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By Andrew N. Adler
Copyright © 1995 by Andrew N. Adler. All rights reserved.
Some scholars have defended Sir John Suckling against the common charge that his “best work is charming but trivial” by reference to his wit.1 Others note his psychological awareness. In particular, he has been praised for refashioning and revitalizing Neo-Platonic and Petrarchan conventions in a “reflective, self-observing” mode.2 Rarely, however, have commentators bothered to engage in close readings of Suckling’s major works. By so doing, this presentation attempts to show how Suckling’s wit and psychological acumen mutually reinforce each other. In particular, I examine four lyrics about the mutability of sexual love. Each demonstrates, in a similar way, how a poetic voice trying to shun conventional literary formulas inevitably remains dependent on those very formulas. Each creates a division of power between the poet and his beloved that is eventually exposed as artificial and unworkable. Finally, each invites the reader to note the interactions between the parallel universes of how people fantasize and how they express these fantasies through fiction-writing. I discuss Suckling’s “Sonnet I” and then “Sonnet II,” showing how one can read the two as a progressive sequence. Similarly, I analyze “Against Fruition [I]” and “Against Fruition [II]” in turn. “Sonnet I” probes the “mystery” of desire’s impermanence and reluctantly hints that Petrarchan notions cannot fully explain the phenomenon. Even the famous opening lines — “Dost see how unregarded now / That piece of beauty passes?” — question the objectivity of the conventional poetic voice. The poet tries to force the implied reader to verify the poet’s assessment of his situation. (Later, the poet hopes that “some kind power” will substitute as the objective arbiter (ll. 13-14).) But, the woman clearly is not “unregarded”: the poet actively scrutinizes her face in both the first and second stanzas. Also, “passes” means both “fades” and “walks by.” Thus, although below the poet insists that the woman’s looks have not changed at all, the poem here subtly suggests otherwise. Indeed, even before turning to “Sonnet II,” we find the narrator of “Sonnet I” becoming somewhat defensive about his creed of Petrarchan stasis. He too often insists that conventional
MacLean 253 n. 1. especially Miner 224-40; Richmond 245-47.
explanations will suffice, even as he realizes that the “mystery” of love eludes them. Unlike Donne, Suckling here does not solve the mystery by perceiving that personalities change over time.3 The narrator claims that neither his “flesh,” “blood,” nor eyes and mind vary at all. Unlike Thomas Stanley, Suckling does not openly dismantle the traditional rhetoric by emphasizing its necessary yet false premise that the love-object’s beauty remains perpetually superior.4 Instead, in the heart of the poem, Suckling abruptly halts his barrage of clichés to ask in frustration, Oh! some kind power unriddle where it lies, Whether my heart be faulty, or her eyes? Yet, instead of pursuing the question in earnest, the narrator begins the verbiage anew (“kill” and “die”) and by fiat forecloses discussion: “Neither her power, then, nor my will / Can questioned be.” The speaker’s state of mind helps to account for his reluctance to break out of comfortable convention. He best preserves his delicate ego by denying both that his ex-lover might be less attractive than he had thought and that his own virility might have waned. That is, the “kind power” will not prove kind after all, since it will certainly find “fault” with the poet’s taste or passion. Ironically, however, the poet’s reluctance to flout convention actually demonstrates his incipient power to construct a linguistic reality partly of his own choosing. He pretends to “see”
in The Second Anniversary, writes: Dost thou love Beauty? (and beauty worthiest is to move) Poor cozened cozener, that she, and that thou, Which did begin to love, are neither now; You are both fluid, changed since yesterday; Next day repairs, (but ill) last day’s decay. Nor are, (although the river keep the name) Yesterday’s waters, and today’s the same. So flows her face, and thine eyes, neither now That saint, nor pilgrim, which your loving vow Concerned, remains; but whilst you think you be Constant, you’are hourly in inconstancy (ll. 390-400). Suckling’s labeling of Petrarchan courtship and beauty as “cozenage” (in “Loving and Beloved,” l. 16, and in “Sonnet II,” l. 10) appear to echo Donne’s lines (first published in 1612). Note, too, that in “Woman’s Constancy,” Donne sarcastically implies that this sort of argument simply constitutes a rationalization to cast off an unwanted lover (ll. 4-5). 4Stanley, “Changed, Yet Constant,” reprinted in MacLean 358-60.
