"The Strategy of Carew's Wit,"
- Critic: Bruce King
- Source: A Review of English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, July, 1964, pp. 42-51.
- Criticism about: Thomas Carew (1595?-1640)
[(essay date 1964) In the following essay, King probes Carew's use of "conventional poetic rhetoric for unconventional purposes" and explores "Carew's attempt to impose a civilized order upon the desperate chaos of man's inner realities" through his poetry.]
Thomas Carew is often praised for his sophisticated gallantry, his urbane assurance, and for the way in which he seems to express the best values of a rich civilization.1 However, if we try to put our finger on what is mature, firm, or civilized in Carew's poetry we find ourselves circling around his wit. This means that a study of Carew's wit is a study in what distinguishes him from other poets. Wit may serve a poet in several ways. There is, for example, the wit of a double entendre which allows the speaker to mention what is socially hidden. Donne's early poems offer obvious examples of this. There is also the wit of Dryden's satires which mocks its victims by comparing the lesser to the greater. And there is the wit of Hamlet's irony which, in its implications, reveals a personality caught between conflicting demands of conscience and society. Wit usually serves both a psychological and social purpose. It relieves psychic tensions while enabling the speaker to deal with matters that would otherwise be socially forbidden for discussion.2 What is of literary interest is how the basic psychological functions of wit are shaped into rhetorical strategies that attempt to deal with social realities. Even the light irony of Dryden's satires has a strategic purpose; it suggests that his victims are beneath contempt and that they are not worth taking seriously. It is in the shaping of a literary strategy that a poet reveals his personality and the values he holds in relation, or opposition, to society.
What is the basic attitude behind Carew's wit? What causes us to feel that we are dealing with a personality of superior intelligence and of a high complexity of values? This is easier to answer if we examine the social function of his wit. Carew's poems deal with courtship and the suasion of seduction. For many writers this would mean smallness of theme and pettiness of interest. However, Carew treats courtship as a battlefield upon which most problems of human relations are presented in microcosm. His poems attempt more intimate communication between people than manners allow. Carew's wit is often aggressive since it must not only break through social rhetoric, but it must offer him protection in his manouvres. For this reason he twists conventional poetic rhetoric into a means of saying the unconventional. His urbanity is a pose which allows him to use social graces for self-protection, while it offers him a claim to disregard the limits which manners impose upon individuals.
The majority of Carew's poems in Grierson cleverly invert traditional poetic compliments to threaten, or to pretend to threaten, some woman.3 'To my inconstant Mistris', 'A deposition from Love', 'Ingratefull beauty threatned' and 'To a Lady that desired I would love her' are sophisticated poems of courtship, but they also threaten retaliation if the poet is injured by his mistress. I have, of course, singled out one theme from Carew's works, but it is a basic theme, and it is common to his best poems. Take, for example, 'Ingratefull beauty threatned', in which the wit functions to keep someone at disadvantage while protecting the speaker against injury. Behind the gallantry of the poem lies a struggle for dominance. Carew warns his mistress that she is merely an average woman whom he has picked from the crowd, and that the qualities attributed to her do not exist except in his verse. Having given her social prestige through his poetry, he can also 'uncreate' her if she causes him to doubt her fidelity. Notice that the concluding four lines of the poem, which are derived from Donne's 'Elegie XIX', use the imagery of mysticism for sexual advances. Donne inverts the conventions of such imagery to expose, to say what he knows about woman's sexual organs and desires:4
... all women thus array'd;
Themselves are mystick books, which only wee
(Whom their imputed grace will dignifie)
Must see reveal'd. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white lynnen hence,
[Here] is no pennance, much less innocence.
Carew, however, appropriates the rhetoric to gain a position of mastery:5
Let fooles thy mystique formes adore,
I'le know thee in thy mortall state:
Wise Poets that wrap't Truth in tales,
Knew her themselves, through all her vailes.
The poetic strategy depends upon the power of a poet in a small courtly society where, like newspaper gossip, verses make and unmake reputations. Carew's claim is that his mistress is foolish to think that he will allow himself to be used for her social advancement, or that he will allow conventions of courtship to be used as a means to dominate over him. It does not matter whether this poem was written about a real woman since the problems with which it deals are basic. Like devices of modern warfare, Carew's poetry is perhaps more useful when threatening aggression than when employed. The literary value lies in the ease and sophistication with which the problem is handled.
