Meanwhile a bevy of minor bards—each of whom is someone’s major love—amused the leisurely with amorous rhymes and tuneful piety; and because the King liked them and they sang his cause through all vicissitudes, history knows them as the Cavalier Poets. Robert Herrick apprenticed his pen to Ben Jonson, and thought for a time that a bowl of wine would make a book of verse; he drank to Bacchus for hours on end, and then studied for the ministry. He took courses in love, pledged himself to prefer mistresses to marriage,46 and counseled virgins to “gather rosebuds” while they bloomed. His “Corinna” received further prodding:
Get up, get up for shame! The blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colors through the air;
Get up, sweet Slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree …
Come, let us go, while we are in our prime,
And take the harmless folly of the time!
We shall grow old apace, and die
Before we know our liberty …
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying,
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-Maying.47
And so in many of the wanton poems that he published in 1648 in the collection Hesperides; even in our loose days they need expurgation to suit Everyman. But eating is also necessary, so Herrick left his beloved London (1629), and—taking Catullus with him—went sorrowfully to be vicar of a modest parsonage in distant Devonshire. Soon he began to write Noble Numbers, or Pious Pieces, and first a prayer for absolution:
For those my unbaptised rhymes,
Writ in my wild unhallowed times,
For every sentence, clause, and word,
That’s not inlaid with Thee (my Lord),
Forgive me, God, and blot each line
Out of my book that is not Thine.48
In 1647 the Puritans deprived him of his benefice. He starved loyally through the dour days of the Commonwealth, but was restored by the Restoration to his vicarage, and died there at eighty-four, Corinna lost in the dusk of memory.
Thomas Carew did not live so long, but he too found time for mistresses. Drunk with the inexplicable charms of woman, he sang them in such rapt detail (“A Rapture”), and with such cavalier contempt for chastity, that other poets reproved him for his licentious exactitude. The Puritans could not forgive Charles I for making him a gentleman of the privy chamber, but perhaps the King pardoned the matter for the form; in these Caroline poets all the Gallic finesse of Ronsard and the Pléiade is imported to grace with delicate art the indelicacies of desire.
Sir John Suckling crowded much living into his thirty-three years. Born in 1609, he inherited a great fortune at eighteen, made the Grand Tour, was knighted by Charles I, fought under Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years’ War, returned to England (1632) to become by his good looks, his wit, and his generous wealth a favorite at the court. He was, says Aubrey, “the greatest gallant of his time, and the greatest gamester, both for bowling and cards … His sisters would come to the … bowling green, crying for fear he should lose all their portions.”49 He invented cribbage. He never married, but entertained “a great number of ladies of quality”; at one party he served the ladies, as dessert, silk stockings, then a great luxury.50 His play Aglaura was produced with lavish scenery, paid for from his purse. He raised his own troops to fight for the King and risked his life in an attempt to rescue the King’s minister, Sir Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, from the Tower. Frustrated, he fled to the Continent, and there, deprived of his fortune, he took poison and died.
Richard Lovelace too served the King in war and verse, and he too was rich and handsome, “the most amiable and beautiful person that ever eye beheld”51—so Anthony à Wood saw him at Oxford. In 1642 he headed a delegation from Kent to petition the Long Parliament (transiently Presbyterian) for the restoration of the Anglican liturgy. For this audacious orthodoxy he was imprisoned for seven weeks. His Althea came to comfort him, and he made her immortal with a line:
When Love with unconfined wings
Hovers within my gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair
And fettered to her eye,
The birds that wanton in the air
Know no such liberty….
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.52
He went off to the wars again in 1645—and apologized to his betrothed (Lucy Sacheverell) in “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….
Yet this inconstancy is such
As thou too shalt adore;
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.53
On the false report of his death in battle, Lucasta (chaste Lucy) married another suitor. Having lost both his lady and his fortune in the Royalist cause, Lovelace was reduced to depend upon the charity of his friends for food, and he who had worn cloth of silver and gold now dressed in rags and lived in slums. He died of consumption in 1658, aged forty.
He might have learned the art of survival from Edmund Waller, who managed to be active for sixty years on both sides of the Great Rebellion, became the most popular poet of his time, outlived Milton, and died in bed at eighty-one (1687). He entered Parliament at sixteen, went mad at twenty-three, recovered, married a London heiress at twenty-five, buried her three years later, and soon wooed “Sacharissa” (Lady Dorothy Sidney) with a fresh variant of an ancient theme:
Go, lovely Rose!
Tell her, that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.
Tell her, that’s young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
That hadst thou sprung
In deserts, where no men abide,
Thou must have unrecommended died….
Then die! that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!
One other hardly minor poet enters this period. Richard Crashaw burned with religious ardor rather than with the fevers of the flesh. His father, an Anglican clergyman, wrote tracts against Catholicism and filled his son with fears of popery; Richard became a Catholic. He was expelled from Cambridge (1644) for supporting the King; he fled from England to Paris, where he consoled his poverty with visions of God. The Spanish mystics were to him a revelation of religious intensity and devotion. Standing before a picture of St. Teresa, he envied her transfixion by the dart of Christ, and begged her to accept him as her selfless disciple:
By the full kingdom of that final kiss
That seized thy parting soul, and sealed thee His;
By all the heavens thou hast in Him
(Fair sister of the seraphim);
By all of Him we have in thee,
Leave nothing of myself in me.
Let me so read thy life that I
Unto all life of mine may die.
This and other poems he gave to the world in Steps to the Temple (1646), an ambivalent mixture of pious ecstasies and poetic conceits. Through him and a like but later poet, Henry Vaughan, we perceive that not all England was in those hectic days divided into Puritans and Cavaliers, but that amid the fury of poetical and theological war some spirits found religion neither in massive shrines and hypnotic ritual, nor in fearful dogmas and proud election, but in the childlike, trustful communion of the baffled and surrendering soul with a humane and forgiving God.