Sir John Suckling (1609-1642). Painting by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sir John Suckling (10 February 1609 - 1 June 1642) was an English poet and a prominent figure among those renowned for careless gaiety, wit, and all the accomplishments of a Cavalier poet. He is perhaps best known for his poem "Ballad Upon a Wedding". He is also the supposed inventor of the card game Cribbage.



by Edmund Gosse

At the age of nineteen he went away to the continent, and wandered through France, Italy, Germany and Spain for four years, seeking adventure. He offered his sword to the King of Sweden, fought in command of a troop in front of Glogau and of Magdeburg, performed astounding feats of prowess in Silesia, and returned before the battle of Lützen simply because his imperious fancy began to find the great war a tedious pastime. He proceeded to London, and lived for six years in a style of such gorgeous profusion that at last he contrived to cripple one of the amplest fortunes of that age. He retired for a while, ostentatiously enough, into a literary seclusion at Bath, taking the obsequious Davenant with him as a sort of amanuensis. During this brief time, no doubt, his tragedies were composed. The King, however, fretted for his return, and he emerged as the leader of the Royalist party in its earliest troubles. After the crisis, Suckling fled to France, and thence to Spain; at Madrid he fell into the clutches of the Inquisition, and underwent horrible tortures. He escaped to Paris, with a mind probably unstrung by these torments, for he poisoned himself in his thirty-fourth year. Such was the career of a man whose light verses, carelessly thrown off and half forgotten, have outlived the pomp and public glitter of his famous adventures, by which he now seems to us rather dwarfed and injured than exalted.[1]


Suckling was born at Whitton, in the parish of Twickenham, Middlesex, and baptized there on 10 February 1609. His father, Sir John Suckling, was Secretary of State under James I and Comptroller of the Household of Charles I, and his mother was Elizabeth (Cranfield), sister of Sir Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex.

The poet inherited his father's estate at the age of 18. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1623, and was enrolled at Gray's Inn in 1627.[2] He was intimate with Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, Thomas Nabbes and especially with John Hales and Sir William Davenant, who later furnished John Aubrey with information about his friend.

In 1628 he left London to travel in France and Italy, returning before the autumn of 1630. In 1631 he volunteered for the force raised by the Marquess of Hamilton to serve under Gustavus Adolphus in Germany. He was back at Whitehall in May 1632; but during his short service he had been present at the Battle of Breitenfeld and in many sieges.

At courtEdit

His poetic talent was only one of many accomplishments, but it commended him especially to Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria. He says of himself ("A Sessions of the Poets") that he "prized black eyes or a lucky hit at bowls above all the trophies of wit." Aubrey says that he invented the game of Cribbage, and relates that his sisters came weeping to the bowling green at Piccadilly to dissuade him from play, fearing that he would lose their portions. Suckling was so passionately devoted to cards, that he would frequently spend the whole morning in bed with a pack before him, studying the subtleties of his favourite games. He was considered not only the most skilful card-player, but also the best bowler in England.[3]

In 1634 great scandal was caused in his old circle by a beating which he received at the hands of Sir John Digby, a rival suitor for the hand of the daughter of Sir John Willoughby; and it has been suggested that this incident, which is narrated at length in a letter (10 November 1634) from George Garrard to Strafford, had something to do with his beginning to seek more serious society. In 1635 he retired to his country estates in obedience to the proclamation of 20 June 1632 enforced by the Star Chamber against absentee landlordism, and employed his leisure in literary pursuits. In 1637 "A Sessions of the Poets" was circulated in manuscript, and about the same time he wrote a tract on Socinianism entitled An Account of Religion by Reason (pr. 1646).

Civil War and deathEdit

In 1639, Suckling assisted King Charles I in his first Scottish war.

