"Self-Presentation in Carew's 'To A. L. Perswasions to Love',"
- Critic: Renée Hannaford
- Source: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 97-106.
- Criticism about: Thomas Carew (1595?-1640)
[(essay date 1986) In the following essay, Hannaford discusses the complex dramatic pose of the speaker in Carew's "To A. L. Perswasions to Love."]
A concern for fashioning the self as a dramatic character or performer may be found in many seventeenth-century poets, and is insistently displayed in the poetry of Thomas Carew. The modes of personation characteristic of Carew's dramatic love lyrics create an assemblage of poetic activity recording the complexities of courtship rites and ceremonious social form in an increasingly skeptical and scientific age. These modes display Carew's profound awareness of the conflict between private personality and public role in a society which placed a high value on sociability (or good courtiership). Techniques of self-presentation both reflect and create a deliberative personality, one for whom Hamlet's "to be or not to be" is a continual act of choice from among a variety of roles, revealing an understanding of personality (akin to Montaigne's) as fluid, changeable, volitional, subject to occasion--in short a self-fashioned artifact, rather than something fixed and constant. It is not surprising, therefore, that the various speakers in Carew's love poems act out roles and explore attitudes often frankly antithetical, since the experience of contradiction was recognized by many seventeenth-century writers and artists as an essential human donné.
Carew's poems, taken as a whole, show an interest in extreme attitudes of social behavior usually within the context of courtship, and analyze the constraints of social behavior that limit or inhibit human interaction. Carew's reputation as the "Oracle of Love" certainly tells us that he earned the literary homage of a highly competitive and critical group of fellow poets and courtiers (poetry being after all a gentleman's pursuit, and as such a gentleman's proving ground in the larger game of advancement at court), but it also tells us how his contemporaries viewed the relationship between poetry and the forces that shape identity. The fictive selves projected in Carew's lyrics inhabit and construct a particular social world; in a work of art, the artist creates an image that seems to embody in a relatively coherent system and style some of the pressures and problems which a given society is experiencing in everyday life.1
While it can be said that all poems represent a poetic voice of the poet, there are different kinds of poetic voice. A rather impersonal poetic voice may be found in some of Carew's commendatory poems such as "To my much honoured Friend, Henry Lord Carey of Lepington, upon his translation of Malvezzi." In some of Donne's holy sonnets the speaker assumes a more biographical voice, thus standing in closer relation to the poet as maker. It is, however, a more stylized poetic voice--the performing self--that I wish to consider here. The performing speaker that occurs in a lyric such as Carew's "To A. L. Perswasions to love" suggests a fragmentation of self that results from a process of self-definition, an attempt to project an inquiring self out of conflicting systems of belief or social practices. Also, Carew's lyric clearly exposes the necessity of role-playing and inventive improvisation by the gentleman-courtier which encouraged the creation of self as a work of art.2
The social and literary tradition of the gentleman-courtier, growing out of Castiglione and reinforced by the numerous rhetorical handbooks and conduct books of the period, already showed how the self could be transformed by selecting various socially "fashionable" qualities or components from appropriate areas of human discourse and behavior. A different self would be constructed when asking for preferment from one's superior in rank and authority (since this entails a deliberately affected submissive role) than when wooing a mistress, a situation involving primarily the projection of domination or the affectation of submission ironically to assure domination. When the speaker in Carew's "Obsequies to the Lady Anne Hay" remarks "I saw the sleeke / And polisht Courtier, channell his fresh cheeke / With reall, teares" (lines 1-3), he is attempting to distinguish between artful mimicry and genuine self-manifestation.
