Thomas Carew: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Some of us may be so unfamiliar with Thomas Carew that we don't even know how to say his name (pronounced like 'carry'). Don't worry, though; you'll get to find out much more about this poet and his work in this lesson!

The Cavalier Judge: A Brief Biography of Thomas Carew

There is actually no surviving image of Carew, but this one of William Crofts has often been mistaken for him.
Sketch mistakenly identified as Thomas Carew

Many of us would probably like to have the life that comes along with being in the entourage of a famous person. From the time of his birth sometime around June of 1595 at West Wickham in Kent, this very sort of life was planned for Thomas Carew and it would occupy many of his most intent efforts. Thomas' father, Sir Matthew Carew, was a lawyer and heir to Cornish gentry and was extremely concerned with appearances - particularly that of his youngest son at the royal court.

In preparation for the life of a courtier (attendant at court), Thomas entered Merton College at Oxford University at the age of only thirteen! He matriculated from Merton on January 31st, 1611 and achieved the status of Bachelor of Arts from Cambridge the following year when he also enrolled at Middle Temple in London to study law.

Thomas was reported to have spent very little time and effort in learning law and, with the family having financial troubles, he accepted a position in 1613 as secretary to his cousin-by-marriage, Sir Dudley Carleton. Carew joined Carleton during his embassy to Venice. Things looked promising for Thomas as he also accompanied the ambassador to the Netherlands. These prospects quickly came to an end, however, when in 1616, Carew apparently made public some rather slanderous information regarding Carleton and his wife. Following this incident, Thomas was advised to return to England if he ever hoped to be a member of the king's inner circle.

After severing ties with Carleton, Thomas still attempted to win good graces at court and was even present for the installation of Charles as Prince of Wales in November of 1616. Soon, though, he allegedly spent much time recovering from a severe case of syphilis. It's perhaps ironic, then, that it was also during this period that Thomas most likely converted nine biblical Psalms into English verse. These pieces are considered inferior to his later endeavors, but they certainly mark a turning point in Carew's career.

Following the death of Sir Matthew and the evacuation of the family estate in 1618, Thomas was in need of a new position. In May of 1619, Carew left for Paris in the entourage of a preeminent ambassador - Sir Edward Herbert. While traveling with Herbert, Thomas likely encountered many sources of inspiration, including a run-in with Italian poet Giambattista Marini and his friendship with John Crofts. Carew was on his way back to England, though, sometime before 1624.

Changes then began occurring at home that were definitely in Thomas' favor. Charles I was crowned King of England in 1625, and over the next five years, Carew attempted to cultivate a royal relationship. With his network of influential friends and his poem written 'To the Queene', Thomas finally achieved that goal on April 6th, 1630 when he was sworn a gentleman of Charles' privy chamber. Carew was even granted the sensitive position of sewer in ordinary, meaning he was in charge of tasting the royals' food before passing it on to them.

Given his growing literary reputation, Thomas was soon entrusted with more tastes than that of the food. By the mid-1630's, Carew had become arbiter elegantiae (Latin for 'judge of elegance') to the Caroline court. However, he was still apparently able to balance his duties as both courtier and writer. Over time, Carew has become known as perhaps one of the foremost of the Cavalier poets - English lyric poets of the 17th century noted for their abandonment of sonnet form for love poetry and their precise, witty, and elegant verses.

It seems, though, that he may have been a bit too 'cavalier' with his spiritual life, since clergyman John Hale refused to absolve him on his deathbed. Thomas Carew was buried on March 23rd, 1640 at Saint Dunstan's-in-the-West without his last rites, but despite the scandals of his life, Carew's work has earned him an eternal place in literary history.

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