"The Poetry of Thomas Carew,"

Critic: G. A. E. Parfitt
Source: Renaissance and Modern Studies, Vol. XII, 1968, pp. 56-67.
Criticism about: Thomas Carew (1595?-1640)

[(essay date 1968) In the following essay, Parfitt contends that Carew should not simply be categorized as a Cavalier poet and instead emphasizes Carew's association with Jonson and Donne and his revitalization of poetic conventions.]


No-one seems really sure what to do with Carew, partly perhaps because no fully adequate account of English poetry in the first half of the seventeenth century has been written. In Revaluation, Dr. Leavis suggested an approach which makes Carew an important link between Johson and Marvell, thus giving his work a greater prominence than it usually has, but Leavis's remarks have not been followed up and so the traditional view of Carew, linking him vaguely with 'the Cavalier poets', is still dominant. One reason why this traditional view matters is that, insofar as it follows Jonson, Cavalier poetry shows a narrowing of range of reference and interest, becoming courtly in a sense which suggests a decisive split between 'court' and 'country' and a consequent concentration upon relatively few areas of emotional experience and, more specifically, upon narrowly circumscribed facets of society. One result is cynical knowingness and surface sophistication; another is that reactions to experience become conventional and simplified. Leavis, in linking Carew with Jonson and Marvell, is implying that Carew, like these greater poets, has a width of reference and variety of response which distinguishes him from Suckling, Lovelace, or even Herrick. This essay is an attempt to demonstrate that implication, to show that Carew can react to a wide range of experiential stimuli; and has something of that varied awareness of what is involved in being human which is one of the marks of major poetry. Although Carew is primarily thought of as a love poet, his work is perhaps best approached by some consideration of his writing in other genres. 'Obsequies to the Lady Anne Hay' is an elegy on a distant cousin of the poet's and these are its opening lines:
I heard the Virgins sign, I saw the sleeke
And polisht Courtier, channell his fresh cheeke
With reall teares; the new-betrothed Maid
Smild not that day; the graver Senate layd
Their business by; of all the Courtly throng,
Griefe seald the heart, and silence bound the tongue.

The poet, obviously, is praising the dead woman by asserting that her death had a national impact; a theme which could easily seem empty hyperbole. But we will dismiss these lines as such only if we allow stock resistance to public elegy to block our awareness of their real poetic activity. For Carew is seldom obviously original; he works instead by revitalising a conventional genre or attitude. Here, for example, 'I heard' and 'I saw' in the first line give, through the repetition, an effect of factual statement as well as a sense of verisimilitude. Then there is the precision of the adjectives describing the courtier: 'sleeke' and 'polisht' suggest superficiality and an artifice hostile to true emotion, while 'fresh' checks this implication, without destroying it, and yet adds the complementary idea of inexperience of deep feeling. So when Carew says that this courtier's tears were 'reall' the impact comes from the surprise: 'sleeke' and 'polisht' courtiers should weep tears of feigned feeling. Anne Hay's worth was such as to break the smooth surface and touch the man beneath the rôle. Finally, we should note how the solemn subordinate sense-units build up to the balanced and assured abstractions of 'Grieft seald the heart, and silence bound the tongue', where the strongly active verbs give the personifications force and point. In this passage, working within a conventional genre, Carew's verse is fully alive: he is using language precisely to re-enliven the human situation which lies behind all conventions but which repetition so easily deadens. The concluding lines of 'To my worthy friend Master Geo. Sands'--written within the convention of the verse-compliment--show Carew again re-animating the tradition. The poet has been comparing his love poetry with Sands' religious verse:

Perhaps my restlesse soule, try'de with persuit
Of mortall beauty, seeking without fruit
Contentment there, which hath not, when enjoy'd
Quencht all her thirst, nor satisfi'd, though cloy'd;
Weary of her vaine search below, Above
In the first Faire may find th' immortal Love.
Prompted by thy example then, no more
In moulds of clay will I my God adore;
But teare those Idols from my heart, and write
What his blest sprit, not fond love shall indite;
Then, I no more shall court the verdant Bay,
But the dry leavelesse Trunke on Golgotha;
And rather strive to gaine from thence one Thorne,
Then all the flourishing wreaths by Laureats worne.

