Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War
- John Stubbs
- W. W. Norton
- 560 pp.
- October 14, 2011
The Cavalier poets of the English Civil War are examined in Stubbs’ biography of not only men, but of an age.
Reviewed by Todd Butler
In 1651 William Davenant, poet laureate, courtier, privateer and confidant of the now-exiled Queen Henrietta Maria, found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London, bound over after having been captured at sea by the forces of Parliament’s navy. Only two years prior King Charles I, in whose service Davenant had labored, had met his executioner with stoic reserve, his death bringing an end to the most significant hopes of the defeated and scattered royalists. In the Tower Davenant completed his epic poem “Gondibert,” which when published the next year included (in a dedicatory letter to Thomas Hobbes) Davenant’s assessment that where the king had failed was not on the battlefield but upon the minds of his populace. Persuasion was what the royalist cause now needed, Davenant argued, and “none are so fitt aides to this important worke as Poets.”
Such poets, Davenant chief among them, lie at the center of John Stubbs’ Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War. There they are accompanied by a vibrant cast of characters that includes not only cavaliers but also ambassadors, religious ideologues and apocalyptic prophets, all of whom Stubbs weaves together in a skillful narrative of English history and cultural life between approximately 1620 and 1670. Writers like Davenant, Suckling and Lovelace have often been popularly regarded as ephemeral poets and dramatists, famous more for a few well-chosen turns of phrase (Lovelace’s “Stone Walls do not a Prison make, / Nor Iron bars a Cage” comes immediately to mind) and for an attitude of profligacy, swashbuckling gentility and honor. All these traits are on full display in Stubbs’ book — John Suckling, for example, finds himself bloodied by John Digby’s cudgel in a dispute over the affections of a young heiress, while Davenant’s literary and political ambitions are repeatedly punctuated by a gambling habit and interrupted by the pleas of tailors to whom he was regularly indebted for his finery.
Yet Stubbs’ book does more than simply recount the exploits of gentlemen. Rather it returns men like Davenant, Lovelace, Suckling, Hyde and others to their place within the larger narrative of English history, and in doing so reveals these “cavaliers” to have been much more complicated than their received portraits might otherwise display. Stubbs, whose first book was an award-winning biography of John Donne, clearly has experience in such work, and he is particularly strong in illuminating the eddies of history that led up to the era’s great conflict. Indeed the vast majority of the book centers primarily upon the period before the Civil War, beginning with the echoes of Shakespeare and Jonson that set the background, if not the terms, for the literature of the 17th century.
Reprobates is thus truly a literary history, one in which Stubbs weaves a grander narrative out of not only events but also the verse and drama that illustrated it. Stubbs takes a particularly light hand with the literature of the period, eschewing complex textual readings of individual works for the use of poems as biographical or historical commentary. For literary critics the result will largely feel somewhat simplified, but wider audiences will likely be engaged by the obvious passion and wit these 17th-century writers brought to their subjects, wit that Stubbs often matches in kind. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is Stubbs’ visualization of the court masque, an evening of dance, poetry and spectacle that perhaps more than any other came to define the Caroline court. Precisely because Stubbs allows his own obvious fascination with the genre to shine through, we can ourselves glimpse something of the wonder with which audiences greeted these productions.
Stubbs’ narrative can become occasionally overwhelming, the cast of characters difficult to follow precisely because of its great number. Not every historical shift or moment need have been introduced or illustrated by an individual. At times Stubbs also moves too quickly through events for the reader unfamiliar with this period of history. The death of Oliver Cromwell, the collapse of Parliamentarian rule and the restoration of King Charles II to the throne, for example, occur over two pages with little if any commentary or explanation. Instead, Stubbs favors the reanimation of Davenant’s literary career that these events enabled. But these are small criticisms compared to the book’s wealth of detail. Indeed, Reprobates is less a biography of individuals than a biography of an age.
In writing to Hobbes from prison Davenant argued that while preaching (especially that of the religious ideologues who had motivated much of the rebellion against the king) married words with force, poetry might yield a more lasting power. “The persuasions of Poesie, instead of menace, are Harmonious and Delightfull Insinuations. . . . [and this power] begets such obedience as is never weary or griev’d.” With his own harmony and delight animating Reprobates, Stubbs is a worthy inheritor of the subjects he so ardently admires.
Todd Butler is Associate Professor and Vice Chair, Department of English, Washington State University. His first book, Imagination and Politics in Seventeenth-Century England (Ashgate 2008) examines how the early modern period used its knowledge of the human mind to develop theories of political action. He is currently working on the intersection of law, print and politics in the period.