objectively, while making it very clear that he’s viewing the world through Petrarchan lenses. The reader, whom the poet invites to look upon the same scene with the same lenses, is tempted to exclaim, “That woman’s power can be questioned, because you gave her that deadly (literary) power.” In fact, the poet retains the power to “mark” the “fate” of beauty (l. 5), only to relinquish that power in the final line (wherein the “fate” of beauty is “hidden”). In one sense, the poet simply claims that he comprehends the effect of changing emotions, but not the cause. In another sense, though, his use of the identical word (“fate”) in both places asserts his prerogative as writer to frame and answer his own riddles. I now turn to the multi-tiered relationship between the mutually-illuminating “companion” poems, “Sonnet I” and “Sonnet II.” To begin with, if I’m correct in suggesting that the first lyric points to its own artificiality and subjectivity, then it tests the limits of its conceit almost to the breaking point. But since, as Blake realized, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough,” “Sonnet II” logically follows suit, appearing to destroy traditional modes of expression altogether. Yet the second poem tests its own limits in a manner analogous to the first poem’s strategy. On the tropological level, both sonnets invoke the conventional “red and white” and “marking” of faces (via beauty patches in the second sonnet), and both summon a supernatural power to enact or explain those aspects of desire that the poet supposedly cannot achieve or fathom. Both propose that history obscures true causes: In “Sonnet I,” the mysteries of love “have certain periods set,” whereas in the second poem, “some, long ago” created the arbitrary conventions of love. Structurally and psychologically, the twin poems possess a remarkable similarity: In each, the respective poetic voice claims some robust power while disclaiming some other, mysterious power. Thus, in “Sonnet I,” the poet avers that he can powerfully react to feminine beauty, but that such beauty itself is mysteriously fixed. In “Sonnet II,” on the other hand, the poet asserts that he can arbitrarily define beauty, but that he can react to it only after Cupid
mysteriously sparks his interest. In each case, though, the text dramatizes that it actually retains some of the power that it purports to disclaim and, symmetrically, that it may not hold the power that it optimistically asserts. To perceive “Sonnet II”’s repudiation of power, consider its explication of the origin of beauty. The poet “choos[es] new” his “fancy,” (which then conjures up an impression of “beauty”), yet some active agency lies behind that choice. Fancy is produced by “cozenage” (l. 10) and “trick” (l. 24); both words imply deliberate action, presumably of Cupid (l. 1), who predisposes the lover to a “mad” preference. Still, to some extent, the poet controls Cupid.5 That “boy” is, after all, a conventional figure consciously introduced by Suckling to represent psychological mysteries. Consequently, Suckling could have erased references to Cupid and substituted some other, less blind and juvenile, device. The poem’s finale effectively does so: So to the height and nick We up be wound, No matter by what hand or trick. This passage owes much to the poet’s hand or trick. For example, in a timepiece metaphor, we might expect “nick” to rhyme with “tick,” so that “trick” is a witty textual trick when combined with “hand,” which connotes the hour hand in a similar metaphor within another Suckling poem.6 Yet, similar to the narrator in “Sonnet I,” the lover in “Sonnet II” does not want to assume complete responsibility for his affections and perceptions. He thus persists throughout in blaming some external trickster for his initial madness. As mentioned above, another shared aspect of the two sonnets is that each of their narrators also claims to have greater power in love than we find plausible. The first narrator suspiciously boasts assured virility. More radically, the second narrator bravely defies the soothing confines of Petrarchan imagery. He refuses to place any limits upon his fancy. Since the reader cannot believe that anyone would actually prefer a lover with “black and blue” complexion, the reader at once calls the poem’s counter-authority into question.
why would the poet bother to flatter that “kind” boy unless Cupid could potentially be influenced? none beguiléd be by time’s quick flowing” (ll. 13-14).
Because each poem undermines its own vision, the poems force the reader himself to demarcate the proper role and limits of a lover’s imagination. That is, because power is unreliably claimed and disclaimed in these poems, they ingeniously shift power to the reader, who notices that love and beauty are generated at the intersection of conventional and creative (poetic) power. Indeed, Cupid’s perspective and the narrator’s perspective become the raw materials out of which the reader builds a more coherent and less emotionally fragile world-view than the texts admit at first glance. This same dynamic operates at an even more intriguing level in the “Against Fruition” poems,7 to which I now turn. For, these poems present the creation of erotic desire as an act of fiction-writing along a continuum between the generic and the unreadably avant garde. “Fruition I” concocts a fantasy in which, although consummation inevitably follows a prescribed plot, it is possible to suspend one’s foreknowledge of that plot: Women enjoyed, whate’er before they’ve been, Are like romances read, or sights once seen; Fruition’s dull, and spoils the play much more Than if one read or knew the plot before. Unfortunately, however much the narrator would like to keep himself guessing, if he knows the generic romantic plot beforehand, then his imagination will in any event leap ahead and effectively extinguish the excitement. The “expectation” that sex will prove amazingly unique this time around compares to “Sonnet II”’s unrealistic hope that the poet can choose beautiful colors from an entirely new palette. But, in fact, love’s “plot” is “always already” partly contained in one’s imagination and partly an infusion of cultural background material: the moment of fruition has already passed.8 This deflation of the poet’s advice is worked out in the text’s repeated insistence of a dichotomy between “knowing”9 what is in store and “something” else (l. 25). When the poet
7For brevity’s sake, I hereinafter refer to these poems as “Fruition I” and 8“This is a vast commonplace of literature: the Woman copies the Book.
