Cavalier Poetry: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:02 Definition of Cavalier Poetry
  • 0:47 Characteristics
  • 1:30 Examples of Cavalier Poetry
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Cavalier poets lived in the 17th century, and were loyal to King Charles I. In this lesson, we take a look at the Cavalier poets and their style. We also analyze how Cavalier poetry differed from metaphysical poetry, which was popular during the 17th century as well.

Definition of Cavalier Poetry

The Cavalier poets, members of the aristocracy, wrote in the 17th century and supported King Charles I, who was later executed as a result of a civil war. They were known as Royalists. Cavalier poetry is straightforward, yet refined. Many of the poems centered around sensual, romantic love and also the idea of carpe diem, which means to 'seize the day.' To the Cavalier poet, enjoying life was far more important than following moral codes. They lived for the moment.

Cavalier poetry mirrored the attitudes of courtiers. The meaning of cavalier is showing arrogant or offhand disregard; dismissive or carefree and nonchalant; jaunty. This describes the attitude of Cavalier poets.

Characteristics

Some of the most prominent Cavalier poets were Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, Robert Herrick, and John Suckling. They emulated Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare. These poets opposed metaphysical poetry, such as that of John Donne.

While poets like John Donne wrote with a spiritual, scientific, and moral focus, the Cavalier poets concentrated on the pleasures of the moment. Metaphysical poets also wrote in figurative, lofty language, while the Cavaliers were simple, being more apt to say what they meant in clear terms. The Cavalier poet wrote short, refined verses, and the tone of Cavalier poetry was generally easy-going.

Examples of Cavalier Poetry

We will examine stanzas from Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, Robert Herrick, and John Suckling, and analyze their themes. Let's think about how these themes fit into the definition and descriptions of Cavalier poetry.

The first poet, Thomas Carew, wrote about the rejection of one young woman, Celia, whom he refuses to pursue further. Here is the first and last stanza of his poem entitled 'Disdain Returned.'

Stanza One:

He that loves a rosy cheek,
Or a coral lip admires,
Or from starlike eyes doth seek
Fuel to maintain his fires;
As old Time makes these decay,
So his flames must waste away.

Stanza Two:

No tears, Celia, now shall win
My resolved heart to return;
I have searched thy soul within,
And find naught but pride and scorn;
I have learned thy arts, and now
Can disdain as much as thou.
Some power, in my revenge convey
That love to her I cast away.

It almost seems that Carew has a 'na,na,na,na,na,' attitude. 'It serves you right!' he seems to say to Celia. If she can reject him, then he will also reject her. No matter how much she might cry and ask him to change his mind, he remains resolute. This fits the Cavalier poet's mindset. At this moment, Carew dislikes Celia, but tomorrow he may very well change his mind.

Once briefly imprisoned during the civil war, Richard Lovelace wrote 'To Althea from Prison.' Here is one stanza:

When Love with unconfinèd 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 Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.

Although Lovelace seems a little syrupy in this poem, he is writing from his feelings of the moment, and there is definitely a sensual element to this poem. His lover visits him in prison, and he 'lie(s) tangled in her hair.' He feels free in spite of his imprisonment.

Robert Herrick definitely sums up the Cavalier attitude in his poem, 'To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.' Here are the first and third stanzas of the poem:

Stanza One:

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