Edward Taylor, Oh Wealthy Theme.1


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Oh! Wealthy theme!

The Scripture reference for this poem (Taylor’s Meditations were mediations on particular passages of Scripture) is Colossian 1:19. This particular verse comes in a midst of a poem concerning the unique nature of Jesus Christ, as both God and man. The particular verse chosen by Taylor reads

For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

This passage is related to another passage also by Paul describing Christ found in 1 Corinthians 1:30

Christ Jesus who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption..

One way to think of the Christian understanding of Christ is to see Jesus Christ holding a position between God and humanity. God does us good in Christ; and God reconciles us to Him in Christ.  When Jesus says, “No one gets to the Father except through me,” that is built up in the concept. 

It is this extraordinary concept, that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus – which is both wonderful and paradoxical in the extreme (the infinite and the finite bound up) which leads Taylor to begin (By “fancy” he means “imagination”)

Oh! Wealthy theme! Oh! Feeble fancy: I

Must needs admire, when I recall to mind

That’s fullness, this it’s emptiness, though spy

I have no flowering brain thereto incline. 

May damps do out my fire. I cannot, though

I would admire, find heat enough thereto.

The first line has an odd structure, because it has three major breaks. The final “I” following the colon hurries the thought over into the second line; it feels like falling down a stair.

The third line is difficult to. I believe that it should be elongated as follows:

That is its (the theme) or that is his (Christ’s or God’s) fullness; this it’s emptiness (the it must be Taylor’s “fancy” or Taylor himself). 

Though spy: must mean: notice this: look.

The idea must be a contrast between the theme of “fullness” and Taylor’s “emptiness”. 

The fourth line is a good example of Taylor’s poetic reasoning: Rather than elaborate a single metaphor at length, he tends to pull up imagery, even when it does not have obvious connections. In these last three lines he moves from flowering to a furnace. 

His “flowering brain,” would be a brain which could produce the necessary understanding and language – he does not have a “flowering brain,” which is another way of stating that he does not have sufficient “fancy”. (The term “fancy” had a very particular intellectual meaning in the 17th Century. 

Jonathan Edwards, a generation after Taylor, uses the phrase, a “very fruitful brain and copious fancy.”  [Jonathan Edwards, “‘Images of Divine Things’ ‘Types,’” in Typological Writings, ed. Wallace E. Anderson, vol. 11, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1993), 32.] Which is similar to flowering brain and fancy being mixed.

Edwards also draws together fancy and fire in the following passage:

“Observe the danger of being led by fancy; as he that looks on the fire or on the clouds, giving way to his fancy, easily imagines he sees images of men or beasts in those confused appearances.” Jonathan Edwards, “‘Images of Divine Things’ ‘Types,’” in Typological Writings, ed. Wallace E. Anderson, vol. 11, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1993), 116.

Perhaps some such thinking (seeing images in a fire) lead Taylor to draw fancy and a fire(furnace) together.

The last two lines draw upon the concept of “heat” as the basis for human conduct and intellectual production. Although perhaps uncommon to us, it was not a strange way of thinking for one of Taylor’s time. (For example, “   Christians are to receive such as are weak in the faith into their hearts by love, and not to trouble or heat their heads with cramping disputes.” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 4 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 372.)

The “damps” are the dampers on a furnace to keep a furnace from overheating. His natural inclinations and dullness prevent a sufficient rise in his imagination.

The Difference Between God’s Sacrifice and Man’s (Forsyth)


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In his essay, “The Difference Between God’s Sacrifice and Man’s,” P.T. Forsyth compares the death of Christ – which was a loss of his life to save others – with human heroism: again, one person giving his life to save the life of others. As he puts it, “How does man’s noblest work differ from Christ’s great work? (P.T. Forsythy, The Work of Christ, (London, Hodder and Stoughton, N.D.), 10.)

The work of a hero thrills us, we are attracted to it.  We don’t need to learn to be inspired by heroic action, it comes by nature. But the same does not happen when we consider the death of Christ as it is in the Bible (perhaps one can re-work his death into a heroic political statement, but that is a completely different thing). 

The death of Christ cannot be set up for admiration, which we then leave and go onto other things. First, the death of Christ must create in us the ability to even comprehend what is happening:

Christ’s was a death on behalf of people within whom the power of responding had to be created. (15)…

The death of Christ had not simply to touch like heroism, but it had to redeem us into power of feeling its own worth. Christ had to save us from what we were too far gone to feel. (18)

Thus, to begin to understand and have a suitable response to the death of Christ is something we must acquire as a result of the death of Christ. 