Given this as the basic strategy of Carew's wit, many of his best poems are variations upon it. Some poems threaten; others, such as 'A deposition from Love', injure. The opening stanza of 'A deposition from Love' at first sounds similar to any petrarchan complaint about a pitiless mistress; however, it only appears petrarchan since key words ('fortresse', 'within', 'paradise', 'gate') are double entendres:
I was foretold, your rebell sex,
Nor love, nor pitty knew;
And with what scorne, you use to vex
Poore hearts, that humbly sue;
Yet I believ'd, to crowne our paine,
Could we the fortresse win,
The happy lover sure should gaine
A Paradise within:
I thought loves plagues, like Dragons sate,
Only to fright us at the gate.
The poem is not, as are some of Donne's early poems, merely a pyrotechnical display of hidden sexual meanings. We are told that the speaker 'did enter, and enjoy what happy lovers prove'. Now he is cast off by his mistress and his complaint is that having 'once possest' her his pain is greater than before. The strategy is very clever. Carew has taken the petrarchan convention of the lamenting lover and has used it as a form of revenge. The poem pretends to elicit sympathy for the rejected lover; however, the originality of the poem is the public disclosure that the poet has sexually enjoyed his mistress, and that she has now given herself to another man. The poem is neither a lover's lament, nor is it simply a poem of sexual frankness. In its description of sexual looseness, it is close to satire. Carew's genius is the way in which the satiric elements of the poem are carefully balanced and controlled by traditional Renaissance conventions, so that what is being said comes as a surprise and draws attention to itself. The second stanza with its bold 'But I did enter, and enjoy' is meant to shock; that it is understated and put casually only makes the effect greater:
But I did enter, and enjoy,
What happy lovers prove;
For I could kisse, and sport, and toy,
And tast those sweets of love;
Which had they but a lasting state,
Or if in Celia's brest,
The force of love might not abate,
Jove were too meane a guest.
But now her breach of faith, far more
Afflicts, then did her scorne before.
Even the beautiful final conceit of 'A deposition from Love' plays its part in reminding us of the disclosure:
If the stout Foe will not resigne,
When I besiege a Towne,
I lose, but what was never mine;
But he that is cast downe
From enjoy'd beautie, feeles a woe,
Onely deposed Kings can know.
It would be a mistake to see these poems as merely exercises in anti-petrarchanism. The inversion of Elizabethan amatory imagery was old-hat by the early seventeenth century, and it no longer had interest in itself except as a means within more complicated poetic strategies. Carew works within poetic conventions so that he may seem to speak with detachment and high self-control. The purpose is to avoid injury by keeping personal emotion at a distance. Carew uses poetic conventions to organize personal emotions for social warfare. Even the controlled stanzaic forms, the purity of diction, and the cold logic of the poems are means to deal with the social and personal realities of courtship while pretending that one does not care. A good part of what is best in Carew derives from this strategy of nonchalance. T. S. Eliot's famous phrase for it is 'a tough reasonableness beneath [a] slight lyric grace'. The genealogy of this strategy probably derives from Donne's early libertine poems with their exuberant delight in sexual frankness. However, the distance in sophistication and caution between, say, Donne's 'Indifferent' and Carew's poetry is great. Even Donne's later poems to Mary Herbert, such as 'The Blossom' and 'The Relic', only lightly play with the ironies of courtship and sexual aggression.6 Donne's wit in this mode is mostly teasing. The serious use of embarrassing another as a poetic device is, in English poetry, primarily Carew's discovery. Nor is it a minor discovery; embarrassment and aggression may be a means to break through the rhetoric of social manners to establish contact with others. Fights sometimes make friends. What Carew attempts to achieve is a realistic relationship between man and woman.
'To a Lady that desired I would love her' bears out the usefulness of Carew's pose of worldliness in a sophisticated society. The poem is clearly an attempt to gain what chess players call equality. The situation is that the speaker has been offered the position of poet-courtier for a lady's affections. Carew realizes, however, that playful attitudes often camouflage a battle for dominance. The poem rejects the ploy of playful courtship, with its subservience to the lady's whims, and insists that the situation be seen in terms of mutual needs. The poet will write no laments and will not whine for love. He knows that his mistress is mortal and that she has 'dishevell'd hayre'. If she wants compliments and the glamour that poetry can bring, she must realize that the poet's terms are equality and sexual fulfilment. Thus the subject of the poem is one of mastery, of jockeying for position. Even in the stanzas where the lady is complimented there is a threat not only of aggression ('Each pettie beautie can disdaine') but also of the rejection of the whole game.
