical take on the events and conventions he surveyed wittily, even when a participant. Aligning his interpretation with Thomas Clayton's in "'At Bottom a Criticism of Life': Suckling's Poetry of Low Seriousness," Wilcher traces this stance all the way back to the poet's resentment over the 1624 political disgrace of his favorite uncle, Lionel Cranfield, and to his own participation at the age of eighteen in the disastrously botched Isle of Rhe expedition (1627). But, despite his rational skepticism about royal policy and the counselors who had the king's ear (294), in the end, a notion of honor seems to have prompted his acted-out loyalty to the king--a complex and conflicted royalism that Wilcher, following Martin Butler, shows to be widely reflected in court drama and poetry in the wake of the Scottish Wars and the parliaments of 1640-41. On the one hand, there is the evidence of the pragmatic, even Machiavellian advice for the king given in the letter "To Mr. Henry Jermyn, in the Beginning of Parliament, 1640," suggesting the necessity of sacrificing royal servants like Strafford in order to court popularity and secure the monarchy. On the other, there is Suckling's participation in the melodramatic Army Plot to rescue Strafford from the Tower, a scheme more suitable to the court drama, to Aglaura or Brennoralt, than to the world in which Pym and Hyde and Falkland and Strafford himself operated. The contradiction seems unresolvable and inexplicable, except as a tragic, or tragicomic, manifestation of the extravagantly incompatible nature of the competing ethoi of those "overlapping milieus and discourses" that constituted the disintegrating Caroline courtly world.
Wilcher is particularly good at bringing to bear on Suckling's texts the finer discriminations made possible by recent scholarship. In recognizing a particular social context in the affinities between some of Suckling's poems and those of Sir John Mennes and the Order of the Fancy, he provides a much more specific understanding than the broad label, libertin verse, affords, and applies a corrective to the view that such poems simply voice the writer's own personal attitudes and experiences. His treatment of Suckling's letters throughout and of An Account of Religion by Reason (chapter 5--though Wilcher acknowledges that the latter was "small beer" ) will be particularly useful to scholars, and shed light on aspects of Suckling's career that are seldom examined at all. Likewise valuable, both as bringing together a great deal of recent scholarship and offering more detailed examinations of Suckling's plays and their context than heretofore available, are the treatments of court drama in chapters 6 and 8. Suckling's frequent echoes of Shakespeare have usually been seen as mere pastiche, or inept imitation; Wilcher makes the case that "Suckling's later borrowings from and allusions to Shakespeare ... bear witness to his creative engagement with a remarkably coherent set of works from Shakespeare's dark middle period" (194). He presents Suckling as an engaged and discriminating participant in "the Caroline debate about Shakespeare" and in the development of canons of judgment and a polite discourse about artistic practices for the stage anticipating the Age of Dryden (194-97). The folio of Shakespeare's Works that Suckling holds in the famous Van Dyck portrait is more than a studio prop, it seems.
Finally, in an epilogue, Wilcher traces the development of the image of Suckling as the archetypal "Cavalier," first in the propaganda of the king's foes, in the months before June 1642 (336), and later, with particular recognition of the role of Humphrey Moseley's publications as mores in a "culture war," in the royalist transformation of "the gamester and subversive satirist of the 1630s into a cultural and political icon that helped to sustain the royalist faithful through the interregnum" (344). Overall The Discontented Cavalier makes a strong case, not only for the anachronism of the application of the blanket term "Cavalier" before the civil wars, but also, if it is applied as a synonym for a kind of mindless uncritical loyalism, for the need for significant qualifications before attaching it categorically to Sir John Suckling at all, just as "courtier" seems a stretch if applied to Sir John before the summer of 1637 (chapter 5).
The Discontented Cavalier illustrates not only the shared contexts, but even the intertextuality of some of Suckling's poems and plays with those of contemporaries, notably Carew and Davenant (e.g., 315). Wilcher's range of comparisons runs from Donne to Henry King and his brother William, to Sir John Mennes, to William Cartwright and James Shirley, as well as the hint of possible relations to Falkland and the Great Tew Circle, and John Selden and the literary circle gathered around the seventh Earl of Kent and his Countess, Elizabeth, at Wrest (though the sketchy evidence for these more serious intellectual connections again suggests Suckling's marginal status). Herein may be seen both the strengths of the contextual approach of archaeo-historicism, and its possible pitfalls. Sometimes the effort to place Suckling contextually results in confusion in the reader's mind, whether the words he is reading are Suckling's, or someone else's. In a number of places in the course of the book, it became too easy to lose sight of the tree in the surrounding forest. It might almost be said of Wilcher's book what he says of Suckling's own achievement as a playwright: the value may "lie more in local effects than total impact" (191) because so many scattered shrewd discriminations and apt correctives to earlier generalizations are buried in so much "context." The varied aspects of Suckling's career require attention to such diverse contexts and generic traditions that it is difficult to bring away a single, unified, original impression. However, for the foreseeable future, in its assemblage of material and comprehensive coverage, Wilcher's study will be indispensable reading for anyone with a serious interest in Suckling and his period.
Michael L. Donnelly
Kansas State University
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|Author:||Donnelly, Michael L.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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