The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Thomas Campion

§ 1. His Life

THOMAS CAMPION, who was born on Ash Wednesday, 12 February, 1566/7, was the son of well-to-do middle-class parents. His father, John Campion, was a member of the Middle Temple, and, by profession, one of the cursitors of the chancery court, the clerks “of course” (who made out the writs de cursu according to the procedure requisite in the various districts).

John Campion was buried at St. Andrew’s, Holborn, on 8 October, 1576, and, about a year later, his relict Lucy, who was the daughter of Laurence Searle, one of the queen’s serjeants-at-arms, married Augustine Steward, of a family which was of some importance in the north-easterly home counties, and from which, through his mother, Oliver Cromwell was descended. There were no children of this marriage, which Lucy did not long survive, for she died in 1580, leaving her children, Thomas and his sister Rose, in the care of Steward. In 1581, Steward married Anne, daughter of Thomas Argall, and relict of Clement Sisley of Barking, who brought him a second stepson, Thomas Sisley, a lad of about the same age as Campion.

During their minority, both lads were under Steward’s tutelage; and, in 1581, they were entered as gentlemen pensioners at Peterhouse, Cambridge, then under the mastership of Andrew Perne, with whom, in his capacity as dean of Ely, Steward had business relations. Neither of the boys matriculated or proceeded to a degree. After four years of study, they left the university, and, on 27 April, 1586, Campion was entered at Gray’s inn, possibly with a view to his pursuing a legal profession. It is clear, however, from his works, that he had little sympathy with, or respect for, legal studies; and he does not appear to have been called to the bar.

His later movements cannot be ascertained with certainty, though he appears to have kept up his connection with Gray’s inn for some years. In 1591, a set of five of his poems appeared anonymously among the Songs of Divers Noblemen and Gentlemen, appended to Newman’s surreptitious edition of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. These, possibly, were pirated by the enterprising publisher from MS. copies in circulation after the fashion of those times, or lent by Nashe, who was a friend of Campion and who contributed the introduction: for not only are they full of obvious misprints, but there is an accumulated weight of internal evidence to show that the poet took part in the earl of Essex’s expedition, for the succour of Henry IV, against the League, which reached Dieppe in August, 1591, and laid siege to Rouen.

The first published work bearing Campion’s name is his volume of Latin Poemata, which appeared in 1595. This little book, which is extremely rare at the present day, contains panegyrics of Elizabeth and of the earl of Essex, a poem of rejoicing on the defeat of the Armada, and so forth, followed by a collection of elegies and a series of epigrams chiefly addressed to his own friends and contemporaries by name. It was not until 1601 that Campion’s first collection of English poems, A Booke of Ayres, was given to the world in the form of one of the song-books to which reference has been made in a previous chapter. It was divided into two parts, the first set to airs composed by Campion himself, who thus made his first appearance as a musician, and the second to the airs of Philip Rosseter, musician and theatrical manager and Campion’s lifelong friend.

In the following year, 1602, Campion published his Observations in the Art of English Poesie “against the vulgar and unartificial custom of riming”; and, some time between 1602 and 1606, when he first signed himself “Doctor in Physic,” he must have taken up the study of medicine and proceeded to the degree of M.D. We have already seen that this degree was not conferred on him at Cambridge, neither, so far as can be ascertained, was it conferred at Oxford or at Dublin. It only remains to assume that the poet studied at some continental university, and, while nothing certain has at present been ascertained as to this, it is interesting to note that the study of medicine and the practice of foreign travel were both sedulously fostered at Peterhouse, which not only possessed one of the finest early collections of books upon medicine, but frequently granted dispensations to its fellows to pursue some approved course of study in partibus transmarinis. In 1607, he wrote and published a masque for the occasion of the marriage of lord Hayes, and, in 1613, appeared a volume of Songs of Mourning, in which, in common with many other famous poets, he expressed the grief evoked in Britain by the untimely death of prince Henry. In the same year, he wrote and arranged three masques, the Lords’ Maske, for the occasion of princess Elizabeth’s marriage to the elector palatine, a masque entertainment for the amusement of queen Anne, during her visit at Caversham house, and a third for the occasion of the earl of Somerset’s marriage to the notorious Frances Howard. To this last masque, some personal interest attaches, by reason of its connection with the Overbury poisoning case, in which Campion was slightly involved. He had performed some trifling duties for his patron, Sir Thomas Monson, which afterwards became of importance in the history of the trial. Monson himself was thrown into the Tower, upon suspicion of complicity, where the poet attended him in his professional capacity as physician; after some delay, during which the poet’s evidence was heard, Monson received the royal pardon in circumstances and conditions which made it tantamount to a complete acquittal. If this verdict be accepted—and there is no reason for rejecting it—a fortiori Campion could not have been privy to the conspiracy.

In 1612, appeared Two Bookes of Ayres, followed, in 1617, by the Third and Fourth Booke of Ayres. To 1617, also, probably belongs his New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counter-point, a technical treatise which, for many years, was the standard text-book on the subject. In 1618 was published Ayres that were sung and played at Brougham Castle, which were almost certainly written by Campion for the occasion of the king’s entertainment on his return from Scotland; and, in 1619, he published a second edition of his Latin poems in two books, the latter of which was a reprint, with considerable alterations, omissions and additions, of the 1595 collection of epigrams, followed by a similar réchauffé of the elegies contained in that volume. He died on 1 March, 1619/20, and was buried at St. Dunstan’s in the West, having, by his will, a nuncupatory one made in extremis, left the whole of his estate to his old collaborator, Philip Rosseter. From this circumstance, it may fairly be inferred that he left behind him neither wife nor issue.

As to the poet’s religious views, divers opinions have been expressed. It has been thought by some that, in view of the fact that a large number of Campion’s best friends were adherents to the older faith, and that he did not dissemble a distaste for puritans and puritanism, he was himself a Catholic. But it is not likely that any devout Catholic, howsoever loyal, could have alluded to Elizabeth as “Faith’s Pure Shield, the Christian Diana,” and the conclusion at which we must arrive is that Campion, though probably nominally a protestant, was not seriously concerned with dogma of any sort. However, his devotional poetry contains some of the finest things he has written. “Never weather-beaten Saile more willing bent to shore,” “Awake, awake, thou heavy spright” and some others exhibit the union, all too rare in the annals of hymnology, of genuine spiritual exaltation with the true lyrical note.