Thomas Campion - World Literature

World Literature

Thomas Campion


BORN: 1567, St. Andrew Holburn, England

DIED: 1620, London, England


GENRE: Plays


A Booke of Ayres (1601)

Observations in the Art of English Poesie (1602)

The Lord Hay’s Masque (1607)

Two Books of Ayres (1613)

Third and Fourth Books of Ayres (1617)



Perhaps best known today as the composer of music and lyrics for more than one hundred songs for voice and lute, Thomas Campion was equally celebrated in his own time for his Latin poetry. He wrote a book on poetic composition urging the adoption of specific classical meters in English, and a music textbook that was sufficiently forward-looking to be republished throughout the seventeenth century. His contribution to the dramatic literature of the age consists of four masques.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Orphaned in his Teens. Thomas Campion was born on February 12, 1567, in the English parish of St. Andrew Holborn. By 1580 his father, John Campion, and his mother, Lucy, were both dead, leaving him in the care of his mother’s third husband, Augustine Steward, and his new wife, Anne Sisley. In 1581 he was sent to Cambridge University, where he remained until 1584, leaving without taking a degree. Two years later he was admitted to Gray’s Inn to study law. He acquired no legal qualification, but likely began his writing career during this time. His connection with drama and the masque—a form of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artistic performance designed to privately entertain a court—also began. In 1588 he acted a part in a comedy presented before noblemen that included Lord Burleigh, Lord Chancellor to Queen Elizabeth I, and in 1594 he contributed at least one lyric to The Masque of Proteus, a highly significant work in the establishment of the masque form. It is probable that in 1591-1592 Campion joined Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, on his unsuccessful expedition to aid Henry IV of France against the Catholic League in Normandy, France.

In 1595, Campion’s publishing career began with the appearance of Thoma Campiani Poemata. In 1601, Campion and his friend Philip Rosseter jointly published A Booke of Ayres, the first half of which was written by Campion. Rosseter’s dedication of this work to English baron and politican Sir Thomas Monson indicates that Campion had for some time been under the protection of this important musical patron. After the publication in 1602 of his treatise on meter, Observations in the Art of English Poesie, it is assumed that Campion traveled on the European continent. He received a medical degree from the University of Caen in February 1605 and practiced medicine for the rest of his life.

The Masques. Campion’s masque-writing career began in 1607, when his The Lord Hay’s Masque was performed on January 6 at court to celebrate the marriage of King James’s Scottish favorite James Hay to Honora Denny, the daughter of a wealthy English nobleman. This marriage between a Scotsman and an Englishwoman was symbolic of the recent union between Scotland and England that James had lobbied for since 1603, when, already king of Scotland, he became James I of England as well. The masque as a whole indicates the need for love to replace ancient hostility between the nations and reflects both the symbolic joining of Scotland and England in the marriage and the actual union of the countries under James’s rule.

After this work Campion published virtually nothing for six years, with the exception of the musical treatise A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counter-point (around 1610). In November 1612, during the preparations for Campion’s next court masque (a celebration of the marriage of James I’s daughter Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, Elector Palatine of Bohemia), 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, including one for the marriage of Suffolk’s daughter Frances to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, called The Somerset Masque.

Poetry of Songs. 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, and the second part of the volume contains love songs. In 1617 Campion published a final songbook, Third and Fourth Books of Ayres. Campion wrote the songs to be sung accompanied by music, but they are largely read today as lyric poetry.

Tho. Campiani Epigrammatum Libri II. Umbra. Elegiarum liber unus, a collection of Latin epigrams, was published in 1619. Campion died in London on March 1, 1620, and was buried at St. Dunstan-in-the-West, London.



Campion's famous contemporaries include:

Francis Bacon (1561-1626): English statesman and scientist; established an inductive method of scientific inquiry, today known as the scientific method.

John Donne (1572-1631): English metaphysical poet and preacher; converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism.

Guy Fawkes (1570-1606): English Roman Catholic involved in the failed plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill Protestant King James I.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Italian astronomer and scientist; forced by the Inquisition to renounce his revolutionary belief that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637): English playwright, actor, and poet known for his satirical plays.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630): German mathematician and scientist; developed the foundation of modern optics and formulated three laws of planetary motion.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618): English poet, courtier, and explorer; a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, he was involved in the settlement of the colony of Virginia.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616): English poet and playwright, regarded by many as the greatest writer in the English language.



Campion's reputation today rests on his lyric poetry. Lyric poetry describes poems that are strongly associated with emotion and imagination, and have a song-like resonance (Campion's were meant to be sung). Here are some works of lyric poetry.

Gitanjali (1913), by Rabindranath Tagore. This poetry collection by the Bengali poet, composer, and writer received the Nobel Prize; Tagore's poetry has often been set to music.

''Hymn to Aphrodite'' (c. 600 B.C.E., by Sappho. This ancient Greek lyric poem dealing with unrequited love was intended to be sung.

''A Mighty Fortress Is Our God'' (c. 1527), by Martin Luther. This hymn and lyric poem was written by the famous German religious reformer who sparked the Protestant Reformation.

