Thomas Campion – “My sweetest Lesbia”, “I care not for these ladies”, “When to her lute Corinna sings”

Thomas Campion started as a law student, eventually got his degree as a medical doctor, but all his life was primarily preoccupied with songwriting for the lute. Maybe it was just one of these stories where parents tell the child: “Fine, if you insist on trying to make your living as an artist, but first you need a proper degree in case this lute-playing thing does not work”? The poems in the NAEL selection are from his Book of Airs, a collection of his songs. “My sweetest Lesbia” is a loose paraphrase of a poem by a Greek poet Catullus. The poet exhorts his lover to love him, using a version of the carpe diem argument – sun and moon return daily, but once the course of our life is run, we never return but sleep in ever-during night, which last two words serve as a refrain of this poem. The second stanza is about making love, not war: if everybody followed the poet’s example and only loved, there would be no wars. But unfortunately, fools insist on wasting their lives. In the last stanza the poet imagines his funeral not as a sad affair but a triumphant march of love, where all the lovers are going to have a good time at his tomb and Lesbia will come to pay her tribute.

 

“I care not for these ladies” is a naughty song, contrasting the “natural” “wanton country maid” with gold-digger court ladies. I may be naive but I fail to see the obscene pun all the critics see in the line “wanton country maid”. I mean, I get it, but the words “country maid” seem to me like the most obvious choice of words to describe Amaryllis, without the need to look for the obscene puns in the first syllable of the word “country”. The pun in the refrain is more obvious to me: even though Amaryllis may feign resistance during the petting stage, “when we come where comfort is, she never will say no.” Of course 16th-c. sexual politics about how a woman’s resistance to sexual advances, especially that of a lower-class woman, is always for show, are very unpleasant, but we have to let it go. So, the upper-class ladies need to be showered with gold, but Amaryllis, the child of nature, herself gives her lover flowers and fruit. The ladies need soft pillows and imported beds, but nut-brown (so not conventionally beautiful) Amaryllis needs only a bower of willows, with complimentary moss and leaves.

“When to her lute Corinna sings” is set on the parallel between the inanimate lute and the animate listener and would-be lover of the singer. The heavy string of the lute respond with echo to Corinna’s voice and they break when she sings sad songs; similarly, she pulls the listener’s hearstrings: his thoughts “enjoy a sudden spring” when he hears her voices and his heart breaks when she sings of mourning.

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