Thomas Carew and a Lost Tradition

Thomas Carew (1595-1639) came from a Cornish family of some distinction.  His father was a Master in Chancery, and his mother was the widow of the Lord Mayor of London.  The surname Carew (pronounced Carey) is common in the west of England, and is derived from the Celtic caeriw, meaning “fortress-dweller.”  There is a Carew Castle in Wales, and many of the family’s members held high aristocratic positions in medieval times.

Our information as to the poet’s personal history is very sketchy.  He attended Merton College, Oxford, attaining his B.A. degree in 1611, and went on to study law at the Middle Temple in London.  But being unsuited to the legal profession, Carew left after two years and obtained, through his father’s influence, a position as secretary to the English ambassador to Venice, and later the Hague.

Some sort of faux pas or misdemeanor caused Carew’s employer to dismiss him and send him back home to England, and this bad mark on his record dogged him for years, scotching his chances for advancement.  He seems to have been unable to secure another situation, and lived on the support of his father, who tried in vain to find some new employment for his son.  When Carew’s father died soon after, the poet received little inheritance, as his father’s estate had been substantially depleted from poor investments.

Nevertheless, Carew managed to land a job in the diplomatic retinue of England’s ambassador to France, and made several journeys to that country, most probably as a secretary or aide.  After several years in this employment, he returned to England permanently, and attached himself to the royal Court, where he became a “gentleman of the privy-chamber” (a kind of personal servant to the King, and all-purpose courtier).  Almost all contemporary mentions of him refer to Carew as being witty, verbally skilled, and an excellent poet.  A great deal of his work is found in manuscript commonplace books of the period, indicating that he was popular and widely read.

Not much else is known about him.  He seems to have had an unhappy and abortive relationship with a woman he sincerely loved, but he also lived “a vagrant and debauched life” according to some sources.  One anecdote (from a Lord of the Admiralty) recounts how Carew in his capacity as a privy-chamber gentleman saved England’s Queen from deep embarrassment.  King Charles was coming unexpectedly at night to his wife’s bedroom, at a moment when she was in a highly compromising position with a nobleman.  Carew was leading the King thither, and lighting the way with a candle.  Intuiting the potentially lethal possibilities that were afoot, Carew deliberately tripped himself at the chamber door, putting out the candle and making enough noise to allow the endangered Queen to compose herself and get her surprised swain out of the room unnoticed.  She never forgot this life-saving service, and Carew became a permanent favorite at Court.

Carew’s literary skill was widely recognized in his own day.  He was profoundly influenced by Donne, and was a member of “the Tribe of Ben,” that group of excellent poets who gathered around the model of Ben Jonson in admiration, respect and imitation.  These included Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace. Sir John Suckling, Walter Montague, George Sandys, Aurelian Townshend and Sir William Davenant.  All of them looked up to Jonson as a supreme artist in drama, verse, and prose criticismin a manner similar to the esteem in which T.S. Eliot was held by many in the twentieth century.

As was the case with most secular poets of his day, much of Carew’s work deals with love, passion, and sexuality.  His poem “Secrecy Protested” is addressed to a lover, assuring her that their trysts and lovemaking will remain forever undisclosed.  Here’s the beginning:

Fear not, dear love, that I’ll reveal
Those hours of pleasure we two steal;
No eye shall see, nor yet the sun
Descry, what thou and I have done.
No ear shall hear our love, but we
Silent as the night will be;
The god of love himself (whose dart
Did first wound mine and then thy heart),
Shall never know that we can tell
What sweets in stol’n embraces dwell.

This promise of honor-protecting secrecy is, however, only one possible approach to a woman.  In his “Good Counsel to a Young Maid,” Carew takes a different tack, advising a young virgin about the snares of men, and about the dangers of disgrace that are attendant upon dalliance:

Gaze not on thy beauty’s pride,
Tender maid, in the false tide
That from lovers’ eyes doth slide.
Let thy faithful crystal show
How thy colours come and go:
Beauty takes a foil from woe. 

Love, that in those smooth streams lies
Under pity’s fair disguise,
Will thy melting heart surprise.
Nets of passion’s finest thread,
Snaring poems, will be spread,
All to catch thy maidenhead.

Then beware! for those that cure
Love’s disease, themselves endure
For reward a calenture.

Rather let the lover pine,
Than his pale cheek should assign
A perpetual blush to thine.

The perfection of these monorhyme triplets in trochaic tetrameter, along with their precise grammatical structure and delicacy, are a good indication of why Carew was so highly appreciated and copied into commonplace books.  But there is also the strikingly brutal honesty of telling a woman (by means of a poem!) that most poets compose love-verse as a useful method of deflowering girls.  The word calenture in the fifth triplet means a burning fever, metaphorically referring to aroused sexual desire that becomes unquenchable, or what Hamlet called “the heyday in the blood.”

