Friday, May 6, 2011

They don’t make poets like that any more

In the February Literary Review, Adrian Tinniswood reviews John Stubbs’ new book Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, which is about the Cavalier poets in particular – Carew, Suckling, Lovelace, Herrick et al. The most colourful was William Davenant:
Born in 1606, he was Shakespeare’s godson, although in later life he often hinted darkly at a closer relationship. While in his twenties he won fame for the court masques he wrote in collaboration with Inigo Jones, and lost his nose to syphilis and the quicksilver used to treat it. (In 1650, when he was facing a treason trial for a plot to export the royalist cause to the Americas, the Commons voted against proceeding with the case. ‘Some Gentlemen, out of pitty, were pleased to let him have the Noes of the House, because he had none of his own.’ My, how we laughed.) By the time he dropped dead at his own theatre one spring evening in 1668, Davenant had succeeded Jonson as poet laureate, fought for the king and been knighted for his ‘loyalty and poet­ry’, written a string of successful masques, acted as a secret agent for Henrietta Maria during her exile in France, staged the first English opera, and, in a mid-life career change, become a successful theatrical manager and masterminded a renaissance in English drama.
Sad to say, the NNDB records that:
His plays are utterly unreadable, and his poems are usually stilted and unnatural. [. . .] his influence on English drama must be condemned as wholly deplorable.
Even so, I bet he was good company.

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