Carew is here aware of the conflict between divine and secular love, a conflict generally recognized and always implicit in love poetry of the Christian era but seldom used to real effect. Usually--one thinks of Donne and Vaughan--poets who explicitly bring the two together reject sexual love outright, but, although Carew aims at such rejection, its glibness is avoided, for his 'Perhaps' suggests uncertainty and self-awareness, while the statement that 'mortall beauty ... hath not, when enjoy'd / Quencht all her thirst, nor satisfi'd though cloy'd' contains an awareness of both the value and limitations of human love. Similarly, while the imagery of the last four lines sets the 'dry leavelesse Trunke on Golgotha' and the 'Thorne' against 'the verdant Bay' and 'the flourishing wreaths' mainly to stress the paradox that Christ's humiliation and death is more fruitful for the Christian than the glory of earthly achievement, the images do at the same time give weight to the richness of secular experience. Carew, then, can demonstrate in his verse both an exact sense of language and an alert, sensitive mind. These qualities, with the independence which springs from them, enable him to use conventional genres without being inertly conventional himself. The independence of Carew's mind can be very clearly seen in the poem 'To Ben Jonson Vpon occasion of his Ode of defiance annext to his play of the new Inne'. As is well known 'The New Inn' was hissed from the stage when, in 1629, it was first produced, and when Jonson published it in 1631 it was accompanied by a powerful 60-line attack on popular taste, a poem magnificently vituperative but narrow in tone and outlook. Carew's poem is part of the considerable literary and sub-literary activity caused by Jonson's attack, and its beginning is perhaps what we should expect from a friend of Jonson:

Tis true (deare Ben) Thy just chastizing hand
Hath fixt upon the settled age a brand
To their sworne pride, and empty scribbling due,
It can nor judge, nor write ...

But Carew was no sycophant, and he goes on

                                   and yet 'tis true
Thy commique Muse from the exalted line
Toucht by thy Alchymist, doth since decline ...

The rest of the poem is a judicious mixture of praise and advice, making clear that Carew both knew where Jonson's greatness lay and what dangers were inherent in the sarcastic rage of the attack on the playgoers. Like the better-known elegy on Donne, 'To Ben Jonson' is primarily an achievement of critical intelligence, but it is also one of honesty. Both features suggest an intelligence which, when we turn to the love poems, should make us hesitate before we dismiss them as elegantly conventional. But before we look at the love poems we should briefly take account of Carew's country-house poems, 'To Saxham'and 'To my Friend G. N. from Wrest'. The genre owes its establishment in England mainly to Jonson and Carew's two poems show clearly the influence of 'To Penshurst'. At Saxham the disadvantages of winter are overcome, because, addressing the house,

                                   thou within thy gate,
Art of thy selfe so delicate;
So full of native sweets, that blesse
Thy roof with inward happinesse;
As neither from, nor to thy store
Winter takes ought, or Spring addes more.

Like 'To Penshurst' Carew's poem is about generosity, openness and hospitality, being relevant to, and gaining weight from, the environment of contemporary legislation and concern about the gentry's social function. At Saxham nature delights in supplying food, guests are welcomed ungrudgingly and the welcome does not depend on wealth or rank. The qualities celebrated and enacted relate to society in a way which makes 'To Saxham' relevant and responsible to an extent beyond anything in Suckling or Lovelace. Nevertheless, one can see a narrowing of range in Carew's poem, in the way that hyperbole is dangerously near to over-balancing into absurdity:

The scalie herd, more pleasure tooke,
Bath'd in thy dish, then in the brooke,

and, the final couplet,

And as for Thieves, thy bounties such,
They cannot steale, thou giv'st so much.