The process of self-definition depends upon the ability to modify identity through "theatricality" or "improvisation." "Theatricality" has long been adduced by art-historians as an element of baroque style. "Theatrical" implies an actor, who is, consciously and overtly, artificial and affected, who willingly assumes another identity or "fashions" an appropriate role for a particular occasion. In Carew's lyric, not only is the interaction of the poem's rhetorical members (speaker, audience, and reader) dynamic, but tension exists between the poet's act of self-fashioning and the "fashionable" qualities he chooses to project. In this context, poetic performance may be viewed as the activity of a poem's speaker during a period marked by his continuous presence in the poem before a particular audience, and which has some influence over that audience.3
The self-image projected by the speaker in a courtship or seduction poem such as "To A. L. Perswasions to love" provides a convenient starting point for an examination of Carew's performing speakers, his treatment of inherited conventions and borrowed literary models, and his consciousness of self as style. As a seduction poem, the colloquial "first move" in the game of love, it is interesting that the techniques of self-presentation in the poem draw our attention to the speaker rather than to the woman addressed. The speaker's style in the poem, not his prospective mistress, is the poem's actual subject: his mastery of persuasive rhetorical delivery and subtle argument, his treatment of themes and conventions appropriate to poetic courtship, and his psychological manipulation of the woman addressed. The speaker adopts a relaxed, unsentimental, and worldly attitude toward love and courtship that will win applause from the poem's wider audience attentive, and perhaps sympathetic, to his aggressive psychological realism, while simultaneously, on the level of the poem's immediate audience, he will ironically conquer a reluctant beauty. Even if the speaker fails to win his ostensible purpose, the seduction of "A. L.," the poem will have displayed his successful performance, since the speaker's negative implications throughout the poetic argument expose only a passing interest in "A. L." anyway. He is merely "playing" with her in an accepted social and literary form as he delights in and adorns the role of seducer. Carew's poem exhibits a sophisticated yet playful awareness of audience and a desire to achieve social status through poetic competition; Carew as poet is intensely aware that a courtier's survival at court depends upon his ability to manipulate signs.4
The opening lines of the poem (lines 1-26) move rapidly through a tightly structured sequence of persuasive argument founded upon the traditional carpe diem theme, but differing sharply from the conventional horizon of expectations usually invoked by this theme. The speaker is no lovesick, worshipful, idealizing boy who hears the harmony of the spheres at the sight of his beloved; he is no amateur at love, but a master player already fully initiated into the subtleties of the game. The forceful, audacious negative that begins the poem already shows the speaker exerting his desire for dominance over a prospective mistress in a rhetorical situation he fully intends to control.
Thinke not cause men flatt'ring say,
Y'are as fresh as Aprill, sweet as May,
Bright as the morning starre,
That you are so, or though you are
Be not therefore proud, and deeme
All men unworthy your esteeme.5
The speaker immediately separates himself from "flatt'ring" men who indulge in the traditional homage of Petrarchan compliment; he does not intend to flatter her. The rudeness of his opening remark he quickly counterpoises with "or though you are"; psychologically this operates as a witty ploy to attract and keep the attention of a woman accustomed to receiving artful compliments. The speaker, however, will not give her the satisfaction of an unmitigated compliment, since even if she really is "fresh" and "sweet" and "bright" she would be wrong to separate herself from others by being "proud" and finding "all men unworthy" of her. The speaker has already clearly indicated his separateness from "all," since he refuses to flatter her.
The speaker's argument then glibly grants her provisional status as a beauty, but only by focusing upon her negative quality of proudness. By emphasizing her needs and her "pleasure," the speaker implies a desire to please characteristic of the verse compliment, but he is not an enthralled Petrarchan lover. Arguing that beauty, as nature's bounty and gift, must be enjoyed to be fully appreciated (both by her and by the speaker), the speaker cleverly plays upon the verbal echoes of the "sweet saynt" of Neoplatonic love theory to accuse her of "sinne," which he defines in social terms. If the lady refuses to share her "best graces" so graciously given to her by "prodigall" nature, she will demean herself, since "common beauties" and "meane faces" will have more socially productive pleasures. Behind the carpe diem theme, the speaker contrives to project himself as an amorous realist. His compliment on the lady's "best graces," conjoined with the "common beauties" and "meane faces" she may choose to move among, deliberately employs the language of physical advantages, of superficial, although glittering, appearances. The apparent tension between the deceptiveness and disillusionment of the social ritual of compliment and the lady's own artful fashioning of herself, as well as the speaker's awareness of the pragmatic motives that lie beneath the surface of acceptable conduct, strikes a vibrant note of disenchanted wit and a desire for moral directness that echoes throughout the poem.
