Wednesday, February 10, 2010

And now for something completely different...

Ah, the good Sir John Suckling. If he were still dashing about in high boots and a rakish hat cum ostrich feather, he would be 401 today.

Perhaps not cutting quite the lively figure of yore...

The quintessential Cavalier poet, Suckling is perhaps equally well-known as the inventor of cribbage and originator of the expression “nick of time.”

As in: "Ho, laddy, I've been up here in the Tower of London for a dreadfully long time, you know, and I just now in the nick of time realized that, having brought my board along with me, I should have been engaging the gaoler in a game of cribbage the whole while. I believe I would have gone batty otherwise. Right. Who's turn?"

I have to admit, I cheer on the Cavaliers against the Roundheads (much like the Southerners against the North in our own go around on national self-slaughter) – not least of all because of the number Oliver Cromwell did to Ireland after his hook-and-crook ascendancy.

But more than that, the Cavaliers' poetry has a certain life-qua-lark quality that makes their writing infectious and always a near occasion for drink, tobacco and riotous living.

Perhaps it was the fact that as “all the King’s men,” Suckling and his tribe probably knew they would be closing out their careers on the end of a pike atop London Bridge. Still, while the Cavaliers’ caviling was probably their own brave way of whistling in the dark, past the graveyard, and with cribbage, to while away the time – I can’t help but admire the heroic sense of play they demonstrated amid their crumbling fortunes.

(Perhaps it was no accident that Suckling is associated with both the hopeful sense of rescue found in his phrase “nick of time” and the quiet desperation found in a good game of cribbage over multiple quaffs of good stout ale.)

Of course, in the end, it all came to naught, apparently, for poor Sir John. Exiled to mainland Europe at the end of the Civil War, he took his own life with poison – a much too Roman end for any right-thinking Catholic fellow to tolerate.

All the same, his poetry lives on – for those who care about such things as royalty, loyalty and the lustiness of language.

W.H. Auden’s embodiment of Suckling’s playful esprit de corps:

The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which both subscribe, namely, that among the half-dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least. -W.H. Auden

Exemplary Poem of Sir John Suckling

"I prithee send me back my heart"

I prithee send me back my heart,
Since I cannot have thine;
For if from yours you will not part,
Why, then, shouldst thou have mine?

Yet now I think on't, let it lie,
To find it were in vain;
For thou hast a thief in either eye
Would steal it back again.

Why should two hearts in one breast lie,
And yet not lodge together?
O Love! where is thy sympathy,
If thus our breasts thou sever?

But love is such a mystery,
I cannot find it out;
For when I think I'm best resolved,
I then am in most doubt.

Then farewell care, and farewell woe;
I will no longer pine;
For I'll believe I have her heart,
As much as she hath mine.

The Good and Gamey Sir John Suckling Writing Assignment:

1. Write a story told in a series of letters in which you imagine the circumstances by which this quixotic poet invents cribbage. In fact, invent a secret history – how did cribbage inadvertently lead to the downfall of King Charles? Also, be sure the phrase "nick of time" shows up at least once in the story.

2. Write a modern short story on one of the various true-life controversies surrounding the game of Monopoly including:
a. The allegedly specious claim that capitalist entrepreneur Charles Darrow invented the game (some say he stole the idea from an English Quakerwoman who was rather down on capitalism).
b. The ironic legal battle in which Parker Brothers sought to maintain a monopoly on the copyright of the name “Monopoly.”
c. The use of specially designed editions of Monopoly as a way to transfer important information to Ally prisoners of war during World War II.

3. Write a tale which provides the back-story for the origins of one of the chess pieces. The character ought to reflect the piece’s abilities. How, for instance did the diagonal movement of the bishop develop? (Some long-forgotten ecclesial intrigue in some long-forgotten kingdom? A prelate who served as a sign of contradiction in a court on the outskirts of a dying empire - a sort of Brownsville, Texas, as it were, on the margins of ancient Rome's scope and reach...)

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