Christopher Marlowe's Poems

Christopher Marlowe's Poems Summary

Christopher Marlowe, a poet known mostly for his plays rather than his verse, translated two major works of classical Latin poetry -- Amores by Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) and the first book of Lucan's (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus) Pharsalia. These are long Latin poems written in the first centuries before and after the Common Era. Though the poems were at least 1400 years old when Marlowe translated them, he put them into the Elizabethan English of his day with considerable verve and poetic vividness (and with the occasional error in translation.) Ovid's poem is a three-book collection of "elegies" (Latin elegia,) which in Ovid's day were the equivalent of personal lyric poetry. It concerns a stylized and sometimes humorous and cynical romance between a rich Roman man and his married, foolish lover Corinna. Much of Ovid's poetry is formulaic, based on earlier poetic forms. These forms (such as stylized addresses to the mistress, a funeral elegy, apostrophes and the like) make up a large portion of Amores, and the narrative is secondary. Ovid, however, was able to imbue his characters with convincing realism, which Marlowe translated admirably.

Hero and Leander, the only long original work of poetry of Marlowe's to have survived (and possibly the only one he ever wrote, apart from his plays,) was written during a plague year when theatres in London were closed. Marlowe was thus unable to write for the stage, and set his pen again to classical subjects. Hero and Leander concerns the Greek mythical lovers of those names, separated by the Hellespont. It is thought that Marlowe took the story from the mythical Byzantine poet Musaeus, though the myth was known long before that time. It is an overtly sexual piece, dealing with complicated images and ideas about human relationships and sexuality.

"The Passionate Shepherd To His Love", is a pastoral love poem, written in tetrameter. It is a justly famous piece, often quoted, and Ralegh (a contemporary poet) made a famous "Answer" to it. It is about a shepherd who longs to make a woman (or a nymph) his wife, and tries to lure her into the countryside with promises of rich gifts. This 24-line sweet-toned plea paints an idealized picture of rural life, with images of the finery the lover will make for his beloved from the fruits of the land. It is an homage to an old Greek form of poetry, and one of Marlowe's masterworks.

The translation of Lucan's First Book is a virtuoso piece by Marlowe, recounting the beginning of a long epic by the Roman poet Lucan. In it, Julius Caesar has returned from conquering Gaul, and debates on crossing the Rubicon and conquering his own city of Rome. It is a piece full of classical allusions, but is also a meditation on the folly of civil war. Marlowe may well have intended to translate all of Lucan's ten extant books, but it is assumed that this effort was stopped by his early death.

Marlowe wrote a Latin epitaph, which he translated into English, for Roger Manwood, an official and judge. It is a poem in the finest old Latin style, but with Elizabethan sensibilities. It, along with Hero and Leander and Lucan's First Book are among Marlowe's last works.