Another poem in the same meter (but with feminine endings) is “The Tinder,” where the speaker confesses his inability to restrain himself when faced with feminine beauty.  In this case, it is he who feels the burning fever:

Of what mould did Nature frame me,
Or was it her intent to shame me,
That no woman can come near me,
Fair, but her I court to hear me?
Sure that mistress, to whose beauty
First I paid a lover’s duty,
Burn’d in rage my heart to tinder,
That nor prayers nor tears can hinder,
But wherever I do turn me,
Every spark let fall doth burn me;
Women, since you thus inflame me,
Flint and steel I’ll ever name ye.

Carew may well have been the poetic influence that led Robert Herrick to write so curiously about the anatomy of his beloved Julia, in all of those poems where Julia’s skin and breasts and nipples become the backdrop for arresting comparisons or strange conceits.  Consider the poem

“Upon a Mole in Celia’s Bosom,” wherein Carew imagines a bee drowning in the sweat that flows between Celia’s breasts, and becoming a mole there:

That lovely spot, which thou dost see
In Celia’s bosom, was a bee
Who built her amorous spicy nest
In th’ Hyblas of her either breast.
But from close ivory hives she flew
To suck the aromatic dew,
Which from the neighbor vale distills,
Which parts those two twin-sister hills.
There feasting on ambrosial meat,
A rolling file of balmy sweat
(As in soft murmurs before death
Swan-like she sung), choked up her breath:
So she in water did expire,
More precious than the Phœnix fire.

The remainder of the poem moralizes on the symbolism of this fate: whoever puts his lips to “that milky way” of Celia will have to take both the honey and the sting of love.  It’s a delightful piece, typical of the seventeenth century’s post-Petrarchan realism about the charms of the female anatomy, as well as a warning to overly sanguine lovers.  The phrase “milky way” (used later in this poem) is most likely what gave Herrick the idea of imagining a woman’s bosom and cleavage as the “Via Lactea” in his one of his poems describing Julia’s breasts.

One common genre in seventeenth-century verse was the “advice to a painter” poem, wherein the poet would give an imagined painter the necessary details to produce a proper portrait or a scene.  The idea behind it is encapsulated in the Horatian phrase ut pictura, poesisthat is, “as is painting, so is poetry.”  Just as the painter depicts with color and line, so does the poet depict with words and meter.  Carew gives an excellent example in his “To the Painter,” although in this case the poet tells the painter that it would be impossible for even the best portraitist to display the beauties, both physical and spiritual, of his beloved.  Here is a portion of it:

Fond man, that hop’st to catch that face
With those false colours, whose short grace
Serves but to show the lookers-on
The faults of thy presumption;
Or, at the least, to let us see
That is divine, but yet not she:
Say, you could imitate the rays
Of those eyes that outshine the days,
Or counterfeit in red and white
That most uncounterfeited light
Of her complexion; yet canst thou,
Great master though you be, tell how
To paint a virtue?  Then desist;
This fair your artifice hath miss’d.

It goes on for about forty more lines, pointing out in great detail the impossibility of creating any kind of picture that will give an idea of the lady’s inner excellences.  This is a variety of negative praise, telling of a woman’s virtues and charms while outwardly declaring that they are indescribable.

But Carew was quite aware that feminine beauty and grace owed just as much to the poetic talents of male poets as to any innate qualities that a woman might have.  And he was willing to use that knowledge against overly proud ladies.  Consider his poem “Ingrateful Beauty Threatened,” addressed to a lover who had become a bit too swell-headed about herself, and too forgetful of what she owed to Carew’s pen:

Know, Celia, since thou art so proud,
’Twas I that gave thee thy renown;
Thou hadst in the forgotten crowd
Of common beauties lived unknown,
Had not my verse exhaled thy name,
And with it imp’d the wings of Fame. 

That killing power is none of thine:
I gave it to thy voice and eyes;
Thy sweets, thy graces, all are mine;
Thou art my star, shin’st in my skies:
Then dart not from thy borrow’d sphere
Lighting on him that fix’d thee there.

Tempt me with such affrights no more,
Lest what I made I uncreate;
Let fools thy mystic forms adore,
I’ll know thee in thy mortal state:
Wise poets that wrapp’d Truth in tales,
Knew her themselves through all her veils.

