1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Marlowe

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 21:329-32.



CHRISTOPHER MARLOE, or MARLOW, whom Phillips calls "a kind of second Shakspeare," was born, as Mr. Ellis conjectures with great probability, about 1562. There is no account extant of his family, but it is well known, says Baker, that he was of Bene't college, in the university of Cambridge, where he took the degree of B.A. 1583, and M.A. 1587; he, however, quitted the academic life, and went on the stage, where he became one of the most distinguished tragic poets of the age. Thomas Heywood styles him the "best of poets;" and Drayton also has bestowed a high panegyric on him, in the "Censure of the Poets," in these lines

Next Marloe bathed in Thespian springs,
Had in him those brave translunary things,
That your first poets had; his raptures were
All air and fire, which made his verses clear:
For that fine madness still he did retain,
Which rightly should possess a poet's brain.

In 1597 he translated Coluthus's "Rape of Helen" into English rhyme. He also translated the elegies of Ovid, which book was ordered to be burnt at Stationers'-hall, 1599, by command of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London. Before 1598 appeared his translation of the "Loves of Hero and Leander," the elegant prolusion of an unknown sophist of Alexandria, but commonly ascribed to the ancient Musaeus. It was left unfinished by Marlow's death; but what was called a second part, which is nothing more than a continuation from the Italian, appeared by one Henry Petowe, in 1598. Another edition was published, with the first book of Lucan, translated also by Marlow, and in blank verse, in 1600. At length Chapman, the translator of Homer, completed, but with a striking inequality, Marlow's unfinished version, and printed it at London in 1606, 4to. His plays were, 1. "Tamerlane the great Scythian emperor, two parts," ascribed by Phillips erroneously to Newton. 2. "The rich Jew of Maltha." 3. "The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. John Faustus." 4. "Lust's Dominion," Lond. 1661, 8vo, from which was stolen the greater part of Aphra Behn's "Abdelazer, or the More's Revenge," Lond. 1677. 5. "The Tragedy of King Edward II." 6. "The Tragedy of Dido, queen of Carthage," in the composition of which he was assisted by Thomas Nash, who published it in 1594.

His tragedies, says Warton, manifest traces of a just dramatic conception, but they abound with tedious and uninteresting scenes, or with such extravagancies as proceeded from a want of judgment, and those barbarous ideas of the times, over which it was the peculiar gift of Shakspeare's genius alone to triumph and predominate. As a poet, there is one composition preserved in the collection called "England's Helicon," and often reprinted, which entitles him to the highest praise. It is that entitled "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love," beginning "Come live with me, and be my love." We can remember the revival of this beautiful pastoral about forty years ago, with some pleasing music, which made it the fashion of every theatre, concert, and private party. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a reply to this piece.

Marloe's tragical death is thus related by Wood: "This Marloe, we are told, presuming upon his own little wit, thought proper to practise the most Epicurean indulgence, and openly professed Atheism. He denied God our Saviour; he blasphemed the adorable Trinity; and, as it was reported, wrote several discourses against it, affirming our Saviour to he a deceiver, the sacred Scriptures to contain nothing but idle stories, and all religion to be a device of policy and priestcraft. But Marloe came to a very untimely end, as some have remarked, in consequence of his execrable blasphemies. It happened, that he fell deeply in love with a low girl, and had for his rival a fellow in livery, who looked more like a pimp than a lover. Marloe, fired with jealousy, and having some reason to believe that his mistress granted the fellow favours, rushed upon him to stab him with his dagger: but the footman being quick, avoided the stroke, and catching hold of Marloe's wrist, stabbed him with his own weapon; and notwithstanding all the assistance of the surgery, he soon after died of the wound, before the year 1593."

Marloe has found an apologist in Warton, who can seldom conceal his abhorrence of the puritans. "Marlowe's wit and sprightliness of conversation had often the unhappy effect of tempting him to sport with sacred subjects; more perhaps from the preposterous ambition of courting the casual applause of profligate and unprincipled companions, than from any systematic disbelief of religion. His scepticism, whatever it might be, was construed by the prejudiced and peevish puritans into absolute atheism, and they took pains to represent the unfortunate catastrophe of his untimely death, as an immediate judgment from heaven upon his execrable impiety." The story was certainly current at the time. It occurs not only in Beard's "Theatre of God's Judgments," but in a work which if we mistake not preceded it, Vaughan's "Golden Grove." Vaughan gives the place where the catastrophe happened, Deptford, and his antagonist's name, Ingram, and adds, that Marloe "wrote a book against the Trinitie." There is also in the British Museum (MSS. Harl. 6853, 8vo. fol. 320) "An Account of the blasphemous and damnable opinions of Christ. Marley and three others who came to a sudden and fearful end of this life."