The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 575 words.)