At the breaking out of disturbances in 1639, when the Scottish Covenanters advanced to the English borders, many of the courtiers complimented the king, by raising forces at their own expense. Among these, none was more distinguished than Sir John Suckling. These gallant gentlemen vied with each other in the costly equipment of their forces, which led the king facetiously to remark, that "the Scots would fight stoutly, if only for the Englishmen's fine clothes." The troop of horse raised by Sir John alone cost him, so richly was it accoutred, twelve thousand pounds. In the action which ensued, the sturdy Scots were more than a match for the showy Englishmen; and among those who particularly distinguished themselves by their shabby behavior, was the splendid troop of Sir John Suckling. There is every reason to believe that Sir John personally acquitted himself as became a soldier and a gentleman; but the event gave rise to [a] humorous pasquil, which, while some suppose it to have been written by Sir John Mennis, a cotemporary wit, others have attributed to Suckling himself.[4]

He was elected as member for Bramber for the opening session (1640) of the Long Parliament; and in that winter he drew up a letter addressed to Henry Jermyn, afterwards earl of St Albans, advising the king to disconcert the opposition leaders by making more concessions than they asked for. In May of the following year he was implicated in an attempt to rescue Strafford (Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford?) from the Tower of London and to bring in French troops to the king's aid. The plot was exposed by the evidence of Colonel George Goring, and Suckling fled beyond the seas.

The circumstances of his short exile are obscure. He was certainly in Paris in the summer of 1641. One pamphlet related a story of his elopement with a lady to Spain, where he fell into the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.

The manner of his death is uncertain, but Aubrey's statement that he put an end to his life by poison in May or June 1642 in fear of poverty is generally accepted.


Dramatic worksEdit

As a dramatist Suckling is noteworthy as having applied to regular drama the accessories already used in the production of masques. His Aglaura (pr. 1638) was produced at his own expense with elaborate scenery. Even the lace on the actors' coats was of real gold and silver. The play, in spite of its felicity of diction, lacks dramatic interest, and the criticism of Richard Flecknoe (Short Discourse of the English Stage), that it seemed "full of flowers, but rather stuck in than growing there," is not altogether unjustified. The Goblins (1638, pr. 1646) has some reminiscences of The Tempest; Brennoralt, or the Discontented Colonel (1639, pr. 1646) is a satire on the Scots, who are the Lithuanian rebels of the play; a fourth play, The Sad One, was left unfinished owing to the outbreak of the Civil War. Suckling raised a troop of a hundred horse, at a cost of £12,000, and accompanied Charles on the Scottish expedition of 1639. He shared in the earl of Holland's retreat before Duns, and was ridiculed in an amusing ballad (pr. 1656), in Musarum deliciae, "on Sir John Suckling's most warlike preparations for the Scottish war."


Among the best known of his minor pieces are the "Ballad upon a Wedding," on the occasion of the marriage of Roger Boyle, afterwards Earl of Orrery, and Lady Margaret Howard, "I prithee, send me back my heart," "Out upon it, I have loved three whole days together," and "Why so pale and wan, fond lover?" from Aglaura. "A Sessions of the Poets," describing a meeting of the contemporary versifiers under the presidency of Apollo to decide who should wear the laurel wreath, is the prototype of many later satires.

Critical introductionEdit

by Edmund Gosse

It is impossible to consider the poems of Suckling without regard to his career. No English poet has lived a life so public, so adventurous and so full of vicissitude as his. Nothing short of an irresistible bias towards the art of poetry could have induced so busy and so fortunate a man to write in verse at all. Beautiful and vigorous in body, educated in all the accomplishments that grace a gentleman, endowed from earliest youth with the prestige of a soldier and a popular courtier, his enormous wealth enabled him to indulge every whim that a fondness for what was splendid or eccentric in dress, architecture and pageantry could devise. Such a life could present no void which literary ambition could fill, and Suckling’s scorn for poetic fame was well known to his contemporaries....

Written under such circumstances, and preserved in a fragmentary state by friends, it would be surprising if the poems of Suckling presented any great finish or completeness. In point of fact, they display to us but the ruins of his genius. A ballad of wonderful brightness and sweetness, half-a-dozen songs full of the most aery and courtly grace, these alone of all he has left behind him are in any sense worthy of their author’s splendid fame. His contemporaries, and the men of the next generation, remembering his shining qualities of personal presence, his wit, his fluent fancy and, perhaps, many fine poems that we shall never see, spoke of him as an epoch-making writer, in terms that we reserve for Herrick, of whom they never speak. His name still lives in the popular ear, as the names of poets far greater than he will never live.

