Philip Priestley

Rejecting the mean in Carew's
"Mediocritie in love rejected"

        In "Mediocritie in love rejected", Thomas Carew challenges the belief that happiness can be found as a balance of pleasure and pain, love and hate. In doing so he questions Aristotle's doctrine of the mean and manipulates the perceptions of pain and pleasure. In the development of the poem, Thomas Carew defies the concept of emotional experience existing on a spectrum (on one side being pleasure and the opposite pain), arguing that greater misery is found between extremes of love and hate than is found at the extreme of either.
        Carew's rejection of Aristotle's doctrine of the mean forms the impact of the opening line, starting the poem with an overt demand:
      Give me more or love, or more disdaine

It is from this dramatic opening that Carew carefully constructs his argument, and his poem, on juxtaposing emotional opposites:
      The Torrid, or the frozen zone,
      Bring equal ease unto my paine

The conflicting imagery, coupled with the regular eight-syllable line of the first stanza gives an aggressive overtone to the poem. This is assisted by the regulated rhyme scheme (ab ab cc) and the overall effect is that of great energy and pace. The vigour and the extremity of Carew's subject are manifest in his language (the images of hell, the lack of comfortable image) and the pace of the poem.
        Perhaps it could be argued that the opening line is almost an admission of the difficulty Carew faces in persuading his reader of the substance of his argument:
      The torrid or the frozen zone

Both images, although at opposites, are inhospitable and hostile. Carew does not, at this point, attempt to make positive that which is traditionally seen as negative and this can be seen, perhaps, as Carew's intention to win the reader into accepting the extremities for what they actually are. A great factor of this effect is that we recognise how difficult it may prove to complete his intention. Another effect of this apparent honesty is a sense of trust that develops in the reader for Carew to manipulate. His seeming honesty, and our initial trust in him is certainly played upon as he challenges our perceptions of happiness.
        It is perhaps surprising that the use of opposites (love/disdain, torrid/frozen, ease/pain) does not make the verse unstable, unpredictable or uncomfortable. It is therefore ironic that it has the opposite effect. The reader becomes expectant of what develops into a predictable swing from each extreme to the next. Indeed Carew attacks a possible preconception of his theory that if one does pursue a life of extremity he must also pursue a life which is unpredictable. Carew's answer may be that we experience one extreme or another, and usually in sequence, one extreme and then the other. This is brought into focus in the second stanza:
      he's posest
      Of Heaven, that's but from Hell releast

        The suggestion of the line is that one extreme will inevitably break and the momentum of emotion will usually carry one to the opposite emotion involved, at least in relation to the pain one has previously experienced. Thus through the rejection of mediocrity in love, life's emotional content is greater, yet can still be predictable - one experiences more without necessarily sacrificing control. This idea of maintained control is stressed in the structure of the poem - two regulated stanzas, with regulated rhyme schemes and eight syllable lines. Despite this control there is no lack of emotional content in the poem, which again seems to suggest that control and emotion can coexist.
        Carew sets up the pace and the momentum of the juxtaposed emotions in order to accentuate the flatness and the boredom of the mean:
      The temperate affords me none

As soon as Carew introduces "the temperate" he removes the juxtaposition and the momentum is lost, the energy of the line is drained. Through this Carew intends to underline the emptiness and, to a greater extent, boredom that is found in the pursuit of the mean.
Carew is almost subliminal in the rhyming couplet which ends the first stanza:
      Either extreme, of love, or hate,
      Is sweeter than a calme estate

In returning to his technique of juxtaposition, Carew blurs the boundaries between fact and opinion. "Cure" and "Paine" are perfectly acceptable as opposites, yet whether "sweeter" and "calme" are opposites is the matter of conjecture upon which the poem is based. In the pattern of the poem we merely expect them to be opposites, and on an initial reading it is easy to let them slip by as such. It is now that Carew begins to purposefully confuse and twist our opinions in his overall objective to prove that happiness is found in the rejection of the mean.
        As the poem develops into the second stanza Carew is associating words closely to effect an emotive end:
      Give me a storm; if it be love

A central preoccupation within many metaphysical poems is the nature of love, the desire of love and what it takes to obtain love (for example Carew's own "To a lady who desired I would love her" or alternatively Aurelian Townshend's "Upon kinde love and true"). Now Carew associates love closely with the intemperate life, with the 'storme' , intimating that one may have to willingly endure the storm, enjoy the storm even, before love can be a reward.
        The line, "Give me a storm, if it be love," also combines the emotive nature of each word (storm/love) adding to the power of each and the overall power of the line. Not only does Carew suggest that one must endure the storm to be loved, but in fact, that love is a storm. Thus, those who aspire to the life of the mean can never aspire to love because they fear the storm, and to fear the storm is to fear love. Thus Carew's intricate use of metaphor adds greater weight of condemnation of the anonymous party who may strive towards the moderate life.
        Carew then alters slightly the perspective of his argument against mediocrity in love. Having suggested already that temperate love is boring, unrewarding, and perhaps even an oxymoron, (impossible due to the fact that love tends to be as intemperate as a storm), Carew now suggests also that it is easier to deny the doctrine of the mean and enjoy true happiness, than it is to pursue it and live an emotionless existence:
      Like Danae in that golden showre

