Of Waxen Lights and Honey Love

By Robert Pinsky on 4.17.09

Campion celebrates, with utmost relish, scenes and diversions that he also puts in their proper place. This can seem superficially a charming song about hardly anything at all; but the poem is partly about that proper place: the idea of decorum. That potentially stuffy idea of decorum is treated with energy and ebullience, an omnivorous verve extending its appetite to flirtations, poems, riddles, dance-steps, wine cups, the miniature honey-comb of lights and the massive, fantastic storm.

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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-tuned 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.

Yvor Winters has used Campion’s opening lines—“Now winter nights enlarge / The number of their hours”—to exemplify the effective use of connotative or supra-rational effects in language: the word “enlarge” denotes rationally only the relative number of hours in a winter night, but the word’s aura magnifies and enhances the large scale of the charming, almost Disney-esque storm and towers. And a pleasing connotative harmony links “waxen lights” with “honey love”: the castle with its comb of cells becomes a cozy, mysteriously sunny beehive in the thick of winter.

The harmony and amazement, to borrow Campion’s own terms, blend the golden with the leaden, and blazing discharge of energy with well-tuned spells, storms with honey. The amazing, harmonious blending of air and architecture, wine and words, enlargement of space and time, rests on a sense of proportion or limit.

This idea of limit is quite explicit in the second stanza: the prolix, amoral rituals of courtship are limited by being assigned, with a smile, to the season of long, cold nights. And then, in a marvelous line, “All do not all things well”: love-making, dancing, riddle-setting, the performance of poems-individuals all are limited by individual human skills at these diversions; and the diversions themselves are limited, implicitly by their collocation and explicitly by the affectionate, but diminutive terms of the last two lines: “Though love and all his pleasures are but toys / They shorten tedious nights.”

topics: Essential Pleasures