Cavalier, as defined in the dictionary, is an attitude in which one shows a lack of concern, is offhand, disdainful, informal and uninterested; it also describes someone who was a supporter of Charles I. My intention for beginning thus is to demonstrate how the Cavalier Poets, specifically Edmund Waller, were not so offhanded about poetry as the term would imply.
Let us first read Edmund Waller’s (and I cannot contain my admiration) elegant poem Of My Lady Isabella Playing on the Lute.
Such moving sounds from such a careless touch,
So unconcern’d her self, and we so much!
What Art is this, that with so little Pains
Transports us thus, and o’er the Spirits reigns?
The trembling Strings about her Fingers crowd
And tell their Joy for ev’ry Kiss aloud.
Small Force there needs to make them tremble so;
Touch’d by that Hand, who would not tremble too?
Here Love takes stand, and while she charms the Ear,
Empties his Quiver on the list’ning Deer:
Musick so softens and disarms the Mind
That not an Arrow does Resistance find.
Thus the fair Tyrant Celebrates the Prize,
And acts her self the Triumph of her Eyes.
So Nero once, with Harp in hand, survey’d
His Flaming Rome, and as it Burnt he Play’d.
The tension in the poem is that between gentle possession by art on the level of the Ideal, and the tyrannical destruction by an extreme, i.e. maniacal; also it is between the poetic diction in the first twelve lines of this sonnet and the casual colloquialism of the closing couplet.
The Lady Isabella is the conduit for art that seduces and elevates its audience, enclosing them inside of a certain rapture that o’er the Spirits reigns. She herself is the person who captures us with her ability to perform such gentle, moving sounds on her lute. We, her audience, are enraptured by the sounds heard from such careless finger-play. The viewer also makes Art, meaning, when its creation has been completed by the artist and the performer, the audience is the other entity that allows it to work, to continue to live. The first two lines of the poem imply professionalism on her part that is almost spontaneous, intimated by the unconcerned, careless touch of her fingers. She is unconcerned about the audience. That is the egotistical side of art, it cares about itself, and the artist is selfish like this also. We can go into a political discussion here, but will not, only to say that it is no wonder why many artists have fallen into the philosophical and political image of what the English author and judge J.F. Stephen said, explaining their actual motives behind slogans such as humanity: “Humanity is only I writ large, and love for Humanity generally means zeal for MY notions as to what men should be and how they should live.” And then Auden elucidates the human heart’s true desires, which is to be loved alone in September 1, 1939. But I have gone off my subject. Art, whether it is a poem, painting, or musical composition, when it succeeds, displays a certain shade of effortlessness on the artist’s behalf, despite the fact that there has been much effort, practice and frustration previously paid out in the creative process. To paraphrase Yeats, that a poem must read as if it took no work at all.
There is also another reading of the first two lines stemming from the interpretation that she is playing us like a lute. She plays with us, teasing us with her careless touch, and unconcerned about our response, our emotions, knowing that, or even thrilled with the fact that we will be distraught in the end as she leaves us to fantasize about what we hoped the fulfillment of her playing with us would be.
Edmund calls this ability of hers Art, What Art is this, that with so little Pains/Transports us thus, and o’er our Spirit reigns? For her, it is of little effort and consequence to do what she does. Enamoured, we give ourselves over to her pleasing, as we are pleased in our own manner, feeling transported out of ourselves, the usual moment when we feel that art has accomplished what it set out to do. This art of hers is a craft, and she is crafty, with all that that word implies, her deceptiveness, duplicity; art/craft. Art is a craft and vice versa. And art of course alludes to artifice.
Art, besides freeing us in this sense, also, because it holds our spirits, has conquered us. We are not free, but enclosed, without a will to release ourselves from its possession of our spirits and our minds. Thus we have ourselves disarmed ourselves willingly to its tyranny. Art over the spirit reigns tyrannically and art works like this in order to accomplish what it must. It is like the Holy Spirit Who must have His way, and the ego has to be erased. We give our consent and become a slave in order to be freed. We gave our consent to her, Isabella, when we entered the musical chamber and thus made it easier for her to perform what she did over us.
We have another word in the fifth line, trembling, that implies our cowering before Lady Isabella. The strings tremble from her touch, a natural reaction by the instrument, and we too tremble out of elevation received from the musical performance. For us, the trembling is also a sensory one. But out of fear we would have trembled too if touched by her hand, feeling the force she would have employed. Touched by that Hand can be read as clasped or arrested by that hand.
In the ninth line, Love takes stand, gives us the impression of an authoritative figure, dictatorial even. We are moving closer to the tyrannical nature. Love, that is supposed to be a freeing force, a liberating and life giving force, is now one that like art earlier in the poem, conquers and while its conduit charms us, playing us, makes us surrender our will, kills us by emptying his quiver into us. Her music has assisted in this killing, for that is what it is, by disarming us, but it disarmed us because we allowed it to. We were seduced and willingly so. Hence, no resistance was met by any of the arrows.
The eleventh line contains the elegant (that is the most appropriate word for this poem) contradiction, fair Tyrant. An oxymoron in itself is this phrase. This is the summation of art, of Lady Isabella herself. Fair, as in all of the following connotations: beautiful, light, blonde (feminine with the e), pleasing, attractive, fair in complexion, also playing by the rules, legitimate. She is fair, appealing to our eyes, and other senses, and she is more so as she is playing on the lute a musical composition that arouses our senses, making us sensitive to the music itself. She then acts on her tyrannical character by killing us in the same manner that love has just done. This is the tyrant in her and again, the tyranny of art. She knows what she has accomplished and is then pleased with herself, celebrating the prize, And acts her self the Triumph of her eyes. We know there is no such thing as a fair tyrant. And the term is usually applied to a male, hardly ever a female. We are now being set up by the poet for the clever conclusion.
This same phrase sets us up for the concluding couplet where the diction is more colloquial and and less poetic than the poem’s preceding twelve lines. And it is a complete surprise to the reader: So Nero once with Harp in hand surveyed/His Flaming Rome, and as it burnt he Play’d. This is why all the mention before of tyrant and tyranny. Waller brings it all together here. The fair Lady Isabella is now transformed into Nero, one of Rome’s most corrupt, immoral and murderous rulers. Waller has taken his lady into an extreme. She no longer is the fair tyrant, but now exposes that side we overlooked in our letting her seduce us and give in to her guile. Like Nero who surveyed Rome with harp in hand as it burned, so she celebrated the prize of our downfall. From the elevation of art in the first half of the poem we have travelled to the destructive nature, ending in destruction.
Another way the couplet succeeds is by undercutting the whole poem itself, by transforming Lady Isabella into Nero, from the beautiful flirtatious woman throughout the poem to a madman, changing gender altogether, letting the tyranny win out in the end. He has built up the poem to make us expect one thing but then proves our foolishness and how wrong we were. Reading that couplet is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s surprise in the opening lines of The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock. Waller’s couplet is like a precursor to Eliot’s whose surprise was thus:
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
The two poets undercut the Romantic beauty hinted at in preceding lines, Waller and the fair Lady Isabella and Eliot and the sunset sky. They both bring their poems earthward and stun the reader with these sudden unexpected turns. Waller does it by the transformation of Isabella into Nero and Eliot by changing our glance from the splendour of an evening sky to a patient anesthetized upon a table. What we thought might occur does not, and what we thought might never occur does. In the end, Edmund Waller proves to be less cavalier about his poems than we might suspect him to be. And one of the best lines in all of poetry is by Waller himself in another poem, On a Lady Passing Through a Crowd of People that reads The yielding marble of her snowy breast. We can leave with all that this inspires us to imagine.