His figure takes a place in poetic literature which the student fresh from his pages is apt to consider unduly high, and which his "golden fragments" scarcely seem to justify. But the instinct of the people, in this as in so many other cases, is probably right, and though the imperfections of his poems may cloud it, there is no doubt that his genius existed. It shows itself even more in his disciples than in himself; his manner of writing affected the course of English literature, and showed its strength less in his own lyrics, than in the fact that for the next fifty years no one could write a good love-song without more or less reminding the reader of Suckling. To the very end of the century ‘natural, easy Suckling’ was the type of literary elegance to the Millamants and Lady Froths of fashion.

His existing works consist of a slender collection of lyrical and complimentary poems, and of four plays, one of them incomplete. Suckling, who had a creditable adoration for Shakespeare, inherited none of his dramatic genius. A worse playwright is scarcely to be found, even in that miserable period, among the Gomersalls, Lowers, and Killigrews. Aglaura, a monster of tedious pageantry, was arranged with a tragic and a comic ending, according to choice: but this was not so unique as has been supposed, for we find the same silly contrivance in Howard’s Vestal Virgin and in the Pandora of Sir William Killigrew.

The only drama of Suckling’s which is at all readable is Brennoralt, which is incoherent enough, but does contain some fine tragic writing. The only real merit of these plays however consists in the beautiful songs they harbour.

The lyrical pieces of Suckling’s which were collected under the title of Fragmenta Aurea present considerable difficulty to the critic. Never was a volume of poems so unequal in merit presented to the public. Side by side with songs that will be enjoyed as long as the English language exists, we find stanzas which it is impossible either to scan or to construe, and which would disgrace the Poet’s Corner of a provincial newspaper. The famous "Session of the Poets", one of those pieces which were most admired in the age that saw its production, is full of laxities of style that fairly astonish the modern reader. Such a stanza, for instance, as that dedicated to Jonson, limps and waddles along with a strangely gouty gait:—

‘The first that broke silence was good old Ben,
Prepared before with Canary wine,
And he told them plainly he deserved the bays,
For his were called works, while others were but plays.’

In the case of other poems, in which we find awkward and confused passages, we may suppose that Suckling left the verse confused or incomplete, and that the text suffers from inartistic revision, but "The Session of the Poets" is one of the few pieces published in his lifetime, and we are therefore inclined to suppose that he was but little affected by errors of style that are palpable to us.

When, however, he is at his best, he throws off all awkwardness and obscurity; his versification becomes liquid and nimble, and in one instance, the famous "Ballad upon a Wedding", he has contrived to keep up his tone of airy vivacity through twenty-two incomparable verses. But as a rule his lyric flights are brief. His songs owe their special charm to their gallantry and impudence, their manly ardour and their frivolous audacity. The temper expressed in "Why so pale and wan, fond lover?" was in sympathy with the age, and gave a delight which seems to us extravagant; Suckling’s admiration for Shakespeare not preventing him from being one of the chief heralds of the poetry of the Restoration. He sings like a royalist gentleman; he leaves the weaving of conceits to learned contemporaries, such as Cowley and Lovelace; he inaugurates a simpler, most straightforward expression of inflamed fancy and amorous discontent. This is in his songs only; in his moral pieces, such as that beginning

‘My dearest rival, lest our love
Should with eccentric motion move,’

he is as quaint and conceited, if not so ingenious, as the best of the poets once called Metaphysical. His great praise is his manliness: after all the rhymesters who for a century had been sonneting their mistress’ eyebrow, and avowing the most abject deference, the attitude of Suckling strutting with his impudent smiling face through the galaxy of ladies, struck the contemporary mind as refreshing, and a new fashion in gallantry set in. What had been good sense in Suckling, soon however became effrontery in Sedley, and cynicism in Congreve, and the base sensual feast to which the poets of the Restoration sat down we feel to have been a sorry exchange for the Arcadian diet of the Elizabethans. Even here also there was some brisk music of a gallantry not wholly base, and for this we have to thank Suckling and his sprightly mood.[1]


Sickling was knighted in 1630.