Second, the death was not merely an exemplar, it is transformative: 

That death had to make new men of us….The death of Christ had to with our sin and not with our sluggishness. It had to deal with our active hostility, and not simply with the passive dullness of our hearts. (19)

He then proposes a test for whether one has begun to understand what is happening in the death of Christ: how do you respond to being told that someone had to die on your behalf because  you were dead in trespass and sin:

If the impression Christ makes upon you is to leave you more satisfied with yourself for being able to respond, He has to get a great deal nearer to you yet….The great deep classic cases of Christian experience bear testimony to that. Christ and His Cross come nearer and near, we do not realize what we owe Him until we realize that He has plucked us from the fearful pit, the miry clay, and set us upon a rock of God’s own founding. (23)

What then does it cost us to rightly understand what Christ has done?

The meaning of Christ’s death rouses our shame, self-contempt, and repentance. And we resent being made to repent. A great many people are afraid to come too near to anything that does that for them. That is a frequent reason for not going to church. (23)

A hero’s work raises in a thrill, they think well of human beings. But Christ’s death, which is certainly heroic, does the opposite – when it is rightly understood. When we see that death, we experience shame in ourselves. As Forsyth puts, this death calls for “the tribute of yourself and your shame.” (22)

What then is the distinction between the hero and Christ?

The sacrifice of the Cross was not man in Christ pleasing God; it was God in Christ, reconciling man, and in a certain sense, reconciling Himself. My point at this moment is that the Cross of Christ was Christ reconciling man. It not heroic man dying for a beloved and honored God. (25)

Therefore, the death of Christ – when put into the correct frame – is not attractive because it first costs us shame to understand. This death is not admirable: rather it is condemning of me. Now if my understanding of the death breaks me down and brings me to repentance, it does me infinite good. But it can never be rightly understood until I take hold of the shame it costs me. 

Robert Frost, A Patch of Old Snow


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Robert Frost is a deceptive poet. His poems seem obvious and simplistic – at first blush and certainly when compared a contemporary like T.S. Eliot. But the simplicity is a trick. In this way he reminds me of St. John as opposed to St. Paul. St. John writes seeming simplicity and candor, but the sheer apparent simplicity is the means of the depth. 

To take another comparison: Shakespeare last play, The Tempest is seemingly the simplest of all his plays (except perhaps his early comedies) and yet it child like simplicity conceals its depth. Here is a seeming simple poem 

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner

That should I have guessed

Was a blow-away paper the rain

Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if 

Small print overspread it,

The news of a day I’ve forgotten—

If I ever read it.

There is a sense in the world is invisible to us. We fill in spaces, create meaning, ignore this or that. It is not that pure blank fills our mind, it is that a re-construction, a distortion or domestication takes up our mind. Thus, we see things and yet don’t. 

This poem is an invitation in the moment where something invisible becomes visible for a moment. At first read, the poem is remarkably simple: Frost notices something in a corner. It is a scrap of snow, but it really looks like some crumbled newspaper. 

But as we consider the poem there is a bit more. He didn’t actually mistake the snow for a newspaper: Rather, there seems to be a missing step in the thought: if I had not noticed it was snow, I probably would have thought it was just a newspaper. 

But there is yet another twist: Rather than merely mistaking the snow as if it were old newspaper, his contemplation actually turns the snow into newspaper:

It is speckled with grime as if 

Small print overspread it,

Thus, it is not that he mistook the snow for newspaper and then realized it was snow. Rather, he saw it was snow and then by the power of imagination transformed it into newspaper. 

So rather than being a snow which has mistaken for a newspaper and so passed by without consideration, the snow has become a newspaper in the fact of his consideration:

The news of a day I’ve forgotten

The grime in the snow is the recordation of some day. And now we come to the twist of the knife, the thing that was missed:

If I ever read it.

Thus, the patch of snow is a newspaper of some day that Frost may have actually missed. There was something which is passed, which he did not see. This patch of snow is a newspaper from that day. This also brings up another point: a thing is not comprehensible, really, until it is turned into words. You listen to music or see and painting – but to communicate what has happened, you must turn that event into words. You don’t hum the symphony, you speak of it. You don’t repaint the painting, you explain it. 

And this brings us to one more consideration here: the poem itself. 

