Analysis of Thomas Campion’s Poems

In one sense, Thomas Campion (12 February 1567 – 1 March 1620) was typically Elizabethan: Classical mythology, amorous encounters with either distant courtly ladies or willing country maids, and superficial religious emotions provided his subjects and themes. Although much of his verse lacks the substance of that of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and John Donne, it is highly musical poetry, in which the careful modulation of sounds produces the illusion of music even when divorced from a musical setting. Campion’s poetry depends, in short, on the ear more than most; if one is not fortunate enough to have a recording of“Never Weather-Beaten Sail” or “I Care Not for These Ladies,” one should at least read these poems aloud to gain some idea of their music. This is the quality that draws Campion out of the ranks of mediocre Renaissance poets who wrote on similar conventional themes.

Campion was most successful in the writing of short poems. His airs, on which his reputation rests, include some of the best art songs written in English. Even his longer masques are appealing because they are essentially a succession of short pieces linked together; their mythological/allegorical plots contribute little to their success, for the frequent beautiful songs and the occasional interesting speech generate the ceremonious pageantry necessary to the masque. Critics have called Campion a miniaturist, and that description is apt.

Campion learned quantitative meter at first hand by studying and writing Latin poetry. His two volumes of Latin verse, which stand at opposite ends of his creative life,largely consist of epigrams and occasional poems. Epigrams poking fun at his friend, the inept poet Barnabe Barnes, praising famous people such as Francis Drake, Prince Henry, Sir Philip Sidney, William Camden, and Francis Bacon, consoling his friend Thomas Munson, extolling imaginary ladies with Roman names, and celebrating ordinary objects such as portable clocks, remind one of Ben Jonson’s similar works in English. One rather long epigram, “In Obitum Gual. Devoreux fratris clariss. Comitis Essexiae,” is an elegy for Walter Devereux, brother of the second earl of Essex, who died at the siege of Rouen (1591); Campion was there and wrote the poem while the battle was still in progress. One particularly short epigram, interesting for its subject,provides a good example:

About the Epigram
Similar to biting pepper, the acid epigram
Is not gracious to each taste: no one denies its use.

Among these short, useful, and sometimes acrid poems, Campion included several longer, more ambitious works, including a somewhat epic poem of 283 lines, “Ad Thamesin,” celebrating the English victory over the Spanish Armada, and the 404-line Ovidian Umbra (1619), recounting the story of Iole, who conceived a child by the god Phoebus while she was asleep—an erotic situation that recurs in Campion’s airs. These longer pieces lack the pungency of the short epigrams and are by no means first-rate poems. They do, however, contain some of the music of Campion’s English airs and represent his longest productions of purely quantitative meter. The relative lack of success of these longer poems, together with the appeal of many of the shorter ones, is an indication that Campion was a miniaturist in both languages.

The famous argument between Jonson and his stage designer Inigo Jones about which element of the masque was the more important—the plot or the mechanical contrivances generating the masque’s spectacle—could easily have had Campion as a third participant. Campion’s masques are distinguished neither for their elaborate stage de-sign, even though the ingenious Jones was his frequent collaborator, nor for their drama,but for their music. In contrast to Jonson’s masques, Campion’s appear dramatically thin: There is never a plot, only a situation, and characters are little more than mouths to deliver speeches and sing songs. It is arguable, however, that the success of a masque depends only on those qualities generating pageantry, and dramatic energy is not necessarily one of them.


Lord Hay’s Masque

Campion’s Lord Hay’s Masque was presented in 1607 to celebrate the marriage of King James’s favorite, the Scotsman James Hay, and the English lady Honora Denney. The political situation of a recently crowned Scottish king on the English throne attempting to consolidate his two realms provides the background for this, Campion’s most successful masque. There are thus three levels of meaning in the masque: the marriage of Hay and Denney, the union of Scotland and England, and the mythological reconciliation between Diana (allegorically Queen Elizabeth), who wished to keep her maids of honor virgins, and Apollo (allegorically King James), who wished to marry them to his knights. In anger, Diana has changed Apollo’s knights into trees, and in the course of the masque, they regain their rightful shapes. Campion’s song “Now hath Flora rob’d her bowers” is a moving poem in praise of marriage; its music is best described as majestic.

The Lord’s Masque

The Lord’s Masque, presented as part of the ceremonies attending Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Frederick, elector of Palantine (February 14, 1613), and The Caver-sham Entertainment, presented the following April to entertain Queen Anne on her way to Bath to recover from her depression brought on by the wedding, are related pieces,this circumstantial link being strengthened by their joint publication. The Lord’s Masque is a stately allegory in which Orpheus, representing music, frees Entheus, representing “poetic fury,” from the control of Mania, or madness. The result of that liberation is a Latin poem recited by a Sybil praising the marriage of the young couple. The Caversham Entertainment, in contrast, is lighthearted and totally lacking in plot. A Cynic, a Traveller, and a Gardener appear severally and together before the queen, sing some rural songs, and debate issues such as the necessity of human companionship and the value of music.

