Thomas Campion Campion, Thomas - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Campion 1567-1620

English poet, playwright, composer, and critic.

Campion is best known for his work as a poet and as a composer of songs for voice and lute. He is also recognized for his poetry in Latin and for his work in the masque form of poetic drama, which is considered of some importance in the evolution of the genre. In addition to his creative works, Campion wrote a significant study on poetic theory, Observations in the Art of English Poesie (1602). In this controversial work, he argued that verse written in English should emulate classical meters. The influence of classical literatures, primarily Latin, are found throughout the work of Campion, whose reputation as a writer and composer has steadily improved over time.

Biographical Information

Born on February 12, 1567, in St. Andrew's Holborn, England, Campion was the son of John Campion, a clerk of the Court of Chancery, property owner, and vestryman of St. Andrew's Church, and his wife Lucy (maiden name, Searle). Campion was orphaned by the time he was a teenager: his father died in 1576 and his mother in 1580. After the death of his mother, who had remarried, Campion was raised by his stepfather, Augustin Steward. At the age of fourteen, Campion entered Cambridge University, but did not attain a degree before he left in 1584. While there, he studied classical literature, an interest that would later influence his writing. In 1586, Campion decided to pursue a career in law and was admitted to Gray's Inn for his education in the field. According to his biographers, he probably did not complete this course and most likely left Gray's Inn before the end of the decade. During this part of Campion's life, he almost certainly began writing poems and songs. In 1591, Campion also gained experience as a soldier, and was likely part of a military operation lead by the Earl of Essex to Normandy to assist Henri IV. Campion's first published work, Thoma Campiani Poemata, appeared in 1595. His first work of significance was A Book of Ayres, which was published in 1601 and also contained works by Philip Rosseter. Because of the dedication of the book to Sir Thomas Monson, biographers surmise that Campion was writing primarily under the patronage of this significant musical benefactor. Their relationship would have both a positive and negative effect on Campion's career. Campion's next publication of note was his study of poetic theory, Observations in the Art of English Poesie. At the same time that Campion was engaged in literary pursuits, he was also studying medicine, earning an M.D. degree from the University of Caen. After his return to England, Campion practiced as a physician amd continued to write, composing poetry, songs and masques. Through the influence of Monson, Campion was commissioned to write a masque on the occasion of the wedding of Princess Elisabeth, the daughter of King James I, in 1612. However, the king's son, Prince Henry, died before the wedding was to take place, and Campion's masque, entitled The Lords' Masque was not performed until the following year. Upon Prince Henry's death, Campion composed Songs of Mourning (1613). Throughout the remainder of his life, Campion composed and published poetry and songs, including The Third and Fourth Bookes of Ayres (c. 1617). This collection was also dedicated to Monson, who was involved in legal troubles in which Campion was implicated. Although Monson was exonerated of all charges, Campion's association with his literary patron lead to a decline in prestige. His last publication was Thoma Campiani Epigrammatum Libri II, another collection Latin poetry which appeared in 1619. The following year, on March 1, Campion died. He was buried in London at St. Dunstan's in the West.

