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Renaissance and Revolution 101: The Cavalier Poets


This series explores the literature that arose from the conflicts, ideologies, and rapidly changing cultures of 17th-century England. Fostered in the reigns of both James I and Charles I, it is the purpose of this series to discover the progression of literature and culture from the early Stuart period to the Restoration era which harboured struggles of power, ideology, and paradigms of the monarchy. Examining the English Civil War as an ideological war so much as it was a physical war, this article series explores the literary and political progression of contemporary ways of thinking about the social structure of England in a time of unparalleled change. As the century progressed, attitudes to the monarchy, the government, and the rights of the people polarised, with literature such as poetry, pamphlets, and manifestoes becoming significant players in the social and political debates of the period. 17th-century writers were keen to address major political questions such as: Should the powers of the king be curtailed? Can power be absolute? Are the civil liberties of the people greater than the authority of the king and government?

This series responds to these key questions, discovering how writers and political groups used literature to propagate their understandings of these key ideological interrogations and to persuade and influence political mindsets and decisions. Considering literature as a vehicle of politics, this 101 series uncovers the ways in which prominent writers of the period used literature to address the hostilities and instabilities that characterised the period, as prevailing attitudes towards the monarchy, the nation, sex, and religion came under pressure.

This series will be divided into eight articles:

  1. Renaissance and Revolution 101: A Literary and Historical Overview

  2. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Religious Contexts of the English Civil War

  3. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Jacobean Culture and Shakespeare’s Othello

  4. Renaissance and Revolution 101: The Cavalier Poets

  5. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution I – John Milton

  6. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution II – Andrew Marvell

  7. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Radical Voices

  8. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Sex and Desire in the Restoration

Renaissance and Revolution 101: The Cavalier Poets

The English Civil War as an ideological war is significant to understanding the literature that emerged within its contexts. As Keeble (2001) testifies, the English Civil War was first and foremost an “ideological conflict” that featured “competing notions” of societal and political discourse that required consistent “articulation and defence” (p. 2). As such, the outburst of political writings emerging amidst the conflict is unsurprising, and the feature of political sub-contexts within the pieces of this period are also prominent. Those writing during the Civil War did not doubt the impact their writing might have within this ideological warfare conflict, a significance explored by Summers (1999) in their declaration that “literature itself was at the very epicentre” of the crisis of constitution, monarchy, and state. Crofts (1995) is in supports of the significance of literature within the conflict, with his declaration that “if this was one of England’s most turbulent moments politically, it was also one of its richest literary periods” (p. iv).

Who Were the Cavaliers?

The figureheads of the Cavalier poets were undeniably Richard Lovelace, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, and Edmund Waller. Their writings are characterised by their devotion to and conception of “the good life” (Judkins, 1977, p. 243), as well as their “undivided allegiance to Charles I’s political philosophy and Ben Jonson’s poetic style” (p. 243). Thomas Croft’s (1995) summarisation of the Cavalier poets expertly evokes the tensions that mimicked the crisis of the age in which their lyrics were produced:

Cavaliers were “devoted to the pleasures of civilisation, which for them meant a benevolent, adored monarch, flourishing arts and a peaceful, unmolested populace. Despite the troubled times the Cavaliers were always supportive of Charles, but it is certain that the poets saw what was coming and their writing one can find […] an awareness of political doom and […] a feeling of dispossession. It was therefore a great era for carpe diem poetry” (p. iv).

Figure 1: Rupert (on the right) with his elder brother, Charles I Louis (Van Dyck, 1637).

The term Cavalier was initially utilised by Parliamentary supporters as a mocking “term of scorn” (Lunger, 2012, p. 207). Parliamentarians sought to demoralise Royalist supporters through degrading use of the term, proven by denunciations such as in John Goodwin’s Anti-Cavalierisme (1642): “the scum of the Land, that most accursed confederacy [...] that bloody and butcherly Generation, commonly known by the name of Cavaliers” (Qtd in Lunger, 2012, p. 207). In response, poets in support of the king sought to reclaim the title, empowering its symbolism with courtly and respectable characteristics so embodied in their poetry, of the gentleman, the commander, or for Herrick, the “virtuous” (p. 207).

