Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Lesser Caroline Poets > John Cleiveland
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

IV. Lesser Caroline Poets.

§ 18. John Cleiveland.

In many ways (even beyond those already mentioned), John Cleiveland was a striking contrast to Benlowes. Born in 1613 at Loughborough, where his father was a curate, Cleiveland was entered at Christ’s college, Cambridge (where Milton was still in residence), in 1627, and became fellow of St. John’s in 1634. He took a strong line as a royalist, was expelled from his fellowship in 1645, was made judge advocate at Newark in the same year, is said to have been in some danger at the surrender of the place, but passes out of knowledge for nearly ten years till, in 1655, we find him imprisoned as a royalist at Yarmouth. He addressed a dignified petition to Cromwell, who released him; but his health seems to have been broken, and he died in London on 29 April, 1658.   35
  Yet, though we have but little detail of his life, he was almost a celebrated person, and quite a celebrated poet. Even Cowley was hardly so popular, and the welter of confusion which besets his bibliography is due mainly to this popularity—the booksellers “sharking up” every scrap that could with any plausibility, and a great deal that could not with any, be attributed to him. He had published as early as 1640; and, for thirty years after his death his poems continued to be reprinted, till, in 1687, what is sometimes called the most complete edition appeared. Winstanley described him in that year as “an eminent poet, and the wit of our age.” Winstanley was no critic and the age was the age of Butler and Dryden; but he is all the more valuable as witness to the opinion of the average man. If confirmation be wanted, it is hardly necessary to go further than the fact that, of the half-score or dozen editions which had appeared in the forty years or so before this date, hardly one failed to be reprinted or revised, and some were reissued many times over.   36
  The work by which this reputation was obtained, even when bolstered out with spurious additions, is not large; the certainly, or probably, genuine part of it does not extend to more than two or three thousand lines. But Cleiveland had a double, in fact a treble, appeal. In the first place, a large proportion of his work was “straight-from-the-shoulder” political satire, sure to be received rapturously by those who agreed with it, and perforce interesting, though unpleasantly interesting, to its victims. In the second, it was couched in the very extravagance of the metaphysical fashion, yet with an avoidance of the intolerable prolixity and promiscuousness, or the sometimes merely foolish quaintness, of men like Benlowes. In the third (though this is not likely to have been consciously noticed), Cleiveland, evidently, is feeling for new melodies in verse; he is not merely a master of the stopped antithetic couplet, but is one of the earliest writers who shake off the literary timidity of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans as to trisyllabic measures, and boldly attempt anapaestic swing.   37
  To appreciate Cleiveland’s political pieces, it must be remembered that, as has been pointed out elsewhere, there was not only a deep though half unconscious thirst for the novel, but, also, a similar nisus towards the newspaper. When, quite early in the conflict, he lampooned the puritan objection to “&c,” in the oath of 1640, and when, shortly afterwards, he poured contempt on Smectymnuus, he was simply a journalist of the acutest type in verse—a poetical leader-writer. These things should be compared with the prose writings, on the other side, of his senior at Christ’s. There is nothing to choose in bitterness; Cleiveland has the advantage in point. But the shorter compass and less serious form carry with them a danger which has weighed on all journalism since. The packed allusion, and the rapid searching comment, become almost unintelligible to any but contemporaries. Even Cleiveland’s most famous, and, on the whole, most successful, piece, The Rebel Scot, requires more minute acquaintance with detail than can be readily expected or found. The Mixed Assembly, a piece of less than a hundred verses, would scarcely be overcommented on the margins of a hundred pages with a verse of text to each. The force and fire are still admirable when realised; but the smoke of the explosion has solidified itself, as it were, and obscures both.   38
  So, again, in non-political pieces, the same accretion of allusive conceit besets the poetry. Men rejoiced, then, frankly and sincerely, in such an image as this, that, when a bee crawls over Fuscara’s hand,
He tipples palmistry, and dines
On all her fortune-telling lines.
It can be rejoiced in still, but not by everybody. Yet it should be impossible for anyone with some native alacrity of mind, some literary sympathy and some acquired knowledge, not to derive frequent enjoyment from Cleiveland, even in his altitudes of conceit; and his verse is a real point de repère. In 1643, at latest, we get from him such a couplet as this, which Dryden could hardly have beaten forty years later still:
Such was the painters brief for Venus’ face—
Item, an eye from Jane, a lip from Grace.
  And, perhaps earlier, certainly not much later, in the semi-serious Mark Antony and the avowed burlesque on this his own piece, he attempts, and nearly achieves, anapaestic measure of a kind hardly yet tried. A most imperfect poet he must be called; a poet of extraordinary gifts he should be allowed to be.   40

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