An English poet best known during his lifetime as an author of Latin poetry, Thomas Campion (1567-1620) is chiefly remembered for his songs for voice and lute and a number of masques celebrating occasions at court. He produced theoretical writings on music composition and in Observations in the Art of English Poesie (1602) called for the use of classical meter in English poetry.
Campion was born to John and Lucy Campion in St. Andrew's parish, Holborn, on February 12, 1567. His father died in 1576, and his mother, who was the daughter of one of the queen's sergeants-at-arms, re-married but was soon widowed. After remarrying again, Campion's mother died herself, and from 1580 he was raised by his stepfather, Augustine Steward. Campion was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, but left in 1584 without taking a degree. During the late 1580s he studied law at Gray's Inn, where he developed an interest in musical arts and participated in dramatic performances but never completed his legal training. Based on evidence in his writings, biographers believe he left England in 1591 to accompany Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, on a military campaign to Rouen, in Normandy.
Campion's first published works are believed to be unsigned lyrics included by Thomas Newman in an edition of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella in 1591. His first attributed work, the Latin volume Thoma Campiani Poemata, was published in 1595 and contained epigrams, elegies, and other verse works, including "Ad Thamesin," an epic recounting the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
In 1601 Campion and his friend, Philip Rosseter, a musician in the court of King James, collaborated on the volume A Booke of Ayres. Campion contributed the first 21 songs and a prose exposition on music theory. Campion related the composition of an ayre to that of an epigram in poetry, praising simplicity and condemning the popular madrigal style of the era as overly complex. He wrote in the preface to Book of Ayres, "what Epigrams are in poetrie, the same are ayres in musick, then in their chief perfection when they are short and well seasoned." His musical contributions to the volume include "Though You Are Young and I Am Old;" "Come, Let Us Sound with Melody," a rendering of Psalm 19 in Sapphic meter; and "I Care Not for These Ladies."
Observations in the Art of English Poesie, Campion's treatise on poetry, was published in 1602. In it he denounced rhyming verse as facile and inartistic and advocated instead the use of classical, quantitative meters, that is meters based on quantity—determined by duration, or the time it takes to express a syllable—rather than on accent. As an example of his theory, he exhibited "Rose-Cheekt Lawra:" "Rose-cheekt Lawra, come / Sing thou smoothly with thy beawties / Silent musick, either other / Sweetely gracing."
During this same period Campion went abroad to pursue medical studies at the University of Caen in Normandy. He returned to England a degreed physician and set up a medical practice in London in 1605. While his profession provided necessary income, he continued his artistic pursuits, and in 1607 he produced the Lord Hay's Masque, a presentation at the court of King James celebrating the marriage of James Hay, a Scottish courtier later created first Earl of Carlisle, to Honora Denny, the daughter of a wealthy English nobleman. Depicting the resolution of a disagreement between Diana and the knights of Apollo through the intervention of Hesperus, the masque reflects the symbolic union of Scotland and England in the nuptial occasion and the actual union of the countries under James's rule.
Campion returned to theoretical writing with A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counter-point, published circa 1610. In it he advocates using the bass line rather than the tenor as the basis of musical harmony, a shift in composition that Anthony Burgess called "innovative" in a 1970 review of Campion's works.
In November 1612, during the preparations for Campion's next court masque (a celebration of the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, Elector Palatine), the sudden, unexpected death of Henry, the Prince of Wales, inspired Campion's Songs of Mourning, a collection of elegies with accompanying music by Giovanni Coprario. In February 1613 Campion's The Lord's Masque was at last performed at court, with scenery and decoration by the celebrated architect Inigo Jones. Within the following year Campion was commissioned to write two additional masques for the family of the influential Lord Chamberlain, Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk. The first of these was a production mounted for the entertainment of Queen Anne as she traveled between London and Bath in April 1613, making a stop in Reading. Known as The Caversham Entertainment after the location in which it was performed, the production drew on traditional pastoral themes and characters and was divided into two parts, the first occurring out of doors as the queen's entourage approached the estate, and the second presented indoors on the following evening. Later in the same year Campion composed an entertainment on the occasion of the marriage of Suffolk's daughter, the Countess of Essex, a seventeen-year-old divorcee, to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset. The success of the masque as an entertainment, published in 1614 as The Description of a Maske: Presented in the Banqueting Roome at Whitehall on Saint Stephen's Night Last, has been overshadowed by the subsequent events that involved the unwitting Campion and others close to the Howard family in a murder plot. Somerset's friend, Sir Thomas Overbury, who had strongly opposed the marriage, was imprisoned on false charges and slowly poisoned by Frances Howard. Campion, though questioned and cleared during the investigation, had unknowingly collected the bribe that secured the silence of tower guards in the matter.
