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 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 EpigramSimilar to biting pepper, the acid epigramIs 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 design, 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...
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