Monday
Oct112010

On Marlowe and Ovid, His Ultimate Teacher of Desire

Powerful, deeply resonant chapter devoted to Ovid, Marlowe's greatest mentor. As I always do, the following lines are typed in half-awake, half-asleep ecstasy - there may lie thousands of typos, please endure or write.
Riggs, David. The World of Christopher Marlowe (London: Faber and Faber, 2004) 100-107

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In taking Ovid his mentor, Marlowe became involved in the ancient rivalry between Ovid and Virgil. Ovid fashioned his own literary career in response to Virgil's example. Ovid pays tribute to the three-part Virgilian career pattern - which proceeds from pastoral(the Eclogues) to agriculture (the Georgics) to national epic (the Aeneid) - in a memorable couplet: 'Tityrus, and the harvest, and the arms of Aeneas, will be read / As long as Rome shall be head of all the world she triumphs over. Turning to the course of his own career, Ovid revised Virgil's master narrative in the light of changing cultural conditions. Ovid's readership lives in a modern imperial metropolis, where Mars rages abroad on the front lines, 'And Venus rules in her Aeneas' city' (I.viii.41-42). Where Virgil spent his poetic apprenticeship writing pastoral, the genre of innocence, Ovid began at the other end of the moral spectrum, with elegy, the loss of innocence and the onset of desire. Where Virgil proceeded to write a national epic, Ovid's apprenticeship in 'weak elegy' prepares him to work on the 'greater ground' of tragedy (his lost Medea) and cosmological epic (his Metamorphosis).

Edmund Spenser had staked his own claim to be the 'Virgil of England' by publishing his inaugural book of pastoral eclogues, The Shepherd's Calendar (1579), and undertaking The Faerie Queene, a national epic of Virgilian proportions. Marlowe's translation of the Amores thus cast him the Ovidian role of Virgil's ancient rival. All Ovid's Elegies is the apprentice work of an Ovidian poet. It prepared Marlowe to work in the greater genres of tragedy and epic. In the closhing lines of his Amores, Ovid announces that 'Horn'd Bacchus greater fury doth distil, / A greater ground with great horse is to till' (III.xiv.17-18). But he needed to write one more love poem before penning his first play. That, after all, is what Ovid had done. In reply to Dame Tragedy's demand that he begin a greater work, Marlowe's mentor asked for one last respite: 'She gave me leave, soft loves in time make haste, / Some greater work will urge me on at last' (III.i.69-70). And hence, Marlowe's pastoral elegy of early career, 'Come live with me and be my love.' 

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Verse is immortal, and shall ne'er decay.
To verse let kings give place, and kingly shows,
And banks o'er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vile things,
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses' springs.
About my head be quivering myrtle wound...
(I.xv.32-37)

Although the poet's love is subject to time, his verse is immortal. While Ovid's compulsion to write love poetry has made him unfit for public service, poetry elevates him above kings and kingly shows. The elegist is derided by the envious, but crowned by Apollo, the god of day and poetry.

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Ovid's poems of desire provoked the emperor to banish him, an act that made the poet more famous than ever. Where Virgil celebrated Roman national greatness, Ovid elevated cultural history over war and politics, asserted the poet's claim to represent the nation and set his personal vision of Rome against the official mythology of the state. Marlowe's rendition of Ovid's notorious 'poem without title' reacticated the ancient quarrel between the poet and the prince. The very act of translation forged a bond between Ovid and Marlowe, who revived the Roman poet's radical commitment to sexual licence and freedom of speech.

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The iambic pentameter line made it easier for Marlowe and the many poets who followed his example - John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Alexander Pope, among others - to imitate the tightly knit structure of Ovid's elegiac couplets. The work translating 2,400 lines of Latin couplets into the same number of rhymed English verses demanded a large outlay of time and energy. Many of the mistakes in Marlowe's translation reflect the tight constraints of line-by-line translation and the rhyming couplet form. His most notorious howler comes midway through Ovid's tribute to the power of poetry. Where Ovid writes

Song bursts the serpent's jaws apart and robs him of his fangs,
and sends the waters rushing back upon their source

Marlowe translates:

Snakes leap by verse from caves of broken mountains,
And turned streams run backwards to their fountains.
(II.i.25-26)

Having submitted to the discipline of line-by-line translation, Marlowe shed the burden of literal fidelity to the original. The first line of his couplet makes the lap from translation to imitation and falls short.

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Marlowe's Latinate constructions create the impression that he is making an exact replica of Ovid's Amores; in fact, he frequently substitutes a phantom original of his own imagining in place of his source text. His main concern is not to reproduce what Ovid said, but to demonstrate his matery of Ovid's style. When Marlowe gets it right, he sounds brilliant. Compare the two poets on what it feels like to be impotent in bed. After Ovid's partner has done everything she can to arouse him, he writes

Tacta tamen veluti gelida mea membra cicuta
Segnia propsitum destituere meum.

(But my body, as if drugged with chill hemlock,
was paralysed and failed to achieve my intent.)

Marlowe translates:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mocked me, hung down the head, and sunk.
(III.vi.13-14)

The Latinate word order (object-subject-verb), unbroken cadence and sonority of Marlowe's first line registers the mounting anxiety focused in the ominously disyllabic 'hemlock.' The second, with its broken cadences and three separate verb clauses, mimics the downward course of Ovid's shrinking member towards the decisive end-thyme on 'sunk.' Marlowe is more direct and coarse than Ovid, and likelier to use smutty language. The English poet's will to lurid self-display revived Ovid's resolve to exhibit his own bad qualities before the Roman reading public: 'For I confess, if that might merit favour, / Here I display my lewd and loose behaviour' (II.iv.3-4).

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