Heller, Deborah. "Cowper's 'Task' and the Writing of a Poet's Salvation." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 35 (summer 1995): 575-598.
"CRUEL MISTRESS, A" Thomas Carew (1640) Thomas Carew wrote "A Cruel Mistress" firmly within the Cavalier tradition. At a time when the carpe diem theme remained popular, lyricists like Carew wrote lively light fare that mostly focused on women, particularly their coy and fickle natures. Despite their drawbacks, women held supreme attraction for Cavaliers, who echoed concern of the court of King Charles II with romantic relationships, whether consummated or star-crossed. In "A Cruel Mistress" Carew focuses on love scorned as his male persona bemoans his mistreatment by his love. He adopts an 18-line format with rhyming couplets.
The speaker begins by emphasizing the importance of his topic, accomplished by the comparison of his love's behavior to that of royalty and deities:
We read of Kings and Gods that kindly took A pitcher fill'd with water from the brook But I have daily tendered without thanks Rivers of tears that overflow their banks.
The persona makes clear that his copious tears have met with no gratitude or pity from his love, although they would have well satisfied even a god. He continues by remarking on various sacrifices acceptable to mythological deities, such as a bull for the "angry Jove"; a horse for the god of the sun, Phoebus; and a lamb for the god of love, Cupid. But when he offered his "pure heart" at "her altar," she "disdains the spotless sacrifice." Thus the speaker notes that while lesser sacrifices of dumb beasts could satisfy gods, his own proffered heart is found unworthy, not only rejected, but rejected with disdain, a favorite term of Carew and his contemporaries to express pure and cruel disregard.
As the speaker continues the lyric in this vein, he notes that "Vesta is not displeas'd if her chaste urn / Do with repaired fuel ever burn," but his love, "my Saint," will frown should he light an eternal flame in her honor. He next notes with a tone of wonder, "Th'
Assyrian King did none i' th' furnace throw, / But those that to his Image did not bow," a reference to the mighty King Nebuchadnezzar and his treatment in the biblical book of Daniel of the Old Testament prophets Meshack, Shadrach, and Abednego. Because they refused to worship a statue, he placed them in fire to destroy them. Carew's point is that the king only punished in that way those who would not participate in the worship. The speaker of his poem, however, "With bended knees" worships his love every day, a willing participant in that ritual, "Yet she consumes her owne Idolater." The reference to consumption reflects back on Nebuchadnezzar's furnace, where those who failed to obey him were consumed by fire. The poem's speaker remarks on the irony of the fact that his love is so disdainful and cruel as to destroy the very person who worships her.
After having called forth a veritable catalog of mythical figures, Carew can conclude his poem by writing, "Of such a Goddess no times leave record, / That burnt the temple where she was ador'd." Carew succeeds in incorporating numerous references to religious traditions, including the term temple. In the Old Testament tradition, the temple referred not only to a place of worship but also to one's literal body. Had Carew intended that double meaning for temple, he would have suggested that his love's rejection resulted in a type of self-consumption for her. Her haughtiness literally would have destroyed her along with her worshipper.
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