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gallantry and luxury, which had their natural effect on the rising generation; and Suckling was but the foremost of a new race of wits, who were checked by the troubles that succeeded, only to re-appear with greater licence in a day of re-action.
There was a marked line at that time between the old people in possession, aud the race that were coming up. Davenant told Aubrey, that Suckling did not much care for a lord's converse, for they were in those days "damnably proud and arrogant," and the French would say, that "My Lord d'Angleterre lookt comme un mastif-dog; but now," adds the reporter," the age is much more refined, and much by the example of his most gracious Majestie (Charles II.) who is the patterne of courtesie."
Sir William said, that Suckling's "readie sparkling witt," for which he became famous at court, subjected him to envy, and “he was the bull that was bayted," his wit becoming more sparkling, the more it was chafed. His confidence in his powers, united to an open temper, probably betrayed him sometimes into airs of superiority, from which his account of himself in the Session of the Poets is not exempt.
Sir John succeeded his father in the possession of the family residence at Whitton; but it is probable that he spent little of his time there. The absence of rural images in his writings is remarkable. Neither love, nor poetry, nor philosophical reflection (of which he was far from incapable) led him among the groves. His Account of Religion by Reason he wrote at West-Kington, near Bath; but it was in company with "Will Davenant" and "Jack Young," at the house of "Parson Robert Davenant," the poet's brother, a jovial priest. Our author was one of the greatest bowlers of his time, and bowling-greens were attached to the gardens of the gentry in those days; but unfortunately, as he gambled as well as bowled, his necessities, like his love of show, forced him upon the town. Without taking for granted all the stories which a man's infirmities naturally give rise to, and which other people's infirmities exaggerate, it is clear that Suckling experienced all the vicissitudes, no very honourable ones, of a gambler's life. He was a star, as Johnson would say, alternately triumphing in lustre, and drowned in eclipse.
Unluckily, the notions of morality itself are different at different periods. It was said the other day of a celebrated politician, that although he was a dishonest man, and not to be trusted, he could not be charged with immorality; meaning, that his love of the fair sex was confined to the lady he had married. On the other hand, Pope said of Sir John Suckling, that he was "an immoral man, as well as debauched;" meaning, that he was dishonest and not to be trusted. "The story of the French cards was told me," says he, "by the late Duke of Buckingham (Sheffield) who had it from old Lady Dorset herself."* These were cards made in France, and marked in such a way, as to be known only to the possessor. Now my Lady Dorset was of a third opinion in ethics, and appears to have considered neither the gal lantry nor the gambling immoral. "That lady," says Pope, "took a very odd pride in boasting of her familiarities with Sir John Suckling. She is the Mistress and Goddess in his poems; and several of those pieces were given by herself to the printer. This the Duke of Buckingham used to give as one instance of the fondness she had to let the world know, how well they were acquainted." We know what was done, with good reputation, in Charles the Second's time, from the Memoirs of the gambling Count de Grammont; but even in the preceding age, which is the one before us, Evelyn accuses "the ladies of taking all advantages at play." My Lady Dorset was probably one of them. It is certain that, in attributing stratagems of this kind to her admirer, she was far from thinking she dishonoured the memory of one, whose notice she considered an honour. We may see, from her ladyship's notions, how lightly they regarded in those times what would
* Frances, daughter to Lionel Cranfield, first Earl of Middlesex She became Countess of Middlesex in her own right on the death of her brother Lionel, the third Earl; and by marrying Richard, Earl of Dorset, brought the title into that nobleman's family. She was mother of Charles, Earl of Dorset and Middlesex, the celebrated wit; and died very old in 1692. Her husband, who was born in September 1622, could not have been fifteen years old when Charles, in January 1637, came into the world. There was great intimacy among the Suckling, Middlesex, and Dorset families. The two former were neighbours as well as friends; and the writer of the Life prefixed to Suckling's Works calls him a kinsman of the Earl of Dorset. Our author, in his dramas, has a remarkable fondness for a name of his invention, Francelia. In the Goblins he gives it to the country in which the scene is laid; and the heroines of Brennoralt and the Sad One are both called Francelia. Is not this likely to have been a compliment to the Lady Frances?
justly be considered in our own as practices unworthy of a man of honour. What completes the curiosity of this anecdote, is, that Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, from whom Pope had the story, was the most notorious gambler of his time, even when the vice had gone out of fashion. He is accused of giving an annual dinner to the reigning sharpers, whom he welcomed with a remarkable toast, "Gentlemen, may we all remain unhung this time next year." It is to be observed, that Aubrey, who says no shopkeeper would trust our poet for sixpence on account of his being such a gamester, insinuates nothing against his honesty; and Sir William Davenant, who survived him, and who was 66 no immoral man, though debauched," is mentioned as his "intimate friend," and one that "loved him intirely."
The way in which Suckling used to "envisage" his losses, and surmount them and shake his plumes in their teeth, has something in it highly characteristical. When he was at his lowest ebb, said Davenant, then would he make himself most gorgeous in apparel, and say it exalted his spirits, and gave him the greatest chance of good luck. His magnificence accompanied him wherever he went, and was made to bear upon all his pursuits. When he took his journey into Somersetshire, to rake with cavaliers and write on Socinianism, he rode like a prince "for all manner of equipage," and had a cart-load of books in his train. At London he gave an entertainment to a great number of ladies of quality, all beauties and young, where every delicacy to be found in England was brought upon table, and the last service consisted of silk stockings, garters, and gloves. This is like poetry inviting its heroines, and sitting down to table in a gallant shape. Loves and "winged words" take a circuit of the board, and fan up the lustre in their looks.