Carew's limitations can be measured by comparing this ending with the conclusion of 'To Penshurst': Jonson's rich sense of the family as an humane unit working for the wider good and his more general feeling for its civilizing influence are both lacking. But Carew remains aware of this kind of influence and his control of moral overtone is found in the detail of his lines (in 'delicate' and 'inward' in the lines already quoted) and in the effective use of paradox here:

Thou hast no Porter at the doore
T'examine, or keep back the poore;
Nor locks, nor bolts; Thy gates have bin
Made only to let Strangers in.

Neither 'To Saxham' nor 'To my friend G. N. ...' is a great poem, although there is greatness in the opening part of the latter, but both indicate Carew's concern with a full and satisfying life, reaching towards Jonson rather than reminding us of Suckling's posturing or Herrick's elegance.


The seriousness and range of matter which characterize the poems discussed so far both link Carew with Jonson, in a way which suggests that, as Leavis hints, it is more fruitful to approach Carew by way of Jonson than to lump him with the Cavaliers, a term as vague and deceptive as most of its kind. The discussion of Carew's work outside love-poetry should also help to make us alert to the revitalization of conventions which is almost always going on in the love poems. It is, for example, going on in the couplet lyric called 'The Spring', which has received little attention from critics. Its theme--that the poet's mistress is at odds with Nature in being unresponsive to the poet-lover--is common enough, used by, for example, Weelkes in his madrigal 'Now every tree renews his Summer green', by Drummond in the sonnet 'With flaming hornes the Bull ...', and by Petrarch in 'Zefiro torno ...'. Carew, however, makes more effective use of the theme than any of these men, comes closest, that is, to realizing its potential. At first we may be bothered by our post-romantic difficulty in really accepting that here, as in most pre-romantic verse, natural description is not primarily used objectively, that the poem is not concerned with nature itself so much as with natural description as a way of making a point against a human being. If we take a quietly humorous detail of description such as 'wakes in hollow tree the drowzie Cuckow' as the norm we may be puzzled by the artificiality of the opening lines or of such a couplet as:

Now doe a quire of chirping Minstrels bring
In tryumph to the world, the youthful Spring.

But if we suppress preconceptions we become gradually aware that formalizing Nature serves a purpose, to isolate the mistress against the whole force of Nature. More precisely, Nature is formalized in the sense that it is described in human terms, because the poem's success necessitates a relationship being established between Nature and Mistress such as to make poetically valid conclusions drawn from the analogy between them. 'Robes' (l. 2), 'tender' (l. 6), 'drowzie' (l. 8) all have human connotations, while the language used to describe winter ('Candies', 'ycie', 'silver', 'Chrystall') establishes a kind of beauty which--and these connotations become relevant later--includes a sense of inhumanity and, perhaps, superficiality. This frozen Nature is aspiring to the condition of Art of an almost Byzantine kind: its immediate appropriateness is in the contrast made with the description of Spring which follows, where we find this sequence of key words: 'warms ... thawes ... benummed ... tender ... sacred birth ... dead ... wakes ... drowzie' (ll. 5-8). Something fluid and alive is replacing Winter's icy beauty. The description of life replacing death in Spring reaches its climax at lines 11 and 12; immediately an exception is stated:

Now all things smile; only my Love doth lowre:
Nor hath the scalding Noon-day Sunne the power,
To melt that marble yce, which still doth hold
Her heart congeald, and makes her pittie cold.

