A Very Short Biography of Sir John Suckling

An introduction to the poet’s life

Sir John Suckling (1609-42) was a minor poet who nevertheless made his mark on the literature of his era. In this post we offer a very brief biography of John Suckling, covering the most interesting aspects of his life and work.

John Suckling was born in 1609 in Middlesex, England; his father, Sir John Suckling, was Secretary of State under King James I and, for the last two years of his life, Comptroller of the Household of King Charles I. At the age of eighteen, Suckling inherited his father’s estate when Sir John Senior died in 1627. Suckling studied at Trinity College, Cambridge (John Milton was at Cambridge at the same time, though at Christ’s rather than Trinity), and then trained in Law at Gray’s Inn, London.

sir-john-suckling-poetSuckling was very well connected with the literary world of the 1620s and 1630s. He knew, among others, Ben Jonson, fellow Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, and William Davenant, the playwright who claimed to be William Shakespeare’s bastard son. Suckling spent much of his time gambling; his most lasting legacy at the card table was as the inventor of the popular card game cribbage, which Suckling adapted from an existing game called ‘noddy’. Suckling travelled around the country, taking on other noblemen at his new game, and roundly beating them at it: he reportedly won a whopping £20,000 at the card table. He was also reckoned to be the best player of bowls in the whole of England.

As well as playing cards and bowls, Suckling also fought in foreign campaigns in Europe, for which he was knighted in 1630. It is for his poetry, however, that Sir John Suckling is now chiefly remembered. King Charles I admired his poetry, and Suckling’s ‘A Ballade upon a Wedding’ is among his most widely anthologised poems. However, perhaps his most recognisable poem is his ‘Song’, which begins ‘Why so pale and wan, fond lover?’ This lyric is taken from one of Sir John Suckling’s dramatic works, the 1638 play Aglaura, which was staged at his own expense. Suckling’s plays are now seen as typifying the last gasps of English Renaissance drama before the theatres were closed in 1642, following the outbreak of the English Civil War. His dramatic work is also notable for introducing into tragedies and comedies numerous elements previously almost exclusively associated with masques rather than plays.

Sir John Suckling fled to France in May 1641, after being implicated in a failed plot to release the Earl of Strafford from the Tower of London. According to John Aubrey, seventeenth-century gossip extraordinaire (and one of Interesting Literature’s patron saints), Suckling committed suicide in France in 1642, to avoid a life of poverty. Most biographers take Aubrey at his word, which is a dangerous thing to do, but Aubrey’s account chimes with what we know of Suckling’s life and personality.

We hope you found this very short biography of Sir John Suckling helpful. You can discover more about Suckling’s life here.

Image: Sir John Suckling via Lisby on Flickr.

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