About Some Lyric Poets
EFORE either Ben Jonson or Bacon died, a second Stuart king sat
on the throne of England. This was Charles I the son of James VI
and I. The spacious days of Queen Elizabeth were over and gone,
and the temper of the people was changing. Elizabeth had been a
tyrant but the people of England had yielded to her tyranny.
James, too, was a tyrant, but the people struggled with him, and
in the struggle they grew stronger. In the days of Elizabeth the
religion of England was still unsettled. James decided that the
religion of England must be Episcopal, but as the reign of James
went on, England became more and more Puritan and the breach
between King and people grew wide, for James was no Puritan nor
was Charles after him.
As the temper of the people changed, the literature changed too.
As England grew Puritan, the people began to look askance at the
theater, for the Puritans had always been its enemies. Puritan
ideas drew the great mass of thinking people.
For one reason or another the plays that were written became by
degrees poorer and poorer. They were coarse too, many of them so
much so that we do not care to read them now. But people wrote
such stories as the play-goers of those days liked, and from them
we can judge how low the taste of England had fallen. However,
there were people in England in those days who revolted against
this taste, and in 1642, when the great struggle between King
and Parliament had begun, all theaters were closed by order of
Parliament. So for a time the life of English drama paused.
But while dramatic poetry declined, lyric poetry flourished.
Lyric comes from the Greek word lura, a lyre, and all lyric
poetry was at one time meant to be sung. Now we use the word for
any short poem whether meant to be sung or not. In the times of
James and Charles there were many lyric poets. Especially in the
time of Charles it was natural that poets should write lyrics
rather than longer poems. For a time of strong action, of fierce
struggle was beginning, and amid the clash of arms men had no
leisure to sit in the study and ponder long and quietly. But
life brought with it many sharp and quick moments, and these
could be best expressed in lyric poetry. And as was natural when
religion was more and more being mixed with politics, when life
was forcing people to think about religion whether they would or
not, many of these lyric poets were religious poets. Indeed this
is the great time of English religious poetry. So these lyric
poets were divided into two classes, the religious poets and the
court poets, gay cavaliers these last who sang love-songs,
love-songs, too, in which we often seem to hear the clash of swords.
For if these brave and careless cavaliers loved gayly, they
fought and died as gayly as they loved.
Later on when you come to read more in English literature, you
will learn to know many of these poets. In this book we have not
room to tell about them or even to mention their names. Their
stories are bound up with the stories of the times, and many of
them fought and suffered for their king. But I will give you one
or two poems which may make you want to know more about the
writers of them.
Here are two written by Richard Lovelace, the very model of a gay
cavalier. While he was at Oxford, King
Charles saw him and made
him M.A. or Master of Arts, not for his learning, but because of
his beautiful face. He went to court and made love and sang
songs gayly. He went to battle and fought and sang as gayly, he
went to prison and still sang. To the cause of his King he clung
through all, and when Charles was dead and Cromwell ruled with
his stern hand, and song was hushed in England, he died miserably
in a poor London alley.
The first of these songs was written by Lovelace while he was in
prison for having presented a petition to the House of Commons
asking that King Charles might be restored to the throne.
To Althea from Prison
"When love with unconfinéd wings
Hovers within my gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lye tangled in her haire,
And fettered to her eye,
The gods, that wanton in the aire,
Know no such liberty.
"When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King.
When I shall voyce aloud, how good
He is, how great should be,
Enlargéd winds, that curle the flood,
Know no such liberty.
"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Mindes innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedome in my love,
And in my soule am free,
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such liberty."
To Lucasta Going to the Warres
"Tell me not (sweet) I am unkinde,
That from the nunnerie
Of thy chaste heart and quiet minde
To warre and armes I flie.
"True: a new Mistresse 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."
James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, was another cavalier poet
whose fine, sad story you will read in history. He loved his
King and fought and suffered for him, and when he heard that he
was dead he drew his sword and wrote a poem with its point:
"Great, Good, and Just, could I but rate
My grief, and thy too rigid fate,
I'd weep the world in such a strain
As it should deluge once again:
But since thy loud-tongued blood demands supplies
More from Briareus' hands than Argus' eyes,
I'll sing thy obsequies with trumpet sounds
And write thine epitaph in blood and wounds."
He wrote, too, a famous song known as Montrose's Love-song. Here
"My dear and only love, I pray
This noble world of thee,
Be governed by no other sway
But purest monarchie.
"For if confusion have a part
Which vertuous souls abhore,
And hold a synod in thy heart,
I'll never love thee more.
"Like Alexander I will reign,
And I will reign alone,
My thoughts shall evermore disdain
A rival on my throne.
"He either fears his fate too much
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch,
To win or lose it all.
"But I must rule and govern still,
And always give the law,
And have each subject at my will,
And all to stand in awe.
"But 'gainst my battery if I find
Thou shun'st the prize so sore,
As that thou set'st me up a blind
I'll never love thee more.
"If in the Empire of thy heart,
Where I should solely be,
Another do pretend a part,
And dares to vie with me:
"Or if committees thou erect,
And goes on such a score,
I'll sing and laugh at thy neglect,
and never love thee more.
"But if thou wilt be constant then,
And faithful to thy word,
I'll make thee glorious with my pen
And famous by my sword.
"I'll serve thee in such noble ways
Was never heard before,
I'll crown and deck thee all with bays
And love thee more and more."
In these few cavalier songs we can see the spirit of the times.
There is gay carelessness of death, strong courage in misfortune,
passionate loyalty. There is, too, the proud spirit of the
tyrant, which is gentle and loving when obeyed, harsh and cruel
There is another song by a cavalier poet which I should like to
give you. It is a love-song, too, but it does not tell of these
stormy times, or ring with the noise of battle. Rather it takes
us away to a peaceful summer morning before the sun is up, when
everything is still, when the dew trembles on every blade of
grass, and the air is fresh and cool, and sweet with summer
scents. And in this cool freshness we hear the song of the lark:
"The lark now leaves his wat'ry nest,
And, climbing, shakes his dewy wings;
He takes this window for the east;
And to implore your light, he sings;
'Awake, awake! the Morn will never rise,
Till she can dress her beauty at your eyes.'
"The merchant bows unto the seaman's star,
The ploughman from the Sun his season takes;
But still the lover wonders what they are,
Who look for day before his mistress wakes.
'Awake, awake! break thro' your veils of lawn!
Then draw your curtains, and begin the dawn.' "
That was written by William Davenant, poet-laureate. It is one of
our most beautiful songs, and he is remembered by it far more
than by his long epic poem called Gondibert which few people now
read. But I think you will agree with me that his name is worthy
of being remembered for that one song alone.