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

§ 2. His Works

He was thoroughly steeped in classical studies, as his Observations in the Art of English Poesie indicates. Hence, his Latin verses, of which he wrote a great number, show considerable familiarity with the Latin poets. They are, of course, mainly imitative: the epigrams are sometimes lacking in decisive point, and frequently express mere vituperation in place of wit—a valid substitute in the opinion of those times—while many of them, especially those in the earlier edition, are obscene. All, however, are graceful and easy, and exhibit dexterity in the handling of the various metres. They won him a great reputation among his contemporaries.

Of the musical work, A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counter-point, it will not be necessary to say much; its interest is entirely technical. The “new way” itself, the sole contribution of the book to the sum of contemporary musical knowledge, is a rule of thumb for the harmonisation of a continuous piece of vocal or instrumental music, given the bass and the first chord. But, apart from the value, such as it is, of this discovery, no doubt the book served as a useful compendium for the musical student, and it was very popular, being several times reprinted in Playford’s Introduction to the Skill of Musicke.

As a masque writer, he was not pre-eminently successful. He had served no apprenticeship in the art of dramatic composition, and in dramatic invention and contrivance his powers were not remarkable. The construction of a masque should strike the happy mean between too great complexity and too great looseness, and Campion usually errs upon the side of unsuitable complication of incident. In this respect, his first masque, that written for the marriage of lord Hayes, is the best, and the dramatic part, as distinguished from the purely lyrical, though showing signs of the undeveloped character of the author’s style (witness the larger proportion of end-stopped lines and couplets over those in the other masques), is exceedingly fresh, graceful and full of charming fancy. His other two masques proper, those written for the respective marriages of princess Elizabeth (the Lords’ Maske) and the countess of Essex, are less direct, and have little dramatic merit. But no one can deny the superlative quality of the lyrical element in all these masques, admirably adapted as it is to the necessities of music and action, and comprising in “Now hath Flora rob’d her bowers,” “So be it ever, joy and peace,” and other short pieces, some of the most beautiful songs in the language.

The truth is that Campion’s muse is chiefly lyrical, and to the song-books must we go for the more abundant field of his genius. As regards his place in English poetry, he constitutes a link between the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans, for he was contemporary with both Sidney and Jonson, Sackville and Donne. It is worthy of notice, too, that he shows no sign in his later period of the influence of the last-named, which, at that time, was becoming the predominant tendency of English poetry. This is probably due to the circumstance that Campion’s style was based upon the earlier traditions of the time when he first began to write. Moreover, the style which he struck out for himself in his first essays was complete, and he adhered to it with little variation throughout his life. In the Songs of Divers Noblemen and Gentlemen above cited, appears in its perfect form one of his most perfect lyrics, “Harke, al you ladies that do sleep,” in which fairylike imagination is combined with the most unshackled and musical expression. The appearance of this poem at such a time, written when the author was but twenty-four years of age is most remarkable, and indicates the possession of an ear keenly sensitive to music, and a predisposition to musical effect.

Campion has been called a Euphuist by a contemporary as well as by a recent critic; but his Euphuism is a refined and sublimated variety, the highest form of which it was capable. The characteristics of Euphuism were narrowed in him to the frequent use of balanced phrase and antithesis, and of moral reflections, with an occasional parallel from natural objects. It is not unusual to meet with poems such as “Harke, al you ladies,” “There is a Garden in her face” (which, possibly, suggested Herrick’s Cherry Ripe), “Young and simple though I am,” and others, in which little taint of Euphuism can be observed. But the large majority of his poems are infused with it, tempered, however, by his admiration of the classics. Courthope describes Campion’s development as a progress from romantic to classical Euphuism, instancing the lyrics from the Lords’ Maske; but it should be remembered that masques, in consequence of an accepted tradition, were almost invariably classical, at least in subject-matter; while the songs of the third and fourth books, published some five years after the masques are not less romantic than those of A Booke.