Major Works

Campion's important works consist primarily of poetry, written in both Latin and English; songs including musical accompaniment composed by the author; and masques. Thoma Campiani Poemata, Campion's first collection of poems in Latin, includes sixteen elegies and 129 epigrams on a number of topics, including friends, women, love, his days at Gray's Inn, his military experience, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada (“Ad Theamesin”). Campion's next work, A Book of Ayres, featured a number of his songs written for voice and lute. Among these compositions is “My Sweetest Lesbia,” which was influenced by the Latin poet Catullus. The influence of classical Latin poetry is underscored in Campion's next work of note, Observations in the Art of English Poesie. In this work of poetic theory, Campion advanced his view that verse written in English should take as its model the metrical rules of Latin literature. He also condemns the use of rhyme as it had been employed in English poetry, discusses which verse forms would best suit English, and outlines a method for establishing the number of syllables in lines of English poetry. Campion then focused on the masque tradition, combining poetry, music, dance, and drama. His first work in the genre, The Lord Hay's Masque, was written for the wedding of Lord Hay, a Scottish man, to an English woman. The marriage had political overtones, as it occurred during the reign of James I, when Scotland and England were being united as Great Britain. Campion used mythological elements to tell his story. Diana, the goddess of chastity, incarcerates nine Knights of Apollo in trees because otherwise they will seduce her nymphs. Venus (Hesperus) intercedes to placate Diana, who releases the Knights. The Knights then join the marriage celebration. The masque was written to illustrate symbolically the importance of political harmony between the conflicting powers of Scotland and England. Campion's next masque, The Lords' Masque, is more multifaceted than his previous work. Again using mythological imagery, eight lords representing stars are brought to earth by Prometheus. Jove turns eight ladies into statues because of Prometheus's actions. Ultimately, Jove changes his mind and by fours the women come to life and dance with the stars. At the end of the masque, Sibylla, a prophet, materializes with the statues of the bride and groom and predicts the couple will live happily. In 1613, Campion wrote two more masques, The Caversham Entertainment and The Somerset Masque, both of which were less elaborate in structure and theme than his previous masques. The former was composed as an entertainment for Queen Anne during her stay at Caversham on her progress to Bath. Campion's second masque of the year, The Somerset Masque, was written for the wedding of the Earl of Somerset to the daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, and is based on a narrative of Catullus concerning the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. After this point, Campion's output consisted of songs and poems. In 1613, he published Two Bookes of Ayres, which contains devotional music and poetry as well as love songs and poems. Around 1617, he published The Third and Fourth Bookes of Ayres. Campion's last work was similar to his first, a collection of Latin poetry entitled Thoma Campiani Epigrammatum Libri II and dedicated to King James I. It contains 453 epigrams, thirteen elegies, and one epic poem.

Critical Reception

Significant critical study of Campion's works did not occur until the late nineteenth century. At that time, critics wrote favorably of his poetry but did not consider his work as a composer of songs. In general, Campion has been relegated him to the ranks of minor poets. By the mid-twentieth century, many critics began looking at Campion as a poet and composer. In terms of his songs, critics looked at issues related to how the poetry and the music worked or did not work together. Some contended that there was an aesthetic balance between his poetry and music, while others denied that musical accompaniment enhanced his poetry. Nonetheless, many critics believe these compositions show his versatility as a writer, if only because they demonstrate that he could use a variety of metrical forms successfully. Despite the fact that many of his poems were written as song lyrics, most critics still look at his poetry divorced from his music. A number of critics have compared his output in English to his Latin poems, with the former sometimes regarded as less personal and revealing than the latter. Campion's work has also been analyzed in relation to the poetic theories presented in Observations in the Art of English Poesie. A number of critics regard this as an important work and have discussed the role it played in the development of English poetry. While contemporaries considered Campion's masques inferior to those by Ben Jonson, the master of the form in that era, some modern critics discern value in these works. For example, The Lord Hay's Masque has been examined in terms of Campion's symbolic commentary on matters of British politics during his lifetime.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thoma Campiani Poemata (poetry) 1595

A Book of Ayres, Set foorth to be song to the Lute, Orpherian, and Base Violl [with Philip Rosseter] (songs) 1601

Observations in the Art of English Poesie (criticism) 1602

The Lord Hay's Masque (play) 1607; published as The Description of a Maske, Presented before the Kings Maiestie at White-H— on Twelfth Night last, in honour of the Lord Hayes, and his Bride, Daughter and Heire to the Honourable the Lord Dennye 1607

A New Way of Making Fowre parts in Counter-point, by a most familiar, and infallible Rule. Secondly, a necessary discourse of Keyes, and their proper Closes. Thirdly, the allowed passages of all Concords perfect, or imperfect, are declared. Also … the nature of the Scale is expressed, with a briefe Method teaching to Sing. (nonfiction) 1610