That’s quite a hard slap at the lady, whoever she was.  But it serves, poetically, as a useful corrective to the earlier worshipful tone of some Elizabethan writers, which bathed women in undeserved over-the-top adulation.  This particular Carew poem had the honor to be translated into beautiful Latin elegiac couplets by Henry Jacob of Merton College, around 1650 or thereabouts. I’ll include Carew’s original English text and Jacob’s Latin version in the next issue of TRINACRIA.

Let’s look now at one of Carew’s longer poems (and to some minds, his most infamous piece).  Its title is “The Rapture,” and it is a 166-line address to his lover while they are in bed together,  the speaker describing and luxuriating in every erotic act that they perform.  It’s an amazingly effective poem of perfectly composed iambic pentameter rhyming couplets, with only six feminine rhymes in the entire composition.  You think that’s easy to do?  Try it for 166 lines.  “The Rapture” was considered obscenely shocking by the dreary Dissenter Puritans of Carew’s day, and he did take some serious flak for it.  One of his modern editors, Arthur Vincent, says that “The freedom of expression exhibited by Carew in this, his longest poem, appears to have been a subject of reproach to the writer by some of his well-wishing friends.”

The poem begins with the speaker’s declamation (to his female partner Celia) against “Honour,” depicted as some hideous but silly giant who tries to frighten sexually energetic people into an enforced chastity.  Celia and the speaker will fly over this “huge Colossus,” and jump directly into their lovemaking, which is sanctioned by both beauty and nature:

There shall the queens of love and innocence,
Beauty and Nature, banish all offence
From our close ivy-twines; there I’ll behold
Thy bared snow and thy unbraided gold;
There my enfranchised hand on every side
Shall o’er thy naked polish’d ivory slide.

After much foreplay, the speaker moves to more intense activity, imagining himself as a bee gathering nectar from flowers:

Then, as the empty bee that lately bore
Into the common treasure all her store,
Flies ’bout the painted field with nimble wing,
Deflow’ring the fresh virgins of the spring,
So will I rifle all the sweets that dwell
In my delicious paradise, and swell
My bag with honey, drawn forth by the power
Of fervent kisses from each spicy flower.

It goes on in even more specific detail about kissing every inch of Celia’s body, and gathering (like a bee) into his own body “the mix’d mass of one sovereign balm,” which he will bring to Celia’s “hive.”  This is a complex metaphor that refers to the building up of sperm in the speaker’s genitals, which he will soon deposit in Celia’s womb.  Then the text goes on:

Now in more subtle wreaths I will entwine
My sinewy thighs, my legs and arms with thine;
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
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.

This is a picture of intercourse, imagined as the bringing of a ship safely into harbor.  Celia is “a sea of milk,” the speaker’s “tall pine” is his penis, the “Cyprian strait” is Celia’s vagina, and Celia’s “bold hand” will serve to guide the ship into the channel, where it will “dance” in the rhythmic motions of coitus.  No wonder the Puritans freaked out when they read it.

There’s more to be said about Carew: his strong sense of place and locality, as seen in his poems “To Saxham” and “From Wrest;” his chiseled epitaphs; his choruses from plays; and his most ambitious work of all, the masque Coelum Britannicum, which he wrote at the command of King Charles, and on which he collaborated with the celebrated Inigo Jones.  But there is no place here to descant on all of that achievement.  Let it be enough for me to introduce this unjustly neglected poet to our readership, and to commend his facility and expertise.

I cannot help noting one more thing.  Carew was only sixteen or so when he took his B.A. at Oxford.  His studies there would have been primarily in the classics and a few other traditional subjects.  He would not have been a student of English poetry, which had no place in the curriculum.  And yet we find him producing top-notch verse in various genres and meters by the time he was a young man.  How did this happen?

Some might argue that it was due to the influence of other poets in the Tribe of Ben, who met convivially to discuss poetry and other literary topics.  Possibly so.  But Carew would never have been accepted into this select group if he had not already proven his worth as a writer.  No—I think we must posit, for his time and place, an atmosphere of genuine literary seriousness and fecundity that simply no longer exists today.

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, a young Ezra Pound in Venice could still say that he had “caught a living tradition from the air,” and that it was the motive force of his creativity.  Pound caught the tail end of that living tradition, and did his best to resuscitate it in modern guise.  But all this is now gone, as finally and irrevocably as Hapsburg Austria or Romanov Russia.  In Carew’s day, a young man could still feel the living heartbeat of real poetry everywhere, just as he could feel the sun and the rain.  Unlike our modern world—where genuine poetry is essentially on life support—Carew’s milieu nurtured a living, breathing, pulsating poetic tradition, with criteria and standards that were universally recognized.  We are inestimably poorer for its loss.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.