Thomas Carew

Literary Biography


Thomas Carew (1595-1640) It is impossible to consider the works of Thomas Carew without placing them in their proper historical context. This is true partially because his impact is most felt when understood on the timeline of seventeenth century poetry and partially because most modern critics treat Carew as a cheap imitation of his contemporaries. In truth, Carew was an influentially transitional figure in British poetry who successfully synthesized two centuries of stylistic evolution while simultaneously opening the door for later poets such as Vaughn, Milton, and Dryden.

Thomas Carew was born in 1593 to Matthew Carew, a powerful lawyer favored by James I of England. Carew studied at Merton College, Oxford between 1608-1610 and matriculated at Temple Hall, Cambridge in 1612. It seems likely he intended to follow his father into the legal profession. However for reasons now lost to history, Carew abandoned his studies in 1613 to become secretary to the British Ambassador to Italy, Sir Dudley Carlton. For three and a half years, Carew traveled to Venice and the Netherlands with Carlton but was dismissed in June of 1617 when Carlton discovered disparaging comments Carew had written privately about Sir Dudley’s wife. When Matthew Carew learned the circumstances of Thomas’ dismissal, he disowned his son. Matthew died in 1618.

Once back in England, Carew spent the next two years futilely seeking secretarial work, following the King’s court, and soliciting patronage. Carew accompanied Sir Edward Herbert (a poet himself and later Lord Herbert of Cherbury) to France in 1619. There, he met Giambattista Marino, an Italian poet who greatly influenced Carew’s poetic style. It was during his time in Paris that Carew’s first poems were printed.

Upon his return to England in 1622, Carew met the poet Ben Jonson and subsequently installed himself among the coterie of poets who called themselves the “Sons of Ben”. In 1630, Charles I appointed Carew Gentleman of the Privy Chamber Extraordinary and, shortly thereafter, Sewer in Ordinary to the King.

These titles themselves recommend Carew for special consideration above other “minor poets” of his period. As Post writes, “Carew deserves to be at the center of Caroline verse…simply because he achieved what so many desired in Renaissance England: a place at court” (English Lyric Poetry, 94). If contemporary sources are to be believed, Carew’s poems were the most sought after specimens of their time (Post 98). Yet it seems that most modern critics find Carew’s appeal lukewarm at best.
Critical comparisons of Carew with his contemporaries Donne and Jonson should not be unexpected given that two of his most famous works “To Ben Jonson: Upon Occasion of His Ode of Defiance…” and “An Elegy upon the Death of Dr. Donne, Dean of Paul’s” lean on their subjects’ prominence and poetic style. Critical comparisons, too, will find that Carew writes not with the philosophical and moral renderings of Jonson, nor with the obscure, complex, metaphysical conceits of Donne. At times, Carew successfully emulates one or the other for a few short lines at a time, but due to a (unreasonable) desire to call good only what passes for perfect mimicry, Carew is discounted. Lynn Sadler writes: “As it is, there is little likelihood that modern critics or modern readers will stop saying, ‘This is not Donne, but it is good’” (146).

Carew’s discounted importance may, paradoxically, be due to his singularity. There was no other poet like him. While Jonson and Donne (and Spenser before them) both had clearly identifiable followings, Carew himself was influential mostly for his catalysis of future poetic forms (Post 95; Sadler 146). Later poets borrowed from Carew, but he never developed a following á la Jonson or Donne. Perhaps critics assume that his only worth would derive from his similarity (or lack thereof) with these famous metaphysical poets. But if we consider the evolution of British poetry during the seventeenth century, Carew’s value falls into place.