The Lords' Masque (play) 1613

The Caversham Entertainment (play) 1613; published as A Relation of The Late Royall Entertainment given By The Right Honourable The Lord Knowles, at Cawsome House neere Redding: to our most Gracious Queene, Queene Anne in her Progresse toward the Bathe, upon the seven and eight and twentie dayes of April 1613. Whereunto is annexed the Description, Speeches and Songs of the Lords Maske, presented in the Banqueting House on the Mariage night of High and Mightie, Count Palatine, and the Royally descended the Ladie Elizabeth 1613; published as The Description of a Maske. Presented in the Banqueting roome at Whitehall on Saint Stephens Night last, at the Mariage of the Right Honourable the Earle of Somerset: And the right noble the Lady Francis Howard 1614

The Somerset Masque (play) 1613

Songs of Mourning (songs) 1613

Two Bookes of Ayres (songs) 1613?

The Third and Fourth Bookes of Ayres (poetry) 1617?

Thoma Campiani Epigrammatum Libri II (poetry) 1619

The Works of Dr. Thomas Campion [edited by A. H. Bullen] (songs, poetry, criticism, and plays) 1889

Campion's Works (songs, poetry, criticism, and plays) 1909

Thomas MacDonagh (essay date 1913)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: MacDonagh, Thomas. “Introductory,” “Campion's Life and Works,” and “The Beginnings of English Prosody: Campion's ‘Observations’.” In Thomas Campion and the Art of English Poetry, pp. 1-21. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co., Ltd., 1913.

[In the following excerpt, MacDonagh provides an overview of Campion's literary output and his importance in the history of English literature.]

A man of faire parts and good reputation.

Samuel Daniel.

“The great period of English poetry,” says Arthur Symons, “begins half-way through the sixteenth century, and lasts half-way into...

(The entire section is 4597 words.)

R. W. Short (essay date 1944)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Short, R. W. “The Metrical Theory and Practice of Thomas Campion.” PMLA 59, no. 4 (December 1944): 1003-18.

[In the following essay, Short examines Campion's poetry, his theories on meter as expressed in Observations in the Art of English Poesie, and the importance of his contribution to the theories of metrical poetry of his time.]

Most of the scant attention paid by critics to the poetry of Thomas Campion has been sidetracked by two considerations which, however interesting in themselves, have little to do with his real poetic accomplishments. One of these considerations is that he was a musician and almost alone among his contemporaries composed...

(The entire section is 7183 words.)

Wilfrid Mellers (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Mellers, Wilfrid. “Thomas Campion and the Solo Ayre.” In Harmonious Meeting: A Study of the Relationship between English Music, Poetry and Theatre, c. 1600-1900, pp. 70-80. London: Dennis Dobson, 1965.

[In the following excerpt, Mellers looks at how poetry and music interact in selected music by Campion. Mellers also speculates on how Campion composed such pieces.]

                    Author of light
When to her lute Corinna sings
                    Follow thy fair sun
          It fell on a summer's day

We have seen how, in the madrigals of Ward and still more of Wilbye, a new kind of musical structure, apposite to a new kind of experience,...

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Catherine Ing (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ing, Catherine. “The Lyrics of Thomas Campion.” In Elizabethan Lyrics: A Study in the Development of English Metres and Their Relation to Poetic Effect, pp. 151-77. London: Chatto & Windus, 1968.

[In the essay that follows, Ing examines six poems of Campion's in terms of his poetic theories. Ing also looks at the importance of the accompanying music to Campion's poems in determining their form and content.]

It will be illuminating to take six, very varied, poems by Campion, examine each in the light of his own theories, and then consider whether there are in them elements of versification not mentioned in his theories.


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Ian Spink (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Spink, Ian. “Campion's Entertainment at Bougham Castle, 1617.” In Music in English Renaissance Drama, pp. 57-74. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Spink discusses Campion's sometimes disputed authorship of a masque given at a Brougham Castle in 1617 for King James I.]