The implied ethics of dress or costume arising from the speaker's argument not only leads to a fuller discussion of typical carpe diem motifs such as time the enemy of beauty and sic transit gloria mundi, but also manages in passing to comment on the Neoplatonic and Petrarchan convention of idealizing physical beauty, of equating a beautiful woman with a beautiful soul. The speaker's recognition that even "common beauties" and "meane faces" enjoy "the sport" of love exposes his awareness of amorous pursuit and courtship as elaborate social games, but even more importantly, his belief that women are players too.
Did the thing for which I sue
Onely concern my selfe not you,
Were men so fram'd that they alone
Reap'ed all the pleasure, women none,
Then had you reason to be scant;
But 'twere a madnesse not to grant
That which affords (if you consent)
To you the giver, more content
Then me the beggar; Oh then bee
Kinde to your selfe if not to mee.
Thus the speaker effectively appeals to "A. L."'s vanity, her sense of exclusion, of being left out of the game, of not being asked again to play. As long as she consciously chooses to set herself apart, she remains, according to the poem's logic, a very poor player. In the context of the speaker's argument and his poetic performance, the lady is worth pursuing only if she is as adept a player as he is; thus the speaker accords her a predominantly social value.
Carew's poem suggests that seduction or courtship play can originate from rather complicated psychological motives, and that such motives influence love's progress. Women, like men, asserts the speaker, are creatures of pleasure, and the pleasure is a shared one, a mutual act of accommodation. Again, this emphasis on sharing echoes the earlier invocation of scantiness in social behavior as a "sinne." "But," posits the speaker, since in granting her sexual favors to him she is actually guided by her own self-interest, she ought to emulate beneficent nature, and be "prodigall" of herself: "Which affords to the giver ... more content." The implied negative of "if you consent" certainly leaves the speaker not much worse off than the "beggar" he now plays, and he will have the satisfaction of watching her endure her chosen self-denial, or what passes socially for a kind of "madnesse." The speaker's ironic, slightly mocking self-detachment in "Oh then bee / Kinde to your selfe if not to mee" exhibits a frank directness of motives, an admission that his motives are without sentiment although enacted within the context of the appropriate social rites. The successful lover (as a typical role) adopts as a mask or disguise the accepted social or stylized code of behavior appropriate to courtly amours, a form of personation that Bacon finds inherent in all public behavior.6 Men and women may share similar attitudes toward conventions of courtship behavior; the speaker projects a profound sense of displacement from social codes by a blunt recognition of what lies beneath socially prescribed forms. The problem of courtly restraint in human discourse necessitates the ability to read gestures and inflections (social signifiers) properly, since acceptable social conduct involved to a high degree the suppression or reduction of expressivity or genuine self-manifestation.7
The couplet in lines 27-28 provides a transition into the lengthy remainder of the poem, which is Carew's free translation of Marino's canzone "Belleza caduca." James V. Mirollo had called Marino's "Belleza caduca" "a dull poem," but Carew's careful reworking of Marino's original is anything but dull.8 Samuel Daniel, the first translator of Marino into English, in 1623 published his own version of "Belleza caduca," "A Description of Beauty, translated out of Marino," the same model used by Carew in "To A. L. Perswasions to love." Reworked in Daniel's hands, "A Description of Beauty" would almost seem to rely on another literary model, so strikingly does it differ from Carew's poem; it lacks the argumentative structure, incisive metaphor, ironic humor and detachment, and persuasive psychological manipulation found in "To A. L." Carew commends the carpe diem theme, but like Marino, his manner of describing sexual desire and consummation in this poem and others dealing with this theme exhibits a pervasive sense of irony almost bordering on satire.
