Today we’ll meet Mr. Thomas Campion, who was born in London in 1567 and lived to 1620. Yes, once again, there was just something about this era in English literature where it seems like every single Englishman couldn’t help but write fine poetry. Mr. Campion’s day job was physician, but he was also a songwriter and musical and literary theorist in addition to being a poet.
A few of our friends, like John Crowe Ransom, did write literary theory but we haven’t covered this much yet, so I think it may be interesting to spend a few moments looking at Mr. Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Don’t worry, I won’t get into the nitty-gritty since even I find this type of thing a bit dry (see Aristotle). For most of the pamphlet he discusses the types of poetic metre and which are most apt for use in English, but he opens with an extended criticism of rhymed poetry.
Now, today that may not seem like such a big deal, since the large majority of English poetry has been unrhymed, and often not even metrical, for decades now. At the time, though, it was the standard in English verse, and Mr. Campion notes, “whosoeuer shall by way of reprehension examine the imperfections of Rime must encounter with many glorious enemies, and those very expert and ready at their weapon, that can if neede be extempore (as they say) rime a man to death.” He keeps up the hot takes throughout the discussion, too, in a way that would make Ezra Pound proud. For instance, “the facilitie and popularitie of Rime creates as many Poets as a hot sommer flies.” This holds true even today to some extent; everyone who think they can rhyme a little, which isn’t terribly difficult, has likely produced a bad poem or two.
So what, exactly, is his problem with rhyme? His main criticism comes down to rhymers screwing around with their metres and the sense of their verses in order to fit the rhyme scheme. If you’ve written any poetry you’ve likely run into this problem yourself; you have a good line and you know what you want to say, but you need a word that rhymes and you need that rhyming word in the right place. You can run into a similar problem with blank verse, of course, since you still need that metre to work out, but it’s less pronounced.
Besides, if unrhymed poetry was good for the Greeks and Romans, it’s good enough for us.
Anyway, feel free to give the rest of the pamphlet a read; there’s quite a bit more to it than the discussion of rhyme, though that is the highlight.
Now you might be thinking, given his hot takes on rhyme, that Mr. Campion wrote all blank verse, right? Well…
Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow;
Though thou be black as night,
And she made all of light,
Yet follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow.
Follow her, whose light thy light depriveth;
Though here thou liv’st disgrac’d,
And she in heaven is plac’d,
Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth.
Follow those pure beams, whose beauty burneth;
That so have scorched thee,
As thou still black must be,
Till her kind beams thy black to brightness turneth.
Follow her, while yet her glory shineth;
There comes a luckless night
That will dim all her light;
And this the black unhappy shade divineth.
Follow still, since so thy fates ordained;
The sun must have his shade,
Till both at once do fade,
The sun still proud, the shadow still disdained.
So is this poem an outlier? Nope. Almost all of his poems rhyme. Why he did this, I don’t know and could only speculate. Not that it matters a whole lot; his poems are very good and that’s all I really care about. He did write at least one unrhymed poem, though, which is the one I wanted to highlight today, “Rose-Cheeked Laura.”
Rose-cheek’d Laura, come,
Sing thou smoothly with thy beauty’s
Silent music, either other
Lovely forms do flow
From concent divinely framed;
Heav’n is music, and thy beauty’s
Birth is heavenly.
These dull notes we sing
Discords need for helps to grace them;
Only beauty purely loving
Knows no discord,
But still moves delight,
Like clear springs renew’d by flowing,
Ever perfect, ever in them-
R.P.O.’s editors note that “concent” means “harmony.”
What I like about this poem is the rhythm it has even without rhyme; it’s composed, as Ezra Pound once put it, to the rhythm of music and not the metronome. The frequent use, but not overuse, of mellifluous long vowel sounds and light alliteration (as on ‘s’ in the first stanza) are part of that. Rhyme, of course, contributes to the rhythm and beauty of poetry, but as we can see it’s by no means necessary, and though Mr. Campion’s criticisms of rhyme and the rhymers are overstated, there is a grain of truth to them.