The Somerset Masque

The Somerset Masque is unintentionally ironic, given the outcome of the sorry marriage it celebrates. Delegates from the four corners of the globe are attacked by the allegorical figures Error, Rumour, Curiosity, and Credulity as they sail toward England to attend the marriage. The allegorical characters cause confusion and chaos until the Fates, Eternity and Harmony, appear to restore order. The irony is that the rumors circulating about Robert Carr and his bride Frances Howard and the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury were true. A further irony is that with this masque, Campion’s career as entertainer to the Jacobean nobility came to an end; it is unprovable but likely that his connection with Lord Somerset was the reason.

A Booke of Ayres, Two Bookes of Ayres, and Third and Fourth Booke of Ayres

Campion’s five books of airs—A Booke of Ayres,Two Bookes of Ayres, and The Third and Fourth Booke of Ayres—are somewhat misleadingly titled because the first,published jointly in 1601 with Rosseter, stands apart from the numbering, which starts with his second. All five are fairly homogeneous, containing a mixture of amorous and religious verse, between twenty-one and twenty-nine airs per book. The Rosseter collection contains, perhaps, the highest proportion of truly first-rate airs. The later books contain slightly more religious airs than the earlier (except for the first book, which is solely religious, and the second book, which is solely amorous), but this is counterbalanced by the increased earthiness of the later amorous airs, as for example in “Beauty,since you so much desire,” from the fourth book, which is an almost word-for-word rendition of “Mistress, since you so much desire” from the Rosseter collection except for the important fact that the seat of “Cupid’s fire” is no longer in the lady’s eyes but in her genitals. Campion is even called on to apologize for some of these lyrics, telling the reader that he may turn the page if he wishes and that Chaucer was guilty of greater breaches of taste than he is.

Campion’s airs are his most important contribution to literature. They are short poems, usually two or three stanzas, on conventional Renaissance subjects characterized by sensitive modulations of sound, especially vowels. They are, moreover, set to music exceptional for both melodic skill and aptness to the words. The technique of mirroring in music what is stated in words is called word painting, and Campion was a master of it. For example, in “Fire, fire, fire” from the third book, the refrain contains the repeated words “O drown both me, O drown both me,” and the music descends from a higher to a lower pitch. Similarly, in “Mistress, since you so much desire” from the Rosseter collection and its revision “Beauty, since you so much desire” from the fourth book, the refrain repeats the words “But a little higher” four times, each time ascending the scale. Again, in “When to her Lute Corinna Sings” from the Rosseter collection, the line “the strings do break” is set with a quick sixteenth note musical phrase; in order to maintain the tempo, a lutenist would play this measure percussively.

This type of word painting, clever as it is, is not without dangers, as Campion himself admits in his prologue to the Rosseter collection, likening the excessive word painting of some of his contemporaries to an unskilled actor who, whenever he mentions his eyes, points to them with his finger. Much of Campion’s word painting is subtle, as in“Though you are young,” from the Rosseter collection, where the air’s main theme, thestrength of age as compared to the ephemerality of youth, is mirrored in the lute accom-paniment that repeats a chord in an inverted position, that is, a lower string sounding a note higher than its next highest neighbor. Subtle in a different way is Campion’s famous and much anthologized “There is a Garden in Her Face” from the fourth book. Part of the refrain, “Till cherry ripe,” is repeated several times to a London street-seller’s cry, with the indication that the lady celebrated in this air may be had for a price—an irony lost to the reader innocent of the music. “Never weather-beaten sail” from the first book is, perhaps, Campion’s most subtle and most successful attempt at word painting.The subject of the air is the world-weariness of the singer and his desire to die and thus,like a storm-tossed ship, reach a safe harbor. A lesser composer would have set the words to music mirroring the distress and weariness of the words, but Campion writes a melody that can be described only as confident and joyous—a tension creating two perspectives, the earthly and the heavenly, and forcing the listener to see earthly troubles from a divine point of view.

Major Works
Plays:Lord Hay’s Masque, pr., pb. 1607; The Caversham Entertainment, pr. 1613 (masque); The Lord’s Masque, pr., pb. 1613; The Somerset Masque, pr. 1613.
Nonfiction:Observations in the Art of English Poesie, 1602;A New Way of MakingFowre Parts in Counter-point, c. 1617.

Booth, Mark W. The Experience of Songs. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.
Coren, Pamela. “In the Person of Womankind: Female Persona Poems by Campion, Donne, Jonson.”Studies in Philology 98, no. 2 (Spring, 2001): 225-250.
Davis, Walter R.Thomas Campion. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Lindley, David.Thomas Campion. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986.
Lowbury, Edward, Timothy Salter, and Alison Young.Thomas Campion: Poet, Com-poser, Physician. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.
Ryding, Erik S.In Harmony Framed: Musical Humanism, Thomas Campion, and the Two Daniels. Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1993.
Wilson, Christopher.Words and Notes Coupled Lovingly Together: Thomas Campion—A Critical Study. New York: Garland, 1989.

Categories: History of English Literature, Literature

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