The poetic voice is questioning the point of his friend’s love sickness. This lover is making himself sick and going into his shell, which is causing all of his friends embarrassment and the poetic voice is pointing out the pointlessness of his misery and telling him, rather aggressively, to get over this girl and move on with his life.
Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
Prithee, why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee, why so pale?
Why so dull and mute, young sinner?
Prithee, why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can’t win her,
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee, why so mute?
Quit, quit, for shame; this will not move,
This cannot take her.
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her!
Sir John Suckling (1609-42)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Well, first of all, this is a song from a play Suckling wrote called ‘Aglaura’ in 1637. It is immediately introduced by Orsames who says it is: ‘A little foolish counsel… I gave to a friend of mine… when he was falling into a consumption’. So, it is advice to a friend who is feeling lovesick.
Suckling lived between 1609-42 and was a Cavalier poet (basically one of Charles I’s fanboys) who were associated with carefree gallantry. As such he had an interesting life, which he filled with his share of womanising and gambling. This could possibly explain his attitude to women in this poem.
Love, love, love. Unrequited love. However, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a romantic poem; it is not in anyway. This poem tells us a lot about the poetic voice (which seems pretty similar to what you might expect of Suckling as a Cavalier poet) thinks about love and women: don’t get soppy about it, just move on if she won’t have you.
The first stanza uses rhetorical questions to make the lover consider why he is making himself sick. ‘Pale’ and ‘wan’ both suggest a face without colour, so someone suffering from physical sickness. Lines 3-4 are used by the poetic voice to suggest that if this girl does not want him ‘when looking well’ (healthy) then why would she want him when he looks sickly.
In a similar manner the second stanza deals with the change in this lover’s personality. If the poetic voice is friends with the lover you would think that he usually finds him interesting and engaging, but in the open lines he questions why the lover is ‘dull’ and ‘mute’ suggesting that he has stopped talking or being involved and is becoming a bit of a bore to all around him. Again the middle lines of the stanza, 8-9, emphasise how futile the lover’s reaction to rejection is, as he is never going to win the girl round through his silent sobriety if she didn’t want him when he is ‘speaking well’. Both these stanzas highlight the ridiculous nonsense that is love sickness – if she doesn’t like you at your best, she’s not going to be interested when you’re a blubbering mess.
The final stanza is a bit of a change and is possibly the first supportive comment from the poetic voice to the lover. The first line is a plea for the lover to snap out of it with the repetition of ‘quit’ emphasising the voice’s frustration with him and ‘shame’ tells the lover he is embarrassing himself and his friends. However, it then becomes quite abusive towards the object of the lover’s desire as the voice says that if she won’t love him then ‘the devil take her’, which is a sixteenth-seventeenth century equivalent for ‘sod her’. He is slagging her off to make the lover feel a bit better about himself and hopeful to get him to move on.
The main techniques to comment on is the poet’s use of rhetorical questions and repetition. Once you’ve explored the way the poem creates an image of love sickness affecting both physical appearance and social behaviour, the consistent use of rhetorical questions is pretty important.
The poet knows exactly why the lover is looking so ‘pale and wan’ and why he is ‘so dull and mute’ (he’s love sick), but asks the questions and then repeats the questions three time in stanza one and two to really drive home how absurd the lover is being. It has the same effect as someone say ‘What’s the point?’ three times, which emphasises the pointlessness. The use of the word ‘Prithee’ on both repetitions is overly polite and sarcastic as the poetic voice clearly thinks his friend is being foolish. The rhetorical questions in the middle of stanza one or two are both dripping with sarcasm as they are clearly ridiculous questions designed to highlight the lover’s idiotic position.
It might also be worth mentioning the change in language in the final stanza. We have the first mention of ‘her’ (as in the love interest) and she is immediately cursed with the phrase ‘the devil take her’, which is used as a way of telling his friend that she is no good and can go to hell and telling the lover to move on from her.
If you feel confident, you could even talk about the alliterative use of ‘w’ (‘why’, ‘wan’)and ‘p’ (‘pale’, ‘prithee’) sounds in the first stanza and ‘m’ in the second stanza, which are harsh sounding when read aloud and contribute to mood of aggression or deep sarcasm in a rebuking manner.
Remember: there is no point talking about structure unless you can link it to some sensible analysis. Examiners don’t care about ABABCC rhymes schemes and couplets unless you can explain why they have been used and to what effect.
The key thing here is that the poem is structured like a logical argument. You could comment on two aspects of the poem that help to give it a calm and logical feel. Firstly, the first two stanzas establish the problem and the futility of the current situation, while the final stanza delivers a logical solution: ‘forget her!’. Secondly, look at the regularity of the construction of each stanza – 5 lines, ABABB rhyme scheme, regular metre with 85855 syllables. This isn’t the irregularity of someone wild with emotion, but is focused, organised… logical… as it was intended to be as it is guidance to try to get the lover to see sense.
We’ve partially covered this above, but let’s just make it clear.
You might expect a poem about a love sick somebody to be sympathetic, but this is really not sympathetic. It drips with sarcasm and is repetitive to the point where the lover could only possibly be embarrassed, not consoled (‘Quit, quit, for shame). The way some of the alliteration forces you to spit the letters out gives us the impression that the poetic voice is frustrated with his friend and wants him to snap out of it. However, the final stanza’s frustration almost fizzles to sympathy for his friend and trying to make his friend hate himself out of his melancholy with the malice directed towards this innocent non-reciprocating woman.