Whether men do laugh or weep,
Whether they do wake or sleep,
Whether they dies young or old,
Whether they feel heat or cold;
There is, underneath the sun,
Nothing in true earnest done.
All our pride is but a jest;
None are worst, and none are best;
Grief and joy, and hope and fear,
Play their pageants everywhere:
Vain opinion all doth sway,
And the world is but a play.
Powers above in clouds do sit,
Mocking our poor apish wit,
That so lamely, with such state,
Their high glory imitate;
No ill can be felt but pain,
And that happy men disdain.
Thomas Campion (From English Renaissance Poetry, NYRB, Ed. John Williams)
‘There is no new thing under the sun.’ So goes the King James Bible version of Ecclesiastes 1:9, although we tend to shift it around to ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Thomas Campion may not have heard that exact line, and, as a Catholic (before the main Catholic English bibles were printed) may never have read the line in English; but he was a great Latinist, and so it is very likely he had read the lines in the Vulgate. In any case, he says something a little different from the Biblical verse. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ is often taken to mean that originality is not possible, that humans will always behave in more or less the same way, and that the new fashions and ideas are really old fashions and ideas in a new guise. In the context of the Ecclesiastes, it adds weight to the idea that all human endeavours are futile. Campion instead writes: ‘There is nothing underneath the sun / nothing in true earnest done.’ It is not that everything is futile, or anyway, not just that everything is futile, but it is insincere too. ‘It’s all bullsh*t, Baby*’, as a more modern demotic would have it.
The last line of the second stanza will be recognizable to most as almost Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage,’ and like that line, it betrays cynicism about people’s motives – they don’t act the way they do because they want to, but because they’re bound to.
There is often much that is classical in Campion’s songs and poetry, of Arcadia and the Graeco-Roman Gods, and they seem to their appearance here at the beginning of the last stanza, mocking man’s ‘apish wit’. As with many renaissance poets, he can blend Judeo-Christian and pagan mythology without embarrassment: Ecclesiastes in the first stanza, the pagan Gods in the last – though he does not name any Gods, so it is at least arguable that he is referring to God and the saints. But the last two lines, if Campion means them in earnest, certainly suggest a way of thinking with its origins in ancient Greece, the idea that there is no objective good and bad at all, only pain, and that one’s life should be organised around avoiding pain as much as possible. This is the very rational, very unchristian, doctrine of Epicurus.
Epicurus practised philosophy in what came to be known as the Hellenistic period, in the wake of the Alexandrian conquest that finished off the old Greek states for good, and with them their idealism. The Stoics, the Cynics and the Sceptics philosophised in a world where they could not hope to alter events, but had to resign themselves to them, or withdraw from them. Ecclesiastes too was probably written in one of the (many) periods in Jewish history where the Hebrews were subjugated by a greater power, unable to control their own destiny. Political powerlessness breeds fatalism. So whence comes Campion’s fatalism? It could be simply another inheritance of the classics he was so influenced, but it could equally have been born from the circumstances of his own age.
Campion was, as I noted above, a Catholic. Catholicism in no way that I can see informs his work – his is simply not a poetry of religious ideas. But it affected his life. He attended Oxford, but did not graduate – and this is thought to be because Catholics were forbidden at the time from holding degrees from English universities. Many English Catholics in the Elizabethan era rebelled against their sovereign, from those in the north who took up arms against their queen, to the many who were ordained overseas as Jesuits to return and preach in their country, who were often hanged and quartered for their trouble (the most famous of whom shared the poet’s surname –one Edmund Campion), and those involved in plots to put Mary Stewart on the throne. But Campion was not a soldier, nor a priest – he was a poet and songwriter. He made his living in Tudor society as best he could, perhaps as a lawyer when younger, certainly as a doctor when older, and was involved in the great web of patronage around the Howard family, that sometimes crypto-Catholic, sometimes overtly Catholic noble household of great standing and high ambitions. For someone who was not inclined to wholly endorse Elizabeth’s settlement, but was not prepared to suffer the consequences of rebelling against it, a studied classical cynicism was just the thing.
Of course, it wasn’t just Catholics who couldn’t speak their minds in Elizabethan England. There were certain topics on which everyone had to watch their words. Ben Jonson found this to his cost when he was hauled in front of the authorities to account for satirical elements in his play ‘The Isle of Dogs’, which has unfortunately been lost to posterity. Kyd and Marlowe were two more playwrights who ran into trouble for offending the pieties of the day. Better be like Shakespeare and, if one wants to comment on court life, recreate the courts of generations past, those overseas or in a semi-mythical past, and let the audience make the connection to the modern day. Or, like Campion here, speak in the greatest generalities. An Elizabethan listener would likely have thought of Elizabeth’s royal marches at the sound of the word ‘pageant,’ even if Campion’s lines speak of a pageant of abstract entities. ‘Wit’ was a greatly valued characteristic in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and strongly associated with the court and the monarchs, who like to test their own verbal dexterity on their cleverest courtesans: and yet here, the Gods, or God, looks down on such cleverness with scorn – rather Campion does. He can safely excoriate the powerful of his own age by talking about the powerful of all ages.
Many of Campion’s poems were also songs, and many of their tunes have survived to the modern day. I must profess ignorance on this one – I don’t know whether Campion (or his collaborator Rossiter) ever set this to music, or, if they did, whether it survived for posterity. All that seems to come up on the web is Vaughan Williams’ song. Williams song in any case is worth listening to, a mixed choir and piano arrangement. It’s beautifully uplifting – and that makes perfect sense to anyone who has experienced the relief of just not caring anymore…
*This is almost a quote from People Ain’t No Good, a lovely bit of miserablism from that most poetic of modern crooners, Nick Cave