Ben Jonson was a crucial inspiration for the Cavalier poets. Though their predecessor died in 1637several years before the outbreak of the war“Jonson was the ideal Cavalier poet” (Crofts, 1995, p. iv). Jonson stressed the responsibility of verse as a social medium, and wrote poetry devoted to the reinvigoration of classical forms and themes, and sentiments of “moderation and measured judgement” (McDowell, 2014, p. 125). Syrithe Pugh (2018) draws attention to the ways in which Jonson influenced the Cavaliers to employ poetry as a centrally public vehicle through which to express political and personal desires. She notes that “Jonson and his followers engage with the question of the lyric’s public role” (p. 1) and the Cavaliers in particular “redeploy Jonson’s strategies for political and polemical purposes” (p. 1). The influence of Jonson as a father figure who promoted the public role of poetry is crucial, explaining the nature of Cavalier poetry as necessarily interactive with the politics of the time. Understanding literature as the epicentre of the conflict, the Cavaliers employed poetry as a way through which to articulate, promote, and work through political tensions and chaos.

Figure 2: Charles I raising his standard in Nottingham (National Army Museum, 1642).

Whilst the Cavaliers were strong advocates of promoting the good lifea classical ideal of respectable civilisation they saw represented by the court and reign of Charles Iit is significant to note the awareness their poetry possessed of the very real threat that faced Charles I and his supporters. Their poetry reflects the tension of the political climate, of a yearning for stability matched with an impending realisation that the old order was close to becoming overturned. The importance of politics to the poetry of the Cavaliers is so significant that, as McDowell (2018) attests, the group has become known not for a “distinguishing literary feature”, but rather “by allegiance and period” (p. 1).

Cavalier poetry was preoccupied with the values of carpe diem, an almost nostalgic search for the stability, order, and power they associated with the security of monarchical power. Laura Lunger (2012) proposes a broad and generalised view of the Cavaliers as an implication of “a commitment to King and honour even in the face of loss”, with a broad characterisation of the school’s poetry as a “dispossess[ion] of natural habitat” (p. 206).

A significant consideration in regard to the Cavalier poets is their new reliance on print culture, superceding manuscripts and court performance that restricted circulation and reach. Following in the footsteps of Ben Jonson, who also began to balance manuscript and print, the Cavaliers engaged with their understanding of poetry’s public and political role by immersing themselves in the new print culture. Lunger (2012) finds that the Royalists embraced the “cultural battlefield” (p. 208) that was the ideological front of the war, and in its efforts to “influence public opinion and to consolidate a cultural base” (p. 209), the King’s supporters even sought to print poets sympathetic to the monarchical cause posthumously.

Figure 3: A stained glass window in Farndon, Cheshire, commemorating Royalist soldiers who defended nearby Beeston Castle during a year-long siege (National Army Museum, c. the 1640s).

Richard Lovelace

Lovelace was a prominent figure during the Civil War (1642-1651), a devoted Royalist and Cavalier poet. Imprisoned twice in the defence of Charles I, Lovelace’s writing is paradigmatic of the Cavaliers, revealing their commitment to the King, classical themes, and literature as a vehicle of public duty and advocation.

To Lucasta, Going to the Warres, Richard Lovelace (1649) Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkind, That from the nunnery Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind To war and arms I fly. True, a new mistress 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. (Lines 1-12)

To Lucasta, Going to the Warres (1649) encapsulates the Cavalier’s dedication to the king, cause, and values of civility and honour. This poem is significant in revealing the ways in which the group employed poetry as a voice of public direction and advocation. Placing the act of warfare, specifically of standing by the king, as a duty, reveals Lovelace’s dedication to the Civil War and to securing the safety of his well-loved England with its absolute monarchical power. So dedicated to the King’s cause, Lovelace depicts the act of soldiery in defence of their monarch as a greater feat than love. Considering the proliferation of poetry as a medium of love throughout not only literature in general but also within this period, Lovelace’s dedication to the king becomes his “new mistress” (line 5).

