Christopher Marlowe

A. C. Bradley, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 1:411-17.

Marlowe has one claim on our affection which everyone is ready to acknowledge; he died young. We think of him along with Chatterton and Burns, with Byron, Shelley, and Keats. And this is a fact of some importance for the estimate of his life and genius. His poetical career lasted only six or seven years, and he did not outlive his "hot days, when the mad blood's stirring." An old ballad tells us that he acted at the Curtain theatre in Shoreditch and "brake his leg in one rude scene, When in his early age." If there is any truth in the last statement, we may suppose that Marlowe gave up acting and confined himself to authorship. He seems to have depended for his livelihood on his connection with the stage; and probably, like many of his fellows and friends, he lived in a free and even reckless way. A more unusual characteristic of Marlowe's was his "atheism." No reliance can be placed on the details recorded on this subject; but it was apparently only his death that prevented judicial proceedings being taken against him on account of his opinions. The note on which these proceedings would have been founded was the work of one Bame, who thought that "all men in christianitei ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped," and was hanged at Tyburn about eighteen months afterwards. But other testimony points in the same direction; and a celebrated passage in Greene's Groatsworth of Wit would lead us to suppose that Marlowe was given to blatant profanities. Whatever his offences may have been — and there is nothing to make us think he was a bad-hearted man — he had no time to make men forget them. He was not thirty when he met his death.

The plan of the present volumes excludes selections from Marlowe's plays; but as his purely poetical works give but a one-sided idea of his genius, and as his importance in the history of literature depends mainly on his dramatic writings, some general reference must be made to them. Even if they had no enduring merits of their own, their effect upon Shakespeare — an effect which, to say nothing of Henry VI, is most clearly visible in Richard III — and their influence on the drama would preserve them from neglect. The nature of this influence may be seen by a glance at Marlowe's first play. On the one hand in stands at the opposite pole to the classic form of the drama as it is found in Seneca, a form which had been adopted in Gorboduc, and which some of the more learned writers attempted to nationalise. There is no Chorus in Tamburlaine or in any of Marlowe's plays except Dr. Faustus; and the action takes place on the stage instead of being merely reported. On the other hand, in this, the first play in blank verse which was publicly acted, he called the audience

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay.

and fixed the metre of his drama for ever as the metre of English tragedy. And, though neither here nor in Dr. Faustus could he yet afford to ease off all the conceits of clownage, he was in effect beginning to substitute works of art for the formless popular representations of the day. Doubtless it was only a beginning. The two parts of Tamburlaine are not great tragedies. They are full of mere horror and glare. Of the essence of drama, a sustained and developed action, there it as yet very little; and what action there is proceeds almost entirely from the rising passion of a single character. Nor in the conception of this character has Marlowe quite freed himself from the defect of the popular plays, in which, naturally enough, personified virtues and vices often took the place of men. Still, if there is a touch of this defect in Tamburlaine, as in the Jew of Malta, it is no more than a touch. The ruling passion is conceived with an intensity, and portrayed with a sweep of imagination unknown before; a requisite for the drama hardly less important than the faculty of construction is attained, and the way is opened for those creations which are lifted above the common and yet are living flesh and blood. It is the same with the language. For the buffoonery he partly displaced Marlowe substitutes a swelling diction, "high astounding terms," and some outrageous bombast, such as that which Shakespeare reproduced and put into the mouth of Pistol. But, laugh as we will, in this first of Marlowe's plays there is that incommunicable gift which means almost everything, style; a manner perfectly individual, and yet, at its best, free from eccentricity. The "mighty line" of which Jonson spoke, and a pleasure, equal to Milton's, in resounding proper names, meet us in the very first scene; and in not a few passages passion, instead of vociferating, finds its natural expression, and we hear the fully-formed style, which in Marlowe's best writing is, to use his own words, "Like his desire, lift upward and divine." "Lift upward" Marlowe's style was at first, and so it remained. It degenerates into violence, but never into softness. If is falters, the cause is not doubt or languor, but haste and want of care. It has the energy of youth; and a living poet has described this among its other qualities when he speaks of Marlowe as singing "With mouth of gold, and morning in his eyes." As a dramatic instrument it developed with his growth and acquired variety. The stately monotone of Tamburlaine, in which the pause falls almost regularly at the end of the lines, gives place in Edward II to rhythms less suited so pure poetry, but far more rapid and flexible. In Dr. Faustus the great address to Helen is as different in metrical effect as it is in spirit from the last scene, where the words seem, like Faustus heart, to "pant and quiver." Even in the Massacre al Paris, the worse of his plays, the style becomes unmistakable in such passages as this:

Give me a look, that, when I bend the brows,
Pale Death may walk in furrows of my face;
A hand that with a grasp may gripe the world;
An ear to hear what my detractors say;
A royal seat, a scepter, and a crown;
That those that do behold them may become
As men that stand and gaze against the sun.

The expression "lift upward" applies also, in a sense, to most of the chief characters in the plays. Whatever else they may lack, they know nothing of half-heartedness or irresolution. A volcanic self-assertion, a complete absorption in some one desire, is their characteristic. That in creating such characters Marlowe was working in dark places, and that he developes them with all his energy, is certain. But that in so doing he shows (to refer to a current notion of him) a "hunger and thirst after unrighteousness," a desire, that is, which never has produced or could product true poetry, is an idea which Hazlitt could not have realty intended to convey. Marlowe's works are tragedies. Their greatness lies not merely in the conception of an unhallowed lust, however gigantic, but in an insight into its tragic significance and tragic results; and there is as little food for a hunger after unrighteousness (if there be such a thing) in the appalling final scene of Dr. Faustus, or, indeed, in the melancholy of Mephistopheles, so grandly touched by Marlowe, as in the catastrophe of Richard III or of Goethe's Faust. It is true, again, that in the later acts of the Jew of Malta Barabas has become a mere monster; but for that very reason the character ceases to show Marlowe's peculiar genius, and Shakespeare himself has not portrayed the sensual lust after gold, and the touch of imagination which redeems it from insignificance, with such splendour as the opening speech of Marlowe's play. Whatever faults however the earlier plays have, it in clear, if Edward II be one of his latest works, that Marlowe was rapidly outgrowing them. For in that play, to say nothing of the two great scenes to which Lamb gave such high praise, the interest is no longer confined to a single character, and there is the most decided advance both in construction and in the dialogue.

