"'My Unwashed Muse': Sexual Play and Sociability in Carew's 'A Rapture',"

Critic: Renée Hannaford
Source: English Language Notes, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, September, 1989, pp. 32-39.
Criticism about: Thomas Carew (1595?-1640)

[(essay date 1989) In the following essay, Hannaford describes "A Rapture" as "a kind of miniaturized masque" that "reveals tensions in [the] aesthetic, social, and cultural values" of Carew's day.]

For Kings and Lovers are alike in this
That their chief art in reign dissembling is.
                           —Sir John Suckling

The relationship between art and social life in the earlier seventeenth century is particularly fascinating to a study of Carew's poetry, which has so often been cursorily cited by critics to condemn him to the status of merely an anthology poet. From his biographical facts (scanty but not veiled in obscurity) as well as his literary artifacts, it is clear that Carew was both a participant in and observer of court life. It is impossible to dismiss the likely influence of his travels abroad on the formation of Carew's literary tastes. Carew left the Middle Temple and his law studies to enter the service of Sir Dudley Carleton, who in 1613 was Ambassador to Venice. In March of 1616, Carew was a part of Dudley's embassy to The Hague. A letter, dated 1616, speaks of the languages he acquired while in Carleton's service.1 In November of 1616, Carew attended the installation of Charles as Prince of Wales. After a period of vainly seeking court preferment, Carew attained his object, accompanying Sir Edward Herbert (later Lord Herbert of Cherbury) on his embassy to Paris. Much later, during the period 1630-33, Carew became Gentleman of the Privy Chamber Extraordinary, then Sewer in Ordinary to the King. Consequently, Carew's rise from the multitude seeking court preferment to the status of a "successful" courtier at the Caroline court itself exposes the hazards of patronage resulting from a social system founded upon status. His dismissal from Carleton's service not only allows us a glimpse of his social character out of character, as it were, but also suggests to us the predominant concern for status, social ritual, and ceremony that characterized court life, particularly the court of Charles I.

In a social system based on status, where by law and by common practice a man is known not only by his name alone but also by his title or rank, status conditions a man's social awareness and enforces at its most basic level the distinction between those who are gentlemen and those who are not.2 Revolving around the center of power, a courtier must always be forced to feel an acknowledged dependence (and therefore social inferiority) upon a patron, his superior in rank and authority. Therefore, the cultivation of manners, polite deportment, civil conversation, and social ritual were essential to participation in that world, and a successful public performance of his role was the courtier's way of defining himself as an acceptable social being--a gentleman. The poise, sophistication, and self-possession characteristic of the successful courtier's "working" role is supremely reflected in Van Dyck's court portraits of the 1630s. In a society saturated with dramatic forms of expression (in behavior, in dress, and in the visual arts) and in which style and manner were elevated to an art-form, sociability, "the play form of social interaction,"3 was a collective game functioning to validate and confirm certain cultural assumptions. As Peter Berger has pointed out:

The world of sociability is a precarious and artificial creation that can be shattered at any moment by someone who refuses to play the game ... pure sociability is rarely possible except among equals since otherwise the pretence is too strenuous to maintain.4

Many of Carew's lyrics and occasional poems deliberately and often outrageously play with literary conventions or sources and, by doing so, reflect an aspiring courtier-poet's erudition and poetic gifts to an equally self-conscious and culturally sophisticated audience of both competitors and potential patrons. Essential to these poems is Carew's penchant for exploring opposites, whether of things or ideas, a concern for playful exaggeration and diminution or distortion that exposes a pattern of perception and a particular vision of social order. This need to expand and reduce objects and ideas, always determined by the poetic context, as a characteristic mode of poetic activity offers a vision of self as contained and limited, existing in opposition to larger, external forces and social institutions.

Among his contemporaries, Carew's reputation as a witty amorist who "speaks raptures"5 was largely due to his infamous "A Rapture," a poem probably composed "in wisdomes nonage and unriper yeares"6 that circulated widely in manuscript and earned for Carew the sobriquet "The Oracle of Love." What Rhodes Dunlap has called "the obvious and magnificent licentiousness"7 of "A Rapture" that so captivated and shocked Carew's contemporaries also earned him a Parliamentary reproof; as early as 1640 with the publication of the first edition of his Poems, his verses were so notorious that they were used as a rhetorical device in a political address.8 Aside from its obvious eroticism (which has in fact encouraged modern interest in the poem), "A Rapture" has received critical plaudits from several quarters. Although Edward I. Selig doesn't mention "A Rapture" in his book The Flourishing Wreath (perhaps considering it too hot to handle), Earl Miner has called it "the most genuinely poetic of all the erotic poems of the century."9 Ada Long and Hugh Maclean trace the poem's thematic and generic tradition and perceptively analyze its structure and argument, reading the poem as "a witty discourse about the proper uses of time, directed to a society that has lost its sense of moral equilibrium."10 Paula Johnson contends that the poem is essentially the "wishfulling dream of an adolescent, graceful, charming, and utterly self-absorbed."11 In this erotically charged "perswasion to love," the speaker's advocacy of moral libertinism constitutes a kind of heroic activity (reminiscent of the miniature mock-heroics of Carew's "A flye that flew into my Mistris her eye"); to seize the moment is "bold, and wise," so "valiant lovers" act upon their desires, a form of behavior generally acceptable only in the realm of art.12 The speaker's theatrical exploitation of his theme, his insistent "I," and his skillful manipulation of literary conventions through which he continually reverses audience expectations constitutes a virtuoso poetic performance for connoissuers of "love's rites." However, the poem's twin contexts of sexual play and sociability and its deployment of political language suggests a concern for social order / disorder that moves beyond a witty display of sexual politics.

