A Brief Introduction to Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets

Whenever I think of English poetry, the first style to come to mind is something like the Cavalier poets. For me, their work is the good stuff; no multi-page bouts of navel-gazing in free verse here. Nope, this is good old-fashioned metrical writing with regular rhyme schemes, and what does a good Cavalier write about? Put simply, the good life - the love of beautiful women, a comfortable home in the country, close friends, duty, and at times, the loss of those things.

Of course, the Cavalier poets were a fairly large group and thus did have some variety in tone and subject; Norton Critical Editions’ Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets, the compilation I’ve just finished reading, includes eighteen different writers, making it a solid introduction to the breadth of the school. Jonson is, deservedly, the most famous, and fairly representative for the rest. For example, here’s the first part of “To Penshurst,” which was the first “country house” poem in English:

Thou are not, Penshurst, built to envious show Of touch, or marble, nor canst boast a row Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold; Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told, Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile, And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while. Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air, Of wood, of water: therein thou art fair. Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport; Thy Mount, to which the dryads to resort, Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade; That taller tree, which of a nut was set, At his great birth, where all the Muses met. There in the writhéd bark are cut the names Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames. And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s oak. Thy copse, too, named of Gamage, thou hast there, That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer When thou wouldst feast, or exercise thy friends.

That one is fairly long, but personally I tend to prefer short poems with a strong image, similar to what I discussed in the Hyakunin Isshu. Of course, Jonson could do that, too:

Swell me a bowl with lusty wine,
Till I may see the plump
Lyaeus swim
Above the brim;
I drink as I would write,
In flowing measure, filled with flame and sprite.

“Lyaeus,” by the way, is Bacchus; Jonson and some of these other poets, but again, not all, are rather fond of references to Classical literature and mythology. Often context is sufficient to get the gist of a poem even if one isn’t familiar with these references, but be ready to check with footnotes somewhat often on some of these. I mentioned above that these poets aren’t given to navel-gazing as some modern poets are, but by no means does that mean they can’t be self-reflective. One of my favourite poets from this collection is Thomas Randolph, who wrote this work “Upon His Picture.”

When age hath made me what I am not now,
And every wrinkle tells me where the plow
Of time hath furrowed; when an ice shall flow
Through every vein, and all my head wear snow;
When death displays his coldness in my cheek,
And I myself in my own picture seek,
Not finding what I am, but what I was,
In doubt which to believe, this, or my glass:
Yet though I alter, this remains the same
As it was drawn, retains the primitive frame
And first complexion; here will still be seen
Blood on the cheek and down upon the chin;
Here the smooth brow will stay, the lively eye,
The ruddy lip, and hair of youthful dye.
Behold what frailty we in man may see,
Whose shadow is less given to change than he.

One of the best-known works in Norton’s edition, by Richard Lovelace, concerns duty, another aspect of the good life for those who care about more than mere comfort. Here’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.”

Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet mind,
To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such,
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.

The war that Lovelace refers to, of course, is the English Civil War, of which several of these men were veterans. This historical background makes them especially interesting to those of us who sympathise with the royalist cause.

Poems touching on that dramatic background are relatively uncommon, though. Again, most of them focus on more pastoral matters, and the hardships they do discuss are often more relatable events like the death of a loved one. Indeed, many of the best and most moving of the Cavalier poets’ works are epitaphs, like Henry Vaughan’s “An Epitaph Upon the Lady Elizabeth, Second Daughter to His Late Majesty,” referring to the daughter of King Charles I, who died in 1650 at fifteen years old (and after the death of her father):

Youth, beauty, virtue, innocence,
Heav’n’s royal and select expense,
With virgin-tears, and sighs divine,
Sit here, the Genii of this shrine,
Where now (thy fair soul winged away)
They guard the casket where she lay.
Thou hadst, ere thou the light couldst see,
Sorrows laid up and stored for thee;
Thou suck’dst in woes, and the breasts lent
Their milk to thee but to lament;
Thy portion here was grief; thy years
Distilled no other rain but tears,
Tears without noise, but, understood,
As loud and shrill as any blood;
Thou seem’st a rosebud born in snow,
A flower of purpose sprung to bow
To headless tempests, and the rage
Of an incenséd, stormy age.
Others, ere their afflictions grow,
Are timed and seasoned for the blow,
But thine, and rheums the tend’rest part,
Fell on a young and harmless heart.
And yet as balm-trees gently spend
Their tears for those that do them rend,
So mild and pious thou wert seen,
Though full of suff’rings, free from spleen,
Thou didst not murmur nor revile,
But drank’st thy wormwood with a smile.
As envious eyes blast, and infect,
And cause misfortunes by aspect,
So thy sad starts dispensed to thee
No influx but calamity;
They viewed thee with eclipséd rays,
And but the back-side of bright days.

These were the comforts she had here,
As by an unseen hand, ’tis clear,
Which now she reads, and smiling wears
A crown with Him who wipes off tears.

Now, to some readers, especially those used to intensely self-reflective or political poetry, many of these may seem somewhat insubstantial. Though there are several other poems with a larger point, like “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars,” most are more in the style of “To Penshurst.” They’re still well worth reading and spending time with, though, for the same reason it’s worth spending time in an art museum, or listening to classical music. That it’s beautiful is reason enough. Besides, I believe that a man takes on the character of what he surrounds himself with; “you are what you eat,” so to speak, and even if one typically prefers non-fiction or more intense works of literature, it’s mentally and spiritually healthy to spend time with good poetry.

So, for those interested, Norton’s edition is a good starting-point, and like all Norton Critical Editions it does include some helpful essays and background information in addition to the poems themselves. These are the sort of poems that are best savoured a few at a time, rather than read straight through. The approach I recommended for the Hyakunin Isshu holds true here, and with many works of poetry. It’s a common mistake to read a collection of poems quickly, especially since they’re often short, but remember that poetry is generally denser reading than, say, novels or histories. They’re also typically meant to be read out loud. You may feel self-conscious reading a book out loud, or at least I did, but I got over it and found that I enjoy poetry more this way. The sound and rhythm of the work is half the point.

So give it a shot - it’s a good book to keep handy, and just read a poem or two every day as a daily connection to the good and beautiful.