The certainty of the speaker’s tone is significant. Instead of using conditional verbs, there is agency and determination within the voice. The poem begins with the imperative “Tell me not” (line 1), evoking a dedication already decided before the poem begins. In other words, this poem is not working through doubt in regard to warfare or loyalty. Rather this poem seeks to stand for Lovelace’s, and the Royalists, absolute support for the king. Encapsulating the Cavalier spirit of carpe diem, the act of warfare is represented optimistically and whimsically. The speaker declares, “to wars and arms I fly” (line 4), and portrays combatant support for the king without hesitation. As Susan Clarke (2010) reflects:

With this poem, Lovelace has “struck a simple, sincere, and perfect attitude […] with an idealism untouched by the sceptical or cynical, he enshrined the cavalier trinity: beauty, love, and loyal honour” (p. 129).

Figure 4: Richard Lovelace (Dobson, 1645).

Clarke’s (2010) focus on honour and chivalry as a signifier of the Royalist cause, and of Cavalier poetry is significant. Royalists, in their act of justifying and propagating their support for the king, became increasingly interested in the “discourse of chivalry” (p. 134). Chivalry as a combatant justifier has been utilised throughout literary and military chivalry, with medieval texts promoting the importance of chivalry so as to increase loyalty to the king and to the court. Framing knights acting for the king as the ultimate symbol of honour, loyalty, and status, medieval courts were able to encourage and discipline violence and support. By evoking concepts of chivalry, the Cavaliers reworked this medieval narrative. The speaker’s love of honour (line 12), and their unwavering embrace of “sword, horse [and] shield” (line 8) mimics chivalric virtue and places their support for the king within a literary framework that heralds their actions within well-known contexts of status and honour. In service of the king, the Royalists are able, through such a narrative, to elevate their status above those (the Parliamentarians) who betrayed ancient codes of chivalry by stepping against their king. Clarke (2010) expands on this point, exploring how chivalry was significant not only to Royalist supporters but to the king and court itself:

To Lucasta, Going to the Warres engages with the courtly discourses of platonic love and knightly chivalry. Charles I and Henrietta Maria developed and propounded these discourses in the context of the perfect, fruitful, stable and irenic royal marriage as representations of the king’s rule more generally (p. 151).

As aforementioned, classical influences proliferate within Cavalier poetry. Clarke (2010) argues for the influence of the Iliad within the poem, exploring how Lovelace interacts with classical themes of love and honour within the context of heroic combatant deeds. As Clarke (2010) writes of the sophistication of Lovelace’s use of classical sources, “he invokes the enduring topos of the conflict between love and honour, archetypally played out in the Iliad” (p. 130). The speaker of To Lucasta evokes fighting for one’s king and country as the highest of honourable feats, just as Hector in the Iliad tells his men in Book 15: “And for our country, ‘tis a bliss to die/The gallant man, though slain in fight he be, / Yet leaves his nation safe, his children free [...] his wife live honour’d, all his race succeed”. Such sentiments, reminiscent of Horace’s dulce et decorum est pro patria moriit is sweet and honourable to die for one’s native landhave been utilised throughout literary history as a justification for war. The Cavaliers are no exception, evoking the honour and virtue associated with dying for one’s king and entering battle for their monarch without cynicism or complaint. By evoking such classical themes of honour and loyalty, Lovelace elevates the Royalist cause, placing them in a tradition and paradigm of true virtue as symbolised by loyalty to the king and to the nation.

Figure 5: Charles I (Van Dyck, n.d.).

Robert Herrick

To the King, Upon his coming with his Army into the West, Robert Herrick (1644) Welcome, most welcome to our Vowes and us, Most great, and universall Genius! The Drooping West, which hitherto has stood As one, in long-lamented-widow-hood; Looks like a Bride now, or a bed of flowers, Newly refresh't, both by the Sun, and showers. War, which before was horrid, now appears Lovely in you, brave Prince of Cavaliers! A deale of courage in each bosome springs By your accesse; (O you the best of Kings!) Ride on with all white Omens; so, that where Your Standard's up, we fix a Conquest there. (Lines 1-12)

Herrick’s poem To the King, Upon His Coming with His Army Into the West (1644) was written in the context of the Royalist victory over the Parliamentary army in September 1644. Herrick was a staunch Royalist and wrote many poems heralding the King and displaying his loyalty to the monarchical cause.

