Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe

Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe

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Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe

"Marloe was stabd with a dagger, and dyed swearing"

A MORE friendly critic, Mr. A. C. Swinburne, observes of this poet
that "the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank
verse was therefore also the teacher and the guide of Shakespeare." In
this sentence there are two misleading assumptions and two misleading
conclusions. Kyd has as good a title to the first honour as Marlowe;
Surrey has a better title to the second; and Shakespeare was not
taught or guided by one of his predecessors or contemporaries alone.
The less questionable judgment is, that Marlowe exercised a strong
influence over later drama, though not himself as great a dramatist as
Kyd; that he introduced several new tones into blank verse, and
commenced the dissociative process which drew it farther and farther
away from the rhythms of rhymed verse; and that when Shakespeare
borrowed from him, which was pretty often at the beginning,
Shakespeare either made something inferior or something different. 1

The comparative study of English versification at various periods is a
large tract of unwritten history. To make a study of blank verse
alone, would be to elicit some curious conclusions. It would show, I
believe, that blank verse within Shakespeare's lifetime was more
highly developed, that it became the vehicle of more varied and more
intense art-emotions than it has ever conveyed since; and that after
the erection of the Chinese Wall of Milton, blank verse has suffered
not only arrest but retrogression. That the blank verse of Tennyson,
for example, a consummate master of this form in certain applications,
is cruder (not "rougher" or less perfect in technique) than that of
half a dozen contemporaries of Shakespeare; cruder, because less
capable of expressing complicated, subtle, and surprising emotions. 2

Every writer who has written any blank verse worth saving has produced
particular tones which his verse and no other's is capable of
rendering; and we should keep this in mind when we talk about
"influences" and "indebtedness." Shakespeare is "universal" (if you
like) because he has more of these tones than anyone else; but they
are all out of the one man; one man cannot be more than one man; there
might have been six Shakespeares at once without conflicting
frontiers; and to say that Shakespeare expressed nearly all human
emotions, implying that he left very little for anyone else, is a
radical misunderstanding of art and the artist-a misunderstanding
which, even when explicitly rejected, may lead to our neglecting the
effort of attention necessary to discover the specific properties of
the verse of Shakespeare's contemporaries.

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The development of blank
verse may be likened to the analysis of that astonishing industrial
product coal-tar. Marlowe's verse is one of the earlier derivatives,
but it possesses properties which are not repeated in any of the
analytic or synthetic blank verses discovered somewhat later. 3

The "vices of style" of Marlowe's and Shakespeare's age is a
convenient name for a number of vices, no one of which, perhaps, was
shared by all of the writers. It is pertinent, at least, to remark
that Marlowe's "rhetoric" is not, or not characteristically,
Shakespeare's rhetoric; that Marlowe's rhetoric consists in a pretty
simple huffe-snuffe bombast, while Shakespeare's is more exactly a
vice of style, a tortured perverse ingenuity of images which
dissipates instead of concentrating the imagination, and which may be
due in part to influences by which Marlowe was untouched. Next, we
find that Marlowe's vice is one which he was gradually attenuating,
and even, what is more miraculous, turning into a virtue. And we find
that this bard of torrential imagination recognized many of his best
bits (and those of one or two others), saved them, and reproduced them
more than once, almost invariably improving them in the process. 4

It is worth while noticing a few of these versions, because they
indicate, somewhat contrary to usual opinion, that Marlowe was a
deliberate and conscious workman. Mr. J. M. Robertson has spotted an
interesting theft of Marlowe's from Spenser. Here is Spenser (Faery
Queen, I. vii. 32):

Like to an almond tree y-mounted high

On top of green Selinis all alone,

With blossoms brave bedeckèd daintily;

Whose tender locks do tremble every one

At every little breath that under heaven is blown.

And here Marlowe (Tamburlaine, Part II. Act iv. sc. iii.):

Like to an almond tree y-mounted high

Upon the lofty and celestial mount

Of evergreen Selinus, quaintly deck'd

With blooms more white than Erycina's brows,

Whose tender blossoms tremble every one

At every little breath that thorough heaven is blown.

This is interesting, not only as showing that Marlowe's talent, like
that of most poets, was partly synthetic, but also because it seems to
give a clue to some particularly "lyric" effects found in Tamburlaine,
not in Marlowe's other plays, and not, I believe, anywhere else. For
example, the praise of Zenocrate in Part II. Act II. sc. iv.:

Now walk the angels on the walls of heaven,

As sentinels to warn th' immortal souls

To entertain divine Zenocrate: etc.

