POETS Day! Kit Marlowe v Sir Walter Ralegh

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea, under the shade of some apple trees…he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…”
– Sir William Stukeley, 
Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life, 1752

And that is how Isaac Newton invented gravity. I had a similar revelation regarding POETS Day this morning. It wasn’t an apple that ushered in my Eureka moment. It wasn’t even a fruit. It was Spectrum, my internet provider, coincidently named after another of Newton’s inventions: the rainbow. Spectrum was at my house at the appointed time, and it was a specific time. They said they’d be there at twelve noon and there they were, practically shadowless. This is a freakish turn to those who are now, or may have earlier been, a customer of another national provider whose attempts to meet a four hour window for troubleshooting or repairing connectivity are aspirational at best. I won’t mention that particular company by name because I don’t want to attack them directly or bring any attention to them at all for that matter, but they definitely need to adopt a better attitude towards customer relations. Anyway, I realized that occasionally we should reach beyond the POETS Day mantra of Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Let’s skip the whole day and blame it on the internet company. You think poetry speaks to a shared humanity? Bring up tech support phone trees in a room full of strangers and witness communion. Tell your boss and co-workers that the cable people – that’s what I still call them because I’m an old – say they’re coming in the morning. Put on your doubtful face and say “They told me nine, but…” You’re out with just the one fib. No trespassing the delicate pieties of society. No trampling of norms. You’re free. Beer with lunch, flirting with strangers, naps, baseball. It’s all yours for the taking. Remember to read a little verse for edification.


Christopher “Kit” Marlowe set the Elizabethan theater world on fire by not rhyming. His disdain of “jygging vaines of riming mother wits” gave us the blank verse plays Tamburlaine the Great and The Tragical History of the Life of Doctor Faustus, most notable for the immortal-to-date line, “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships..?” When he was denied his masters from Cambridge in 1587 for gross absenteeism, Archbishop Whitgift, Lord Burghley, and Sir Christopher Hatton signed a letter on his behalf. It read:

“Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames and there to remaine, Their Lordships thought good to certefie that he had no such intent, but that in all his accions he had behaved him selfe orderlie and discreetlie wherebie he had done her Majestie good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithfull dealinge.”

That the three signees were all members of Queen Elizabeth’s privy council no doubt carried tremendous weight, but the heft of the letter is carried by the six letters probably – they sided with C.S. Lewis on orthograffi back then – not misspelling Reames, as Rhiems was the site of a Jesuit plot against the Queen that was foiled in 1586, the time of Marlowe’s absences, by undercover agents deployed by M’s Renaissance predecessor, Sir Francis Walsingham. Cambridge awarded him the degree.

Two years later Marlowe found himself in jail for murder. One of his friends that was with him on the night of the killing pled self-defense, so after two weeks in prison Kit found himself free again. For a time. His friend Thomas Kyd, on being caught with anti-Christian, pro-atheist materials, told authorities that he was “just holding them for a friend” and pointed the finger at Marlowe as the godless heathen the authorities wanted.

While that mess was being hashed out, Marlowe met with three men at a private home and spent the day eating and wandering the grounds. What happened at the end of the gathering is murky. Reportedly, a disagreement over the bill for the day’s food and drink ended with Marlowe drawing a dagger and injuring one of his companions before another wrested the weapon from him and stabbed him in the face, just over the right eye. Marlowe died immediately. His killer, Ingram Frizer, was granted a pardon and returned to the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham.

Sir Walter Ralegh was… well, he was Sir Walter Ralegh, explorer, soldier, courtier, scientist, poet, and historian. He fought the Spanish armada, suppressed rebellion in Ireland, explored the new world, founded the colony of Roanoke (not the best), and became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth.

Unfortunately, like Marlowe, he found trouble and fell out of favor with the queen by secretly marrying one of her ladies in waiting. As penance he went back to the new world hunting for gold. He didn’t find it, but he did return with potatoes and tobacco, in one swoop temporarily feeding the Irish and inventing peer pressure.

James I didn’t care for Ralegh who had a Thomas Kyd of his own. His friend Henry Brooke, Baron Cobham, signed a sworn confession to treason against the new king implicating Ralegh in the plot. James eventually pardoned Ralegh after twelve years in the Tower of London and sent him back to the new world on the condition that he make no attacks on the Spanish which men under his command did in violation of treaties. The Spanish demanded his execution and James acquiesced.

On October 29, 1618, Ralegh said one of several clever things attributed to him and was beheaded.

