Cavalier Poets created the art that King Charles was interested in and often worked in his service.
The term “cavalier” was used to describe this group as an insult, one that portrayed them as boisterous, uneducated, and without manners. The majority of the poets in this group were courtiers or men who attended court and paid homage to the monarch. But, not all the writers could be defined in the same way. Interesting, several of the most important cavalier poets died before the English Civil War even began, or the term “cavalier” was used.
Explore Cavalier Poets
Definition of Cavalier Poets
The Cavalier Poets were writers who supported Charles I during the English Civil War and who spoke out against the “roundheads,” or the supporters of the English Parliament. Their writing was quite different from that of previous and later movements. They often spoke about political issues, used classical allusions, and aimed to express feelings of gratification and joy in the simple, celebratory moments of life. Their writing was created with the intention of pleasing Charles I over most everything else. This meant that writers included references and information that interested the monarch.
When reading cavalier poetry it’s likely one will find poems addressing love, nature, drinking, honor, politics, and beauty. Seizing the day was another important part of their work. They wanted to celebrate the importance of working every day to become the best possible version of themselves.
List of Cavalier Poets
The best-known of the Cavalier Poets were:
- Robert Herrick: a lyric poet who is best-known for this work Hesperides. It includes some of the best examples of carpe diem, or seize the day, poems. Such as ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.’ He wrote over 2,500 poems during his lifetime and most of these appear in Hesperides. Often, they reference love, lovemaking, and the female body. As his writing progressed, he moved on to more spiritual themes. Scholars have defined the overall message of his work as one abut the brevity of life and how beautiful and full of wonder the world is.
- Richard Lovelace: another important cavalier poet. He fought for Charles I during the English Civil War. His best-known poems are ‘To Althea, from Prison’ and ‘To Lucasta, Going to the Warres.’ When he returned from the war, he served as a gentlemen and justice of the peace. He was imprisoned several times and released in April 1649 after Charles I was executed.
- Thomas Carew: a notable cavalier poet whose work was not adequately studied and appreciated until the 20th century. His best-known work, ‘A Rapture,’ is a great representative of his broader oeuvre. His poems were generally short and dealt with themes of love, female beauty, and sex.
- Sir John Suckling: rose to prominence during the 17th century for his witty poems. He is best known for ‘Ballade upon a Wedding’ and his joyful attitude toward life. His collection, Fragmenta Aurea first appeared in 1646. He’s also noted for his dramatic works, like “Aglaura.”
Examples of Poems by the Cavalier Poets
This well-loved cavalier poem describes a speaker’s beliefs about the impact of time on a woman’s life and the value of beauty. The poem begins with the speaker stating that a woman should do everything she can while she is young to take advantage of the love others want to give her. She will be more appreciated while she is young and beautiful. Therefore, she should “gather [her] rose-buds” or the things in life she needs, before time takes over. Once “Time” has made its mark on her, she will be lost to the happy possibilities of life. Consider these lines, including the famous opening line, from the poem:
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Throughout, Herrick engages with themes of time and beauty. He emphasizes the classic, oppressive opinion of women as being valuable only when they’re beautiful. These were common features of his work and can be seen throughout other examples of cavalier poetry.
Discover more Robert Herrick poems.
To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace
Famously, Lovelace wrote this piece in 1642 while imprisoned in Gatehouse Prison adjoining Westminster Abbey. He had that year presented a petition to Parliament in protest of the Bishop’s Exclusion Bill. The bill prevented those heavily involved with the Churches of England from enacting any control over matters concerning the church. The poem itself describes the poet’s attempts to maintain his freedom. It’s written in the form of a poem to a woman named, “Althea” whose true identity has never been confirmed. Here are a few lines:
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.
In the last sections, the speaker describes his ability to sing more shrilly than a “linnet.” His words will glorify the king and provide him with a freedom greater than that known by the winds which turn up a flood.
Explore more Richard Lovelace poems.
This famed poem describes the emotional situation of a speaker who is unsure if his listener truly loves him. The poem begins with the speaker asking if his listener is willing to love him. He worries over the possibility that she will laugh at him rather than love him back. His “wooing” could go to waste. He continues on to ask that she not condemn him to death but give him a “nobler fate” at her side. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Now you have freely given me leave to love,
What will you do?
Shall I your mirth, or passion move,
When I begin to woo;
Will you torment, or scorn, or love me too?
This poem is a great example of how important living in the moment was to the Cavalier Poets. They wanted to make the most of their lives that they could and this included not wasting time with people who aren’t going to return their affections.
Read more Thomas Carew poems.
Cavalier poetry, despite its reputation, can be quite diverse. Poems attributed to Cavalier Poets are often written on themes of love, lovemaking, time, beauty, nature, and politics. It’s the latter for which the group is best-known. Many composed their writing in an attempt to please their monarch, Charles I of England.
The word “cavalier” refers to a lack of concern. Someone who is cavalier doesn’t pay proper attention to things that matter. They have a “cavalier attitude” towards life and their troubles. It was used as a pejorative to describe a group of poets who supported Charles I in England during the 17th century.
Cavalier poems are far more evenly structured and formal than metaphysical poems. The latter intentionally uses unusual patterns and rhymes, or neither. They were also more interested in philosophical exploration and the use of conceits and irony.
Some critics consider aspects of Marvell’s work to resemble that of the Cavalier Poets. But, he is far more commonly grouped with the metaphysical poets.
Related Literary Terms
- Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
- Augustan Age: a period during the first half of the 18th century in England. Poets during this period created verse inspired by authors like Virgil and Ovid.
- Georgian Poetry: a poetic movement in England that lasted from 1910 to 1936 during the reign of George V.
- Metaphysical Poetry: marked by the use of elaborate figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes, and philosophical topics.
- Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.