AMONG the Royalist lyrists of the seventeenth century Carew takes a foremost place. In genius he is surpassed by Herrick only, and in age he is the first of that gallant band of cavalier song-writers of whom Rochester is the last. Born in the flush of the Elizabethan summer, when the whole garden of English poetry was ablaze with blossom, he lived to hand down to his followers a tradition of perfume and dainty form, that vivified the autumn of the century with a little Martins summer of his own. The lyrists of the school of Carew preserved something of the brave Shakspearean tradition when the dramatists of the school of Shirley had completely lost it, and the transition from romanticism to classicism was more gently made in this order of writing than in any other. It is the special glory of Carew that he formularised the practice of writing courtly amorous poetry. Strains very similar to his own had appeared in the works of older poets, as in The Forest of Ben Jonson and in the plays of Fletcher, but always casually; it was Carew who seized this floating improvisation, and made an art of it. As there were Anacreontic poets before Anacreon, so there were octosyllabic addresses to Julia or Celia before Carew; yet we grant to him the praise of the invention, since he gave his best work, and not, as others had done, his lightest to it.
In his elegiac lines on Donne, Carew joins the chorus of eulogy with more than customary earnestness, and claims for that great man the title of king among the English poets. Yet no one of Donnes contemporaries was less injuriously affected by the presence of that most crabbed and eccentric genius than Carew, whose sweet and mellow Muse neither rises into the dangerous heights nor falls into the terrible pitfalls haunted by her audacious sister. A certain tendency to conceit was the sin not of one school but of the age, and Carews trivialities have none of the vehemence or intellectual perversity of Donnes. In company with Herrick, this thoroughly sensual poet draws his pet concetti from the art of the kitchen, and offends us most by being reminded of his dinner as he walks abroad;
No more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream,
are phrases that justly excite our ridicule, but they are far removed from the heavy machinery of symbolism with which Donne, and a whole host of imitators after him, sought to involve their simplest fancies in sublimity. Carew was far too indolent to trouble himself with the rhetoric of the schools or to speculate upon the conduct of the mind. He loved wine, and roses, and fair florid women, to whom he could indite joyous or pensive poems about their beauty, adoring it while it lasted, regretting it when it faded. He has not the same intimate love of detail as Herrick; we miss in his poems those realistic touches that give such wonderful freshness to the verses of the younger poet; nor does he indulge in the same amiable pedantry. But the habit of the two mens minds was very similar; both were pagans and given up to an innocent hedonism; neither was concerned with much beyond the eternal commonplaces of bodily existence, the attraction of beauty, the mutability of life, the brevity and sweetness of enjoyment. In the hands of the disciples the strings of the lyre became tenser, the garlands less luxuriant, and when we reach Sedley and Rochester we find little trace left of Herrick and Carew save the brisk, elegant versification, and the courtly turn of compliment.
It is unfortunate that Carew was never persuaded to attempt a long poem. His masque of Coelum Britannicum, which was undertaken in company with Inigo Jones to grace a royal visit, has the customary faults of pieces of this kind. It is abstract in interest, fragmentary in form, and the separate passages of verse have little charm of fancy. The best poem of Carew, The Rapture, is also the longest, yet does not reach the length of two hundred lines. Unhappily its beauties are presented to us with so much enthusiasm and with so little reticence, that no adequate citation from it can be laid before the general reader. But it gives the student a finer impression of Carews powers than he would gain from any other piece, and betrays narrative and descriptive qualities that would have risked nothing in competition with Browne or with Giles Fletcher. It is, of course, by his lyrics alone that Carew is known to the ordinary reader of poetry. His songs are extremely mellifluous and well-balanced; he has an unusual art of sustaining his flight through an entire lyric, so that his poems are not strings of more or less pretty stanzas, but organic structures. It is in this that he excels Habington, Lovelace, and even Suckling, whose separate stanzas are often as graceful as his, but who rarely succeed in maintaining the same elegance of language throughout. It would seem that this admirable instinct for form led Carew to compose with great care, and to polish his verses assiduously. Sir John Suckling upbraids him with the trouble and pain with which his muse brought forth children, and hazards the criticism that a laureate poet should be easy and free. We can only wish that Suckling himself had been a more conscientious artist, and a less free and easy rhymester; but the remark is interesting as showing us the stumbling-block on which the later Cavalier lyrists fell. They were such fine gentlemen that they disdained to cultivate their art and live laborious days, and we suffer as we search here and there for gems of spontaneous song amid the rubbish-heap that their carelessness has bequeathed us. To Carew, as to Webster before him, the impertinence of his contemporaries can have mattered little in comparison with the satisfaction he must have felt in his work as an artist.
The claim of Carew to a place among the artificers of our language must not be overlooked. In his hands English verse took a smooth and flexible character that had neither the splendours nor the discords of the great Elizabethan school, but formed an admirable medium for gentle thought and florid reverie. The praise that Voltaire gave to Waller might be transferred to Carew if it were not that to give such praise to any one writer is uncritical. But Waller might never have written, and the development of English verse would be still unbroken, whereas Carew is a necessary link between the Elizabethans and Prior. He represents the main stream of one of the great rivers of poetic influence proceeding from Ben Jonson, and he contrived to do so much because he remained so close to that master and yet in his particular vein excelled him. He is sometimes strangely modern. Such verses as those beginning
As Celia rested in the shade
With Cleon by her side,
have all the character of the eighteenth century. Carew is thus a transitional figure. He holds Shakspeare with one hand and Congreve with the other, and leads us down the hill of the seventeenth century by a path more flowery and of easier incline than any of his compeers. Yet we must never forget, in considering his historical position, that his chief merit lies, after all, in his fresh colouring and sincere and tender passion.