The poet seems snow and thinks of a newspaper – a written record — from a day he had missed. He then turns that event into a written record of human words and brings us into his moment. I, by reading the poem and thinking along with him, am looking – by means of his words – at the snow, which is itself a kind of record something missed. And now, Frost’s missed day becomes my missed day. 

I have not feared thee

O God,

I am conscious unto myself

How little all my duties have been intervened with this divine grace.

I have prayed before thee,

But not trembled, 

I have not feared thee

The Great Law-Giver,

Nor trembled at they commands.

I have heard often of thee by the hearing of the ear,

Yet I have not abhorred myself.

And therefore, I humbly beg of thee

That thou wouldst help me to sanctify thy name in my heart

And to make thee my fear and my dread;

That so I may neither abuse they mercy

Not yet provoke thy justice.

William Spurstowe

Rieff, Triumph of the Therapeutic 4.2


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(In Defense of the Analytic Attitude)

In the remainder of the chapter, Rieff distinguishes Freud from what came after.  The distinction which Rieff draws is between Freudian “freedom” and a “cure.” Freud offers no solution, only a “technology” which will allow one to understand the working of their subconscious. The end game, as seemingly proposed by Rieff would be the freedom from the “residues of religious compulsion.” (79) This may be achievable with a combination of Freudian analysis and behavioral technique. (Ibid.)

Freudian analysis “is the aim of science – power; in this case a transformative technology of the inner life….This is ultimate technology.” (79)

The purpose of “faith” is to mitigate suffering: “all religions have a therapeutic function.” (76) Jung sought to scoop up all religions with his theory of archtypes. An interesting observation is how Rieff sees Jung and Freud as inversions of one another. Freud understood “erotic instinctual forces” sublimate themselves into the “highest ethical and religious interests of man.” While Jung saw the process going in the other direction. (77)

Freud’s aim of “freedom” comes at a cost:

“What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely that sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take their subsequent choices seriously. Put in another way, this means: Freedom does not exist without responsibility.” (79)

This freedom is of course something which is at issue. It is taken by everyone that Freud’s theories of pscyho-social development and dream analysis and slips of the tongue – however interesting – are unquestionably not “scientific.” His technology is simply untrue. 

What is strange is that his basic proposition that your sensation of ethical constraint is a trick society has played upon, that restraint is what is holding you back, mixed with Rousseau and Hegel and whatnot and developed by his followers (some who – as we shall see – were criminally insane) has become a default argument over against the “illusion” of religion and God. It is a curious sort of position to occupy. 

But on the same ground, by what basis do Hegel’s thesis-antithesis, Rousseau’s sociology, Marx’s economic history still have currency? It seems that people pick bits and pieces of ideas without ever well-understanding either what they believe or why. They could never articulate their axioms much less their conclusions. 

We live too easily in cages built of the thought of others. Freud in his effort to bring a technology of freedom foisted insupportable conceits upon the world. When his conceits proved to be nonsense, the conceits remained.  

Be careful when telling others to “trust God”


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There is sort phrase which Christians use, carelessly and often harmfully. I have seen and heard it used with great sincerity and without content or comprehension. 

When faced with another’s overwhelming struggles, whether it is some loss or an immediate problem as crushing and quotidian as paying bills or watching children, we counsel one-another to “trust God” or “rely on God.” We are “turn over” our problems to God. 

The more ambitious will add a reference such as Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything with prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

In counseling people, a preparatory question is, “What have you done about your circumstance?” To which the most common answer is, “I prayed and Philippians 4 didn’t work.”

The trouble which such an understanding of the work of God in human trouble is that distorts and discourages us.

If you are going to start an automobile, you need gasoline the tank and a functioning motor and a charged battery and you must turn the key and so on. Now imagine one who put gasoline in the car and then sat in the car waiting for it to start. We would think such a person crazy. And yet this is how we seem to think troubles work with God. 

Prayer is critical in the process of relying upon God but it is not the only thing. 

When you have a trouble, your reliance upon God is a reliance upon me. If I am here, and I can help, then I am part of that answer to prayer. The proposition is plain and common throughout Scripture. Perhaps we don’t see the connection because we have a tendency to compartmentalize the aspects of the Christian life in such a way that we don’t see the interrelated nature of the Church’s life. 

In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul tells the Corinthians that in the midst of suffering God has given comfort to Paul so that Paul can give comfort to them. 2 Cor. 1:6. God is going to comfort them by means of Paul comforting them.  

