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.…