''Auld Lang Syne'' (1788), by Robert Burns. This Scottish poet wrote the lyric poem that is still sung today as each new year dawns.


Works in Literary Context

The Masque. Traditionally, a masque is a courtly pageant themed around a specific occasion. Everything from the music to the costumes to the set design is meant to reflect the theme of the masque. These events featured play-like segments, often with characters meant to represent abstract ideas or emotions. The Lords’ Masque (1613) begins with an antimasque of madmen as contrast to the main masque, following a formal innovation introduced by Jonson four years previously.

The Somerset Masque (1613) is significant in the history of the evolution of musical style. Its song ‘‘Bring Away This Sacred Tree,’’ set in a highly declamatory style, marks a major step in the advance toward a quasi-operatic manner. Campion himself signaled a departure from his earlier style when in the prologue to the published text he dismissed old-fashioned myth, instead grounding his ‘‘whole Invention upon Inchauntments and several transformations.’’

Lyric Poetry. Campion is famous for his lyric poetry. Lyric poetry is poetry that has the qualities of a song, whether or not it is meant to be sung. It often features intensely felt personal emotion. There are a variety of examples of lyric poetry forms. The most popular is the sonnet, a fourteen-line rhymed poem. Lyric poetry dates to ancient Greece, where poems were often sung to musical accompaniment. The wandering entertainer of the Middle Ages known as troubadours also produced lyric poetry, also generally with musical accompaniment. More recently, the term ‘‘lyric poetry’’ has been applied to poems that deal with intense feelings, such as the poems in Lyrical Ballads (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.


Works in Critical Context

Critical response to Campion varies widely. His music receives mixed reaction today. According to Cecil Gray, ‘‘He may be conceded to possess a fertile vein of pleasant, but rather undistinguished melody and that is about all.’’ Campion’s lyrics, however, have earned critical acclaim.

The ‘‘Ayres’’. Campion’s work was neglected for almost two hundred years, but in the late 1800s he was rediscovered by A. H. Bullen, who published the first collected edition of his various ‘‘ayres’’ or songs. Modernist poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were among his admirers. Eliot called Campion ‘‘except for Shakespeare... the most accomplished master of rhymed lyric of his time.’’ His lyrics and the songs in which he presented them strongly reflect his period’s style. Campion scholar Walter R. Davis finds his subject’s influence in the works of such later poets as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, and Robert Creeley.

E. D. Mackerness asserts, ‘‘In his shorter pieces he evolved word patterns which fall naturally into acceptable melodic shapes; yet when considered independently of their music, these poems evoke emotional situations that are of interest for their own sake.’’ Gail Reitenbach says that Campion was a forward-thinking and gifted poet who gave his female speakers the first independent and thoughtful portrayals found in Renaissance literature.

Elise Bickford Jorgens states that ‘‘Never Weather-Beaten Saile’’ in the first part of Two Books of Ayres (1613) ‘‘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.’’ And critic Thomas MacDonagh characterizes ‘‘The Peaceful Western Wind’’ and ‘‘There Is None, O None but You’’ in the second part of Two Books of Ayres as ‘‘masterpieces of melody.’’

According to 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.’’ MacDonagh praised the Third and Fourth Books of Ayres (1617) for presenting ‘‘an ever new variety of rhythm and rime and colour.’’

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.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Using the Internet and your school’s library resources, look up the definition of ‘‘masque.’’ How is it similar to today’s musical? What are the differences?

2. Look up the lyrics to some popular songs. How effective are they without music? How much does their emotional impact rely on the music that accompanies them? Does it depend on the style of music?

3. Campion was a doctor of medicine as well as a poet and composer. Using the Internet and your library’s resources, research three poets who also were successful in other professions. Did having a steady job allow them to take greater creative risks in their writing? Did it stop them from fulfilling their artistic potential? Write a paper examining any similarities or striking findings.

4. Why do some people have a lasting impact in an artistic field, but others do not? Write a paper examining a contemporary popular writer, such as J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Sherman Alexie, and discuss why that writer will or will not be considered a significant artist in the future.




Ing, Catherine. Elizabethan Lyrics: A Study in the Development of English Metres and Their Relation to Poetic Effect. London: Chatto & Windus, 1968.

MacDonagh, Thomas. Thomas Campion and the Art of English Poetry. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, 1913. Reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1973.

Wilson, Christopher. Words and Notes Coupled Lovingly Together: Thomas Campion, A Critical Study. New York: Garland, 1989.


DeNeef, A. Leigh. ‘‘Structure and Theme in Campion’s The Lords Maske.’’ Studies in English Literature (Winter 1977): vol. 17: 95-103.

Lindley, David. ‘‘Campion’s Lord Hay’s Masque and Anglo-Scottish Union.’’ Huntington Library Quarterly (Winter 1979): vol. 43: 1-11.

Web sites

Sutton, Dana F. The Latin Poetry of Thomas Campion (1567-1620): A Hypertext Edition. Accessed February 2, 2008, from

Thomas Campion (1567-1620). Accessed February 2, 2008, from