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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

§ 15. Creation of Blank Verse as a dramatic instrument

To Marlowe’s literary instinct rather than to his faculty as a playwright the Elizabethan drama was indebted for the further gift of blank verse. Though the development of the instrument in his hands is the outcome of an experience which, unlike Milton’s, was exclusively dramatic it is easy to note that the phases of change, the discoveries of new effects do not arise, as might be expected, from dramatic necessity. The plasticity of Marlowe’s line, which is its most remarkable characteristic, is the direct expression of his varying poetic mood, the ebb and flow of metaphor, the organ and pipe music of word and phrase. The differences are apparent when we pass from such lines as in the great apostrophe to Helen to these:

  • From Scythia to the oriental plage
  • Of India, where raging Lantchidol
  • Beats on the regions with his boisterous blows,
  • To Amazonia under Capricorn;
  • And thence as far as Archipelago,
  • All Afric is in arms with Tamburlaine;
  • and to these, in the first scene of The Jew of Malta:
  • The wealthy Moor, that in the eastern rocks
  • Without control can pick his riches up,
  • And in his house heap pearls like pebble-stones,
  • Receive them free, and sell them by the weight;
  • Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts,
  • Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds,
  • Beauteous rubies, sparkling diamonds,
  • And seld-seen costly stones of so great price,
  • As one of them indifferently rated,
  • And of a caret of this quantity,
  • May serve in peril of calamity
  • To ransom great kings from captivity;
  • and to these, from Edward II:
  • The griefs of private men are soon allay’d,
  • But not of kings. The forest deer, being struck,
  • Runs to an herb that closeth up the wounds;
  • But when the imperial lion’s flesh is gor’d,
  • He rends and tears it with his wrathful paw,
  • And, highly scorning that the lowly earth
  • Should drink his blood, mounts up to the air.
  • Such prosodic transitions do not show the intimate textual relationship to be found in Shakespeare’s plays. In Marlowe’s verse, each and all sort with a variety of mood which, in origin and expression, is epical, at times lyrical, rarely dramatic.

    It is scarcely possible, without giving much space to illustration, to measure the differences in technical accomplishment between Marlowe and the earlier practitioners in blank verse. It matters not whether we take Surrey’s rendering of the second and fourth Aeneid, which has the historical interest of being the first example of the naturalisation of the “straunge meter,” or Gorboduc, also historically interesting as the “first document” of dramatic blank verse in English: in these, it is hard to foresee the finding of a new prosodic instrument as in the experiments of Drant and his circle. Indeed, in both, there is only a violation of English sentiment; and nothing is given by way of compensation. In the confusion of accent and quantity, the life of the verse has gone out; the quantitative twitchings never suggest vitality; each line is cold and stiff, laid out with its neighbours, in the chance companionship of a poetic morgue. These conditions are not entirely wanting in Marlowe: we see them when we institute a close comparison with Shakespeare and Milton. Nevertheless, his blank verse is, for the first time in English, a living thing: often as full-veined and vigorous as anything in the later masterpieces. This verse (if it be described in general terms) discloses greater variety in the accentuation of the line, greater regularity in the use of equivalence in the foot, an occasional shaking of the caesura from its “classical” pose, the frequent employment of feminine endings even in exaggerated form, as

  • And Faustus hath bequeathed his soul to Lucifer;
  • or in the lines from The Jew of Malta, quoted on the previous page; above all, the breaking away from the pause and sense close at the end of each line. We have, in a word, the suggestion of that fluidity and movement which we find in the Miltonic verse paragraph. Marlowe achieves his line by the sheer rush of imagination, like a swollen river sweeping down on its dried-up channel, filling its broad banks and moving on majestically. It is accomplished by neither stage eloquence nor stage passion: its voice has the epical timbre, the os magna sonaturum. If there be anything in the hackneyed opinion that the poet weighted his lines with what has been called “bombast” and “rant” to make good the lost ballast of rime, it tends to a further confirmation of the belief that his technique was the outcome of an experience which was literary in origin and process.