'Now' sums up the progress of all things to life in Spring and 'smile' has strong human connotations: for both reasons the reversal of the movement in 'only my Love doth lowre' is--even if expected--a shock. By implication the woman's behaviour is inhuman, unnatural, as we realize that she is being associated with the winter of the opening lines, an association stressed by the overlap of vocabulary. But Carew has suggested that winter is dead and unnatural, and that its natural movement is towards spring; now, speaking of the woman, he takes the full effect of associating her with winter, for the verb 'hold' implies that woman's heart is not naturally hard, while 'pittie' is said to be part of her make-up, even if it is 'cold'. The suggestion is that the natural and the human is being denied expression by this woman. Instead of ending here, having demonstrated the isolation of his mistress from natural rhythms, Carew turns to further illustration. Structurally, this enacts the woman's unnatural isolation, stressing her exception to the norm by surrounding her with it. Further, the pastoral episode of Amyntas and Chloris acts as an explicit statement that the woman is by human standards unnatural. Carew concludes with a summary:

                                   all things keepe
Time with the season, only shee doth carry
June in her eyes, in her heart January.

The statement mimes in syntax the gap between appearance and reality. Competent, exact use of language, clarity and neatness of structure, accuracy of detail are the basic virtues of successful poetry, and 'The Spring' has these. But I have analysed it closely to show that Carew's lyrics repay close reading: the detail of his writing activates his work, giving a conventional theme here new energy and life. The relationship claimed between woman and the seasons is artificial, but it functions significantly in allowing Carew to emphasize the woman's unnaturalness by indicating it as the sole exception to a natural rhythm. The patterning of language contrasting the frozen with the fluid, the dead with the alive, works to revitalize the worn idea of the cold-hearted mistress, and in so doing re-emphasizes a connection between life and 'literary love' such as the poets of the Elizabethan sonnet tradition had tended to blur. We may also note that insofar as court-centred poetry of the early seventeenth century draws on a more limited range of experience than does that of Donne and Jonson, Carew is at least partially an exception; for if his attitude to Nature is basically formal and 'courtly' (such terms as 'silver' and 'Chrystall' imply the art-language of a social élite) he is, nevertheless, using rather than simply applying this attitude and is still able to introduce the ox and a number of closely-observed details ('benummed', 'drowzie'). It is this ability to work within and to re-animate convention that gives originality to much of Carew's love-poetry. Sometimes, in a sense, this originality is itself conventional, as in poems like 'To my inconstant Mistris' and 'Ingratefull Beauty Threatned' where the poet-lover becomes aggressively demanding rather than humbly submissive. Here the attitude reminds us of Donne, but antedates him, and the emphasis it receives in Carew reminds us of his concern to anchor love in the range of normal human behaviour. The process--often one of restating a convention's relation to life--can be seen clearly in 'A Divine Mistris', which starts with the routine claim that the mistress is perfect in beauty and of divine origin:

                                   my faire love
Who fram'd by hands farre more divine;
For she hath every beauteous line ...

This is followed at once by the qualification:

Yet I had been farre happier
Had Nature that made me, made her;

and the poem concludes bluntly:

Shee hath too much divinity for mee,
You Gods teach her some more humanitie.

In what is scarcely a complex poem Carew simultaneously feels and renders the traditional urge to write hyperbolically about his mistress while yet introducing a more complex poet-persona than usual. The stress on the earth-bound limitations of the poet's nature is in part the conventional pose of the poet's inferiority, and as such a compliment to the mistress, but Carew also reminds us that the attitude his persona adopts has validity, hyperbole is being held in check by a kind of realism. So 'humanitie' does more than make the obvious contrast with 'divinity'; it also reminds us that idealisation of the mistress can dehumanise a situation. Although this poem lacks the precise 'placing' through vocabulary which 'The Spring' has, the presentation of the lady as perfect beauty carries an element of criticism in 'humanitie' and the direct commonsense of the poet's attitude. Carew is not, as Donne often is, rejecting the conventional machinery, but, more like Jonson, is restating its relationship with life. In some cases, as in 'A Divine Mistris', the process is one of emphasizing the human basis implied by conventional attitudes to love; but often it is more a question of animation, less by adapting or augmenting a convention than by precision of diction. 'Vpon a Ribband' is a trivial poem, opening with these lines:

This silken wreath, which Circles in mine arme,
Is but an Emblem of that mystique charme,
Wherewith the magique of your beauties binds
My captive soule, and round about it winds
Fetters of lasting love; This hath entwin'd
My Flesh alone, That hath empalde my mind:
Time may weare out These soft weak bands; but These
Strong chaines of brasse, Fate shall not discompose

This development of a single syntactical unit is controlled and clear, its articulation shaped by the marked antitheses. Variety and liveliness of sense-units re-animate the conventional 'Fetters of lasting love', while the antitheses bring out strongly the contrasts in the argument. Words in their placing, like 'entwin'd', 'empalde', and 'discompose', enforce attention on what exactly is being said. Constantly this re-establishment of some traditional idea as living currency happens, as in these magnificent lines from 'A beautifull Mistris',

If thou but show thy face againe,
When darknesse doth at midnight raigne,
The darkness Flyes, and light is hurl'd
Round about the silent world.

But one important aspect of Carew's love poetry has not yet been mentioned, the erotic element. This links Carew with Cavaliers like Suckling, Lovelace and Randolph rather than with Jonson or with Donne's main emphases. It is a striking, if seldom noticed, fact that while overt eroticism is largely absent from personal love poetry in the sixteenth century, it emerges strongly in the early decades of the seventeenth. The possible reasons for this cannot be discussed here, but the main one may be that as Puritanism gained strength it drove a wedge between the religious and less religious, isolating the latter by its extremism and pushing them to react with another type of extremism. Certainly in the erotic poetry of Cleveland, Cartwright, Lovelace and Suckling there is a hectic, overwrought quality, suggestive of immaturity and moral uncertainty. Both the exclusion of, and undue emphasis on, the physical in love-poetry is immature in the sense of being insufficient to give a full sense of love; and if the Cavaliers reduce love to a set of physical contacts a lot of Elizabethan poetry suffers from thin-blooded pseudo-spirituality. Between 1500 and 1650 few non-dramatic poets face up to the problem of sexuality in a Christian society. Donne sometimes, usually obliquely, manages to do so and Marvell in 'To His Coy Mistress' bombards the dilemma with an intense awareness of Time's inexorability. But in some senses Carew comes closer than either to bringing into contact an awareness of the delights of sex and a sense that this can scarcely be expressed within the traditional framework of Christian thought. If this is so the linking of Carew with the Cavaliers because his verse has an overt erotic element must be superficial, hiding more than it reveals. When Professor Kermode describes Carew's most successful erotic poem, 'A Rapture', as one of 'the libertine versions of sensual innocence' (together with pieces by Randolph and Lovelace) he reveals an inadequate awareness of the poem and, for him, an unusual deadness in relation to tone. Carew's use of direct eroticism is confined to relatively few poems but these are not isolated from the main body of his work, because the human 'realism' which anchors so many of his lyrics, preventing both inert conventionality and any over-spiritual stress, involves an implicit awareness of the importance of sex and an unwillingness to pretend that love is either just a game or just a matter of the union of souls. This does not necessarily mean that when Carew writes directly of sex he will manifest the reconciliation of physical and spiritual demands which we can call mature: 'The Second Rapture', with its nymphet theme and deadness of sympathy, is as unpleasant as anything in Suckling or Lovelace. Nor, when Carew writes erotically, is he necessarily taking direct account of the religio-erotic tension which is constantly implicit in love-poetry of the Christian era. 'An Eddy', for example, is a success principally because of the richly erotic suggestion projected on to the image of the river, a success of strategy and of beauty rather than of moral awareness. But in 'To A. L. Perswasions to Love' there is an attempt to take account of this tension by stressing that the poet's 'perswasion' of the lady involves fidelity and a kind of love which can survive the decay of beauty:

... wisely chuse one to your Friend,
Whose love may, when your beauties end,
Remaine still firme ... (ll. 49-51)
Cull out amongst the multitude
Of lovers, that seeke to intrude
Into your favour, one that may
Love for an age, not for a day ... (ll. 55-58)

