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"RAPTURE, A" Thomas Carew (1640) "A
Rapture" by Thomas Carew is perhaps his best-known poem, because of its erotic nature. Carew attacks man's arbitrary ideal of honor as it pertains to the preservation of female virginity. The poem circulated before its printing and was referred to in Parliament in discussion of shocking and licentious works. Modern critics find it fascinating, Earl Miner pronouncing it "the most genuinely poetic of all the erotic poems of the century." Ada Long and Hugh Maclean comment on the poem's obvious carpe diem theme, labeling it "a witty discourse . . . directed to a society that has lost its sense of moral equilibrium." Renée Hannaford analyzes the poem as a reaction against the social controls that court poets and courtiers suffered. Through their position as inferiors, they complied with the expectations of court aristocrats and even found themselves in competition with one another for attention that translated into patronage and financial support. Most Carolinian poetry reflects the effects of other poetry, rather than that of social and political forces, as poets remained so acutely aware of contemporary rivals. Hannaford suggests that Carew's characteristic exploration of opposing forces, his use of hyperbole and diminution, even distortion, reveals his specific view of the social order in which he operated. He envisioned himself in relationship to more powerful forces and social institutions.
The poem's speaker fantasizes about a love utopia where no one suffers restraint by the "giant, Honor," a "Collosus" whose legs lovers valiantly sail through daily. While Honor appears horrifying, the speaker makes clear that "He is but form and only frights in show," thus commenting on the arbitrary nature of the ideal, as well as the hypocrisy of those who claim, but do not actually possess, honor. The speaker voices the disillusionment felt by his fellow men, who discover that Honor is not
The seed of Gods, but a weak model wrought By greedy men, that seek to enclose the common, And within private arms empale free woman.
The speaker shapes himself as a champion of the marginalized and restrained, employing the term empale as a specifically sexual allusion. He invites his Celia to mount with him on the wings of love, We'll cut the flitting air and soar above The monster's head landing where "the Queen of Love, and Innocence, / Beauty, and Nature" will "banish all offense." Then Carew catalogs his lover's parts through erotica, writing lines such as "There my enfranchis'd hand on every side / Shall o'er thy naked polished ivory slide." As the lovers lie in the "shade of cypress groves" on a bed of roses and myrtle, Carew evokes a connection to a pastoral poetic tradition through setting, but his scene does not echo the innocence normally a hallmark of that tradition. He probably models his approach on
"REASON WHY THE THOUGHTS ARE ONLY IN THE HEAD, THE" 339
that of Christopher Marlowe's erotic "Hero and Leander," also a pastoral. The speaker and Celia have "panting limbs" as they lie beside the "bubbling stream" and the "chirping wood-choir," which sings tunes to "the Deity of Love," meaning Cupid.
After a reference to the bee, an insect popular especially in writings by Virgil, which deflowers "the fresh virgins of the spring," the speaker notes he will use his own "bag of honey" to seize the rose-buds in their perfum'd bed, The violet knots, like curious mazes spread O'er all the garden, taste the ripen'd cherry, The warm, firm apple, tipped with coral berry. Then will I visit with a wandering kiss The vale of lilies and the bower of bliss.
Carew converts Celia's body to a garden in a metamorphosis consistent with themes of change and conversion found in Renaissance poetry. By line 69 the speaker leaves the allusions and becomes more graphically specific about the female anatomy. A few lines later he again adopts symbolic language, but it remains strongly suggestive. Lines 85-90 describe how his tall pine shall in the Cyprian strait ride safe at anchor and unlade her freight; My rudder, with thy bold hand, like a tried and skillful pilot thou shalt steer, and guide My bark into love's channel.
No wedlock bonds unwreathe our twisted loves; We seek no midnight arbor, no dark groves To hide our kisses; there, the hated name Of husband, wife, lust, modest, chaste, or shame Are vain and empty words.
Carew clearly indicts his guilt-ridden society for its attempts to control physical bliss through arbitrary laws and social edict.
By the conclusion of his 166 lines of rhyming couplets the speaker has noted that false Honor, the tyrant, should be deposed, allowing lovers to walk free
With necks unyok'd; nor is it just that he Should fetter your soft sex with chastity Which nature made unapt for abstinence.
Thus Carew promotes the carpe diem message prevalent in the works of the Cavalier poets and goes on to point out the lack of logic that causes men to fight one another over a woman's honor. While Honor demands that the speaker shed blood, religion forbids it and even damns the speaker for it. The poem concludes, "Then tell me why / This goblin Honor which the world adores / Should make men atheists, and not women whores." Carew has prepared readers for the injection of logical argument at the poem's conclusion through his use of classical allusions, myth, and historical facts to legitimize statements that follow a fantasy sequence.
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