The remainder of the poem continues its appeal to the woman's "wiser thoughts," her own self-interest, since to forsake such thoughts she would, alas, only be injuring herself. The speaker views the progress of their interaction quite simply, reducing external controls in the open recognition of his physical attraction and his desire for a successful performance in his chosen role. The real sexual warfare, he asserts, is taking place within "A. L." Although he urges her to "starue not your selfe," his tone of ironic detachment, that she may or may not make him "pine away," continues to make the speaker the poem's real subject. Against the backdrop of natura naturans, time and age hasten toward their end: "Tis gone while wee but say 'tis here" (line 36). The speaker quite frankly tells her that she doesn't have much time left to enjoy herself, for age will bring desertion by mere "flatt'ring" lovers. The seasonal imagery in the poem, with its suggestions of procreation, fecundity, and sexual activity, links the Petrarchan conventions of seasonal change and the lady's participation in natural, cyclical rhythms with the appeal to her "wiser thought." The speaker accords her the capacity to make rational decisions, "And thinke before the summers spent / Of following winter" (lines 52-53), acknowledging that she, like him, has the ability to see beneath conventional rhetoric which only enforces a dogmatic pattern that eliminates her free choice. It is her free choice to submit to the speaker's domination, which he represents as entirely in her own self-interest. In the social roles and contrived performances that constitute human interaction, the psychological complexities that motivate action (or seduction) he attributes to both sexes. However, more important to the speaker's conception of his role is his desire for dominance. He is the poem's subject, and the detached, ironic attitude toward "A. L." throughout the poem makes his adoption of the conventional role of the eternal lover ("one that may / Love for an age, not for a day" [lines 57-58]) morally suspect but stylistically appropriate, and offers the speaker another opportunity to embellish his role.
The speaker desires "A. L." to learn "natural" behavior from the hierarchy of created things he invents and from which she has separated herself: the morally emblematic "Ant" that uses the present time of "plenty" to hoard for the inevitable time of "scant," and the snake, eagle, and rose that together observe time's cycle of death and renewal. "A. L." too has her season of freshness and beauty, but unlike the regenerative seasons of creatures and plants, she is warned that "if your beauties once decay / You never know a second May" (lines 77-78). Her "lives short houre" can only be used wisely if her "beauties flower" is shared and enjoyed by both of them. The coordinate verbs in the closing line of the poem prefaced by "both" create a structural antithesis suggestive of time's destruction and renewal, of existence viewed in terms of this continual process.9
Oh, then be wise, and whilst your season
Affords you dayes for sport, doe reason;
Spend not in vaine your lives short houre,
But crop in time your beauties flower:
Which will away, and doth together
Both bud, and fade, both blow and wither.
As a seduction poem, "To A. L. Perswasions to love" employs the conventional carpe diem theme of the transience of love and beauty pitted against time and change, but Carew as poet revitalizes the generic conventions by presenting in the poem's speaker a tension between social ceremony and self-governance. Against the classical antecedents of carpe diem, devouring Time, and sic transit gloria mundi appropriate to the genre, the speaker imposes himself upon the poem's particular and immediate audience through his projection of urbane equipoise, mastery of persuasive rhetorical argument, and psychological realism. In performing his role as seducer, the speaker belies hostility and aggression; beneath the playful façade of courtship behavior and social ritual that he artfully exploits exist real needs and desires that must be kept constantly in check. Hostility and aggression represent attitudes of social warfare that the poem's wider audience could doubtless fully appreciate at a time when reputations at court could be won or permanently damaged by verses.
