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.
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.
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.
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.