Pastorals were popular while Marlowe and Ralegh were at work. These are traditionally about love, loss, or a contest between shepherds in which country living is idealized and the landscape and animals tamed. The bucolic scenes were ruined for me as a young altar boy. One of the priests at my parish had a homily he would give every year about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The priest worked as a shepherd himself for a summer in Ireland and learned to hate the beasts. They were smelly, he said. Stupid and couldn’t be coaxed, bribed, or terrified into crossing even the smallest rill so he was forced to carry them one by one, accruing bites and cuts from the bugs and burrs stuck in their filthy fleece. I read these improbable scenes and though I enjoy the Eden like setting, I can’t help but giggle. I agree with Ezra Pound when he wrote “…and it’s rather better to be a clerk in the Post Office than to look after a lot of stinking, verminous sheep.”

Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is his best known poem and possibly the best known pastoral in English. It’s the example of the genre given in my copy of The Poetry Dictionary as it was the example given on several websites I visited. It’s six stanzas, iambic tetrameter, and has an aabb, ccdd, etc. rhyme scheme.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593)

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

It’s a fun poem. As I said, I sometimes giggle at these because of the clergy but I think Marlowe is being intentionally campy here. If not, you’re left wondering what a guy who can afford “buckles of the purist gold” is doing tending sheep and why he isn’t promising the renaissance equivalent of Hamilton tickets (Tamburlaine? Would he take her to Shakespeare?) instead of tended grass with nature running around on it. Also, someone should let him know that “There’s entertainment one month a year!” may not be the enticement he thinks.

I can’t tell if Ralegh thinks Marlowe is playing around with this poem and decides to join in the fun or if he thinks Marlowe is a naïve upstart rival who needs taking down a peg by a man of the world. I like to think it’s the latter, an early example of P.J. O’Rourke’s observation that “Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut.”

Here’s Ralegh shining a light on youthful infatuation when it’s confronted with the passage of time. He uses the same form as Marlowe. Note the words he rhymes at the end of the first two lines.

The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd
Sir Walter Ralegh (1552 – 1618)

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every Shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move,
To live with thee, and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb,
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and Ivy buds,
The Coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee, and be thy love.

Chiding or rebuking, I don’t think Ralegh writes his answer if Marlowe didn’t leave

That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

I’m assuming that the valleys, groves, etc. are spread about the region. He could have gotten away with

That Valleys, groves, hills afield,
Woods, or steepy mountains yield.

and kept both rhyme and verb/subject agreement. Instead he uses the singular verb on plural nouns and makes it worse by trying to hide his error by making mountain singular. Ralegh recreates the mistake in lines nine and ten of his own poem,

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,

as if to say, “I saw that.”

Fold/cold, dumb/come, gall/fall, and forgotten/rotten twist the knife.

I suspect the response is meant as a sneering rebuke rather than a kindly tease. Rather I should say that I really hope the response is either a sneering rebuke or a kindly tease. I’d hate to think that Ralegh saw Marlowe’s work and played with it because he was bored. Middle ground is never as much fun.

Whatever his intent, Ralegh altered perception of Marlowe’s poem. The bull statue on Wall Street was a tribute to enterprise until someone put a “fierce” girl across from it and made the bull an aggressor, even an oppressor. I’d be ticked if I were the bull sculptor, but it’s done. Marlowe wanted to write a silly little poem about getting the girl by making outlandish promises and rolling around in the grass for a spell. Ralegh made it about the foolish earnestness of youth.

We don’t have anything like this anymore: the famous dramatist/spy and the famous soldier/poet crossing swords, however tempered, over attitudes towards love. Who would be their modern counterparts? Vaclav Havel? No one else comes to mind.

One little addendum: Almost four hundred years later William Carlos Williams enters the fray. He doesn’t just take Ralegh’s side, he opens with a pun made famous by Marlowe’s more celebrated contemporary.

Raleigh was right
William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

We cannot go to the country
for the country will bring us
no peace
What can the small violets
tell us that grow on furry stems
in the long grass among
lance-shaped leaves?

Though you praise us
and call to mind the poets
who sung of our loveliness it was
long ago!
long ago!
when country people
would plow and sow with
flowering minds and pockets
at ease—if ever this were true.

Not now. Love itself a flower
with roots in a parched ground.
Empty pockets
make empty heads. Cure it
if you can but do not believe
that we can live today
in the country
for the country will bring us
no peace.

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