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Why So Pale and Wan?
A Poem by Sir John Suckling (1609-1642)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Background
Summary
Text of the Poem
Structure
Rhyme
Theme
Alliteration
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Suckling
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Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
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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. 

Background

.......“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.

Summary

.......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 In the second stanza, the friend asks the young man why he is so sullen and withdrawn.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.

Text of the Poem

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?.....................[sinner: A manuscript in the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., indicates that sinner should be read as 
      Prithee, why so mute?......................................signior, as reported on Page 315 of Seventeenth Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, published by 
Will, when speaking well can’t win her,.....................Wiley-Blackwell in 2006.] 
      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.

Structure and Rhyme

.......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. 
.......The first two stanzas ask questions that present and comment on the young man's problem. The last stanza suggests a solution to the problem. Notice that the sentences in the second stanza are nearly identical syntactically to those in the first; the sentences in the final stanza are syntactically similar.
.......In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the third, and the second rhymes with the fourth and fifth. Internal rhyme also occurs, as in wan and fond in the first line of the poem.

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Theme

Unrequited Love

.......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

.......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? 
     Prithee, why so pale? 
Will, when looking well can’t move her, 
     Looking ill prevail
     Prithee, why so pale?
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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. 
2. Write an essay that discusses unrequited love as a theme in world literature. (See Themes above.) 
3. What is the meaning of prithee?
4. What do the last three lines of the poem suggest in regard to men's attitude toward women in Suckling's time?

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