The dialectic of Carew's poetry does not turn inward and attempt to track the movements of the mind, as Donne's images do, but rather it attempts to justify the poet's attitudes. Carew pretends to be reasonable, he ironically appeals to the reader to see the justness of his point of view. The fourth stanza of the poem cleverly argues that the images a poet creates are related to how he feels. The petrarchan subservient lover will create a 'puddle' of 'griefe' which will not reflect the lady's beauty:
Griefe is a puddle, and reflects not cleare
There is a threat of latent aggression in the next stanza with its grotesque perversion of petrarchan imagery. If satisfied with the lady's love, he will not mention 'Stormes in your brow, nets in your haire', 'betray' or 'torture'. The imagery not only parodies petrarchanism but becomes progressively more unflattering:
Your beauties rayes,
Joyes are pure streames, your eyes appeare
Sullen in sadder layes,
In chearfull numbers they shine bright with prayse.
Which shall not mention to expresse you fayre
Wounds, flames, and darts,
Stormes in your brow, nets in your haire,
Suborning all your parts,
Or to betray, or torture captive hearts.
'To a Lady that desired I would love her' is, however, a less aggressive poem than 'To my inconstant Mistris'; here Carew claims to play the part of a petrarchan lover not to win his mistress's affections but to use her in gaining another woman. The strategy is particularly complicated since it presumably courts the woman by belittling her. It is a naked display of superiority in gaining social, and therefore personal, dominance in the battle between the sexes. As in many of Carew's poems the main strategy involves a manouvre to appropriate conventional poetic rhetoric for unconventional purposes. In this poem Donne's favourite analogy between sacred and profane love is transformed into a social weapon. In Donne's love poems religious imagery is used to express a state of mind similar to that of devotion, while in Donne's religious poems, amatory imagery suggests the direct sensuousness of spiritual experience. Carew however is not interested in investigating the various implications of this analogy. Instead he uses the images to injure. His demonstration of constancy ('strong faith') will achieve greater conquests ('The full reward, and glorious fate') with other women: 'A fayrer hand then thine, shall cure That heart, which thy false oathes did wound.' His mistress is mistaken if she thinks that because he has cried over her she has him in her power. His demonstration of love is a superior means to advertise himself to women of finer sensibilities ('a soule more pure Than thine').
There are of course many non-aggressive poems on standard themes among Carew's works. Carew, like Donne, often played at creating strikingly original compliments. 'Ask me no more where Jove bestowes' is perhaps the most beautiful song of its period. Few poets have ever created such purely lyrical lines where the logic of analogy is so completely compressed that the statements are untranslatable into prose paraphrase. The lyrical songs, however, are the minor side of Carew. Carew is too realistic, and perhaps too self-protective, to make many flights into irrational beauty. But the lyric poems do reveal an intense emotional warmth which Carew otherwise keeps under control, and which would seem to explain his need to establish clear, secure personal relationships.
Carew's poetry deals with the side of reality that is often hidden from public discussion: sexual appetites, the desire to dominate over others, the need for warmth and security, and the need to protect oneself against harm. While these are usually thought of as psychological drives, we are often aware of their existence; our social values recognize a delicate system of checks and balances in the give and take between people. Manners are the common means to legislate over this potential battlefield. However, manners are too slipshod to rule over all areas of society where clashes between personalities occur. Individuals or social groups often manage to appropriate manners for their own use, and then injustice occurs. What was meant to be flexible becomes rigid; what was meant to give rights leads to serfdom. The great themes of literature often derive from this border area between social values and psychological needs. In the modern novel there is a constant search for some superior organization of personality which will enable us to respond to this personal side of reality. Lawrence's novels record, when he is not being self-willed and didactic, a constant oscillation between the assertion of the ego, with its desire to be independent, and the search for warmth and security, which results from the weakening of the ego and its fusion with others. While Lawrence was unable to solve this problem, he had a heightened awareness that both the constant assertion of personality and the annihilation of individuality lead to psychic sickness.