The speaker's own attitude of self-regard throughout the poem also functions for him as a means of self-protection, since he refuses to suffer any loss of self-esteem in this staged social encounter. The poem's argumentative structure and rhetorical strategy also present the speaker's self as a linguistic device. In this sense, then, self as style seizes upon the word as power to embellish and define the speaker's role, traditionally in seduction poems a persuasive one. When the identity of the self is primarily the experience of control over one's powers, then to present an infallible self is to present one which has control over the verbal context of action, such that the proper word or phrase, properly delivered or performed, is the highest attainment of human interpersonal power.10 By using a variety of strategies then, the speaker maintains strict control of the rhetorical situation, and his subtle expression of antagonism toward the woman in the poem, reinforced by his role distance, serves to sustain his desire for dominance and power in the poem, the realm of art.
"To A. L. Perswasions to love" explores the role-playing and psychological motives that underlie social ritual, and Carew's performing speaker offers us one point of view on the proper relationship between men and women. As poetic performance, the concern for interaction between the poem as social and aesthetic artifact and the poem's coterie audience demonstrates a double movement of display and recognition. As social behavior, courtship is primarily concerned with manners, with those attributes of social behavior commonly accepted and legitimized by a particular group. The style of self projected in this poem reflects a preoccupation with the manners of a cultural elite; this style of self may serve as a mask or disguise regularly adopted and discarded by Carew's poetic personae, an activity that permeated every moment of the splendid baroque stage that was life at the court of Charles I. Carew's performing speaker strives for poetic sprezzatura as well as sophistication in handling a poetic problem to capture audience interest and to swing the focus of the poem away from the subject addressed to the speaker's own artfully fashioned self.
1Jean Duvignaud, The Sociology of Art, cited in Judith Hook's The Baroque Age in England (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), p. 105.
2The social and literary tradition of the gentleman-courtier, growing out of Castiglione's The Courtier, was reinforced by the numerous popular rhetorical handbooks such as Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589); Henry Peacham (the Elder), The Garden of Eloquence (1577 and 1593); Angel Day, The English Secretorie (1592); and John Hoskins, Directions for Speech and Style (ca. 1599); or conduct books such as Henry Peacham's The Compleat Gentleman (1634). See also Domna C. Stanton, The Aristocrat as Art: A Study of the Honnête Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1980).
3See Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1959), p. 22.
4Norman Bryson, Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), p. 40.
5The Poems of Thomas Carew, with his Masque Coelum Britannicum, ed. Rhodes Dunlap (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970). All subsequent references to Carew's poetry are taken from this edition.
6See Bacon's "Of Great Place" and "Of Simulation and Dissimulation" in his Essayes. In the former, Bacon expounds upon the need for self-fashioning to prospective social climbers at court; a man must constantly examine himself as to his motives, reflecting upon his successful maneuvers as well as his failures to know how best to conform to what is necessary for social advancement. The gentleman-courtier must become familiar with the role-models attached to his "place," for "imitation is a globe of precepts." An even more revealing preoccupation with techniques of interpersonal strategy and the manipulation of identity can be found in the latter essay, where he identifies three modes of personation common to all human interaction, "Closenesse, Reservation [or] Secrecy," "Dissimulation," and "Simulation." On dissimulation in French baroque court life see Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, 4 vols. (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), 2:189.
7Bryson, p. 44.
8James V. Mirollo, The Poet of the Marvelous: Giambattista Marino (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), ch. 13, "The Marinesque Current in England," p. 251. Dunlap cites evidence from manuscript sources to indicate that lines 1-26 of Carew's poem may have been intended to stand alone as a separate piece; also, the numerous manuscript variants suggest that the poem as a whole (Carew's original 26 lines and the adopted material from Marino) received long and careful polishing. See Dunlap, p. 216.
9Edward I. Selig, The Flourishing Wreath: A Study of Thomas Carew's Poetry (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1958), p. 135.
10Ernest Becker, "Social Encounters: The Staging of Self-Esteem" in James E. Combs and Michael W. Mansfield, eds., Drama in Life: The Uses of Communication in Society (New York: Hastings House, 1976), p. 105.
Renée Hannaford, "Self-Presentation in Carew's 'To A. L. Perswasions to Love'," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 97-106.