Four of his poems ("A Doubt of Martyrdom," "The Constant Lover," "Why so Pale and Wan?", and "When, Dearest, I but think of Thee") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[5]




  • Aglaura. London: John Haviland for Thomas Walkley, 1638.


  • A coppy of a letter fovnd in the privy lodgeings at White-Hall. London: 1641;
    • also published as "To Mr. Henry German, in the beginning of Parliament, 1640," in Fragmenta Avrea, 1646.[6]
    • also published as A letter from Sir John Suckling to Mr. Henry German, in the beginning of the late Long Parliament, anno 1640. London: 1679.
  • The Coppy of a Letter Written to the Lower House of Parliament Touching Divers Grievances and Inconveniences of the State &c. London. London: Iohn Dawson for Thomas Walkley, 1641.

Collected editionsEdit

  • Fragmenta Aurea: A collection of all the incomparable peeces. London: Ruth Raworth & Thomas Walkley for Humphrey Moseley, 1646. (comprises Poems, Letters, An Account of Religion by Reason, Aglaura, The Goblins, and Brennoralt)
    • revised 2nd edition, London: Humphrey Moseley, 1648.
  • The Last Remains of Sr John Suckling. Being a Full Collection of his Poems and Letters. London: Printed by Thomas Newcombe for Humphrey Moseley, 1659;[6]
    • republished with Fragmenta Avrea. London: Humphrey Moseley, [1672?][6]
    • republished as The Works of Sir John Suckling: Containing all his poems, plays, letters &c.. London: Henry Herringman, 1676;
    • revised edition, London:Henry Herringman, 1696.[6]
  • The Works of Sir John Suckling: Containing his poems, letters, and plays. London: Jacob Tonson, 1719.
  • Selections from the Works (edited by Alfred Inigo Suckling). London, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, 1836.
  • The Poems, Plays, and other remains (edited by William Carew Hazlitt). (2 volumes), London: F. & W. Kerslake, 1874; London: Reeves & Turner, 1892; Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. Volume I, Volume II
  • The Works: In prose and verse (edited by A. Hamilton Thompson). London: Routledge / New York: Dutton, 1910.
  • The Works of Sir John Suckling. (2 volumes), Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1971.
    • Volume I: The non-dramatic works (edited by Thomas Clayton).
    • Volume II: The plays (edited by L.A. Beaurline).

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the WorldCat.[7]

Play productionsEdit

"The Constant Lover etc02:13

"The Constant Lover etc." by Sir John Suckling (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

  • Aglaura, London, at Court, 1638; tragicomic version, London, Cockpit theater, 3 April 1638.
  • The Goblins, London, Blackfriars theater, 1641(?).
  • Brennoralt; or, The discontented Colonel, London, Blackfriars theater, 1641(?).

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 from Edmund W. Gosse, "Critical Introduction: Sir John Suckling (1609–1642)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 11, 2016.
  2. Suckling, John in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  3. The Fortnightly, vol. 2 p. 300, George Henry Lewes, John Morley, Thomas Hay Sweet Escott, William Leonard Courtney, Frank Harris - Chapman & Hall, London 1865
  4. "Sir John Suckling". Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art (New York: G. P. Putnam and Co) 6 (32): 171. August 1855. OCLC 50092694. Archived from the original on 1999-2009.;cc=putn;view=toc;subview=short;idno=putn0006-2. Retrieved October 23, 2010.  Part of the Making of America Project, Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Library.
  5. Alphabetical list of authors: Shelley, Percy Bysshe to Yeats, William Butler. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 19, 2012.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Sir John Suckling 1609-1642, Poetry Foundation, Web, Dec. 9, 2012.
  7. Search results = au:John Suckling, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 7, 2016.

External linksEdit

Audio / video


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