Now winter nights enlarge

This week’s poem, by late 16th / early 17th century poet and composer Thomas Campion, has an accompanying tune to go with it, so to get in the mood, throw a log on the fire (or anyway put your central heating on) and listen to this lovely little cockle-warming lute number, courtesy of Maurice Cope on Youtube.

Now before you accuse me of jumping the gun by writing about ‘winter poetry’ in October. But Campion is talking not about snow, ice and the yuletide, but about the time of year when the nights start most noticeably to draw in, and that is, in fact, about now. In countries like Britain, where we’re obliged to fiddle with the clocks twice a year, it is exactly now, because the clocks ‘go back’ today, and – unless you’re an early riser – it suddenly feels like you have a lot less daylight to play with. Campion’s poem bids us not to despair.

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.

Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights
.

The poem – and song – have a courtly, medieval feel, and Campion is notably less modern than many of his contemporaries. As you might expect from a songwriter, Campion’s poetry is a poetry of sound and wordplay – its imagery is often less than impressive:

clouds their storms discharge

Upon the airy towers
This reads like a strange mix between a meteorological report and an estate agent’s description; it doesn’t for me conjure the drama of winter weather in England. Maybe I’m missing a clever pun.

I didn’t miss this example of rather arch rhyming though:
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.

Campion’s words do indeed harmonise, slightly blasphemously perhaps, as the coupling of ‘wine’ to ‘divine’ might bring to mind the presence of Christ in the eucharist, even to Campion’s post-Reformation audience. This is followed by a slightly clumsy bee metaphor at the end of the first stanza, and some heavy lawyerly word play at the beginning of the second, which befuddled me slightly.

I did appreciate the self-aggrandising punning of this quatrain:
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read

Don’t believe that faux-modesty for a moment. Obviously, we are meant to think he is one of those smooth poem readers. Those ‘measures’ have a double meaning here too though: on the face of it, dancing, but also his own well-metered stanzas. and of course, with his constant wordplay, Campion is a skilful riddler too – this quatrain is itself a cheeky riddle. Not everyone is good at everything, he is saying, except me!

For a poem that is effectively an ode to the romance of winter nights, the ending is curiously negative, both about that love – whose delights are mere toys, and the ‘tedious’ nights themselves. I personally find winter’s nights rather charming, and the pleasures of love no mere bagatelles. Perhaps it is the tricksy poem itself that Campion is labelling love’s mere toy. Or perhaps the poem just doesn’t bear too much close analysis. It is, nevertheless, a fitting introduction to the darker days of the year. To those of you putting your clocks back, do enjoy that compensatory delight – your extra hour’s lie in.

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2 Comments

Filed under Poetry

2 responses to “Now winter nights enlarge

  1. For starters, I love the title/first line. It sets me up for a kind of metaphorical thinking not so much tied to the sense of sight as to… “mentation”is the only word I can think of. Even so, it’s heavier on song than on thought, repeating the same idea in several ways, which is: when it’s cold and dark outside we gather together indoors and amuse ourselves. I confess I saw no eucharistic spirit here, or lame bee metaphor (figuring that masques and revels burned wax in the lamps, and sociability would put-off “honey love” until later). No lawyerly wordplay did I catch, either, on first reading. I’m afraid I am also missing the self-aggrandizement. The second stanza, to me, is saying that wintertime indoors allows plenty of leeway for longer speeches, but they’d better be beautiful. Some are comely, some well told, some smoothly read, though not necessarily all.
    This is a nice choice for this time of year. We change the clocks next week.
    More cold and dark, more indoors. As my great aunt used to say when I asked why she and her cronies ceaselessly played bridge: Hey! It passes the time……

  2. Hmm… Maybe you’re right and all that wordplay was mostly unintended, or, alternatively, all in my head. I read elsewhere today that Campion himself admitted that he spent a lot less effort on his lyrics than his tunes, though he does take care with his rhyming and occasionally strikes upon a beautiful phrase.
    Thanks for passing the time here, anyways…

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