“Fruition II.” In other words, every body is a citation: of the ‘already-written.’ The origin of desire is the statue, the painting, the book” (Barthes 33). 9See ll. 2, 13, 22, 24, 29.
attempts to give us a more precise idea of this latter (vague, expectant) state, he initially likens it to a dream state (from which one might choose to “wake oneself” via fruition). Suckling penned this verse (shortly) before Descartes published his Meditations, and Suckling could not have realized that the problem of proving that one is not dreaming (at any given moment) remains intractable even today. Still, the poet understood that individuals cannot wake themselves up or continue dreaming at will. Later, the poet gives another version of his fantasy, in which fruition destroys wealth (l. 7): “They who know all the wealth they have, are poor; / He’s only rich that cannot tell his store” (ll. 29-30). The kernel of truth in this assessment, however, takes on a pessimistic connotation when we note that Suckling borrowed this conceit from Ovid’s description of Narcissus at the pool: Alas! I am myself the boy I see. I know it. What I desire, I have. My very plenty makes me poor.10 In this context, we realize that the boy who should not gaze into the pool will be the very one who cannot resist. That is, the fatal instant in which Narcissus “knows” his store is preordained. Further, this inexorable urge to consummation, beyond its psychological accuracy, also represents a warning to those who aspire to act beyond the pale of conventional, culturallyinduced desire. The poet suggests that he can buy a generic romance without finishing it or otherwise figuring out the plot. Yet he predicates his own advice upon a known plot — namely, Ovid’s. That is, the poet at least partly knows his own textual “store.” Therefore, for example, we can interpret the lines, “So here restraint / Holds up delight,” to mean that the poet restrains himself from plagiarism: The enjoyment of poem-writing (as in sexual love) derives from reworking of Petrarch, Ovid, and Donne, from variations on generic themes. There’s no serious question of weaving a new plot wholly from one’s dreams or of copying past experience verbatim. Instead, here, as in the sonnets, it devolves upon the reader to build from the
deconstructed ruins of the “mysterious” poetic fantasy (of empowerment and disempowerment) a realistic vision of love that combines convention with imagination. While “Fruition II” certainly represents a facetious enterprise in some respects, it also will bear the same kind of (relatively sophisticated) interpretation to which I’ve subjected the above poems. Notice, first, that “Fruition II” repeats the metaphor of fancy partaking its “true” delight during a dream state that awakens at “full” fruition. Here, the text repeats “Fruition I”’s “error” of trying to make epistemological distinctions based upon whether the narrator is dreaming or awake and upon whether he has crossed some mythical boundary of (full) fruition as opposed to mere expectation. Second, “Fruition II” perpetrates the maneuver in which a text replete with Petrarchan imagery pretends to cast off entirely its dependence on such imagery and to fabricate a new vision of love out of “mere air” (l. 5). Compare the related stances of the following lines. “Fruition I” declares: Women enjoyed, whate’er before they’ve been, Are like romances read, or sights once seen… In contrast, “Fruition II” concludes: Then, fairest mistress, hold the power you have, By still denying what we still do crave; In keeping us in hopes strange things to see, That never were, nor are, nor e’er shall be. The first poem locates a fictitious past moment during which the women were still “unread.” The second poem looks forward to a future moment in which the mistress, who currently harbors traditional trappings (she’s the “fairest”…), will break free and write in a new idiom. This latter fantasy, though, also disintegrates in a now-familiar way: On the one hand, the poet has given his lover her alleged “power.” Thus, he can’t expect her to show him anything surprising. He has, and always will, view her through the artifice of Petrarchan stasis. In this poem, as opposed to “Fruition I,” Suckling effectively rewrites the verb tense and in the process turns “expectation” from a “blessing” (“Fruition I,” l. 23) into a “monster” (“Fruition II,” l. 15).
But, the different semantic perspective doesn’t alter the writer’s psychology or his text’s structural mechanism. His imagined dichotomies, including his divisions of power between subject and love-object, dissolve. On the other hand, this poem advances beyond the ones I have previously examined by expressly indicating its self-generation of fantastic paradox: In the final lines, quoted above, the poet finds himself “craving” a convention-free love affair that he knows has never existed and never will exist. Yet at the moment when he thus concedes his debt to tradition, he has surpassed old formulae by expressing in an original way the perennial anxiety of influence in love poetry.
Works Cited Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang, 1974. Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A. J. Smith. London: Penguin, 1986. MacLean, Hugh, ed. Ben Jonson & the Cavalier Poets: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1974. Miner, Earl. The Cavalier Mode from Jonson to Cotton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971. Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Mary M. Innes. London: Penguin, 1955. Richmond, H. M. The School of Love: The Evolution of the Stuart Love Lyric. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1964. Suckling, John. Fragmenta Aurea. 1646. Ben Jonson & the Cavalier Poets: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Hugh MacLean. New York: Norton, 1974. 253-71.
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