In 1647, when imprisoned by the parliamentary army in Hampton Court Palace, Charles I warned the poet John Denham that verse was merely a youthful distraction, needed only to sluice out "the overflowings of . . . Fancy", and that continued composition would exclude Denham from "serious Employments" in His Majesty's service. The question of how to serve both your muse and your king lies at the heart of Reprobates. John Stubbs, the author of an acclaimed biography of John Donne, follows the lives of those retrospectively called "Cavalier poets", who hung around the fringes of the court immediately before and during the English civil war. In the early years of the 17th century, "cavalier" most often referred to the kind of wealthy, boisterous youth who spent his time whoring and wassailing and at the theatre; only after the outbreak of war did it accrue royalist connotations.
This coterie included Robert Herrick of "Gather ye rosebuds" fame, who retreated to a parsonage in "dull Devon-shire" after witnessing, as chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham, the massacre of British troops by the French on the Île de Ré in 1627; Richard Lovelace, the pretty-boy soldier whose poetry inspired by imprisonment suggests both stoic acceptance and sadomasochistic excitement; and Thomas Carew, a freethinking, loose-living gentleman of the royal bedchamber who died young of complications from syphilis.
But at the centre of Stubbs's story stand two friends with very different backgrounds and trajectories: John Suckling and William Davenant.
Suckling was born into great wealth. His uncle, the 1st Earl of Middlesex, served as lord high treasurer to James I. But Suckling squandered his fortune at the gaming tables and earned a reputation for cowardice when he unsuccessfully ambushed a love rival with a pack of swordsmen. When he raised a troop of soldiers to fight the Scots in 1639, his main concern was that they be nattily dressed in "white doubletts and scarlett breeches, and scarlet coates, hatts, and . . . feathers".
In 1641, Suckling fled to Paris, having failed to spring the king's enforcer in Ireland, the Earl of Strafford, from the Tower of London, where he was awaiting impeachment by the House of Commons. Impoverished and lonely, Suckling died in France, probably by his own hand; but he left behind a small corpus of exquisite
love poetry and a number of letters on which Stubbs judiciously draws. Contemporary Puritans viewed Suckling as a braggart wastrel; later royalist hagiography elevated him to the status of martyr and an epitome of courtliness. Stubbs sees him as a more tormented figure, a man who dreamed of a dashing career but did not have the strength of personality to sustain it.
Davenant had far greater reserves of good luck and good humour. The son of an Oxford innkeeper and godson of William Shakespeare (he later suggested an even closer kinship), he managed to secure himself a position in noble circles through little more than benign charm. Despite enduring mockery after losing his septum when treating his syphilis with mercury, and proposing a crack-brained scheme to blow up the French arsenal at Dunkirk, he was named poet laureate in 1638.
During the civil war he served as master of ordnance in the king's northern army, as a clandestine courier between royalists and Queen Henrietta Maria on the Continent, and as a privateer in the English Channel. With his epic Gondibert only half finished, he was captured in 1650 on his way to America to secure Maryland for Charles but, for the second time in his life, his quick wit and affability saved him from the scaffold. In the years of the Commonwealth, he somehow convinced the godly authorities to allow him to stage entertainments (including the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes) and after the Restoration he was granted a monopoly over theatre in London.
Stubbs's outstanding achievement here lies not simply in working these dramatic life stories into the larger narrative of political and religious conflict in England; it is to show that the circumstances of poetic production are an indispensable adjunct to appreciation. Unlike the grand theological and humanist ventures of Milton ("to justify the ways of God to men") and Spenser ("to fashion a gentleman or noble person"), so much Cavalier poetry - satires, epitaphs, elegies, panegyrics, masques, epithalamiums, verse epistles, odes to patrons' country estates - refers directly to precise biographical and historical circumstances.
These men regarded poetry as an important gentlemanly accomplishment, but not necessarily as a lifetime's vocation. The transitoriness of their verse - which so often scrutinises that most transitory of states, love - is the basis of its considerable charm. Their great skill lies in the manipulation of language to praise and counsel, even to criticise, the king - all at the same time. In flashing prose, embellished with the occasional parodic baroque lick, Stubbs has rescued the Cavaliers' literary reputation and tempered the most scornful excoriations of their moral character. l
Jonathan Beckman is assistant editor of the Literary Review
Reprobates: the Cavaliers of the English Civil War
Viking, 549pp, £25