Upon Phillis Walking in a Morning before Sun-rising

John Cleveland was one of the many love poets of the period who could generally be classified as Cavalier poets, writing smooth, witty, but conventional verse, but whose poetry occasionally shows metaphysical traits. Upon Phillis would seem to be a typical pastoral love poem written in the Elizabethan conventions largely taken over by the Cavaliers. But at times the rhythms and imagery echo Donne rather than Ben Jonson.

The morning star

An Offering to Venus by John William GodwardThe central conceit is to see Phillis as a new sun goddess. The first half of the poem (ll.1-32) sees Phillis appear from the east, as if she were the sun. The whole of pastoral nature responds to her appearance, though in fact she can do no more than be Venus, the morning star, who is ‘Usher to the sun'. ‘Venus' is, of course, also the goddess of love in classical mythology.

So we have the trees ‘like yeomen of her guard': she receives the royal welcome from them. The plants, even if they have been staked or pruned, revive as ‘each receives his ancient soule'. The birds, breezes and flowers all respond to her as if she were the sun. But this does not cause civil war – the reference to ‘her Yorke and Lancaster' is to the white and red roses which were respectively emblems of two former royal dynasties in England, who fought each other in the Wars of the Roses in late medieval times. But here the roses are all submitted to her.

Rivalling the sun

The second half of Upon Phillis (ll.33-54) continues the conceit by describing what happens when the real sun tries to rise. He has to see what saint has performed these miracles in nature (in the Roman Catholic church, one of the signs of a saint is that he or she has performed a certain number of miracles). The sun is pictured as shut out of his own realm, forced to spy ‘The trembling leaves through ...', afraid ‘lest her full Orb his sight should dim.' The personification is comic.

The trees shed their fruit and leaves for Phillis ‘that they might her foot-steps strawe' - spontaneously 'strewing' her way, as a wealthy person might have mud covered up before theywalkeddown the street. But this is going to cause confusion in nature (‘wed October unto May') – so she ‘With-drew her beames' by going indoors. However, she is leaving the sun ‘her Curate-light', a curate being a substitute priest or minister.

The conceit is maintained throughout. It has humour and some wit, though not the dazzling display we might expect from Donne. It is a graceful compliment to the lady, for whom the poet expresses no particular personal feelings.

Investigating Upon Phillis
  • What would you say is metaphysical about Upon Phillis?
  • Work out the versification of the poem
    • How does it fit the light and complimentary tone of the poem?
  • Examine the extent of the personification in the poem
    • What effect does it have, especially on the portrayal of Phillis?
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