A Poem by Sir John Suckling (1609-1642)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
Type of Work and Year of Publication
......."Why So Pale and Wan?" is a lyric poem with three five-line stanzas. It appeared as a song in a play that Suckling debuted in London in 1637 and published in 1638.
.......“Why So Pale and Wan?” is a song presented in the second scene of the fourth act of Suckling's play Aglaura, staged in London in 1637. Set in Persia, the play centers on love, intrigue, and treachery. After the performance of the song, one of the characters, Orsames, reveals that he is its author, telling another character, a woman, that the words of the song were “A little foolish counsel, madam, I gave / A friend of mine four or five years ago, / When he was falling into a consumption.” The play was popular in its time but today is rarely read, performed, or studied. However, the song remains highly popular as a stand-alone poem and regularly appears in anthologies. Its opening line—Why so pale and wan, fond lover—is among the most famous lines in seventeenth-century English literature.
.......A young man who is failing in his schemes to win the heart of a young lady receives advice from a friend. In the first stanza, the friend asks the young man why he looks so pale and sickly. If the young lady did not like him when he was well, the friend says, why would she like him when he appears ill? In the second stanza, the friend asks the young man why he is so sullen and withdrawn. If his conversations with the young lady failed to impress her, not speaking to her at all certainly will not arouse her interest. In the third stanza, the friend advises the young man to cease wooing the young lady. If she refuses to return his love, nothing he can do or say will change her mind.
Why so dull and mute, young sinner?.....................[sinner: A manuscript in the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., indicates that sinner should be read as
Quit, quit for shame! This will not move;
.......The first and third lines of the opening stanza each contain eight syllables; the second, fourth, and fifth lines each contain five syllables. This pattern repeats itself in the second and third stanzas. Thus, in terms of line length, the poem is perfectly balanced.
.......This poem develops a familiar theme in world literature: unrequited love. Since ancient times, many literary works have developed unrequited love as a major or minor theme. In Virgil's Aeneid, for example, lovesick Dido fails to persuade the Trojan hero Aeneas to remain with her at Carthage. After he leaves, she kills herself. In Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (based on a Greek myth), the goddess of love—despite all her charms—fails to win the handsome young Adonis, who rejects her in order to go hunting. In Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, the title character wishes to marry a beautiful young lady, Roxane. But because he has a grotesquely large nose, he believes she will reject him. Instead, he ends up helping a friend woo her. Roxane eventually realizes that she loves Cyrano, but he dies before they can marry.
.......Alliteration occurs throughout the poem to help impart euphony and rhythm. Note, for example, the following alliterations in the first stanza. The examples are highlighted and underlined.
Why so pale and wan, fond lover?.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
1. Write a poem (one stanza or more) that imitates the structure of Suckling's poem. The topic is open.