Critical Essays Style — Marlowe's Mighty Line


Before Marlowe, blank verse had not been the accepted verse form for drama. Many earlier plays had used rhymed verse; there are a few examples, such as Gorboduc, which had used blank verse, but the poetry in Gorboduc was stiff and formal. Marlowe was the first to free the drama from the stiff traditions and prove that blank verse was an effective and expressive vehicle for Elizabethan drama.

One of Marlowe's accomplishments was to capture in blank verse the music inherent in the English language. When Faustus sees Helen of Troy, he exclaims:

Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars!
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele.

Earlier blank verse had been metrically precise and regular which, in long passages, could become rhythmically boring. Marlowe alternated the regular stresses and created a more varied, sincere, and beautiful verse. Shakespeare was later to follow Marlowe's example and use the natural rhythm of blank verse.

Ofttimes, instead of using a rhyme, Marlowe uses other poetic techniques to give unity to a passage. As in the ending of the first two lines of the above passage, the assonance of "air" and "stars" imparts a controlled unity to the lines.

In one construction of his poetry, Marlowe did not end each line with a heavy and distinct pause. He often varied the caesuras within a line, and he also continued a thought from one line to another. Marlowe used the run-on line so as to give continuity to the poetry. For example, observe Faustus' opening speech.

Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou will profess.

Frequently, Marlowe will use geographical names and classical names merely for the resonant quality of the words themselves. In the following lines,

More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azured arms,

note the use of the repetition of the "a" sound and the "r" sound. The reference to Arethusa, who was embraced by Jupiter, also has a more specific relationship to Faustus' desire to embrace Helen of Troy. But basically, the name does carry heavy alliterative and resonant qualities. Throughout the drama, the student should be aware of the highly ornamental language that Marlowe uses. His speeches are rich in allusions to classical myths. The style, however, has a musical quality about it which appeals to the ear even when the listener does not know the exact nature of the allusions.

The combination of the above qualities influenced the trend of blank verse in Elizabethan drama and earned for Marlowe's verse the term "Marlowe's Mighty Line."

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