In this poem Carew stresses the importance of sex and is also aware that other values bear upon sexual relationships. The poem's value is that it takes account of more factors of human existence than persuasion poems commonly do, although it stops short of direct confrontation between opposing ideals. This is the area in which 'A Rapture' is important. The poem is long and complex, too much so to discuss here, but it comes nearer perhaps than any other poem written between 1500 and 1650 to evoking a full sense of the erotic while accepting and giving expression to the conflict between this and accepted Christian moral standards. The normal Elizabethan tactic, when expressing overt eroticism, is to condemn what is being expressed or to use some kind of pre-Christian setting; the usual Cavalier device is to ignore the Christian code, to pretend that poet and mistress are somehow exempt from it, or to emit a smoke-screen of pseudo-argument. Carew, however, not only acknowledges a conflict between Christianity and the erotic but suggests that such a clash is inevitable, while his embodiment of the erotic has such force and beauty that it makes the erotic-moral opposition a real factor in the poem, makes the poem a disturbing phenomenon, puzzling and extending our experience as poetry should do.


I have claimed for Carew a sensitivity to language and have argued that this presupposes and reveals an alert and enquiring mind. Neither quality makes Carew a major poet, for both are surely pre-requisites of any real success as a poet at all. Nor does either quality necessarily distinguish Carew and the Cavaliers, for both qualities appear in the best of Suckling and Lovelace, and more consistently in Herrick. The distinction is more a matter of scope, sympathy and complexity. Because Donne's influence on seventeenth-century poetry has been more fully discussed than Jonson's and because the latter's influence is usually dealt with in relation to his own love lyrics, the fundamental nature of Carew's affinity with Jonson has been obscured. Yet Carew's fondness for the couplet, his range of material, and his ability to work effectively within conventional frameworks all remind us of Jonson. Although Carew can and does make use at times of fairly complex stanza forms (as indeed Jonson also does) his normal manner is simple in a way which resembles Jonson's formal simplicity and reminds us of the latter's stress on matter above manner. The similarity is most clearly seen, perhaps, in the country-house poems, but throughout his work Carew returns constantly to a human base: his criticism of his mistress is of failures of humanity; his concern with sex arises from an awareness of the body-soul paradox which, in 'A Rapture' especially, he will not sublimate or suppress; his concern over Jonson's attack on the public is about the dangers it has for Jonson's own personality; and his involvement over Anne Hay is, in part, a desire to demonstrate human virtue breaking through the armour of artifice. Carew lacks Jonson's firm moral base and seldom follows him in developing a moral attitude satirically, but he has the same basic humanity, which allows moral distinctions to be drawn and gives his writing a sense of involvement with the real world. Broadly speaking, the cynicism of Suckling, the coarseness of Cleveland's sensibility, Herrick's restricted prettiness, and Lovelace's odd dissociation (he shows at times a sense of ideals, stated but seldom embodied in his verse) are all lacking in Carew. The negatives become positives because Carew's linguistic awareness reveals when examined that for Carew the conventions and pretensions of art must constantly be related to human life, and that life for Carew is something fuller--more complex, less abstract and simplified--than it is for, say, Suckling. Insofar as Carew draws upon Jonson and Donne he does simplify, as lesser poets following greater commonly do, reducing Jonson's range of concern and his moral firmness, smoothing Donne's intense verbal attacks on experience, his ability to make words think. But this is only a degree of simplification, involving Carew neither in the sacrifice of his individuality nor in that abandonment of an adequate range of experience which thins so much Cavalier verse. By pretending that Carew is in any serious sense Cavalier we reduce the homogeneity of the term, stress peripheral rather than central aspects of Carew's work, and ultimately distort the picture of early seventeenth-century poetry.

Source: G. A. E. Parfitt, "The Poetry of Thomas Carew," in Renaissance and Modern Studies, Vol. XII, 1968, pp. 56-67.