Friday, February 12, 2010

No, the other Campion...

English Renaissance poet Thomas Campion is 443 today.

Not to be confused with the other famous Campion...

Anyone with even a modicum of instinct about the cinematic possibilities of Catholic saints should know who St. Edmund Campion is. Think “Man for All Seasons Meets Your Favorite Espionage Film.”

Cast suggestions?

If St. Edmund's life is ever made into a film (perhaps Whit Stilman's first venture into period costuming and action film genre?), given the fact that they were near-contemporaries, I think it would be unavoidable to have Thomas Campion supply the soundtrack.

I have no idea whether the two Campions are related by blood – (Anyone? Campion? Campion?) - but they are very much related by their affinity for the goodness of beauty in truth.

Thomas Campion was not, as far as I could tell, Catholic, which would make sense given the fact that he was an active poet associated with the savagely anti-Catholic court of Queen Elizabeth I. He did, on the other hand, leave for France a year before her death, and there is some speculation that he may have converted at this time, while a medical student at the University of Caen, France.

Religious questions aside, Campion was quite the interesting character. Besides being famous in his own lifetime for his lyrics and music, Campion was a doctor who ministered to the English during the Plague, took part in his fair share of court intrigue, and died of the Plague himself, no doubt, as a result of his service to his patients. He was born in London and schooled at Cambridge and had an impressive set of contemporaries: William Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, composer William Byrd, historian Edward Gibbons and fellow songster John Dowland.

Like many of his fellow versifiers, Campion looked to lyric poetry more for its lyric quality than its poetic quality. I can do no better to explain what I mean by this than what Walter R. Davis says in the Norton edition of Campion’s works: “That Campion is primarily the poet of the auditory imagination is due to his combining the roles of poet and composer in a manner unique in the history of English literature.”

To read Campion is to hear the musical possibilities of language – and not just tonal qualities, but actual, bona fide musical elements. The lyric quality of poetry is one of its distinguishing marks – when done well, it “sings.” But Campion seems to have taken that principle one step further.

No mere songwriter springing ditties from his kitchen table, Campion labored long and hard to marry word and sound in a way few other poets have attempted, let alone achieved. The author of Campion’s entry in the esteemed and intimidating “Cambridge History of English and American Literature” notes:

"It seldom happens that poet and composer are one; but when, as in [Campion’s] 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."

In fact, Campion was rather modern in some of his views on poetry. Late in his career, for instance, he eschewed rhyme and attempted to recalibrate English meter along quantitative lines akin to the measures of ancient Greek and Roman prosody. Instead of employing the drum-beat of most English poetry (as P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertrand Wooster would say, “Ta-tum-ta-tum-ta-tum-tum-tum”), Campion composed according to the length of musical notes (quarter, half, etc.). Vowels were assigned musical values and the consonants – well, they best just get out of the way…

Get a holt of a copy of his work and read some of it out loud and see if your ear’s not begging for a tune to accompany what your voice is saying. The connection between music and poetry is ripe for revisting – and Campion is a good place to start.

Thomas Campion on why the English lyric can be as profound as longer genres in English or other languages - SO THERE!.

Short Ayres [that is, lyric poems], if they be skillfully framed and naturally exprest, are like quicke and good Epigrammes in Poesie, many fo them shewing as much artifice, and breeding as great difficultie, as a larger Poeme. Non omnia possumus omnes [“We cannot all do all things.”], said the Romane Epick Poet [Virgil]. But some there are who admit onely French and Italian Ayres, as if every Country had not is proper Ayre, which the people thereof naturally usurpe in their Musicke. Others taste nothing that comes forth in Print, as if Catullus and Martials Epigrammes were the worse for being published. In these English Ayres, I have chiefly aymed to couple my Words and Notes lovingly together, which will be much for him to doe that hath not power over both. The light of this will best appeare to him who hath pays’d [weighed] our Monasyllables and Syllables combines, both which are so loaded with Consonants , as that they will harly keepe company with swift Notes, or give the Vowell convenient liberty. – from his note “To the Reader” in his Two Books of Ayres…To be sung to the Lute and Viols, in two, three, and foure Parts: or by one Voyce to an INSTRUMENT.

Exemplary poem by Thomas Campion:

Now Winter Nights Enlarge

Now winter nights enlarge
This number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o'erflow with wine,
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep's leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers' long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well:
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys
They shorten tedious nights.

Thomas Campion writing assingment:

Do one of the following:

1. James Joyce's last major work, Finnigans Wake, was based on a traditional Irish folk song. Write a short story based on a song that's been banging around in your head with narrative potential. Think for example of Neil Young's "Powderfinger," the Cowboy Junkies "Lay It Down," The Who's "Who Are You?", REM's "Country Feeback," They Might Be Giant's "Meet James Endsor," or Frank Sinatra's "It Was a Very Good Year."

2. (The Dana Gioia Writer's Challenge). Take any pop song currently enjoying its ephemeral moment on the pop charts and scan it for its meter. Despite the banality of the lyrics, examine whether they "fit" the tune metrically. Does the musician attempt to "bend" the lyrics around the music or cram them into a musical line past the point of sane bearing (Michael Stipe and Bono are notorious for this) or do music and lyric fit like hand in glove (Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot are renowned for this)? Rewrite the song's lyrics in a way that would please Thomas Campion enough that upon a first hearing he would be grabbing for another flagon of punch....

3. Write a poem or short piece of prose (a prose poem?) in which you pay particular attention to the consonants and vowels. How do they "express" the meaning of the words? - Arthur Rimbaud's "Vowels" offers one possible option for exigesis. Edward Lear, Wallace Stevens and Dr. Seuss also offer by way of induction a unique perspective on the "sense of sound" in their work.

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