Carew uses the imagery of seduction associated with Danae to underline his belief of fulfilling one's desires and releasing one's emotions, rather than denying their seduction. The image it creates is that fulfilment is discovered not in trying to obtain something (the mean), but rather in releasing something (an element of control, yet not absolute control).
        Carew's imagery of seduction and release has a twisted moral perspective. Although the traditional image of seduction carries a negative moral overtone, the idea of giving and releasing in order to gain ("for it is in giving that we receive") has a deeply Christian, positive moral overtone. Moreover he contrasts the imagery of mythology with the imagery of the church, he could have used Christian images of seduction (the garden of Eden perhaps), yet purposefully chooses not to and this could be argued to be a purposeful crossing of religious belief. Thus the juxtapositions in "Mediocritie in love rejected" continue, and even at such a subtle level Carew appears to argue that life is made up of conflicting extremes, rather than a middle ground or an even keel, even to a religious magnitude.
        At this point in the poems development, it appears that the structure of the poem in two stanzas mirrors the subject matter closely. The initial stanza is relatively conservative and non-threatening (albeit in a demanding and emotive way) whilst the second stanza is an opposite extreme, being far more challenging and overtly threatening to the reader's personal perceptions. Again, Carew presents an overall picture of extremes in conflict with each other, the concept of a life made up of extremes rather than a moderate or mean.
        Within the second stanza the overall tone remains aggressive and demanding as it has been throughout the poem's development. Yet it can be substantiated that these features of the poem are becoming more exaggerated. The rhyme scheme remains highly regulated (ab ab cc dd) and continues to assist the poem in flowing at an energetic pace. Carew punctuates more heavily and the more frequent and irregular use of caesura makes the rhythm more awkward, disjointing the line somewhat. As a result the stanza has a more inhospitable feel about it, challenging the reader with unpredictable pauses and thus becomes more aggressive than the previous stanza, whilst at the same time mirroring the imagery of running, uncontrollable water:
      I swimme in pleasure; if it prove
      Disdaine, that torrent will devoure

        The imagery of the torrent is in keeping with the imagery of seduction and release. The idea Carew portrays is that in resisting we are holding back the torrent, allowing it to build within us. The water forms a metaphor for true strength of feeling. Carew not only advocates the pursuit of a more emotional existence as a personal preference, but rather makes it look irresistible to everyone (even though he still narrates in a personal context), as resistance to the torrent of emotion is made to sound futile.
        Characteristically, the direct comparisons between opposite emotions continue. In keeping with the nature of the second stanza these comparisons become more exaggerated, Carew opposing line against line:
      I swimme in pleasure; if it prove
      Disdaine, that torrent will devoure

        The tone of the poem throughout is honest and overt. As with the opening two lines where we can draw Carew's intention to persuade us with truthful representation of extremes (despite the magnitude of the task), midway through the second stanza Carew is open about his own personal ambitions, his 'vulture hopes':
                      That torrent will devoure,
      My vulture-hopes
The metaphor is vivid: his ambition has a hungry, predator-like quality. It brings to mind, in a similar philosophical context, Plato's "greedy dirty bird" from his text, Gorgias - a tireless ambition which remains perpetually hungry, even while it is fed. Yet although Carew builds this great and overpowering image of the ambition within himself, he sweeps it aside with the force of desire more than gratified by a life of extreme emotions. We see Carew building and accentuating the power of the life of emotion.
        The idea of ambition is corroborated further by a second image in the same line:
      My vulture-hopes; and he's posest"

This is a darker image (which is accentuated, and accentuates, the dark image of the vulture), a satanic twist to the line. Carew is not afraid of endangering his argument with the controversy of crossing the church's concept of morality as well as Aristotle's. The power of the subject has reached a religious level, and Carew sharply turns it back to the opposite image of heaven, maintaining the emotion, as soothing evidence perhaps, that when you deal with one extreme of emotion, there is always the opposite close by.
        There is a great deal of reference to sociological factors behind the poem. Carew alludes to a time of discovery, exploration and new ideas. The water imagery, and the imagery of storms and torrents reminds us of the sea, and sea-based exploration. Carew expands further on this with his image of the 'vulture' - a new discovery for the time, and more so with his questioning of accepted religious and moral concepts. In this way the imagery of discovery appears to dominate the poem, the idea of the newly discovered polar regions are mentioned in the initial stanza "the torrid or the frozen zone". Could it perhaps be suggested then, that Carew is placing these new discoveries next to his own new and dramatic ideas in order to consolidate them in the minds of the reader and make them more acceptable?
        Before his final couplet Carew appears to address one final question that may threaten to undermine his entire argument: One either opens himself to extreme joy or extreme pain - what if one incurs extreme pain more frequently than joy?" Carew appears to anticipate and pre-empt this objection:
                      and he's posest
      Of Heaven, that's but from Hell releast

Carew argues that rather than an existence of misery, one merely offsets his happiness. Once the pain is escaped it is as good as gaining the same extent of the opposite emotion (absolute happiness).
        Carew forcefully concludes his argument in rejecting mediocrity in love, with the argument that once can either accentuate joy or find a greater resolution for pain:
      Then crowne my joyes, or cure my paine;
      Give me more love, or more disdaine

We can infer from this also that the numb existence of mediocrity is in itself a specialized category of pain.

Philip Priestley wrote this paper during the winter of 1997, while he was a student at British A level standard (roughly equivalent to a graduating high school senior in the US). He is currently an undergraduate student at the University of York, England.

©1998 Philip Priestley. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission of the Author.

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