My Sweetest Lesbia

by Thomas Campion

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Themes and Meanings

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The most insistent images in the song deal with light and dark. Day and night lengthen into life and death. The “little light” of human beings seems frail, weak, and no match for the “great lamps” of heaven, but if that light is used lovingly, it can be enough to make mortality something to celebrate, rather than something to mourn. By implication, the “sager sort” who disapprove of lovemaking, the lovers’ “deeds,” ally themselves with the military “fools” who “waste their little light.” Those kinds of worldliness deprive men and women of the illumination that might make living worthwhile.

The poem is a declaration of carpe diem, “seize the day,” a common theme of this period. It takes the rhetorical form of a lover’s plea and belongs with the “amorous songs” Campion mentions in his preface. Acting against the passage of time, the warring of nations, and mortality itself, lovers can at least avoid wasting their lives and their light. The modesty is audacious. Love is sufficient in itself to offset the enormities of the world. This love is one that is earthly and enduring, one that makes even the prospect of death almost cheerful, a “triumph.” In other words, people love because death looms, but that love makes death an occasion for revelry. Love, the song says, makes living worthwhile.

To what extent is the song really a love poem in the usual sense? Does the reader imagine that the “you” of the poem is a real person, someone being wooed and seduced? Is Campion’s mistress more an idea than an individual woman? It may be significant that the song is addressed to Catullus’s Lesbia. In another song based on the same original, Ben Jonson changes the name to the more euphonious Celia, a character in his play Volpone (1605). At least in dramatic terms, a real woman is represented there.

Campion’s beloved, however, seems to live not in his own London but in the Rome of Catullus or out of the mortal world altogether. Her name comes to him secondhand. It is strictly literary and allusive, a means of paying homage to Catullus and thereby to the Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos, who is Catullus’s real honoree.

The stately tone and epigrammatic neatness of the song make the love it espouses seem reserved, respectful, and even lofty. This is a hymn to love in the abstract. Campion seems to fret more about impersonal warfare than about personal love, yet his fervor is true and overwhelming. It is tempting to see Lesbia as love itself, or as an earthly goddess who will perform the singer’s last rites. She is, in fact, the muse, the generative spirit of poetry and music. As the first piece of a whole collection of songs, “My Sweetest Lesbia” serves as an invocation to the muse. It is a love song to art, to its endurance and enduring beauty.

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