Thursday, January 18, 2007

6 February: Boreham on Christopher Marlowe

A Dog with a Bad Name
Christopher Marlowe, whose birthday this is, has been regarded as the scapegrace of English literature always. His character was supposed to be entirely disreputable and it was deemed incorrect to mention his name in polite society. He was said to have lived a short and shameless life and to have died, at the age of 29, a disgusting death in a drunken quarrel. The records elaborated this unsavoury narrative with dramatic embellishments and circumstantial verisimilitude, and it was nobody's business to initiate a searching investigation into the accuracy of the generally-accepted story. Recent years have, however, treated Marlowe's memory more kindly. Impressed by the fact that he was the trusted and admired friend of so knightly a figure as Sir Walter Raleigh, and that some of the most eminent scholars of the period delighted in his society, a searching scrutiny of the records was made by Lord Coleridge, then Chief Justice of Great Britain, with the approval and assistance of the greatest living writers.

Immediately it became clear that many of the ugly stories that have adhered to the name of Marlowe sprang into existence long after his death. As the evidence accumulated, the investigators became convinced that Marlowe was a man of an incomparably finer type than had been generally supposed, and in the end steps were taken to erect in England a monument that would stand as a worthy, if belated, recognition of the poet's influence and work. Few English writers have better deserved such a tribute from posterity. Milton thought Marlowe, "a kind of second Shakespeare." Some have even asked: Was he not the first Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon being the second? Shakespeare himself would have regarded no praise of Marlowe as being too inflated.

Master At Whose Feet Shakespeare Sat
It is scarcely too much to say that Marlowe taught Shakespeare his art. If Shakespeare had never heard of Marlowe, we should probably never have heard of Shakespeare. To begin with, Marlowe was the pioneer of blank verse. Shakespeare saw at once the possibilities of the new style and adopted it in all his plays. But Marlowe was the inventor, the experimenter, the pathfinder, and Shakespeare would have been the first to ascribe to him the glory. Moreover, it was Marlowe who opened Shakespeare's eyes to the immense potentialities of the tragic note. The dramas of the Sixteenth Century lacked tremendousness. Marlowe recognised the defect and in some measure repaired it. But he did more. To the everlasting gain of English letters, he made Shakespeare see life through his eyes, and the sublime tragedies of our stateliest bard are the impressive monuments of Marlowe's salutary influence upon him.

Swinburne thinks that, apart from anything that Marlowe himself wrote, he deserves to rank with the immortals in virtue of his authority over the minds of others. To no other man, Swinburne declares, have so many of our greatest poets been so deeply and directly indebted. If we owed Marlowe nothing more than the treasure that he has given us through the medium of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, our debt would be incalculable. But in cold fact we owe him immensely more than this. His own work is never again likely to create a furore, but for all that it is of first-class elegance, power and beauty. Goethe thought that, in some respects, Marlowe's "Faustus," was the finest composition in the world's literature. "How greatly it is all planned!" he exclaimed. And an English critic of scarcely less eminence has given it as his deliberate and considered judgment that few masterpieces of any age or of any language can stand beside Marlowe's "Faustus" for the qualities of terror and splendour, for intensity of purpose and sublimity of note.

If Boyish Brilliance Could Have Blossomed
At least a dozen respects in which Marlowe stands without a rival—unique, peerless, magnificently alone—could easily be set down. The pity is that he died—it matters little how—at 29. Scouting the sinister stories that arose from later controversies, Gabriel Hervey positively asserts that Marlowe perished of the plague, and there is no reason to doubt his word. But the point that will more appeal to Twentieth Century students is the speculation that emerges most naturally from his amazing record. For if, as a mere boy, he could instruct men of the calibre of Shakespeare and Milton in the technique of their art, what would have been the measure of our indebtedness had he lived to maturity or old age?

A similar question, it may be said, confronts us whenever we contemplate the records of Chatterton, Shelley, and Keats but in none of these cases is the problem so intriguing, or the lamentation as poignant as in the case of Marlowe. His premature death, as Hazlitt puts it, extinguished powers which, had he lived, would have qualified him to rank among the very foremost. Sir Sidney Lee does not hesitate to affirm that the genius which enabled Christopher Marlowe, in his youth, to portray man's intensest yearnings for the impossible—for limitless power in the case of Tamburlaine; for limitless knowledge in the case of Faustus; for limitless wealth in the case of Barabas—would assuredly have rendered him in middle life a formidable rival to the most splendid of our tragic poets. Such regrets are, however, pitifully futile. They stand among history's imposing might-have-beens. We must take the man, not as we like to fancy him but as he actually is. And Christopher Marlowe, as he actually is, has so thoroughly carved a place of high honour and lasting renown that we can well afford to dispense with the proud dreams, pleasing conjectures and enchanted imaginings that the thought of his youthful death inevitably inspires.

F W Boreham

Image: Christopher Marlowe

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