Everyone knows Kit Marlowe’s plays hit the London stage like a thunderbolt. Not so many know that his poems were equally original, equally radical. Too radical for some: in 1599 the Bishop of London burned Marlowe’s translations of Ovid’s love poems in public. Even today, the explicit linkage between poetic technique and sexual performance can surprise. These were the first translations of Ovid’s erotic verse into any modern European language, and bishops burned them in vain: the rhymed heroic couplet that Marlowe pioneered for his translation became a standard form.
His translation of Lucan likewise established blank verse as a mainline medium – which of course crossed over into the theatre. This translation too was subversive, for Lucan was the anti-imperial poet of ancient Rome and Marlowe chose to translate him when European absolutism was on the rise, a republican poem in a monarchical age.
Even more influential is his free-wheeling version of the late Greek poem, Hero and Leander. Everyone knows some of this, even if unaware that he’s the author, for he’s a poet who sticks in the mind. Years after Marlowe had been murdered, Shakespeare has one of his characters quote him:
Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might: Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?
Why “shepherd”? Because Marlowe wrote the most famous Elizabethan pop song of all, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ (and there were many cover versions):
Come live with me and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove.
This term and next we bring you some special opportunities to sample the risky pleasures of Marlowe’s verse. The Master’s of four Colleges have generously offered their Lodges as venues for staging a dialogue (or even contest) between Marlowe and their own poets. They are:
Pembroke, where we pit Marlowe against Spenser Christ’s, where he does battle with Milton St John’s, where he converses with his friend and fellow student, Nashe (and also with the equally radical Donne) and of course his own College: Corpus Christi – that’s where he read Ovid and Lucan, and made them heard for the first time in English.