Nor is the concern with the proper relationship of individuals to others a peculiarly modern literary theme. The supposed immorality of Restoration comedy derives from its naked acceptance of the view that man is appetitive matter in motion seeking satisfactions. It proposes as morally superior the man who clearly understands human nature, and who manages to control it to his own advantage.7 The heroes and heroines of Restoration comedy continually seek to discover what others are really like so that they may live on rational terms with them. This is the theme of The Man of Mode and the significance of the brilliant proviso scene in The Way of the World. The 'honesty' of Wycherley is that he refuses to play the game and insists upon a more rigorous moral code.
The attitude of Restoration comedy has its origins in the wit of Carew. Carew's achievement is to have created a social pose of urbane worldliness which opens communication between the sexes but which threatens retaliation if one is injured. It is a means of mastering reality so that one may live within society without being a dupe or a cad. Essentially this is a problem of love. Since courtship is a matter of personal relations, it provides us with a microcosm of the tensions between the individual and society. In love we desire union with another person, by which we may feel at once secure in our giving and taking of affections, and yet self-sufficient in the completeness of our personality in relation to the external world. There is, however, a masochistic perversion of this in which, through self-hate, the ego is totally extinguished. There is also an aggressive attitude in which the ego is never extinguished, but attempts to appropriate or possess others without returning affection.8 Courtship creates both possibilities at once: the overly compliant person who sacrifices his identity to become part of the other's narcissistic universe. While Carew's poems may seem to injure others, they are actually attempts to correct the unequal relationship implicit within the petrarchan rhetoric of courtship. If Carew's poems do not speak, as some of Donne's do, of a fusion of personalities, they at least have the value of creating situations where the fullness of love is possible. It is a razor-sharp position from which slight deviations can result in a disagreeable toughness. However, there is in Carew's best poetry a rich awareness of the complexity of our relations with others.
I think that I can illustrate the many dimensions of Carew's awareness by using Sir John Suckling as a foil. I have no wish to devalue Suckling; in an age of excellent poets he is superior to most. However, Suckling has less insight into the complexities of life; he reduces a valuable part of existence to a few simple ideas. In 'Of thee (kind boy)' the themes are that man is merely appetite and that beauty is relative. Love is a pleasing folly ('Make me but mad enough') and a product of the fancy (''tis love in love that makes the sport'). Even Suckling's libertinism is grossly literal (''tis the appetite Makes eating a delight'), and lacks the intense philosophical scepticism that makes Rochester an important poet. Suckling's talent is in his technique. He is a master of the manipulation of syllabic rhythms, the use of tonal modulation within a poem, and the modification of rhyme patterns. However, he never comes to grips with the substance of reality. Carew's poems are less simple, and describe life's essential battles. In a sense each of Carew's poems has a double existence: there is the poetry of the brilliantly finished surface of the poem itself; and there is the poetry of Carew's attempt to impose a civilized order upon the desperate chaos of man's inner realities.
1F. R. Leavis, Revaluation (1936), p. 16.
2See S. Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, transl. J. Strachey (1960), pp. 140-58. Since I am concerned with the social purpose of Carew's poetry, my essay ignores the sadistic element that Freud finds in aggressive wit.
3Four of the seven love lyrics which represent Carew in Grierson's Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems are aggressive or threatening. In the Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, seven out of nine love poems are aggressive. I include among these 'Good Counsell to a Young Maid', which is a warning against mistaking man's sexual desires for love. The proportion is somewhat less in Carew's total works; but I am concerned with the attitude behind Carew's best poems.
4Donne's 'Elegie XIX', lines 40-6. Also see Clay Hunt, Donne's Poetry, New Haven (1954), pp. 18-21.
5All quotations of Carew are from The Poems of Thomas Carew, ed. R. Dunlap, Oxford (1949).
6See Hunt, pp. 44-50.
7Recent studies that take this point of view include N. N. Holland, The First Modern Comedies, Cambridge, Mass. (1959); and D. Underwood, Etherege and the Seventeenth-Century Comedy of Manners, New Haven (1957).
8A useful discussion of this is N. O. Brown, Life Against Death, New York (1959), pp. 40-54.
Bruce King, "The Strategy of Carew's Wit," in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, July, 1964, pp. 42-51.