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the story of judgment day when he will reward those who cared for the needy, because caring for the hungry or naked or the one in prison, they were caring for Jesus.

Paul in Galatians 6:2 writes, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” 

James writes in the second chapter of his letter that if you see a brother who is need of clothes and food and you say, “Be warm and filled” but you do not give him food and cloths, your faith is dead.

The point could be multiplied for pages. 

To rely upon God is to rely upon the people of God, too. 

Yes, can miraculously solve problems. And yes, God does give fortitude through unbearable trials. 

But that is no excuse for me to neglect you. If you are to rely upon God in the midst of your trial, and I say that to you, then I must necessarily implicate myself. And I must necessarily see how easily I fail here.

And lastly, just to show how persistent sin can be, there is an equal sin in helping others.

Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 4.1


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Chapter 4: In Defense of the Analytic Attitude

This chapter concerns Freud’s defense of his analysis. To understand this, Rieff notes two distinct understanding of the “theory of theory”.  First, there was the understanding of theory bringing the human into conformity with reality: “They being what we know them to be, the intellectual and emotional task of life is to make our actions confirm to the right order, so that we too can be right.”  The model is the true paradigm. 

There is a natural inherent order which we seek to understand and then order life. The underlying order the “model” (as Rieff) calls it is the point. There is a final end, and that end is God. 

But there is another understanding of theory which sets out to destroy gods. This sort of theory “arms us with the weapons for transforming reality instead of forcing us to conform to it.” (73) There is no purpose, no final cause. Theory is merely a way of navigating an otherwise incomprehensible universe and mitigating the pain of life. “A good theory becomes the creator of power.” (Ibid.)

It is such a power creating, reality bending theory that produces Freud and Marx. 

At this point, Rieff distinguishes Adler and Jung from Freud. Freud sought merely to set forth a theory which would give on the power to choose to live any sort of life.  He would not “cure” anyone: cure was a “religious category.”  (74) “He merely wanted to give men more options than their raw experience of life permitted them.” (74)

Freud’s mechanism leaves one nowhere: you finally kill off the old gods but there is nothing with which to replace it. Rieff notes that Adler and Jung sought to construct a basis for establishing a new cure on the other-side of analysis despite their attempts. 

The end point was the Genesis 3 promise of the Serpent, “You shall be as gods knowing good and evil.” “Freud risked the correlative implication: that healthy men need no gods.” (76)

This second form of theory and its Freudian aim of a man who no longer needs the consolation of religion or the search of a pre-existing meaning and order in nature leaves man as a carver of his good.

Freud’s concept of a world freed of gods leaves every person the one who decides his own good, which has profound implications for law. In a series of cases, the courts have found this power to create one’s own “meaning” as the basis for constitutional rights: 

The Casey decision again confirmed that our laws and tradition afford constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Id., at 851. In explaining the respect the Constitution demands for the autonomy of the person in making these choices, we stated as follows: 

[“These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.] [At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.] Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.” Ibid.

Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 573-74 (2003). In the dissent of Lawrence, Justice Scalia wrote:

And if the Court is referring not to the holding of Casey, but to the dictum of its famed sweet-mystery-of-life passage, ante, at 13 (“`At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life'”): That “casts some doubt” upon either the totality of our jurisprudence or else (presumably the right answer) nothing at all. I have never heard of a law that attempted to restrict one’s “right to define” certain concepts; and if the passage calls into question the government’s power to regulate actions based on one’s self-defined “concept of existence, etc.,” it is the passage that ate the rule of law. 

Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 588 (2003). Scalia’s point is that all law defines some sort of public character: it is a “theory” in the first sense referenced above. But in a series of decisions involving human sexuality and procreation, the courts have adopted a Freudian theory of law, in which freedom from the “gods” of any culture can be set aside. 

But such self-carving of happiness does remain a personal decision – however personally the decision is made:

Incorporating the “mystery of life” logic into these spheres deludes individuals into thinking that personal failures in socially important roles only have personal consequences. Society thus lacks the authority to explain how the personal choice of one hurts the wellbeing of others.

In other words, society cannot say whether marriage ensures that children have the benefit of a mother and a father—marriage is whatever a person wants it to be. Society cannot say whether a child suffers from no-fault divorce—divorce is a personal choice. Society cannot say whether a child is raised by parents in a relationship that society needs to survive—relationships are personal.

