Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War
W. W. Norton & Company, 2011
549 pp., 39.95
Revisiting the "Cavalier"
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 overwhelming, the voluminous details in Reprobates nevertheless yield insights. Stubbs traces Davenant's initial success, for example, to the transitional urban environment of London: "The proximity of palaces to hovels, the cross-currents possible between buildings with their competing designs, suggests how a selective movement between spheres could take place—so long as one respected social rank at every step." Rank was a key term for the cavaliers, as social status was thought to provide moral license. Unlike John Milton, who as poet-priest set out to redeem classical literature for Protestantism, the cavalier poets aimed lower and caroused a lot more. They exercised their wit in the same way that they pursued pleasure, as a sign of status and a poke in the eye to starchy moralists.
Whereas recent scholars have favored the more encompassing term "royalist," Reprobates focuses on the "cavalier" in order to frame the contest by which the term came into being. During the 1630s, a decade of growing sectarian conflict, contemporaries used the term in a pejorative sense. They ridiculed the "cavalier" as someone who lacked a fixed religious commitment or whose questionable morals made for an unstable identity. Detractors "saw a degenerate creature, bred up on Continental trifles and polluted with popery; a fraud and a boaster, a glossy, superficial type, forever gambling what he had borrowed, in perpetual debt to his tailor." There was truth to this criticism. Suckling gambled away his inheritance, and that of his sister, on lawn bowling and card games. The married Davenant contracted syphilis from a prostitute. Desperate for a cure, he destroyed the flesh of his nose by breathing the vapors of heated quicksilver, bearing the mark of his licentiousness for the rest of his life.
Stubbs traces the calculated attempt by which supporters of Charles I reappropriated "cavalier" as a badge of ideological unity in the 1640s. The cavalier was the long-haired enemy of the Puritan "roundhead," who, in contrast, wore the short-cropped hair of a tradesman. In the lyric poem "His Cavalier," Robert Herrick endows the cavalier with a lofty heroism: "This, this a virtuous man can do, / Sail against rocks, and split them too; / Ay, and a world of pikes pass through." The triple rhyme celebrates the pagan virtue of military heroism, while the "pikes" do double duty as infantry lances used to defend against cavalry and, alternately, as fish that block the passage of a naval vessel. In this strangely condensed scenario, the cavalier sets his own life at naught to seek glory in battle.
Stubbs restores a sense of fluid, overlapping boundaries to the construction of social identity in order to show that the Puritan and cavalier shared as many similarities as they did differences. The problem with this tactic, though, is that it makes Reprobates a kitchen-sink history of literary culture. The book is best when Stubbs focuses on individual poet-soldiers. Many who fought in the civil war against the king came fresh from the Thirty Years' War in Germany, where they received professional military training. Those on the king's side, in poignant contrast, held to a more fanciful idea of battle. Suckling, for instance, dressed as if he were playing "the part of lead swashbuckler," and outfitted his cavalry regiment in clothing that resembled "the garb which several among their no doubt aristocratic number may already have worn as attendant lords and spirits in a royal masque." From the start, the problem with the cavalier was that he confused art with reality, as if the enemy would "be dispelled by a breath of wind, or some stage device, by a deus ex machina shifting the scenery of nature."
In the early chapters, Reprobates details the failed attempts to recapture the virtuosity of the poet-soldier-statesman of the Elizabethan age. The royalist defeat in the civil war could have been foretold decades before the execution of Charles I in 1649. Davenant stands as the lone exception among the string of failures. We learn that the bankrupt Suckling committed suicide in Paris, and that Richard Lovelace ("one of the heart-throbs of seventeenth-century literature") appears to have dodged the war. Herrick, a priest in a country church, lamented that he was exiled among rubes. Davenant, however, curried favor with Queen Henrietta Maria, was successful at espionage, and rose to become lieutenant-general of ordnance during the war—all this while lacking a nose.
Stubbs' account of the cavaliers requires that we locate their significance in the belatedness that hastened their undoing. Defeat adds poignancy, for instance, to the carpe diem motif which is so plentiful in the poetry of Herrick. There is poignancy as well in Stubbs' reading of the romance plot that informs Suckling's play Brennoralt. Understood in its archaic sense, the structure of the "romance" centers on a stranger who, though initially posing a threat to the community, is eventually discovered to be a long-lost knight. This emphasis on recognition and discovery is the stuff of wish-fulfillment, of course. But the appeal of such a form is that "the truth of a hero's identity was always eventually brought to light; even if the occasion which triggered the restoral to rights was the tragic death of the protagonist or his love."
The hope of eventual recognition sets the stage for the last chapters of Reprobates, which examines how those who lost the war managed to endure until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. As the story is typically told, the cavalier poets bequeathed to the ensuing literary period the public, sociable mode of poetry that would distinguish 18th-century verse. The cavaliers may also be relevant, however, for understanding literature's role in maintaining virtual community amid failure and dispersion. In this sense, Reprobates portrays an important episode of literary history in the process of its construction.
Jeffrey Galbraith is assistant professor of English at Wheaton College.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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