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Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War
Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War
John Stubbs
W. W. Norton & Company, 2011
549 pp., $39.95

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Jeffrey Galbraith


Revisiting the "Cavalier"

The Roundheads' foes.

In Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, John Stubbs aims to correct a conventional account of the poetic heirs of John Donne and Ben Jonson in 16th-century England. The old account saw the group of "cavalier" poets that included Thomas Carew, John Suckling, and William Davenant, among others, as carefree aristocrats out of step with the march of historical progress. Given that scholars have been chipping away at such accounts for the last three decades, Reprobates adds to an already well-established tradition. But the story it tells enlivens our sense of the period.

In Renaissance England, élite males—and those who wished to become élite—did not set out to become published poets. If rhetorical accomplishment on the model of classical writing was a staple of Renaissance education, this training in eloquence was primarily instrumental. Courtiers and students of law wrote poetry not as an end in itself but often as a means of securing advancement. Poems circulated in manuscript among small coteries of readers for the purpose of catching the eye of a potential employer. Before he rose to become Dean of St. Paul's, John Donne passed around his poetry in this way, in hopes of getting hired as secretary to an aristocrat.

For several reasons, the success of Donne and of Ben Jonson helped to dignify the office of the poet. Soon they were followed by aristocrats and social climbers who saw poetry as a means of fashioning themselves into "a privileged literary gentleman, an 'idle writer.' " A case in point is William Davenant, who began life the son of a tavern-keeper. When Davenant arrived in London bent on becoming the next Shakespeare, he did not appeal to the theater companies in Southwark. Instead, Davenant sought the cultural status of the professional writer whose "works had recently been given monumental form in an impressive folio." So he bought a fancy suit of clothes on credit and insinuated himself into the royal court.

At times ...

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