The early seventeenth century saw a major transformation of British poetry spearheaded by Jonson and Donne. These “metaphysical” poets forsook Elizabethan norms and created a new standard of poetry that built upon “extravagance, obscurity, and harshness” (Sharp xi-xii). Donne was a learned man who used his vast knowledge of science and the natural world to construct his elaborate conceits. Sharp writes: “Donne was different from [other poets] in that he used emotion and learning as an assimilable whole and found the best analogies to emotional states in the discoveries of science or the speculations of philosophy” (21). In so doing, he abandoned the usual Petrarchan metaphors and metres in favor of exotic conceits and conversational caesuras. For this reason, Donne’s lines “contrast not only in boldness but also in difficulty with those of most of his contemporaries” (Sharp 25).

Jonson’s part in the metamorphosis was to introduce a heavy emphasis on reason and order (Sharp 11). He focused on developing the morals and philosophy behind the existence of poetry itself. Much of his work utilizes neat and metrically sound couplets, a trait Carew would later adopt. He also started the movement of “country house”poetry and invented the “modern” concept of an author.

However, despite the popular success of Jonson and Donne’s poetry, the furtherance of a poet’s career during the seventeenth century still heavily depended on what was in vogue at court. So just as Jonson found his popularity squelched upon the ascendency of Charles I (1626), the entire metaphysical movement declined during the 1630s. Readers were weary of the metaphysical’s attempts to explicate “learned allusions, elliptical statements, farfetched images, and attempts to express abstract and shadowy mental states” (Sharp 25). They wanted simplicity and ease of understanding; and that was exactly what Carew had to offer.

Carew lightly set the reader of Donne and Jonson into territory that is familiar, yet new. He borrows Jonson’s couplets, tightens them and enjambs them such that they feel “conversational and peremptory” (Sadler 146). He borrows Donne’s conceits, pulls them back down to the realm of the understandable, and hands them to the reader. Moreover, Carew harkens back a few more generations and delivers to us, in his poem “Aske me no more…”, what Jonathan Post labels the last Petrarchan love poem in the canon of English poetry (104).

It is tempting to include Carew among the royalist movement of “Cavalier” poets like Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace or Sir John Suckling, simply because his poetic style is so arrestingly simple and relaxed. The Cavaliers churned out relaxed poetry that did not strive to answer pressing questions of the soul. The metres were often distorted and the subject matter ranged from the inane to the pornographic. Carew was, in fact, condemned as a “libertine” during his lifetime due to his scandalous, philandering reputation (most historians believe he died of syphilis). Indeed, some of his poems, most notably “The Rapture”, were so vividly erotic that they shocked courtly readers and were banned from publication by Parliament (Post 96). Yet, while it is true that he influenced their poetry, Carew is rarely as settled or “cozy” as the Cavaliers (Post 107) and the majority of his poems maintain subtle philosophical musings that resemble Donne more than Herrick.

Despite the modern desire to lump Carew in among the popular metaphysicals and judge him deficient, or the layed-back Cavaliers and think him average, in actuality, his poetry carves out a neat space all its own in the history of English poetry. “Carew is neither total Jonsonian, Donnean, Elizabethan nor Cavalier. "When he is at his best, synergism occurs” (Sadler 22). His work represents a stepping-stone away from the complexities of Donne and Jonson, and toward the simple, rigid lines of the post-Restoration poet John Dryden.

“Carew’s importance as a poet who reflects and synthesizes the currents of seventeenth-century poetry is firmly established” (Sadler 145). When he died in 1640, he was buried at Saint Dunsten’s-in-the-west, Westminster. His legacy was a cannon of one hundred and forty poems and a single masque, Coelum Britannicum. His Poems were published four times before the end of the century and then forgotten for another hundred years. Perhaps his lack of sustained popularity is a result of the era when he lived; but Thomas Carew was an integral part of the progression of English poetry.


1. Post, Jonathan F. S. "Caroline Amusements." English Lyric Poetry.
London: Routledge, 2002. 94-105. Print.
2. Sadler, Lynn Veach. Thomas Carew. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Print
3. Sharp, Robert Lathrop. From Donne to Dryden; the Revolt against
Metaphysical Poetry. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1965. Print
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