The use of allegory, symbol, remythologized history, and a facility for sensuous description and theatrical effects resembling elaborate set designs link "A Rapture" with the masque and that genre's expression of political and social values, but its eclectic blending of genres also shows the influence of French conversatie paintings depicting gallant and fashionable men and women making "civilized" love in a natural setting. The speaker's analogical re-creation of Celia as a landscape or garden thematically reflects the Renaissance humanist enthusiasm for metamorphosis that Renssalaer Lee has noted in Ariosto, and echoes Elizabethan song lyrics and the erotic pastoralism of Marlowe's Hero and Leander. The speaker's argument in this poem often relies upon his subtle mingling of myth and history by offering equations and equivalencies that conjoin art and nature. The speaker's exemplum of Daphne's amorous pursuit of Apollo inverts the action of the myth (Daphne "doth now unfetter'd run" after him), but like Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, shows a preoccupation with a moment of transformation. Elise Goodman, in discussing how contemporary ideas about fashion and etiquette are reflected in Ruben's Conversatie à la Mode, suggests that "the ideal social conversation is to blend fantasy and reality,"13 and the ideal location for such bonne société is the baroque garden, the amorous grove where water jokes, amusing parterres, allés, and attendant classical deities provoke and stimulate the senses. In "A Rapture," the speaker argues for "Loves free state" (also coveted by the speaker in "Upon my Lord Chiefe Justice") and against the constraints of social conventions that make lovers hypocrites. Finally, this appeals to the poem's wider audience through Carew's lengthy sensuous pictorial and analogical description of Celia's body as a baroque garden created for fashionable recreation. If in "A Rapture" the speaker attacks social forms and customs through a witty erotic discourse on love's alchemy, his evocation of the real world outside "Elysium" and its threatening, destructive power ensures that his voyage will not end peacefully, despite his "sportfull houres."

Within the "libertine pastoralism"14 of the poem, the speaker projects a series of tableaux embellished with elegant and ornamental detail in a grand mock-historical manner. In the poem's context of sexual politics, although the speaker is not particularly hostile or antagonistic toward Celia, neither is he very interested in social interaction with her, since the speaker remains the focus of the poem. "Celia" provides little more than a metaphoric touchstone for erotic fantasy, her body abstracted into a backdrop of luxuriant landscape which the speaker wanders through as the attendant genius loci. "Elysium," Celia's metamorphosed body, is guarded by "The giant, Honour," whom the lovers must evade if they wish to pass into the annals of heroic legend. That "Honour" is "but a masquer" intentionally puns upon the theatrical nature of the speaker's role, and offers by its liminal emphasis perhaps another perspective on the poem's dramatic affinities: the expansion of experience through vivid sensual description, the emphasis on physical movement in intensely realized space, and the baroque interest in spectacle which culminated in the masque. Although much of the poem traces the speaker's highly inventive wishfull thinking (as Paula Johnson has suggested by her examination of tense changes in the poem), the affinity of this poem with masque, with a specifically courtly entertainment of obvious interest to Carew (his Coelum Britannicum was performed at Whitehall on 18 February 1633) raises issues that illumine, I think, the capacious handling of themes and literary eclecticism so apparent in the poem and that point toward the vision of social and political order contained in it.

"A Rapture" is more than a witty dream-poem, an idealized "inspired laye" from which the speaker draws poetic inspiration. The poem's opening image of "Honour" as a "masquer" is balanced structurally by the poem's closure with the same image and its worldly power, showing a playful and sophisticated awareness of the resolution of the ideal (fantasy or daydream artfully transposed) and the real (the speaker's indictment of social conventions taken as external truths) that exists in the masque. The presence of allegory, myth, and symbol throughout the poem are qualities also associated with the masque, and the speaker's appearance as courtier / lover / hero depends, as in the masque, on the ability of the audience to read appropriately the signs of the performance. The speaker's real power in the poem arises from his ability to project vividly and intensely what his audience would recognize as an illusion. As a kind of miniaturized masque (remembering Carew's fondness for the hyperbole of reduction) with appropriate tailoring to the requirements of lyric, the poem fulfills what Stephen Orgel views as Johnson's conception of the masque:

