Thomas Carew unites, with more success than any of his contemporary poets at the court of Charles I, the classical clarity of Ben Jonson with the intellectual wit of John Donne; at his best he produced work worthy of both his masters, and almost all of his poems are polished and entertaining. Like the other best-known Cavalier poets, Sir John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, Thomas Randolph, and William Davenant, he devoted much of his attention to the song and the love lyric, complimenting real or imaginary ladies. Few poems of this type are lovelier than Carew’s “Ask Me No More”:
Aske me no more where Jove bestowes,When June is past, the fading rose:For in your beauties orient deepe,These flowers as in their causes, sleepe.Aske me no more whether doth stray,The golden Atomes of the day:For in pure love heaven did prepareThose powders to inrich your haire.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Aske me no more if East or West,The Phenix builds her spicy nest:For unto you at last shee flies,And in your fragrant bosome dyes.
The images of the fading rose, the golden atoms, and the phoenix are the traditional ones of Renaissance love poetry, made fresh by the purity of Carew’s diction, and they combine to form a tribute that, in effect, transcends the compliment of a single lover to a particular lady and becomes a tribute to all beauty.
Like Ben Jonson, Carew builds much of his love poetry on the imagery and the themes of the Greek and Roman lyric poets. Classical deities, especially Cupid, find their way into many of his poems, and countless of his verses are variations on the familiar “carpe diem” theme of Horace, the notion expressed so well by Robert Herrick in his “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” Typical of Carew’s treatment of the transience of beauty are these lines from one of his longer works, “To A. L., Persuasions to Love”:
For that lovely face will faileBeautie’s sweet, but beautie’s fraile’Tis sooner past, ’tis sooner doneThen Summers raine, or winters Sun:Most fleeting when it is most deare,’Tis gone while wee but say ’tis here.
While the language and imagery of Carew’s love poems, his skill at handling a variety of stanza forms, and the melodious quality of his verses, which were often sung, reveal his place as one of the “Sons of Ben,” he adopts in many of his lyrics the cynical tone and, occasionally, the bizarre imagery of Donne’s early works. He borrows the Metaphysical poets’ practice of speaking of love in terms of religion, commerce, or geography, and he uses the device skillfully; however, his language almost always seems derivative, whereas that of Donne impresses the reader as revelation of new and vital relationships. The song “To my inconstant Mistress” shows Carew’s use of a theological vocabulary to speak of his lady:
When thou, poore excommunicateFrom all the joyes of love, shalt seeThe full reward, and glorious fate, Which my strong faith shall purchase me, Then curse thine owne inconstancie.
Carew’s court poetry is witty, elegant, and amusing, but it very rarely, even at its most sensual, conveys anything of the emotional or intellectual power of Donne’s work. It is in this sense typical of the writing of the Caroline poets, who were, like their French contemporaries, the precieux, generally concerned with form rather than with the expression of either ideas or feelings. (The presence of Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, sister of Louis XIII, at the English court ensured some influence of contemporary French culture on English writers.) Even...
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