Thomas Carew was a contributor to the flourishing of poetic elegance at the Caroline court in the years before the nation plunged into Civil Wars. He was friends with John Suckling and at least an acquaintance of Aurelian Townshend: a coterie to admire.
One critical question is how Carew’s art can be distinguished from that of his peers, the list of whom might be extended to include Herrick and Lovelace? Another question is why we would need to distinguish his art at all, why we cannot accept the minor poems from his pen as exemplars of cultural moment when the words of poetry were thought as fine a medium as precious stones and metals for publicly-displayed ornamentation? And there is no reason not to appreciate Carew on grounds of courtly craftsmanship; as a reminder of a moment when the poetic possibilities of language were quite other than what they are today, more readily susceptible to the valuation of a closed, educated, and civilized community, and somehow, we might feel, lessened by depending so much on that community’s arbitration, and likely to result in the sorts of occasional encomiums that are alien to the poetic vocation nowadays.
But the first question remains: what might be found there that could be of special use both to readers of poetry as they sharpen and expand their comprehension of what poems can do, but also to poets, as they recover the past for the demands of the present?
There is much in Carew that represents mastery over a common seventeenth-century stock of techniques and conventions: he yokes conceits, albeit without the violence of Donne; he plays delicately on the scale of particular and general, albeit without the virtuosity of Herrick; he summons the strength of plain diction and syntax, albeit without the vigorous aggression of Jonson; and in common with Jonson he displays erudition, following Classical and especially Italian (Marino) models. Most evidently, his poetry is the product of the ear for the music on the page that is the chief strength of the seventeenth-century lyric tradition.
But in his ear for the music of the words, common as it is among the uncommonly good poets of the era, he is set apart (Lawes set several of his songs to music). Carew’s verse quickens when it slows. It can be distinguished by its languorous unfurling of clause after clause, by its declining to clip briskly.
Affecting the movement of his verse as he does, he affects also his inheritance from other poets. Tight metaphorical concatenations are loosened; the strong syntax and plain diction do not shove, but stride; the particulars do no leap forth. The best demonstration of Carew’s powers is offered in the introduction to the old Oxford edition. First we are given lines from an Italian poem, by Giambattista Marino (I’ve omitted an accent over the “o” in “pro” in l. 1 and the final “u” in “gioventu” in l. 2) :
Che pro dunque to fia
O gioventu mal saggia,
In grembo a leggiadra
Qual serpe in leita piaggia
Nodrir voglia seluaggia;
Cogli cogli il tuo fiore,
Che quasi in un sol punto, e nasce, e more.
Two translations follow, the first by Samuel Daniel (Carew’s predecessor):
What then wilt it availe
O youth advised ill,
In lap of beauty fraile
To nurse a way-ward will,
Like snake in sunne-warme hill?
Plucke, plucke, betime thy flower,
That springs, and parcheth in one short howre.
Oh, then be wise, and whist your season
Affords you dayes for sport, doe reason;
Spend not in vaine your lives short houre,
But crope in time your beauties flower;
Which will away, and doth together
Both bud, and fade, both blow and wither.
Though the punctuation around “and fade” may not have been Carew’s it both responds to and compounds the slowing of the final lines. The four verbs of the last line are set apart from the subject in the prior line, delaying their arrival, which in turn does not startle the poem into action or activity, but instead achieves a stasis, as the verbs circle back on themselves. The force of bud and blow is countered by fade and wither. But the verbs of growth do succeed to those of death; they alternate, circling back, though death has the last word. That last word “wither,” stronger than “parcheth” modifies the Italian in “e more,” replacing the abrupt end with a slower happening, a process leading to, and also following from, death itself. Whereas the Italian lines, and Daniel’s rendering, are “Cropped in time,” cut off in their brevity and quick rhymes, Carew’s lines stretch out against and within the “short houre”; they resist the time he describes by gathering more time into themselves.
A similar effect is found elsewhere, in a poem whose final lines gently recall Marino’s: “To My Mistress in Absence” follows a well-worn theme:
THOUGH I must live here, and by force
Of your command suffer divorce ;
Though I am parted, yet my mind,
That’s more myself, still stays behind.
I breathe in you, you keep my heart, 5
‘Twas but a carcase that did part.
Then though our bodies are disjoin’d,
As things that are to place confined,
Yet let our boundless spirits meet,
And in love’s sphere each other greet ; 10
There let us work a mystic wreath,
Unknown unto the world beneath :
There let our clasp’d loves sweetly twin,
There let our secret thoughts unseen
Like nets be weaved and inter-twined, 15
Wherewith we’ll catch each other’s mind.
There, whilst our souls do sit and kiss,
Tasting a sweet and subtle bliss
(Such as gross lovers cannot know
Whose hands and lips meet here below), 20
Let us look down, and mark what pain
Our absent bodies here sustain,
And smile to see how far away
The one doth from the other stray ;
Yet burn and languish with desire 25
To join and quench their mutual fire ;
There let us joy to see from far
Our emulous flames at loving war,
Whilst both with equal lustre shine,
Mine bright as yours, yours bright as mine. 30
There, seated in those heavenly bowers,
We’ll cheat the lag and ling’ring hours,
Making our bitter absence sweet,
Till souls and bodies both may meet.
