Pastoral Poetry vs. Cavalier Poets

Pastoral poetry and Cavalier poets are two distinguishing features of 17th-century English literature. They are also overlapping features; some Cavalier poets wrote pastorals -- poems that idealize simple country life and are spoken by shepherds. Although some elements of the pastoral naturally appealed to the Cavaliers, others were less compatible. As a result, Cavalier pastorals are pastorals with a twist.


Pastoral poetry is spoken by shepherds and idealizes simple country life. The genre has a long history, dating back to the classical period. Indeed, the term "pastoral" originates from Latin, in which "pastor" means shepherd. In medieval England, the pastoral's popularity declined, but it revived during the Renaissance and 17th century. The term "Cavalier" originates from the Italian word for a mounted warrior, but the English applied it to the subjects who remained loyal to monarchy during England's civil wars of the 1640s. Cavalier poets are so-called because of their political views and positions. Many of them, such as Sir John Suckling, Richard Lovelace and Thomas Carew, were courtiers of Charles I.


The pastoral is inherently classical, popularized as it was by Theocritus, Virgil and Petrarch. Pastorals' classical qualities do not necessarily extend beyond theme and subject matter to form, however. Consider Edmund Spenser's "Shephearde's Calender." Spenser used an antiquated dialect he invented, which offended readers with neoclassical tastes, who preferred neat, correct verse. One such reader was Ben Jonson, a major influence of the Cavalier poets. Thus, the Cavalier poets tended to write clever, nimble light verse. Cavalier classicism also appears in the names the poets gave to the women they addressed: Althea, Julia and Lucasta.


Thoroughly pastoral poems present rustic life as an ideal, even Edenic, oasis beyond the struggle and strife of the cities. They are populated by innocent young men and women whose lives revolve around sheep, love and song. Nature is prominent, but it is celebrated as the counterpoint to worldly corruption: war, politics and greed. The golden age depicted seems to exist beyond time, and the heavenly vision was a popular context for elegies such as Milton's "Lycidas." One of the hallmarks of a Cavalier poet's pastoral is a slightly different take on time. Rather than long, ponderous reflection on lost friendship, the Cavaliers embraced a philosophy of "seize the day." The inevitability of death simply makes the Cavaliers eager to indulge in sensual pleasures while they can. The pastoral elements are used to suit this perspective. Nature is a reminder of life's transience, and innocent shepherdesses require the poet's persuading.


The Cavaliers' playful sensuality is part of a larger difference between their pastorals and those of other English poets. Spenser and Milton invoked the classical mode because of its prestige. They considered poets to be tremendously important to their nations, and they used the pastoral to announce their arrival in history. The Cavaliers took poetry less seriously. While Spenser venerates marriage in "Epithalamion," Sir John Suckling deflates its mystique in his comedic and raunchy "A Ballad Upon a Wedding." Suckling and his cohort enjoyed mocking anyone who overestimated his own importance. Meanwhile, Milton scorned what he considered to be Cavaliers' triviality. For him, poetry was one of the highest callings. He saw religious significance in the pastoral's shepherd; the rustic poet's compulsion to sing echoed the biblical prophet's calling from God.

  • British Literature; Jeffrey D. Wilhelm et al.
  • Norton Anthology of British Literature, Vol. 1; Stephen Greenblatt et al.
  • Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature; Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer
  • Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory; J.A. Cuddon
  • Saylor University: Milton's Rejection of Cavalier Poetry
About the Author

Lily Carroll works for a non-profit children's literacy organization. She has worked as a college composition instructor and ESL tutor. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Mills College in Oakland.

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