Of the lyric poets of the English Renaissance, Thomas Campion is for some readers one of the most difficult to appreciate and value. He is not a “difficult” poet in the way John Donne, his more famous contemporary, is difficult, for he is not a poet, as is Donne, with whom one must struggle because of the density of his language, meaning, and imagery. Campion’s language is transparent, his meaning is seldom in doubt, and his imagery is both simple and conventional. Campion comes close to being a pure lyricist whose excellence is not to be described by an appeal to intellectual complexity or to originality, in the Romantic sense of the term, but by an appeal to art, artifice, technique, and the elegant handling of tradition.
Though he wrote some fine religious lyrics and an occasional moral apostrophe, Campion’s true subject is love—not the immediate and frankly sexual love of Donne’s early poetry, but rather the politely erotic game of literary and aristocratic love. The poetry never pretends to be anything but an elegant and highly artificial kind of play, and the poems are full of the conventions, both thematic and stylistic, of the highly formal love poetry of the Renaissance. Amarillis, Laura, shepherds and shepherdesses, rosy cheeks, tears and sighs, Cupids, nymphs, gods and goddesses, and cruel maids and faithless swains abound in Campion. The stylized voices in the poems never utter so immediate and passionate a statement as that which opens Donne’s “Canonization”: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.” Campion’s speakers utter words that evoke not an immediate situation but a set of general literary conventions: “O Love, where are thy shafts, thy quiver, and thy bow?”
One must understand the special skills and concerns of a poet such as Campion, who wrote within a set of traditional conventions (many of them unfamiliar to modern readers), before one can appreciate the excellence of his verse. Campion was a highly educated man who wrote for a highly sophisticated and educated society. He was trained in both law and medicine, and his schooling and his literary tastes, in both reading and writing, were strongly classical. His first publication was a group of greatly admired Latin poems, the Poemata. In many of his English poems there are verbal echoes of the great Roman poets—Horace, Martial, and, particularly, Catullus, the Roman lyricist of love par excellence. In addition to specific references to the ancient poets in Campion’s work, the atmosphere of many of the poems is powerfully classical, even those poems that have no definite Latin ancestors and those in which the settings are, as is most often the case, English and Renaissance modern (for example, “Jacke and Jone they thinke no ill” and “There is a Garden in her face”).
The classical influence is not merely a matter of allusions to ancient poets and mythology. Such allusions are frequent enough—for example, Campion’s imitation of Catullus’s most famous poem in “My sweetest Lesbia let us live and love”—but not overwhelmingly present. More important is the stylistic influence. The sharply turned epigrammatic statements, the tightly controlled form and language, the avoidance of metaphor and other spectacular figures of speech, the bittersweet and ironic tone that characterizes Campion’s verse—these and other such things are largely the product of the poet’s imitation in English of classical Latin poetry. The significance of all this is enhanced by the fact that the people for whom Campion wrote were also widely read in or at least familiar with ancient poetry. A reference or turn of speech that might puzzle later readers would seem natural, elegant, and effective to Campion’s original audience.
Related to these matters is Campion’s advocacy of writing English poetry in classical meters. The poet, in a very controversial pamphlet titled Observations in the Art of...
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