But Suckling was also "a serious man," or the ladies would have found his perfections wanting. After feasting his beauties over-night, and adding his own music, if he pleased, to the entertainment (for he was a performer), he could go and discuss politics with Lord Falkland, and divinity with Hales of Eton. Hales, Carew, and Davenant, were his intimate friends. He is said also, besides Falkland, to have been the associate of Ben Jonson and Digby; and was probably acquainted with Selden.
Among these, his beauties, and his gamblers (a luckless anticlimax!) our poet divided his time and his fortune, occasionally amusing himself with writing, particularly plays; which succeeded beyond what a modern reader might have conjectured. This was owing, most likely, to his popularity with the circles, and to his hesitating at no expense in dresses and decoration. He carried everything before him at the play-house, as he did elsewhere, by dint of the will to do it, and the generosity in which the will was clothed.
But pride will have a fall, especially if it does not take care of its muscles. Sir John was not so robust as he was sprightly: his mode of living did not tend to harden his nerves; and the reputation for courage which he acquired under Gustavus, he appears to have shaken by an unfortunate rencontre with Sir John Digby, brother of Sir Kenelm, whom he is accused of having first assailed with unequal numbers, and then disgracefully fled from. If he did, there is another example, in addition to that of Lord Rochester, to shew "men of wit and pleasure" the danger which they run above others in hazarding the loss of their courage; for what may be summoned up in the place of it by men of less reflection, or of more, is in their hands likely to fail them, either from their having other grounds of reputation to go upon, as Suckling had; or from their power to sophisticate upon the nature of the quality demanded, as was openly done by Rochester. At the same time, the baseness of setting upon a man with unequal numbers (though not without countenance in those days) is so unlike what might be expected from the spirit evinced in Suckling's writings, and from the affection entertained for his memory by gallant men, that as it rests upon no authority but Aubrey's, whose veracity was equalled by his credulity, and who does not state the circumstance of his own knowledge, it is not improbable that the story might have sprung up in the usual course of envy and scandal.*
From the following testimony of " Mr Snowdon," it looks as if there was something true in the story. "Memorand: Mr Snowdon tells me," says Aubrey, "that after Sr. John's unluckie rencounter, or quarrell, wth Sr. John Digby, wherein he was baffled, 'twas strange to see the envie and ill-nature of people to trample and scoffe at, and deject one in disgrace; inhumane as well as unchristian. The Lady Moray had made an entertainment for severall persons of quality at Ashley (in Surrey, near Chertsey), whereat Mr Snowdon then was.-There was the Countess
A more authentic misfortune befell him, which is said by one of his biographers to have shortened his days. This was the conduct of a troop of horse which he raised, when Charles, in the year 1639, invited his nobility and gentry to attend him in his expedition to Scotland. There was a notion, that the mere parade of such a movement would do wonders; and as the courtiers acted accordingly, and made as gallant a shew as possible, our author was pleased to have an opportunity of displaying his lustre. His troop, as far as clothes went, was the bravest of the brave. It consisted of a hundred handsome young men, well horsed and armed, and gallantly attired in white and scarlet, with feathers in their hats. They encountered the enemy, and fled.
That a misadventure of this kind must have particularly vexed him, is obvious, especially as it became a subject of merriment to his brother wits; but that it ended in killing him, appears to have been a fancy originating in the weak imagination of Lloyd, author of the "Worthies," who suffered in the cause of royalty,a feeble and credulous partisan. The year following our author wrote his admirable letter to Henry Jermyn, in which he seems to have lost nothing of his composure; and there is reason to believe that, in 1641, he was engaged in those plots against the Parliament which brought Davenant and others into trouble. The same month that Davenant was arrested on his way to France, Suckling, also on his way to France, was arrested by a "feller serjeant." Aubrey says, that he died in Paris, and that he killed himself by poison; being conveniently situated for that purpose by "lying at an apothecary's house." The story of his death, given by Oldys in his MS. notes on Langbaine, and repeated with a variation in Spence, is the one that is now received. Lord Oxford informed Oldys, on the authority of Dean Chetwood, who said he had it from Lord Roscommon, that Sir John Suckling, on his way to France, was robbed of a casket of gold and jewels by his valet, who, to provide against all contingencies, not only gave him poison, but stuck the blade of a penknife in such a manner in his boot, as to wound him mortally when he attempted pursuit. From Lord Oxford the story most probably came to Spence, who drops the incident of the poison, and turns the penknife into a rusty blade; adding,
of Middlesex,† whom Sr. John had highly courted, and had spent on her, and in treating her, some thousands of pounds. At this entertainment she could not forbear, but was so severe and ingrate as to upbraid Sr. John of his late received baffle; and some other ladies had their flirts. The Lady Moray (who invited them) seeing Sr. John out of countenance, for whose worth she alwaies had a respect; Well, sayd shee, I am a merry wench, and will never forsake an old friend in disgrace, so come sitt down by me, Sr. John' (said she), and seated him on her right hand, and countenanced him. This raysed Sr. John's dejected spirites, that he threw his repartees about the table with much sparkliness and gentileness of witt, to the admiration them all."
The Lady Dorset aforesaid, who was so proud his verses, when they came to be printed. Perhaps her Ladyship was jealous of somebody in the room.