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

§ 3. His Prosody

Another, and a most important aspect of Campion’s lyrics is the metrical. He has been truly called “a curious metrist”; and few can fail to be struck with the infinite variety of his cadences and rhythms. He not only rings every possible change upon the usual stanza measures of the period, but frequently introduces subtle changes, shifting from line to line in a single poem. The clue to this, as well as to any complete appreciation of this poetry, is the fact of the mutual interdependence of words and musical setting, and that, too, the setting of the poet, who emphasises his own conscious aims in this respect in the preface to the reader (Two Bookes):—“In these English ayres I have chiefely aymed to couple my Words and Notes lovingly together, which will be much for him to doe that hath not power over both.” It seldom happens that poet and composer are one; but when, as in this case, the combination does occur, it is easy to see that there is likely to be a close connection between the twin offspring of the single brain. As one can readily understand, in many cases the words framed themselves to an air in composition, or an air suggested its suitable lyric. These verses were not intended to be read, or even printed alone; their sole function was to be sung, and adaptability, therefore, was an important requirement. Campion’s success in this respect is testified to by his contemporaries, one of whom, John Davies, writes:

  • Never did lyrics’ more than happy strains,
  • Strained out of Art by Nature, so with ease
  • So purely hit the moods and various veins
  • Of Music and her hearers as do these.
  • And, though this success is immaterial for the point of view of permanent literary criticism, it has left its trace in the absence of metrical uniformity, in the novelty of some of the forms and rhythms and especially in variable and shifting cadences, full of musical suggestion. Of this lack of uniformity, this liquid character in his rhythms, there are many instances, but a few will suffice from part II of A Booke of Ayres. “When Laura smiles, her sight revives both night and day,” the first line of no. IX, is itself slightly peculiar in its freedom from any marked caesura, a feature reproduced in the first lines of stanzas 3 and 4. But hardly any two corresponding lines in the rest of the poem are metrically similar. No. XV, again, contains some curious rhythms: “If I hope, I pine; if I feare, I faint and die.” No. XII, “Shall I come, if I swim? wide are the waves, you see,” exhibits a lack of uniformity similar to that of no. IX. In this piece, too, we become aware of a feature which will frequently assert itself, a certain ambiguity as to the correct prosodic rendering. The two lines “Shall I come, if I flie, my deare love, to thee?” and “She a priest, yet the heate of love truly felt” correspond in their respective stanzas. But to get actual metrical correspondence, it would be necessary to read “my deáre love”; whereas the accent falls more naturally on “my.” Which rhythm expresses the poet’s intention? To this and similar queries there is no authoritative reply, because the poems were written for singing, not for reading; and such ambiguities only arise when they are read. It is, of course, of trifling importance which phrasing is upheld; but the point is that, unless the purpose of the poem had been chiefly musical, if, in fact, Campion had paid even a hasty regard to its reading quality, his accurate ear would not have tolerated the existence of such ambiguities. The poems which contain such doubtful passages are not the best, and we may conclude that he regarded these as mere lay-figures to be garbed in musical raiment. But in his finer pieces, those on which the hand of the lyrist lavished its craft, this instability and ambiguity are absent; and, though there is abundance of prosodic interest, it is chiefly due to other reasons. For there was a further cause which contributed in no less measure to this metrical variety. The period covered by Campion’s lifetime, the period of transition from the infancy of prosodic control to complete mastery, was, inprimis, an age of experiment, on the triumphs and failures of which the fabric of English versification was securely established. While Campion was transitional in chronology only, in an age of experiment he was an arch-experimentalist. He was not only led into the false ways of more grievous experiment in quantitative verse and adapted classical measures, but he affords clear evidence of having given careful consideration to the analysis of metrical effect. It is impossible not to infer both from his work and his own admissions, that his metrical variety was, in great part, the fruit of conscious experiment, the deliberate assay of novel combinations, controlled and guided by an exquisite ear. Take, for example, “Harke, al you ladies that do sleep,” already cited. Apart from the daring experiment of a refrain in the second line, there can be little doubt that the poem is an attempt to naturalise classical feet; for the lines of the last quatrain in each stanza scan, respectively: anapaestic, anapaestic, dactylic and adonic. The result is most charming. Take, again, the rhythms of “Follow your Saint; follow with accents sweet,” with its echo in “Love me or not, love her I must or dye.” These are novel cadences, and their success is as great as their novelty. And, even in the pieces of less metrical originality, there is much subtle handling of caesura to prove what an adept Campion was in fingering all the varied stops of his verse instrument.

    We may take it, therefore, that there were two main influences working upon Campion’s prosody. When the lyric was a mere puppet to dance to music, when the composer took precedence of the poet, the musical interest affected the prosody; but, when the composer was lost in the lyrist, his prosodic mastery had a clear field. In relation to the metrical progress that distinguished his age, he was an original force; an active, and not merely a passive, element; he must have contributed far more to that progress than he benefited by the example of others.

    Tribute has been paid to the freshness and spontaneous charm of Campion’s lyrics, concealing, as they do, beneath their seemingly artless ease, a subtle mastery of syllabic tones and values. In a few instances he goes beyond even this, and attains to that completeness and finality, that consummate roundness of expression which betokens close kinship with great poetry.