Sir John Suckling

The English poet and playwright Sir John Suckling (1609-1642) was one of the Cavalier poets of the reign of Charles I.

Born into an old Norfolk family early in February 1609, John Suckling was the son of the secretary of state to King James I. He studied at Cambridge and Gray's Inn, London, the latter one of the chief English institutions for the training of lawyers. Then Suckling traveled on the Continent. After his knighting in 1630 he served in the volunteer forces that aided King Gustavus II of Sweden in 1631.

From the time of his return to London in 1632 until his life ended a decade later, Suckling devoted his energies to living the life of a courtier. He achieved a reputation as a gallant and gamester, as a brilliant wit and prolific lover. He is credited with having invented the game of cribbage.

Suckling wrote four plays, including the tragedy Aglaura (1637) and the comedy The Goblins (1638). A number of his lyric poems were first published posthumously in Fragmenta aurea (1646). Some of Suckling's letters survive and are notable for their witty, colloquial prose style.

Toward the end of his life Suckling became involved in political events. In 1639 he accompanied Charles I on an expedition against the Scots, which ended in a humiliating defeat. Suckling was said to be more fit for the boudoir than the battlefield. In 1641 he participated in an abortive plot to free the 1st Earl of Strafford from the Tower of London. Suckling fled to Paris, where, according to a biography published later in the century, he committed suicide in 1642 because he was unable to face poverty.

Suckling was one of the Cavalier poets, a group of sophisticated courtiers whose political allegiances lay with the Crown and whose intellectual interests were largely amatory. Suckling's poetry is marked by common sense, precision, grace, and a light touch. He modeled his style on the secular lyrics of John Donne, imitating their light conversational tone, abrupt metrical patterns, humor, and once in a while their cosmological imagery. Donne's influence is frequently palpable: "Out upon it, I have lov'd/ Three whole days together;/ And am like to love three more, / If it prove fair weather." However, unlike Donne's, Suckling's spirit was cynical, rational, and social, and his intellect was slight. The irony that informs his poetry is far from simple, though, and Suckling wrote a number of fine lyrics, including "Ballad upon a Wedding" and the song "Why so pale and wan, fond lover?"

Further Reading on Sir John Suckling

Suckling's plays are discussed in Kathleen M. Lynch, The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy (1926), and Alfred Harbage, Cavalier Drama (1936). There is no work devoted to his poetry, but he is adequately treated in discussions of Cavalier poetry in such works as Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (1948; 2d ed. 1962). A Sympathetic treatment of Suckling's work can be found in Hugh M. Richmond, The School of Love: The Evolution of the Stuart Love Lyric (1964), which argues that 17th-century lyric poetry manifests an increasing and remarkable sophistication in its attitudes toward romantic love.