There at the end is the desire that Carew’s manner expresses frequently: to “cheat the lag and lingring hours.” Not the rapid flying hours, but even the slow hours, those that more reluctantly pass away, will be cheated in the paradisal grove.
But the conquest of time occurs earlier still, in the twenty-ninth line, that moment where the poem stirs to life as Carew’s creation: “Whilst both with equal lustre shine | Mine bright as yours, yours bright as mine.” Setting the lines apart, showing Carew in them, is the word “lustre,” applied after “flames,” shifting the metaphor to that of ornamentation: a reflective object, balanced, poised, of harmonious line and measurement. But also an object of stability in time; not consuming and growing and dying as a flame normally would, but modified into an enduring ornament. And, as if to take the measure of the solidity and fixedness that the flames have become, the following line is a balanced assessment, defying flux or erratic movement, a mastering of time in its poise.
Take another example, from what was once Carew’s most famous poem, “A Rapture.”
Now in more subtle wreaths I will entwine
My sinewy thighs, my legs and arms with thine ; 80
Thou like a sea of milk shalt lie display’d,
Whilst I the smooth calm ocean invade
With such a tempest, as when Jove of old
Fell down on Danaë in a storm of gold ;
Yet my tall pine shall in the Cyprian strait 85
Ride safe at anchor and unlade her freight :
My rudder with thy bold hand, like a tried
And skilful pilot, thou shalt steer, and guide
My bark into love’s channel, where it shall
Dance, as the bounding waves do rise or fall. 90
Then shall thy circling arms embrace and clip
My willing body, and thy balmy lip
Bathe me in juice of kisses, whose perfume
Like a religious incense shall consume,
And send up holy vapours to those powers 95
That bless our loves and crown our sportful hours,
That with such halcyon calmness fix our souls
In steadfast peace, as no affright controls.
The poem is a variation of the erotic verse in Donne’s Elegy, “On His Mistress,” or Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” though in its description of the act, it owes something to classical models: Marlowe’s translations of Ovid and Dryden’s of Lucretius have comparable effects. But rather than jolt and jerk with violence or passion, it languidly pursues its account of passion; the “halcyon calmness” is not felt as an after-effect, but pervades the lines, largely on account of adjectival layering, setting of verbs at line-endings, and the unrolling of clause after clause. The lines do no feel bloated; nor do they feel stagnant; but they pull against the ear, urging it to a pace to which it is not accustomed.
I will end with one last example, perhaps the poem by which Carew is most well-known today, “Upon a Ribband”:
THIS silken wreath, which circles in mine arm,
Is but an emblem of that mystic charm
Wherewith the magic of your beauties binds
My captive soul, and round about it winds
Fetters of lasting love. This hath entwined
My flesh alone ; that hath empaled my mind.
Time may wear out these soft weak bands, but those
Strong chains of brass Fate shall not discompose.
This holy relic may preserve my wrist,
But my whole frame doth by that power subsist :
To that my prayers and sacrifice, to this
I only pay a superstitious kiss.
This but the idol, that’s the deity ;
Religion there is due ; here, ceremony.
That I receive by faith, this but in trust ;
Here I may tender duty : there I must.
This order as a layman I may bear,
But I become Love’s priest when that I wear ;
This moves like air ; that as the center stands ;
That knot your virtue tied ; this but your hands ;
That Nature fram’d, but this was made by Art;
This makes my arm your prisoner ; that, my heart.
A poem about a ribband that will withstand time, it is to be read in the tradition of epigrams; it helps, I think, to imagine how differently Herrick would have written it, and to notice right away that Carew insists on twenty-two lines for what Herrick likely would have treated in eight. The first period, from “This silken wreath…”: to “fetters of lasting love” is a refusal to condense; a defiant hoarding of time. But the poem only indulges in such a stretch as the gambit. What follows are a series of closed couplets. But in these too Carew tempers the usual rally or volley from one to the next. On a few occasions, the syllables of a rhyming-word prevent a quick locking into place of sound: “but those” is partnered with the less lithe “discomposed”; “ceremony” dances unevenly with the similarly gangly “deity.” Elsewhere, the couplets parallel and echo one another’s rhymes, so that what is two is suspected of being four, delaying closure: “binds,” “winds,” “entwined,” “mind”—“wrist,” “subsist,” “This,” “kisse.” And finally, the axis of thesis and antithesis is suspended through individual lines, which the rhymes draw together, sometimes establishing additional but oblique axes of thesis/antithesis: “heart”/”art” (artifice v. nature); “ceremony”/”deity” (as in the couplet, religious display v. genuine faith); “hands”/”stands” (feet v. hands); “bear/wear” (convey in suffering, by necessity v. convey by choice and fashion). The distance between the poles is uneven between lines; the rationale differs; it is a display of wit so subtle as to forgo energy, and it also prevents the couplets from taking on speed in a predictable trot; the reader is not sure how to unpack, or even if there is much to unpack.
Carew’s achievements of pace are not only honed to garner praise; even if they were developed as such, they are animated by, or come to animate, a feeling for and feeling about time: a desire for time to be, if not mastered, then tamed to proceed at a slower pace—and what is most surprising given what we might believe to be the futility or naivety of such a desire, the unhurried demonstration that it can be.