My Sweetest Lesbia

by Thomas Campion

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

“My Sweetest Lesbia” is a song composed of three stanzas, each six lines long, rhymed aabbcc. It is the first of Thomas Campion’s twenty-one songs in a collection shared equally with lutenist Philip Rosseter. Other songbooks of Campion’s era (those by John Dowland, for example) present arrangements for four-part singing, but Campion and Rosseter require a solo voice and a simple accompaniment in their works: a “naked ayre without guide, or prop, or color but his own.” As the first song in a group that primarily examines kinds of love (unrequited, bawdy) and contrasts high and low society, strict and loose morals, and age and youth, “My Sweetest Lesbia” stands as an overview, an entryway, an opening statement.

The first stanza is a translation and condensation of the Roman poet Catullus’s poem 5 (Vivamus, me Lesbia, atque amemus). Addressing Lesbia, which is the nom à clef of Catullus’s “beloved,” Campion’s singer makes a proposition that they “live and love,” even though wiser people may censure them. (The name, incidentally, does not have any particular lesbian sexual implications.) The reason the singer offers is metaphorical: Sun and moon may set and quickly revive, but as soon as the much weaker light of love sets, he and his lover will sleep “one ever-during night.”

Stanza 2 diverges from the Catullus poem. The subject is warfare, and the point of view shifts from the embracing “we” of the first stanza to a distancing “they.” If all would live in love, like the singer, war would end and no alarms would disturb peaceful sleep—unless they came from the camp of love. Fools waste their “little light,” however, and actively pursue, through pain, their “ever-during night.” Love is not merely a consolation for individual lovers; it could be a universal peacemaker, a means of disarmament (“bloody swords and armor should not be”), and a sleep enhancer (“No drum nor trumpet”). Campion seems more disturbed by excess noise than by weaponry, but the languorous “peaceful sleeps” and the “camps of love” are more a matter of aphrodisiacs than of soporifics.

The last stanza switches to “I,” then to “you,” underscoring the separation to come through death. When I die, the singer declares, I do not want my friends mourning for me, but lovers gracing my “happy” tomb with sweet pastimes. The singer ends by designating Lesbia as his amatory executor: You close up my eyes and “crown” with your love my “ever-during night.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

The poem is written in rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter, the heroic couplets familiar in English from Campion’s predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer to his successor Alexander Pope. In the work of these others, however, the form is used for narrative, expository, or satirical purposes. It is not the usual form for a song, although one other piece in A Booke of Ayres, “Follow Thy Saint,” is written in heroic couplets and several songs are iambic pentameter. Shorter lines of varying lengths, as in William Shakespeare’s “Under the Greenwood Tree,” are more likely to be set to music. Most of the songs in this collection employ these shorter lines.

Heroic couplets are certainly not what one would expect from a slightly older Campion, who experimented with quantitative meters, in which the length of syllables, how long or short they are to say aloud, is measured instead of the accents. In his preface, he praises the Greek and Latin poets (such as Catullus) who wrote quantitative verse and were the “first inventors of ayres,” while denigrating the “fashion of the time, ear-pleasing rhymes without art.” “My Sweetest Lesbia” follows the fashion of...

(This entire section contains 575 words.)

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1600 but is extremely artful. Part of Campion’s concern with meter is literary, as he looks back admiringly at classical models while sneering at his contemporaries and even at himself, but part of his concern is strictly musical. As a composer, he works with quarter notes and the three-quarter time in which most of the song is written.

Campion himself composed the beautiful music for this song, so the question of detaching the words from their setting is more difficult than usual to resolve. Readers can enjoy the poem on the page for its neat three-part structure, its antithetical repetitions (“light” versus “night”), its graceful rhetorical power, and its extension of Catullus’s witty, hyperbolic gambit into something profoundly human and moving. The text alone should not, however, be considered as anything more than an excerpt of the work as a whole.

The last two lines of each stanza represent a partial refrain. The first halves of these lines vary, but the second halves are repeated throughout the song and contrast with each other, one’s “little light” versus an “ever-during night.” The music stipulates that the phrase “ever-during night” be repeated at the end of each stanza. It is the only phrase so singled out, an emphasis intended to deepen the sense of mortality, the dark alternative to the love proposed by the singer. This effect is not present in the text alone. Furthermore, when the song is performed, the last two lines of each stanza are repeated, emphasizing the theme and its urgency.

The rhyming is simple and conventional, making use of thematically important words such as “dive” and “revive.” The language is formal but clear, uncluttered and economical, a good illustration of Campion’s remark that “What epigrams are in poetry, the same are ayres in music,short and well seasoned.” The alliteration of l dominates the song’s first line, “My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love,” and is used through all three stanzas to emphasize important words: Lesbia, live, love, lamps, “little light,” “lead their lives,” life, lovers, and the imperative verb “let,” which appears four times. The liquid l sound is also embedded in several important words: “sleep,” “alarm,” “fools,” “timely.” An important function of this alliteration is purely musical: repeated l sounds are melodious in themselves.