A reading of a classic poem
‘The Scrutiny’ is a poem by Richard Lovelace (1617-57), one of the leading Cavalier poets of the seventeenth century. The poem is essentially a defence of ‘playing the field’ and a renunciation of the poet’s former declaration of faithfulness to his lover. Below is ‘The Scrutiny’ and a few words by way of analysis.
Why should you swear I am forsworn,
Since thine I vowed to be?
Lady, it is already morn,
And ’twas last night I swore to thee
That fond impossibility.
Have I not loved thee much and long,
A tedious twelve hours’ space?
I must all other beauties wrong,
And rob thee of a new embrace,
Could I still dote upon thy face.
Not but all joy in thy brown hair
By others may be found; –
But I must search the black and fair,
Like skilful mineralists that sound
For treasure in unploughed-up ground.
Then if, when I have loved my round,
Thou prov’st the pleasant she,
With spoils of meaner beauties crowned
I laden will return to thee,
Ev’n sated with variety.
A mean poem this, but playful, so we can forgive its meanness. And it is expressed elegantly and charmingly. But the fact remains that Lovelace, in this poem, embodies the ‘Cavalier’ spirit in both senses, since he’s spurning his lover’s request for fidelity and urging her to let him go off with other women.
In summary, Lovelace – or the speaker of ‘The Scrutiny’, at least – addresses his sweetheart, and renounces the promise he made last night that he would love her and her alone. He begins by telling her not to be silly by saying that she is washing her hands of him (he’s ‘forsworn’): surely she didn’t think he meant it when he swore to be faithful to her? In the words of Homer Simpson, that was ten minutes ago – or last night, anyway. And it was a silly (‘fond’) thing to say, because it’s impossible for him to be faithful to just one woman.
In the second stanza, argues that he’s loved her for the last twelve hours – what more does she want? He then makes a somewhat sophistic argument (it sounds good but it rings false), claiming that it would be doing a disservice to other women if he was forced to be true to her, thus depriving these other women of his company and attention. What’s more, he’d be robbing her of ‘a new embrace’ – that is, a new lover, a fresh ‘squeeze’, other beaux to love her. In short, they’d be missing out on the chance to be with other people if they swore fidelity to one another.
In the third stanza, Lovelace (or his speaker) praises his lover’s brown hair and says that all joy is to be found in such beautiful locks; nevertheless, he must go in search of raven-headed beauties and comely blondes, likening himself to a mineralogist searching in the earth for rare gems. (And yes, the analogy with ‘unploughed-up ground’ is almost certainly meant to bring to mind phallic notions of ploughing his furrow and sowing his wild oats.)
The final stanza essentially seems to argue that, once the poet has had his fill of these other women, if he finds he still wants to be with his beloved above all else, he will come back to her the richer for the experience – arguing, we suppose, that he will be a better lover for her because he’ll be surer of his affections for her, and that she’s the right one for him, having spent time with other women.
The seventeenth century, and especially the years immediately around the English Civil War, was a time for seduction lyrics (such as Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’), carpe diem poems (Marvell again, though Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ also springs to mind), and rakish poems like this arguing in favour of sexual freedom. This can be seen as a political theme as much as a sexual or social one: the Cavaliers were on the side of King Charles I in the Civil War, and were against the puritanism embodied by their opponents, the Parliamentarians or ‘Roundheads’. The urbane charm which Lovelace heaps on here, and his call for sexual liberty and the pursuit of pleasure, are all firmly Cavalier and anti-puritan.
‘The Scrutiny’ is not as famous as some of Richard Lovelace’s other lyrics, but its themes are similar and it argues its point well – not that everyone would agree with the point he is trying to make! But when we take the context into consideration, Lovelace’s plea for permission to pursue a life of liberty and pleasure before settling down makes more sense.
Image: Portrait of Richard Lovelace by William Dobson (c. 1645), via Wikimedia Commons.