Should the detriments of a child’s upbringing become a social harm when he takes society’s reins as an adult, that new adult now also lacks the right moral framework to refine social standards for the benefit of his children.  Life’s “mystery” about what crafts and constitutes good conduct thus endures—even when harmful consequences counsel society to encourage some choices over others from reason and experience.

William Haun, “The “mystery of Life” Makes Law a Mystery,” The Public Discourse (July 26, 2013), https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/07/10091/.  The justification for Freud’s freeing men from deformed gods is that the culture simply no longer functions nor does it provide the ability to define character and human good. These commitment therapies are simply outdated. 

Now perhaps when an occasional person behaves along their on lines there is little communal effect. Indeed, even the most prolific murderer or robber will have only limited effect upon a society of any size. But when there is no communal standards for even the most basic means of living, then the results will profoundly damaging. Freud’s theory made constitutional right will not end well when extended to all. 

As Justice Scalia noted, the doctrine applied consistently means there can be no order, which is precisely the duty of law and culture. But, as Freud contends, there is no order to be had. 

I know that an utterly chaotic society would have been a horror to Freud. I have read nowhere that he was a anarchist. But the results of his analytic theory aim in only one direction. Indeed, he felt that Adler and Jung were wrong to try find a new basis for order. 

On the other side is the first understanding of theory, that human happiness and well-being are defined not by ourselves but by God:

Men would be happy with that kind of happiness which is true happiness, but not in the way which God propoundeth, being prepossessed with carnal fancies. It is counted a foolish thing to wait upon God in the midst of straits, conflicts, and temptations: 1 Cor. 2:14, ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.’ More prejudices lie against the means than the end; therefore, out of despair, they sit down with a carnal choice, as persons disappointed in a match take the next offer. Since they cannot have God’s happiness, they resolve to be their own carvers, and to make themselves as happy as they can in the enjoyment of present things

Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 6 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1872), 7.

Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 3.2

Rieff explains the process in this manner.  The entire culture functions as a superego, replete with symbolic expression and procedures for bringing the individual into conformity with the community purpose.  The individual is thus brought to health by conforming the individual to the community superego. 

The person who brings the individual into conformity with the community superego was the earlier therapist. In this role, particularly if the earlier “therapist” utilized any sacral symbolism, functioned as a “priest.”

To bring the individual into conformity to the community superego brought about a “transformation” of the individual and formed a “positive community. 

Rieff also proposes an interesting role for the estatic or ascetic religionist. Such a person by means of an extreme religious action which disestablishes prior bonds and re-establishes the individual into a new positive community, a new set of symbols. 

In contrast to a positive community where the therapist brings about a “transformation” the analytic therapist, as developed by Freud creates no positive community and engages in no commitment therapy. 

Freud’s therapy was precisely for the purpose of removing the “analysand” from any positive community. The therapist had no end of bringing the individual into conformity to a communal superego: quite the opposite. The individual was taught to understand the superego. The therapist does not propose any new community, he rather acts to free the analysand. 

When the analysand comes to the therapist, he is “buried alive  … in the culture.” (64) The previous sacral system is no longer a means of healing, but “sickness.” Freud offers not salvation, merely I suppose – although the this word is not used by Rieff – reality:

To be thus freed from a tyrannical cultural super-ego is to be properly bedded in the present world.

This does not mean those who followed in Freud’s footsteps were content to leave the individual freed from all external superego. Such persons are considered by Rieff later in the book. 

At this point, Rieff merely posits that analysis is a means of psychologically detaching oneself from broken symbols which are symptoms of an earlier, no longer functioning community: “The analytic therapy developed precisely in response to the need of the Western individual … for a therapy that would not depend for its effect on a symbolic return to a positive community.” (61)

Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 3.1 (Community and Therapy)


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The prior post on Triumph of the Therapeutic may be found here.

Community and Therapy, Chapter 3

In this chapter, Rieff begins with an understanding of mental health as provided by means of a symbolic system. By means of a symbolic system, the society creates a matrix in which the individual person can achieve a character ideal. To be a functioning person, the person must belong to a “positive community” which “offers some sort of salvation to the individual through participant membership.” (60)

In this scenario, the system works if the individual functions reasonably well. The system will need a sufficiently robust symbolic format and mechanism for involvement in that system. 

For the individual to function well, the individual not may but must participate in the communal life: it was only the life of the community that the life of any individual would be sufficiently well served.

