Thomas Campion Biography | Poet
CAMPION, THOMAS (1567-1620), English poet and musician, was born in London on the 12th of February 1567, and christened at St Andrew’s, Holborn. He was the son of John Campion of the Middle Temple, who was by profession one of the cursitors of the chancery court, the clerks “of course,” whose duties were to draft the various writs and legal instruments in correct form. His mother was Lucy Searle, daughter of Laurence Searle, one of the queen’s serjeants-at-arms. Upon the death of Campion’s father in 1576, his mother married Augustine Steward and died herself soon after. Steward acted for some years as guardian of the orphan, and sent him in 1581, together with Thomas Sisley, his stepson by his second wife Anne, relict of Clement Sisley, to Peterhouse, Cambridge, as a gentleman pensioner. He studied at Cambridge for four years, and left the university, it would appear, without a degree, but strongly imbued with those tastes for classical literature which exercised such powerful influence upon his subsequent work. In April 1587 he was admitted to Gray’s Inn, possibly with the intention of adopting a legal profession, but he had little sympathy with legal studies and does not appear to have been called to the bar. His subsequent movements are not certain, but in 1591 he appears to have taken part in the French expedition under Essex, sent for the assistance of Henry IV. against the League; and in 1606 he first appears with the degree of doctor of physic, though the absence of records does not permit us to ascertain where this was obtained. The rest of his life was probably spent in London, where he practised as a physician until his death on the 1st of March 1620, leaving behind him, it would appear, neither wife nor issue. He was buried the same day at St Dunstan’s-in-the-West, Fleet Street.
The body of his works is considerable, the earliest known being a group of five anonymous poems included in the Songs of Divers Noblemen and Gentlemen, appended to Newman’s surreptitious edition of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, which appeared in 1591. In 1595 appeared under his own name the Poemata, a collection of Latin panegyrics, elegies and epigrams, which evince much skill in handling, and won him considerable reputation. This was followed in 1601 by A Booke of Ayres, one of the song-books so fashionable in his day, the music of which was contributed in equal proportions by himself and Philip Rosseter, while the words were almost certainly all written by him. The following year he published hisObservations in the Art of English Poesie, “against the vulgar and unartificial custom of riming,” in favour of rhymeless verse on the model of classical quantitative poetry. Its appearance at this stage was important as the final statement of the crazy prejudice by one of its sanest and best equipped champions, but the challenge thus thrown down was accepted by Daniel, who in his Defence of Ryme, published the same year, finally demolished the movement.
In 1607 he wrote and published a masque for the occasion of the marriage of Lord Hayes, and in 1613 he issued a volume of Songs of Mourning(set to music by Coperario or John Cooper) for the loss of Prince Henry, which was sincerely lamented by the whole English nation. The same year he wrote and arranged three masques, the Lords’ Masque for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth, an entertainment for the amusement of Queen Anne at Caversham House, and a third for the marriage of the earl of Somerset to the infamous Frances Howard, countess of Essex. If, moreover, as appears quite likely, his Two Bookes of Ayres (both words and music written by himself) belongs also to this year, it was indeed his annus mirabilis.
Some time in or after 1617 appeared his Third and Fourth Booke of Ayres; while to that year probably also belongs his New Way of making Foure Parts in Counter-point, a technical treatise which was for many years the standard text-book on the subject. It was included, with annotations by Christopher Sympson, in Playfair’s Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick, and two editions appear to have been bought up by 1660. In 1618 appeared The Ayres that were sung and played at Brougham Castle on the occasion of the king’s entertainment there, the music by Mason and Earsden, while the words were almost certainly by Campion; and in 1619 he published his Epigrammatum Libri II. Umbra Elegiarum liber unus, a reprint of his 1595 collection with considerable omissions, additions (in the form of another book of epigrams) and corrections.
While Campion had attained a considerable reputation in his own day, in the years that followed his death his works sank into complete oblivion. No doubt this was due to the nature of the media in which he mainly worked, the masque and the 138song-book. The masque was an amusement at any time too costly to be popular, and with the Rebellion it was practically extinguished. The vogue of the song-books was even more ephemeral, and, as in the case of the masque, the Puritan ascendancy, with its distaste for all secular music, effectively put an end to the madrigal. Its loss involved that of many hundreds of dainty lyrics, including those of Campion, and it is due to the enthusiastic efforts of Mr A.H. Bullen, who first published a collection of the poet’s works in 1889, that his genius has been recognized and his place among the foremost rank of Elizabethan lyric poets restored to him.
Campion set little store by his English lyrics; they were to him “the superfluous blossoms of his deeper studies,” but we may thank the fates that his precepts of rhymeless versification so little affected his practice. His rhymeless experiments are certainly better conceived than many others, but they lack the spontaneous grace and freshness of his other poetry, while the whole scheme was, of course, unnatural. He must have possessed a very delicate musical ear, for not one of his songs is unmusical; moreover, the fact of his composing both words and music gave rise to a metrical fluidity which is one of his most characteristic features. Rarely indeed are his rhythms uniform, while they frequently shift from line to line. His range was very great both in feeling and expression, and whether he attempts an elaborate epithalamium or a simple country ditty, the result is always full of unstudied freshness and tuneful charm. In some of his sacred pieces he is particularly successful, combining real poetry with genuine religious fervour.
Thomas Campion: Poems
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