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Cavalier Poetry and Cavalier Poets: Herrick, Carew, Lovelace

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The term “cavalier poets” is used to denote a group of poets closely associated with the court of Charles I. The best representatives are Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, and Richard Lovelace. (Andrew Marvell is sometimes associated with the cavaliers and sometimes with metaphysical poets).

They were also known as “sons of Ben” because they spent a lot of time with Ben Jonson, after whose poetry they modeled their own. Another influence was John Donne, the “father” of metaphysical poetry. The common factors that bind the cavaliers and the metaphysical poets are the following:

– Their use of colloquial, conversational style,

– Cavaliers sometimes strived to imitate highly intellectual metaphysical conceits,

– Departure from Petrarchan influence: the lady is no longer an object of desire to be admired from a far, but an actual collocutor, to whom the poem is addressed as an argument usually trying to induce them to exercise their sexuality (“Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime”, see Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress; “”).

Although their poetry was not that innovative and original, the cavaliers made one great contribution to the English poetry: they introduced the possibility of writing poems about the minor pleasures and troubles of life. They treated the subject in such a way as to impress us with a sense of ordinary day-to-day living. Cavalier poetry gives off their enjoyment of the casual; their poems seem to be written by the way. They generally avoided the grave subjects of religion. They never dabbled in explorations of the depths and intricacies the human soul. For them life was far too enjoyable to be spending it in a study. The poem writing was no grueling task but a part of everyday living.

They were ‘cavaliers’ not only because they were Royalists, but also because they were typical gentlemen of the court: gallant lovers, soldiers with a great sense of duty (“I could not love thee (dear) so much loved I no honour more”, see Richard Lovelace, To Lucasta, Going to the Wars), casual philosophers, artists, musicians, and poets.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Although Herrick, a clergyman, was detached from the court, his short, fluent, graceful lyrics, and his carpe diem themes are typical of the cavalier style. He wrote a lot about the country, combining classical paganism and English folk themes. Herrick’s character was indeed an unusual blend. He was a hedonist, a country parson, and a great lover of the ancient pagan customs, which enabled him to produce his own synthesis of classical, Christian, and English traditions which is unique in the 17th century English literature.

He also wrote numerous poems, with a degree of metaphysical style, about a mistress called “Julia” (or some other classical name) in which he expressed his delight in love. (see Cherry Ripe, and Gather Ye Rose Buds)

In dealing with country themes such as flowers, Herrick uses conceits which are neither Petrarchan nor metaphysical. He often associates the short-lived flowers with the transitoriness of human life.

Thomas Carew (1594/5-1640)

Carew’s work is influenced by both Jonson and Donne. His poems were occasional amatory lyrics, which were addressed to and circled among the members of the court.

In combining the classical influence of Jonson and his carefully controlled style, with the metaphysical influence of Donne and his introspective psychological curiosity, Carew created a mixture that is representative of Cavalier poetry: polished, joyous, witty, notable for its ease of language. His love poems have all of the Cavalier gallantry, yet they reveal a deep cynicism at their core.

Richard Lovelace (1618-58)

Lovelace is the truest Cavalier. His work is gallant, courteous and chivalrous. He wrote about love, honour and war and sometimes combined the three, producing what I deem to be the best example of Cavalier poetry:

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,

Lov’d I not Honour more.

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