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`For the People are naturally not valiant, and not much cavalier' (Sir John Suckling)
on 18 April 2012
Despite the sub title, the English Civil War is not the primary focus of this book: it's more about the context than the conflict. In this book, John Stubbs combines literary biography with political and social history to look at members of a group of royalist writers who gathered around Ben Johnson during the late 1620s and 1630s before seeking their fortunes at court. Those writers - including Thomas Carew, William Davenant, Sir John Denham, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace and Sir John Suckling - became known as `The Sons (or Tribe) of Ben' and later as the Cavalier Poets.
Most of these men are minor figures in history, remembered for a single poem `Cooper's Hill' (Sir John Denham) or, a single line: `Stone walls do not a prison make' (Richard Lovelace) and 'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may' (Robert Herrick). William Davenant introduced a number of innovations to the stage and and was also known as a rake who had a disfigured nose as a consequence of treatment for syphilis..
`The title `cavalier' became a badge of partisan pride and the mark of a royalist gentleman; but it is important to remember that it started political life, in the early 1640s, as a term of abuse and reprobation.'
While the archetypal cavalier, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and other royalist stalwarts such as Henry Jermyn and Endymion Porter appear, the English Civil War occupies a relatively minor part of the book. The Cavalier Poets are great supporters of the Stuarts and their belief in the divine right of kings. As Robert Herrick writes: `Twixt Kings and Subjects ther's this mighty odds,/Subjects are taught by Men; Kings by the Gods.' This loyalty is often accompanied by a romanticised immaturity: these men see themselves as heroes and they often act impulsively.
In many ways, William Davenant is the central character of this book. He was knighted in 1643 by Charles I for his services in the royalist cause. By the time of his death in 1668, he had succeeded Ben Jonson as poet laureate, had acted as an agent for Henrietta Maria during her exile in France, and staged the first English opera (`The Siege of Rhodes'). Davenant had also become a successful theatrical manager.
This book took me into an aspect of the history of the English Civil War I'd not previously thought much about. These were not the cavaliers I had in mind when I first picked up the book: I learned that in John Stubbs's view, being a cavalier is more about outlook than philosophy. For a different perspective on the English Civil War, this book about the Cavalier Poets is well worth reading.