The sense of doom and loss is far more evident within Herrick’s poem than one can sense in Lovelace’s overly and exaggeratedly patriotic and enthusiastic call to arms. As Jonathon Post (1991) recognises, an overriding theme within Herrick’s poetry is a sense of loss, of home and stability, with this fear being “that the once familiar has become strangeLondon, too, was in the hands of the Puritansand there are no other ports of call” (p. 11). As such, the enthusiastic welcome at the beginning of the poem is quickly tainted with a looming sense of instability and horror that haunts the rest of the poem. Whilst the Royalist victory in the West brings with it a welcome refreshment, there is, within the poem, a sense that events for Herrick were not always so positive. The liquid consonants of “long lamented widowhood” (line 4) and the evocation of the war as “horrid” (line 7) certainly address the sense that the England he once sourced stability and prosperity within is under threat.

Figure 6: Robert Herrick (Schiavonetti, c. 1790-1813).

This was typical of Royalist poetry, as Crofts (1995) evokes, “their obvious joy in language was mixed with foreboding: the pageantry of the court was going out” (p. iv) and Parliamentarian values and aspirations were coming in. As was archetypal for the literature of the 17th century, Herrick proposes the king as a father-like, protective figure. For Herrick, the King represents the very stability and virtuousness that the Parliamentarian army so threatens. The exaggerated praise for his king, for the “brave Prince of Cavaliers” (line 8) who is the “best of kings” (line 10), stems from this very familial construct, in which the Royalists were not only loyal to the king, but sourced Charles I and his court as the only answer for a revival of their threatened homeland.

Herrick’s poem sophisticatedly addresses the Royalist tension between admiration and loyalty for the king and an acute sense of loss and foreboding as Parliamentarian influence and victory were on the rise. Hidden between patriotic verse and direct support for the King, Herrick leaves the pessimism to haunt in between the lines of the poem. The war's beauty is framed within the restrictive terms of victory, and only in the presence of the king. Indeed, the careful selection of the verb “appears” (line 7) reveals the Royalist tension. The verb appears to suggest, at best, a sudden and unstable coming of stability as the king secured a victory, or at Herrick’s most pessimistic, a facade that merely masks the looming doom that faces the Royalists as their power, king and nation as they knew it was becoming increasingly threatened.

Bibliographical References

Clarke, S. (2010). Royalist Poetry in Context: 1639-1649. Australian National University Press.

Crofts, T. (1995). Cavalier Poets: An Anthology. Courier Corporation.

Herrick, R. (1644). “To the King, Upon his coming with his Army into the West”. Cavalier Poets: An Anthology, Courier Corporation.

Judkins, D. (1977). Recent Studies in the Cavalier Poets: Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, John Suckling, and Edmund Waller. English Literary Renaissance, 7(2).

Keeble, N. H. (2001). The Cambridge Companion to Writing of the English Revolution. Cambridge University Press.

Lovelace, R. (1649). “To Lucasta, Going to the Warres”. Royalist Poetry in Context: 1639-1649, Australian National University Press.

McDowell, N. (2014). Classical Liberty and Cavalier Poetics: The Politics of Literary Community in Caroline London from Jonson to Marvell. The Yearbook of English Studies, 44, 120–136.

Post, J. (1991). “Robert Herrick: A Minority Project”. George Herbert Journal, 14(1&2), pp. 1-20.

Pugh, S. (2018). Jonson and the Cavalier Poets. A Companion to Renaissance Poetry.

Summers, C. (1999). The English Wars in the Literary Imagination. University of Missouri Press.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Van Dyck, A. (1637). Rupert with his elder brother, Charles I Louis [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: National Army Museum. (1642). Charles I raising his standard in Nottingham [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: National Army Museum. (c. the 1640s). A stained glass window in Farndon, Cheshire, commemorating Royalist soldiers who defended nearby Beeston Castle during a year-long siege. National Army Museum [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Dobson, W. (1645). Richard Lovelace [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 5: Van Dyck, A. (n.d.). Charles I [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 6: Schiavonetti, N. (c. 1790-1813). Robert Herrick [Illustration]. Retrieved from:

1 Comment

The Cavalier poets notably shifted towards print culture, departing from reliance on manuscripts and court performances. Embracing print, influenced by Ben Jonson, allowed them to engage in poetry's public and political role. Lunger (2012) highlights how Royalists utilized print to influence public opinion and establish a cultural base during the ideological battlefield of the war, even printing sympathetic poets posthumously.

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Ella Fincken

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