In addition to the masques composed during 1613, Campion also published Two Books of Ayres. The first part of the collection contains songs of a religious or devotional nature, including "Never Weather-Beaten Saile," which, according to Elise Bickford Jorgens in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "illustrates [Campion's] intricate and careful creation of musical and verbal rhythm out of the accentual pattern of the words and the sensitive distribution of the vowel sounds."
The second part of the volume comprises love songs, including "The Peaceful Western Wind" and "There Is None, O None but You," both of which critic Thomas MacDonagh characterized in 1913 as "masterpieces of melody." According to biographer Walter Davis, "In the texts of the songs" of 1613, Campion "developed contrast, the literal and factual, and he was developing a style that would culminate in a dry realistic tone that encouraged a vibrant complexity of attitude. In his music he was incorporating many different voices, and was moving toward heightened speech rather than suggestive dance melody as a model for what music should be." In 1617 Campion published a final song book, Third and Fourth Books of Ayres. MacDonagh praised the collection for presenting "an ever new variety of rhythm and rime and colour," citing such works as "Thrice Toss These Oaken Ashes in the Air" and "Now Winter Nights Enlarge," which concludes, "The Summer hath his joyes, / And Winter his delights; / Though Love and all his pleasures are but toyes, / They shorten tedious nights."
Tho. Campiani Epigrammatum Libri II. Umbra. Elegiarum liber unus, Campion's final work, was published in 1619. This work enlarges and revises his earlier Latin poetry, including Ad Thamesin, and presents a number of new epigrams on medical subjects and elegies on love and faithfulness. Umbra narrates the tragic story of Iolde and her son Melampus. According to Dana F. Sutton, "the poem deals with destructive dreams and beguiling false visions" and through its subtext suggests that "physical beauty, and the love it engenders is a destructive snare and delusion."
Campion died in London on March 1, 1620, and was buried at St. Dunstan's in the West, Fleet Street.
In the century following his death, Campion's reputation diminished as new styles of music and poetry evolved. Interest in his compositions was revived during the early twentieth century with the publication of Campion's Works, edited by Percival Vivian in 1909. Commentators of the era generally favored the achievement of his lyrics over his songwriting, a view held by Bruce Pattison, who in 1946 called Campion "the finest lyric poet of his age." A later estimation, advanced by Anthony Burgess in 1970, holds that "Campion is possibly unique in possessing a total mastery of both crafts … and a precise knowledge of the relationship between them. In both he was not merely an inspired empiric but a powerful theorist." Of his dramatic works, biographer David Lindley has noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that "Campion's masques are significant examples of their kind. In them may be traced the evolution of the early Jacobean masque, its music and scene design. Each of them offers an interesting gloss on the significant political events they celebrated. If their symbolism is fully and sympathetically understood then often-repeated criticism of Campion's lack of structural ability is shown to be false." In 1996 Jorgens summarized, "Campion's importance for nondramatic literature of the English Renaissance lies in the exceptional intimacy of the musical-poetic connection in his work. While other poets and musicians talked about the union of the two arts, only Campion produced complete songs wholly of his own composition, and only he wrote lyric poetry of enduring literary value whose very construction is deeply etched with the poet's care for its ultimate fusion with music."
Davis, Walter R., Thomas Campion, Twayne Publishers, 1987.
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MacDonagh, Thomas, Thomas Campion and the Art of English Poetry, Hodges, Figgis, 1913. Reprint, Russell & Russell, 1973.
Wilson, Christopher, Words and Notes Coupled Lovingly Together: Thomas Campion, A Critical Study, Garland, 1989.
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Sutton, Dana F. "The Latin Poetry of Thomas Campion (1567-1620): A Hypertext Edition," http://eee.uci.edu/~papyri/campion/ (February 7, 2003).
"Thomas Campion (1567-1620)," http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/campion.htm (February 6, 2003).