Monday, 14 May 2012

The curious case of Sir Christopher Kyrle

Such is our faith in the internet as the repository of all human history and knowledge that when it falls short of encyclopedic completeness, the shock is profound.

The other day I was thinking about 1959, senior year at Cornell, Nehemiah Klein, and days we spent reciting seventeenth-century Cavalier poetry. (English majors did that sort of thing for fun in those days). My particular favorites were the verses of Sir John Suckling and his friend (or rival, I never learned which) Sir Christopher Kyrle.

Sir John Suckling (1609-1642)

Suckling was an attractive figure. He's been described as "one of the most vivid personalities of his age.” "[H]is gay trifles have remained current in the language as some others have not; he is the prototype of the Cavalier playboy."

Here's Suckling's most famous trifle:

Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
Prithee, why so pale?
Will, when looking well can't move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee, why do 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!

While Suckling's poems lack depth, they have an insouciant quality which appealed to a decidedly non-insouciant undergraduate. Thomas Crofts has written: “Suckling's verse, of course, smacks of the court: it is witty, decorous, sometimes naughty; all requisites for the courtier poet. Suckling had his own voice, a deft conversational ease mixed at times with a certain hauteur or swagger, which qualities were not incompatible with his high birth and military occupation."

Suckling is said to have invented the game of cribbage (another point in his favor). Unfortunately he wasn't very good at it, losing large sums of money, much of it his sister's, to his friend (or was it rival?) Sir Christopher Kyrle, one of the now-forgotten versifiers with which the court teemed.

The amply proportioned Kyrle, an avid trencherman, cut not quite so dashing a figure as his friend (or rival) Suckling, but he certainly wasn't lacking in the vanity department. Kyrle wrote a lengthy verse called, I think, A pretty conceit upon the morning shaving, full of battle imagery, in which his razor was the Sword of Justice making righteous war against the invading hordes of black stubble. I can recall just half of the triumphant concluding couplet:

Da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dunn,
The War for Beauty has been won!

I remember reciting Kyrle's most popular poem, Song: To his guilty mistress, replete with trial-by-jury imagery. Only the final quatrain remains fixed in my memory:

O coy defendant, where art thou?
Art thou devoid of sense?
Of thy alleged love show now,
Conclusive evidence!

The only "conclusive evidence" I retain of our 1959 poetry readings is this Kyrle poem, typed out on my old Underwood typewriter and discovered just last week among my souvenirs (cue music):

Now here's the curious part: when I google Sir Christopher Kyrle, I come up with nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. It seems Kyrle has been virtually erased from history. It's as if he never existed. I remember reading that his name appeared on one of his works as "Sir Ch. Kern," so I try googling Kern. Still nothing, except for the Kern family crest and the clan's early origins in County Mayo. But if those Irish Kerns had any connection to Sir Christopher, they're not talking, at least not on the internet.

It's not Kyrle's (or Kern's) poetry that's so important. The world will not suddenly be a better place having rediscovered his modest, sub-Suckling set of versifying skills. It's the principle of the thing that bothers me.

Why were Kyrle's (or Kern's) poems, as well as information about the man, available to us in 1959 but not now? Cavalier poets, especially portly ones, aren't supposed to vanish in thin air. I could understand a google-search being imperfect or incomplete. To allow a few odd bits of data to slip through the cracks is forgivable, but how do you misplace an entire poet, especially one who was as colorful a personage as Kyrle (or Kern)?

I have little time or aptitude for literary research, so I leave it to qualified sleuths to solve this vexing riddle. For the time being, Suckling's friend (or rival) Kyrle (or Kern) remains the Cavalier poet who wasn't there.

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