Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 10. Poetic quality of his work

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VII. Marlowe and Kyd

§ 10. Poetic quality of his work

Since Marlowe’s day, when rivals burlesqued his style, opinion has been concerned chiefly with the extravagance of his art, with his bombast and transpontine habit and, incidentally, with the craft of his dramatic verse. The fault of this criticism is that it is inadequate, that it enlarges on the accidental at the expense of the essential, and obscures both Marlowe’s individual merit as a poet and his historical place in our literature. On the one hand, we make too much of the youthfulness of his muse, of his restless longing and “buccaneering”; and, on the other, of his transitional or preparatory character. He is treated as a forerunner, a predecessor, a document for the prosodist; rarely, and, as it were, by chance, is he held in our literary affection for his own sake. He does not stand out as Shakespeare or Jonson or Fletcher does from the rush of scholarly controversy: he is a “link,” a “signpost,” to the historian of the English drama.

What is fundamental and new in Marlowe and was indeed his true aid to his dramatic successors is his poetic quality—the gift of the “brave translunary things” of Drayton’s eulogy. If there be anything in the common statement that Shakespeare is indebted to him, it is less for his great pattern of dramatic verse or even for his transformation of the crude history play than for the example of a free imagination, compassing great things greatly. It is harder to think of Shakespeare’s profiting by direct study of Marlowe’s “experiments” in caesura and run-on lines than of his finding encouragement in the wealth of metaphor and in the energy of the new drama. In this poetic habit rather than in technical ingenuities are we to seek in such predecessors as Marlowe and Lyly for points of touch with Shakespeare. Let us, however, not exaggerate the borrowing: the kinship is of the age rather than of blood, the expression and re-expression of that artistic sense which marks off the literature of this period from all that had gone before. The interest of Marlowe’s work is that it is the first to show how the age had broken with tradition. If it unveil so much to us, it may have helped even Shakespeare to feel his own power and reach. This feeling or understanding, we may call, though too crudely, the “borrowing” from Marlowe.

A careful comparison of Marlowe’s style, whether in verse-translation or in tragedy, with what had preceded, will show the insufficiency of the judgment that it is “youthful” or “preliminary.” It is too full-bodied, too confirmed in its strength. It conveys the impression, even in those passages which have been tardily excused, of a vigour and richness of poetic experience far beyond what we find in the artist who is merely making his way or is toying with experiment. If Marlowe fail to achieve the highest, it is not because he is a little less than a true poet, or because he cannot temper the enthusiasm of adolescence, but because the self-imposed task of transforming the “jigging veins” of the national literature to statelier purpose was one of the hardest which genius could attempt. The familiar epithet “titanic,” in which criticism has sought to sum up the poet’s unmeasured aspirations, or J. A. Symonds’s hard-worn phrase “l’Amour de l’Impossible” may help us to express something of this imaginative vigour which was used in the transmutation of the old dross. Marlowe has the self-possession of the strong man; he is no imitator, no pupil of a theory, Senecan or other, which he would substitute for what he found. The inequalities in his art are the effect of this strength, rather than the signs of undeveloped power. To a genius richly endowed from the first, and placed in such circumstance, literary development of the kind familiar to us in the careers of more receptive artists was impossible. In his plays we pass suddenly from creditable verse to lines of astounding power, both of imagery and form; and we do so again and again. It is not our uncertainty of the chronology of his plays which prevents our placing them in a series of accomplishment, or doubt of his genius which makes us chary of joining in the wholesale condemnation of the interludes of clownage and extravagance preserved in the texts. There is no younger or more mature Marlowe as there is a younger or more mature Shakespeare; but while this is so, it is not because Marlowe’s years fall short of the time which brings the harvest to most men.