... masques were the vehicles of the most profound ethical statements, creating heroic roles for the leaders of society, and teaching virtue in the most direct way, by example. Every masque moved toward the moment when the masquers descended and took partners from the audience, annihilating the barrier between the ideal and the real, and including the court in its miraculous transformation.15

With playful exuberance and youthful high spirits, the speaker in "A Rapture" cuts a heroic role for himself as a "valiant lover" rewarded by "the Queene of Love," where "all things are lawful that may delight"; indeed, "We only sin when love's rites are not done." The speaker's masterful depiction of love's progress as he analogically tends his garden, the "delicious paradise" that is Celia's body, qualifies him as an authoritative voice in pursuit of "virtue" or wisdom, the happy lover's reward after delightful interludes of "active play"; his lessons do teach by direct example. Finally, the poem moves toward ethical statement in its insistence upon the reappraisal of social codes that inhibit and restrict authentic behavior. The poem attempts to build a new social order founded on reason and not bullied by custom that encourages role-playing, dissimulation, and hypocrisy. Ada Long and Hugh Maclean conclude that:

To repudiate "Goblin Honour," together with its logical cage of custom that confines those who adore the giant, is to free human reason. And that in turn is to enable the new-building of a just and equal society where human rights are in fact as sacred as the old religion thought its idols were. In that society, men and women are neither atheists nor whores; they are free to be themselves.16

In the concluding stanza of the poem, the speaker invites Celia to help him defeat the tyrant and "proud usurper" Honour, an allegorical figure whom the speaker sees in moral and political terms. He identifies the larger values of "human justice" and "sacred right" that exist beyond the lover's immediate sexual gratification, and he criticizes the moral assumptions of a society in which doing what is right (the expression of private values) is incompatible with imposed social expectations. Men and women cannot conscientiously serve what society and religion define as "Honour," because conventional morality encourages disguise and artifice which diminishes private experience. In terms of the poem's argument, Celia must learn that unquestioning acceptance of a concept like Honour (or "vaine and empty words") petrifies human interaction and can result in aggression and hostility. This realization, although relatively common to the sexual warfare taking place in many Cavalier carpe diem poems, because of this poem's use of political language and its generic eclecticism, suggests a vision of social order that moves beyond the relationship between the sexes. As in so many of his verse compliments, Carew as poet deliberately makes lyric bear the weight of profounder reflections about social behavior and cultural assumptions than such vehicles usually carry.

The epigraph to this essay from Suckling, Carew's fellow wit and admirer, exposes the analogy to public structures of authority that define human relationships in a hierarchical society supremely conscious of rank and the serious consequences of successful "play-acting" or sociability, and points toward the nature or power as a dialectic of domination and submission. Carew's fondness for an hyperbole of reduction as a poetic tool is also a way of perceiving, and certainly "A Rapture" exemplifies Carew's proficiency with this poetic strategy. The miniature world he creates itself reveals a need for control, for a miniature world, as Gaston Bachelard has suggested, is a dominated world. While it can be said that "A Rapture" firmly established among his contemporaries Carew's reputation as an urbane and witty amorist, the poem also reveals tensions in aesthetic, social, and cultural values, tensions that exceed in scope initial physical and psychological motivations in which an individual most fully confronts the often antithetical demands of private and public values.


1Rhodes Dunlap, The Poems of Thomas Carew with his Masque Coelum Britannicum (Oxford, 1970) xx.

2Perez Zagorin, The Court and the Country: The Beginning of the English Revolution (New York, 1970) 73.

3Peter Berger, "Society as Drama," Drama in Life: The Uses of Communication in Society, ed. James E. Coombs and Michael W. Mansfield (New York, 1976) 39.

4Berger 39.

5Dunlap xlvi.

6Dunlap xlix.

7Dunlap lii.

8James E. Ruoff, "Thomas Carew's Early Reputation," Notes & Queries 202 (1957):62.

9Earl Miner, The Cavalier Mode from Jonson to Cotton (Princeton, 1970) 81.

10Ada Long and Hugh Maclean, "'Deare Ben,' 'Greate DONNE,' and 'my Celia,': The Wit of Carew's Poetry," Studies in English Literature 1500-1800 18 (1978):89.

11Paula Johnson, "Carew's 'A Rapture': The Dynamics of Fantasy," Studies in English Literature 1500-1800 16 (1976):151.

12Dunlap. All references to the poem cite this edition.

13Elise Goodman, "Ruben's Conversatie à la Mode: Garden of Leisure, Fashion, and Gallantry," Art Bulletin (June 1982):251.

14Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (New York, 1963) 235.

15Stephen Orgel, "The Poetics of Spectacle," New Literary History 2 (1971):367.

16Ada Long and Hugh Maclean 94.

Source: Renée Hannaford, "'My Unwashed Muse': Sexual Play and Sociability in Carew's 'A Rapture'," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, September, 1989, pp. 32-39.