This is not Spenser's movement, but the influence of Spenser must be
present. There had been no great blank verse before Marlowe; but there
was the powerful presence of this great master of melody immediately
precedent; and the combination produced results which could not be
repeated. I do not think that it can be claimed that Peele had any
influence here. 7

The passage quoted from Spenser has a further interest. It will be
noted that the fourth line:

With blooms more white than Erycina's brows is Marlowe's contribution.
Compare this with these other lines of

So looks my love, shadowing in her brows


Like to the shadows of Pyramides


and the final and best version:

Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows

Then have the white breasts of the queen of love

(Doctor Faustus)

and compare the whole set with Spenser again (F. Q.):

Upon her eyelids many graces sate

Under the shadow of her even brows,

a passage which Mr. Robertson says Spenser himself used in three other
places. 8

This economy is frequent in Marlowe. Within Tamburlaine it occurs in
the form of monotony, especially in the facile use of resonant names
(e.g. the recurrence of "Caspia" or "Caspian" with the same tone
effect), a practice in which Marlowe was followed by Milton, but which
Marlowe himself outgrew. Again,

Zenocrate, lovlier than the love of Jove,

Brighter than is the silver Rhodope,

is paralleled later by

Zenocrate, the lovliest maid alive,

Fairier than rocks of pearl and precious stone.

One line Marlowe remodels with triumphant success:

And set black streamers in the firmament


See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
(Doctor Faustus)

The verse accomplishments of Tamburlaine are notably two: Marlowe gets
into blank verse the melody of Spenser, and he gets a new driving
power by reinforcing the sentence period against the line period. The
rapid long sentence, running line into line, as in the famous
soliloquies "Nature compounded of four elements" and "What is beauty,
saith my sufferings, then?" marks the certain escape of blank verse
from the rhymed couplet, and from the elegiac or rather pastoral note
of Surrey, to which Tennyson returned. If you contrast these two
soliloquies with the verse of Marlowe's greatest contemporary, Kyd-by
no means a despicable versifier-you see the importance of the

The one took sanctuary, and, being sent for out,

Was murdered in Southwark as he passed

To Greenwich, where the Lord Protector lay.

Black Will was burned in Flushing on a stage:

Green was hanged at Osbridge in Kent...

which is not really inferior to:

So these four abode

Within one house together; and as years

Went forward, Mary took another mate;

But Dora lived unmarried till her death.

(Tennyson, Dora)

In Faustus Marlowe went farther: he broke up the line, to a gain in
intensity, in the last soliloquy; and he developed a new and important
conversational tone in the dialogues of Faustus with the devil. Edward
II. has never lacked consideration: it is more desirable, in brief
space, to remark upon two plays, one of which has been misunderstood
and the other underrated. These are the Jew of Malta and Dido Queen of
Carthage. Of the first of these, it has always been said that the end,
even the last two acts, are unworthy of the first three. If one takes
the Jew of Malta not as a tragedy, or as a "tragedy of blood," but as
a farce, the concluding act becomes intelligible; and if we attend
with a careful ear to the versification, we find that Marlowe develops
a tone to suit this farce, and even perhaps that this tone is his most
powerful and mature tone. I say farce, but with the enfeebled humour
of our times the word is a misnomer; it is the farce of the old
English humour, the terribly serious, even savage comic humour, the
humour which spent its last breath on the decadent genius of Dickens.
It has nothing in common with J. M. Barrie, Captain Bairnsfather or
Punch. It is the humour of that very serious (but very different)
play, Volpone.

First, be thou void of these affections,

Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear;

Be moved at nothing, see thou pity none...

As for myself, I walk abroad o' nights,

And kill sick people groaning under walls:

Sometimes I go about and poison wells...

and the last words of Barabas complete this prodigious caricature:

But now begins th' extremity of heat

To pinch me with intolerable pangs:

Die, life! fly, soul! tongue, curse thy fill, and die!

It is something which Shakespeare could not do, and which he could not
have understood. 11

Dido appears to be a hurried play, perhaps done to order with the
Æneid in front of him. But even here there is progress. The account of
the sack of Troy is in this newer style of Marlowe's, this style which
secures its emphasis by always hesitating on the edge of caricature at
the right moment:

The Grecian soldiers, tir'd with ten years war,

Began to cry, "Let us unto our ships,

Troy is invincible, why stay we here?"...

By this, the camp was come unto the walls,

And through the breach did march into the streets,

Where, meeting with the rest, "Kill, kill!" they cried....

And after him, his band of Myrmidons,

With balls of wild-fire in their murdering paws...

At last, the soldiers pull'd her by the heels,

And swung her howling in the empty air....

We saw Cassandra sprawling in the streets...

This is not Vergil, or Shakespeare; it is pure Marlowe. By comparing
the whole speech with Clarence's dream, in Richard III., one acquires
a little insight into the difference between Marlowe and Shakespeare:

What scourge for perjury

Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?

There, on the other hand, is what Marlowe's style could not do; the
phrase has a concision which is almost classical, certainly Dantesque.
Again, as often with the Elizabethan dramatists, there are lines in
Marlowe, besides the many lines that Shakespeare adapted, that might
have been written by either:

If thou wilt stay,

Leap in mine arms; mine arms are open wide;

If not, turn from me, and I'll turn from thee;

For though thou hast the heart to say farewell,

I have not power to stay thee.

But the direction in which Marlowe's verse might have moved, had he
not "dyed swearing," is quite un-Shakespearean, is toward this intense
and serious and indubitably great poetry, which, like some great
painting and sculpture, attains its effects by something not unlike
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