In one sense, Thomas Campion 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...
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