Thomas Campion was born into a circle of lawyers. His father, John Campion, was a legal clerk in the Chancery Court, with social ambitions left unrealized at his death in 1576, when his son was nine years old. Campion’s mother, Lucy, was a middle-class woman with some property inherited from her family. She had earlier married another lawyer, Roger Trigg, and had a daughter, Mary. Trigg died in 1563, and a year later, she married John Campion, bearing Thomas and his sister Rose. After John’s death, she again waited a year and married yet another lawyer, Augustine Steward. When she died and Steward married a woman named Anne Sisley, Campion was left orphaned at the age of fourteen, living with foster parents, who immediately (1581) sent him with Thomas Sisley, Anne’s child from a previous marriage, to Peterhouse, Cambridge.
While at Cambridge, Campion was a friend of Thomas Nashe and may have met other literary figures there also—fellow students Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and Robert Greene, as well as Edmund Spenser’s friend, the don Gabriel Harvey, who theorized about quantitative meter. Cambridge, the nurturing ground of early Puritanism, left Campion uninterested in religion—a fact that may have contributed to his decision to leave in 1584 without the usual clerical degree—but it was there that he first developed an interest in literature and music.
After a hiatus of nearly two years, Campion resumed his education by entering Gray’s Inn, London, to study law—a move that his family connections made nearly inevitable. At Gray’s Inn, however, Campion preferred literature and music to his legal studies, earning no degree in his eight years there and seemingly being interested mostly in the periodic revels, especially student dramatic productions. He contributed some songs to masques—good preparation for his later career as masque writer to the Jacobean nobility. It is possible that Campion met William Shakespeare at this time, for The Comedy of Errors was performed at Gray’s Inn between 1592 and 1594, shortly before Campion left. Like his younger contemporary and fellow law student, John Donne, Campion was circulating his poetry privately and gaining a solid reputation as a poet before he appeared in print; it is also probable that Campion was singing his songs to his own lute accompaniment at this time. Five of these songs appeared pseudonymously at the end of the 1591 edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella.
During his years at Gray’s Inn, Campion accompanied the military expedition led by the earl of Essex to Brittany to help the French fend off a Spanish invasion (1591). His poetic achievements there were more notable than his military ones: No record of his activities survives aside from two Latin poems he composed about his experiences, the epigrams “De Se” and “In Obitum Gual. Devoreux fratris clariss. Comitis Essexiae.” Latin, indeed, was Campion’s favored language at this time; his first published volume of poetry, Poemata, is a lengthy volume of Latin poems, mostly epigrams.
Soon after he abandoned law and Gray’s Inn, he met the lutenist Philip Rosseter, who remained Campion’s closest friend for the rest of his life. It was Rosseter who changed the direction of Campion’s career. Latin was a fashionable language in the English Renaissance for those with literary ambitions; even as late as Milton, poets were expected to produce in Latin as well as English. Its accessibility to the general public, however, was limited. At this time, Campion began serious production of poetry whose main intent was to entertain—first his lute songs and then his masques. In 1601, he published jointly with Rosseter A Booke of Ayres, containing forty-two songs, the first twenty-one by Campion and the last twenty-one by Rosseter.
The following year, Campion published a work in prose that gained him some fame—Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Possibly a reflection of the literary interests of his Cambridge days, the treatise is the last—and best—defense of quantitative meter in English verse. In the 1580’s, a group of men led by Gabriel Harvey, Edmund...