The Poet and the Narrator in Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander

In Christopher Marlowe’s narrative poem Hero and Leander, a major obstacle confronts the reader in the form of attempting to separate the narrative voice of the poet Marlowe from that which W.L. Godshalk calls “the sensibility of a dramatized narrator. . . who stands between us and the lovers” (307). David Farkas, in his “Problems of Interpretation in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander,” points out that he hears “two voices in the narrative: the genuine Marlovian voice and the hidden narrator’s (Knoll 129). In light of these observations, the question arises as to the means of distinguishing between the dual voices present in the poem. Godshalk asks “Is it Marlowe or the narrator who is so taken with Leander’s physical beauty and with Hero’s pretended innocence even as she coquettishly leads him on?” (308). Thus, Hero and Leander, in regards to the poet/narrator question, “builds its own mysteries and demands a variety of responses” which are “compounded by the fact that we see (the characters) through the eyes of Marlowe, the poet, and through those of an intrusive narrator” (Levin 140).Before we proceed on the discussion of the dual voices in Hero and Leander, it would be to our advantage to examine the perspectives of various critics who have contributed their views on the nature of this poem since the mid 1960’s. As Robert A. Logan maintains, “Marlowe’s poem was (initially) viewed as strongly romantic, as if the poem engaged our senses and emotions but seldom spoke to our reason and judgment” (279). Robert E. Knoll sees Hero and Leander as a pure Elizabethan poem, for “there is not an obscene word or degenerate suggestion” within it (128). U.M. Ellis-Fermor notes that the poem “draws its inspiration from the senses (and) expresses itself naturally in concrete images and in descriptions full of color and harmony of form and sound” (123).Thus, it could be said that Hero and Leander represents “erotic passion, libertine naturalism, and the most shameless celebration of sensuality… we can find in English literature” (Logan 279). However, since the mid 1960’s, these perspectives have altered drastically and have created an agreement between the critics that the poem “through comedy and narrative aloofness, is a masterpiece that assumes an ironic, anti-romantic posture” (Godshalk 307).Christopher Marlowe, as the poet and as the “intrusive narrator” of Hero and Leander, utilized numerous narrative devices to achieve a distancing from his characters and their actions, or as Godshalk maintains, “through a portrayal of the effects of eroticism rather than the causes” via “intellectualized mythological details and imagery” (280). J.B. Steane builds upon these devices by adding that “through comedy, generalizations, abstractions. . . and a shifting mercurial narrative perspective,” Marlowe the poet succeeds beautifully in separating himself from the text and from the tale of his two tragic lovers (304).There also exists an element of detachment in Hero and Leander which is “an essential component of the poem, based on sophistication, wit and irony” (Steane 302). This detachment allows the reader to explore the perimeters of power via Marlowe’s tenacity of mind which consolidates that power. From Marlowe’s point of view, detachment not only allows control over the text but also the responses of the reader. M.C. Bradbrook supports this view with the observation that Hero and Leander “varies from one level of detachment to another, giving the poem an extraordinary air of maturity and poise” (Knoll 128).In regards to the literary content of Hero and Leander, we find a cosmology of fierce energy and violence compounded by the restraints of society on sexual drive and sensuality. This informs the reader that “we are powerless to control the irrational desires we feel for another person” (Steane 305), especially in the nature of the characters presented in the poem.The opening lines of Hero and Leander presents a counterplay of tones in the narrative voice, or as Maclure understands it “the tone. . . is amusing and grave, for Marlowe alone, of all the poets working in this genre, is interested in his characters as human beings” (xxvii), with the exception of course being William Shakespeare, Marlowe’s contemporary:On Hellespont, guilty of true love’s blood,In view and opposite two cities stood,Sea-boarderers, disjoin’d by Neptune’s might:The one Abydos, the other Sestos hight.At Sestos, Hero dwelt; Hero the fair,Whom young Apollo courted for her hair,And offer’d as a dower his burning throne,Where she would sit for men to gaze upon. (I, lines 1-8).The first and third lines appear to be heroic and ominous while the second is geographically factual. In these first lines, the reader hears the epic poet relate a story which prophesizes doom. The fifth line introduces us to the female character of Hero and the sixth line tells of how Apollo had courted Hero for her hair which is “Marlowe’s own mythological invention, possibly suggested by the glorious locks attributed to Apollo” (Maclure 5).The narrator then describes the exterior attributes of Hero in a rather parodic style:The outside of her garments were of lawn,The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;Her wide sleeves green, and border’d with a grove,Where Venus in her naked glory stroveTo please the careless and disdainful eyesOf proud Adonis that before her lies.Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.Upon her head she ware a myrtle wreath,From whence her veil reach’d to the ground beneath.Her veil was artificial flowers and leaves,Whose workmanship both man and beast deceives. (I, lines 9-20).This description of Hero’s clothing informs the reader that her white dress has green sleeves lined with purple silk and golden stars and is embroidered with mythological scenes; her blue skirt is spotted with red and all is covered with a veil interlaced with fashioned flowers and leaves. This is a prime example of the poet/narrator’s voyeurism as if he was viewing Hero from the vantage point of Apollo’s “burning throne” where she sits while mankind gazes at her unattainable beauty.In particular passages of Hero and Leander, Marlowe bypasses many of the romantic ideals in pastoral literature which reflects his concern with power and its physical limitations. Logan states that this poetic detour “enables the reader to understand and appreciate the full artistic achievement of the poem and the freedom and power of the speaker” (284). This occurs in the following passage where Marlowe describes the physical attributes of Leander:. . . I could tell yeHow smooth his breast was, and how white his belly,And whose immortal fingers did imprintThat heavenly path with many a curious dint,That runs along his back, but my rude penCan hardly blazon forth the loves of men,Much less of powerful gods: let it sufficeThat my slack muse sings of Leander’s eyes,Those orient cheeks and lips, exceeding hisThat leapt into the water for a kissOf his own shadow, and despising many,Died ere he could enjoy the love of any. (I, lines 65-76).Steane refers to this description as “an epigrammatic reference to the Narcissus myth, a flippancy in a conducted tour of the glories that were Greece” (309). Yet who exactly is the teller of this passage? The narrator speaks several times in the first person which shows the “I” in the line “I could tell ye” which clearly is the conventional poet with the action reported from his point of view.As to the myth of Narcissus, the next passage seems to reflect the wonders of the poem with poetic qualities such as irony and metaphor:For every street like to a firmamentGlister’d with breathing stars, who where they wentFrighted the melancholy earth, which deem’dEternal heaven to burn, for so it seem’d,As if another Phaeton had gotThe guidance of the sun’s rich chariot.But far above the loveliest Hero shin’d,And stole away th’ enchanted gazer’s mind. (I, lines 97-104).A final example of Marlowe’s poetic/narrator voice occurs at the end of the discussion of Mercury, where “the narrator glances with apparent irrelevance at the plight of scholars” (Godshalk 311), through a closing prophecy:That Midas’ brood shall sit in Honour’s chair,To which the Muses’ sons are only heir:And fruitful wits that inaspiring areShall discontent run into regions far.And few great lords in virtuous deed shall joy,But be surpris’d with every garish toy,And still enrich the loftly servile clown,Who with encroaching guile keeps learning down. (I, lines 475-82).In this passage, the poet/narrator expresses his melancholy over the fact that individual power depends upon wealth instead of merit. Thus, “Marlowe… is more interested in… why scholars are poor, rejected, and unhonored” (Godshalk 308) than he is with explaining why Mercury is an allegory for learning.For the reader of Hero and Leander, another dilemma with the narrator and Marlowe the poet arises when we ask the reason for Marlowe’s desire to tell his tale through the eyes and voice of an unidentified narrator apart from himself. The initial reaction of an observant reader would be that the narrator is quite inappropriate for this poem. He seems to be a comic and his ineptitudes tend to distance us further from the action. As Maclure so elegantly notes, “the primary function of the narrator. . . is to give Marlowe a comic-like, burlesque handle on the story” (xxvi). It is also feasible that the function of this ineptitude is to hold a mirror up to our eyes and see the disfunctionality of the two lovers. Hero and Leander then represents Marlowe’s ultimate attempt at human comedy via a speaker who represents the poet’s own image of human nature.Sources CitedEllis-Fermor, U.M. Christopher Marlowe. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1967.Godshalk, W.L. “Hero and Leander: The Sense of an Ending.” A Poet and a Filthy Play-maker: New Essays on Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Kenneth Friedenreich, et al. NY: AMS Press, 1988.Knoll, Robert E. Christopher Marlowe. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1969.Levin, Harry. The Overreacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1952.Logan, Robert A. “Perspective in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander: Engaging Our Detachment.” A Poet and a Filthy Play-Maker: New Essays on Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Kenneth Friedenreich, et al. NY: AMS Press, 1988.Maclure, Millar, Ed. The Poems of Christopher Marlowe. London: Methuen, 1968.Steane, J.B. Marlowe: A Critical Study. Cambridge UP, 1964.

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