King James I spent the summer of 1617 in Scotland. Crossing the border on his return to London, he left Carlisle on August 6 and traveled south to Brougham Castle in Westmoreland, where he was to be the guest that night of Francis Clifford, Earl of Cumberland. Nichols says that the royal progress continued on to Appleby Castle the following day, but we...

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J. W. Binns (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Binns, J. W. “The Latin Poetry of Thomas Campion.” In The Latin Poetry of English Poets, edited by J. W. Binns, pp. 1-25. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

[In the essay that follows, Binns evaluates Campion's major poems written in Latin.]

About one-third of Thomas Campion's poetical output is written in Latin. It is customary by and large to ignore this in any assessment of his poetry. Yet a study of his Latin poetry is sufficient to modify the traditional view of Campion as a poet memorable chiefly for his agreeable but minor Elizabethan lyrics. Campion's two longest poems are both in Latin, and in these he forsakes the brief lyric and writes...

(The entire section is 8124 words.)

David Lindley (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lindley, David. “Campion's Lord Hay's Masque and Anglo-Scottish Union.” Huntington Library Quarterly 43, no. 1 (winter 1979): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Lindley analyzes the masque Campion wrote for the wedding of James Hay and Honora Denny, a union of a Scotsman and Englishwoman, focusing on how the masque reflected the tensions and problems faced by the union of England and Scotland into Great Britain under King James I.]

When James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne, one of his most fervent ambitions was to see the two countries fully united in the single realm of Great Britain. To that end he forced his unwilling parliaments to...

(The entire section is 4837 words.)

Stephen Ratcliffe (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ratcliffe, Stephen. “‘Silent Musick’: The Aesthetics of Ruins.” In Campion: On Song, pp. 3-15. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

[In the essay that follows, Ratcliffe attacks how critics have written about Campion as a composer and poet, arguing they do not address why he is good. Ratcliffe then offers his own analysis of Campion's works.]

Praised in his own lifetime, largely forgotten by the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, resurrected in A.H. Bullen's Lyrics from the Song-Books of the Elizabethan Age (1887), Thomas Campion now enjoys a secure but minor reputation as one of the finest poets of the English...

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David Lindley (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lindley, David. “The Poetry.” In Thomas Campion, pp. 1-61. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986.

[In the essay that follows, Lindley examines Campion's poetry in English, focusing on his love poetry.]

‘The Apothecaries have Bookes of Gold, whose leaves being opened are so light as that they are subject to be shaken with the least breath, yet, rightly handled, they serve both for ornament and use; such are light Ayres.

(p. 168)

Campion's prefatory remarks to The Fourth Booke of Ayres make an apt initiation of the discussion of his poetry. Apt in that they present quite clearly...

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Walter R. Davis (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Davis, Walter R. “Masques.” In Thomas Campion, pp. 118-53. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Davis argues that masques bring together Campion's diverse skills, discusses how they were staged, and surveys critical responses to them.]


James I and his Revels Office took an old form that had existed in England for at least a century and made it serve a new and intense political purpose, that of solidifying James's kingdom, which, by the Act of Union, was to combine England, Scotland, and Wales into Great Britain. Campion was chosen to compose the masque celebrating the first of the...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Eldridge, Muriel T. Thomas Campion: His Poetry and Music (1567-1620). New York: Vantage Press, 1971, 165 p.

Considers Campion primarily as a composer of airs and places his work in this genre in a historical context.

Hart, Joan. “Introduction.” In Ayres & Observations: Selected Poems of Thomas Campion, edited by Joan Hart, pp. 7-24. Cheshire: Fyfield Books/Carcanet Press, 1976.

Summarizes Campion's life and analyzes his major works.

Kastendieck, Miles Merwin. England's Musical Poet: Thomas Campion. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963, 203 p.


(The entire section is 179 words.)