Of the weightier qualities of Marlowe's genius the extracts from his purely poetical works give but little idea; but just for that reason they testify to the variety of his powers. Everyone knows the verses "Come live with me, and be my love," with their pretty mixture of gold buckles and a belt of straw. This was a very popular song; Raleigh wrote an answer to it; and its flowing music has run in many a head beside Sir Hugh Evans's. But the shepherd would hardly be called "passionate" outside the Arcadia to which the lyric really belongs. Of the beautiful fragment in ottava rima nothing is known, except that it was first printed with Marlowe's name in England's Parnassus, 1600. The translations of Lucan and Ovid (the former in blank verse) were perhaps early studies. It is curious that Marlowe should have set himself so thankless a task as a version of Lucan which literally gives line for line; but the choice of the author is characteristic. The translation of Ovid's Amores was burnt on account of its indecency in 1599, and it could have been no loss to the world if all the copies had perished. The interest of these translations is mainly historical. They testify to the passion for classical poetry, and in particular to that special fondness for Ovid of which the literature of the time affords many other proofs. The study of Virgil and Ovid was a far less mixed good for poetry than that of Seneca and Plautus; and it is perhaps worth noticing that Marlowe, who felt the charm of classical amatory verse, and whose knowledge of Virgil is shown in his Queen Dido, should have been the man who, more than any other, secured the theatre from the dominion of inferior classical dramas.

How fully he caught the inspiration, not indeed of the best classical poetry, but of that world of beauty which ancient literature seemed to disclose to the men of the Renascence, we can see in many parts of his writings, in Faust's address to Helen, in Gaveston's description of the sports at Court, in the opening of Queen Dido, but the fullest proof of it is the fragment of Hero and Leander. Beaumont wrote a Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Shakespeare a Venus and Adonis, but both found their true vehicle in the drama. Marlowe's poem not only stands far above one of these tales, and perhaps above both, but it stands on a level with his plays; and it is hard to say what excellence he might not have reached in the field of narrative verse. The defect of his fragment, the intrusion of ingenious reflections and of those conceits with one of which our selection unhappily terminates, was the fault of his time; its merit is Marlowe's own. It was suggested indeed by the short poem of the Pseudo-Musaeus, an Alexandrian grammarian who probably wrote about the end of the fifth century after Christ, and appears to have been translated into English shortly before 1589; but it is in essence original. Written in the so-called heroic verse, it bears no resemblance to any other poem at that metre composed before, nor, perhaps, is there any written since which decidedly recalls it, unless it be Endymion. "Pagan" it is in a sense, with the Paganism of the Renascence: the more pagan the better, considering the subject. Nothing of the deeper thought of the time, no "looking before and after," no worship of a Gloriana or hostility to an Acrasia, interferes with its frank acceptance of sensuous beauty and joy. In this, in spite of much resemblance, it differs from Endymion, the spirit if which is not fruition but unsatisfied longing, and in which the vision of a vague and lovelier ideal is always turning the enjoyment of the moment into gloom. On the other hand, a further likeness to Keats may perhaps be traced in the pictorial quality of Marlowe's descriptions. His power does not lie in catching in the aspect of objects or scenes those deeper suggestions which appeal to an imagination stored with human experience as well as sensitive to colour and form; for this power does not necessarily result in what we call pictorial writing; but his soul seems to be in his eyes, and he renders the beauty which appeals directly to sense as vividly as he apprehends it. Nor is this the case with the description of objects alone. The same complete absorption of imagination in sense appears in Marlowe's account of the visit to Hero's tower. This passage is in a high degree voluptuous, but it is not prurient. For prurience is the sign of an unsatisfied imagination, which, being unable to present its object adequately, appeals to extraneous and unpoetic feelings. But Marlowe's imagination is completely satisfied; and therefore, though he has not a high theme (for it is a mere sensuous joy that is described, and there is next to no real emotion in the matter), he is able to make fine poetry of it. Of the metrical qualities of the poem there can be but one opinion. Shakespeare himself, who quoted a line of it, never reached in his own narrative verse a music so spontaneous and rich, a music to which Marlowe might have applied his own words—

That calls my soul from forth his living seat
To move unto the measures of delight.

Marlowe had many of the makings of a great poet: a capacity for Titanic conceptions which might with time have become Olympian; an imaginative vision which was already intense and must have deepened and widened; the gift of style and of making words sing; and a time to live in such as no other generation of English poets has known. It it easy to reckon his failings. His range of perception into life and character was contracted: of comic power he shows hardly a trace, and it is incredible that he should have written the Jack Cade scene of Henry VI; no humour or tenderness relieves his pathos; there is not any female character in his plays whom we remember with much interest; and it is not clear that he could have produced songs of the first order. But it is only Shakespeare who can do everything; and Shakespeare did not die at twenty-nine. That Marlowe must have stood nearer to him than any other dramatic poet of that time, or perhaps of any later time, is probably the verdict of nearly all students of the drama. His immediate successors knew well what was lost in him; and from the days of Peele, Jonson, Drayton, and Chapman, to our own, the poets have done more than common honour to his memory.