Rieff then subsumes the history religion and culture into a concept of therapy:

Ultimately, it is the community that cures. The function of the classical therapist is to commit the patient to the symbol system of the community, as best he can and by whatever techniques are sanctioned. (57)

Rousseau provided a seeming break from this concept by introducing the idea that the individual must break free from the confinements of the community. But in the end, Rousseau ended up in the same place, because he merely posited the creation of a new community in the future.  

Marx took Rousseau a step further and argued that the community was utterly broken and that all that currently existed is cash interactions. But Marx was still looking for a community, just a new future community where the individual could finally be integrated into the communal whole.

From a slightly different perspective, De Tocqueville considered the possibility of a wholly democratic society where all communal bounds would be broken down and all life would be private.

But for all that, Rieff contends that prior to Freud, mental health was a matter sociology: it was obtained by means of integrating the individual to the society’s system to simultaneously define and give room for expression of the individual. 

At this point, Rieff places Freud as the one who provides a therapy to the individual when no positive community exists. 

Thomas Campion: When to Her Lute Corinna Sings


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This little song by Thomas Campion (1567-1620) speaks of the beauty of Corinna’s voice as she sings. The poem works in two stanzas with a quick development of a seemingly simple idea. And yet this simple idea in its perfectly balanced symmetry of concept and structure is deceptive. 

When to her lute Corinna sings

Her voice revives the leaden strings, 

And doth in highest notes appear

As any challenged echo clear;

But when she doth of mourning speak

Ev’n with her signs the strings do break. 

And as her lute doth live or die,

Led by her passion, so must I:

For when of pleasure she doth sing,

My thoughts enjoy a sudden spring,

But if she doth of sorrow speak,

Ev’n from my heart the strings do break.

In the first stanza, the lute which accompanies her voice is made better and is commanded by the beauty of her song. The strings are “lead” until they are revived by her voice. The word “revived” is interesting, because it is to live again – not to live at all. But it seems the idea is that the lute is silent until Corinna starts to sing. 

Accompanied by her lute, Corinna sings “to her lute”.  The singer and the lute form a closed circle. The strings come to life (as presumably did last time only to die when she stopped singing last); and the strings become filled with sorrow, when her voice becomes filled with sorrow. 

This reminds of Orpheus, whose song could make rocks and trees dance. As Shakespeare’s short poem reads:


Orpheus with his lute made trees

And the mountain tops that freeze

    Bow themselves when he did sing:

To his music plants and flowers

Ever sprung; as sun and showers

    There had made a lasting spring.

Every thing that heard him play,

Even the billows of the sea,

    Hung their heads and then lay by.

In sweet music is such art,

    Killing care and grief of heart

    Fall asleep, or hearing, die.

That remarkable power of song then works not merely upon the inanimate lute, but upon the poet.  The poet enters this closed circle: What happens between Corinna and the lute now brings him into its charm: 

And as her lute doth live or die,

Led by her passion, so must I:

The passions in Corinna’s voice bring along the poet. The lute which perhaps changes insensibly changes the sensible poet. The passions of her voice are so profound that he no longer has say over himself:

So must I. 

It is involuntary. 

The circle is then completely closed: the poet is subsumed back into the image of the lute. Note the progression here from “thoughts” (which belong to the man), to “strings” which belong to the lute:

For when of pleasure she doth sing,

My thoughts enjoy a sudden spring,

But if she doth of sorrow speak,

Ev’n from my heart the strings do break.

His very heart has become the lute. This ability to bring the conceit (the controlling thought) from lute to poet to lute is an aspect which raises Campion from the great mass of versifiers. 

There is then one final twist to the poem: the poem itself is an artifact. Corinna is gone. I have no idea who she is. Her voice was there in a moment and has disappeared forever. But this poem remains being as the echo of her voice

And doth in highest notes appear

As any challenged echo clear;

The reader who follows along with Campion can, by the work of imagination, enter into this circle of Corinna and her lute by means of the poem. Corinna’s voice does charm by means of this echo and we enter into this singular moment by means of the poem from 400 years ago. 

And in that the moment is no loner singular, but is transported across time and space. Such things may not “mean” anything to the great powers of countries and armies and economies and science. But there is a beauty here in art which should make the mighty blush. The politics of James (King of England) cannot affect now like Corinna’s song has by means of Campion’s poem.

One final note: I have always found it striking that the Bible routinely portrays heaven as filled with music.

The soprano Jennifer O’Loughlin: