Friday, June 26, 2009

'A powerful and passionate syntax'

Last night I was reading Seamus Heaney's essay on Christopher Marlowe (in The Redress of Poetry, the collection of his Oxford lectures). Heaney makes a good case for the brilliance of 'Hero and Leander', reiterating Pound's argument that Marlowe's technique anticipates pretty much all of the technique of the eighteenth-century satirists. It's quite convincing – not just the use of heroic couplets but their deft comic handling and understated gravitas. Heaney quotes a section of 'Hero and Leander', then comments that 'the verse here is like a thick cable being paid out wittily by an intelligence that is nevertheless the very opposite of thick-witted.' (That sentence is a great example of how Heaney's critical prose can be simultaneously lucid and cramp-inducing, as the brain tries to resolve the syntax and sense of a claim that has already seduced it.) Here's the bit he quotes:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is overruled by fate.
When two are stripped, long ere the course begin
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots like in each respect.
The reason no man knows; let it suffice
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

Heaney goes on to discuss the poem's virtues in some detail. And because the verse is comic and the tone (apparently) light, those virtues might not be obvious, so I'm glad to have them elucidated. And yet I can't help preferring, still, the macho, bulldozing blank verse of the plays. This is the passage from Tamburlaine that Heaney quotes:

The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caused the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair,
And place himself in the imperial heaven,
Moved me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wandering planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.


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