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Christopher Marlowe

Certain of Ovid's Elegies

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This website contains a new version of Christopher Marlowe’s Certain of Ovid’s Elegies, a wonderful, controversial, and perplexing collection of ten poems first published in the 1590s, edited and introduced here by Dr Adam Hansen (Northumbria University).

The site complements Dr Hansen’s new edition of the poems, published by the Corvus Works.

Each poem has accompanying notes, a commentary, and a recording by Northumbria students and members of the public (recorded with Blue Leaf Studios, and funded by an award from The Society for Renaissance Studies). 

Get in touch to let us know what you think!

Cover pageChristopher Marlowe

Certain of Ovid’s Elegies: An Introduction

Adam Hansen

Like our bodies and like our desires,

the machines we have devised are possessed

of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.


W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1998)


Would you burn this book? Early in June 1599, under the orders of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, the then just-published poems you now possess were burned, along with other more or less salacious or stylish works, in what has become known as the Bishops’ Ban.  Scholars still debate why this happened, and whether these poems by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) – which were not named in the order – were a specific target, or just collateral damage.  However we resolve those debates, the burning proves one thing: turning words into works was not (and never is) some easy, innocent pursuit, cut off from the world; the world has a way of making its presence felt in and on words, especially when those words depict desire and power.  Whether or not Marlowe’s works were a target, they are intensely aware of this intercoursing of word and world.  This is partly because the ten poems you are holding in your hand are not just Marlowe’s, and because, in Marlowe’s era, ‘Sex is not just sex’ (Toulalan, 273). They are someone’s (we do not know whose) edited, highlighted, remixed, showreel, abstracted version of Marlowe’s complete translation of a set of forty-eight poems in three books about desire and power, called Amores, by a writer who ‘profusely informs all of Marlowe’s work’ (Cheney 10): Ovid (43 BCE-17/18 CE).  Translation is at once a ‘linguistic and cultural’ act says Lawrence Venuti (3), hence inherently worldly.  Or as Kate Briggs puts it, translation is ‘Knowledge of the world as well as, always, and always in the form of, writing’ (45). Why did Marlowe translate these poems by that writer, then? In part because of who Ovid was and what he wrote.


Born to a well-off family just after Julius Caesar had been assassinated, Ovid chose poetry over a career in politics.  In the shadow of the imperial rule of Caesar Augustus, Ovid wrote remarkable works such as his first, Amores (meaning ‘loves’ or ‘love affairs’; a series of ‘elegies’ narrated by a self-aware lover in various states of cynicism, sarcasm and despair, often about a mistress called Corinna); Heroides (‘The Heroines’; verse letters from women to the men who had abandoned them); Ars Amatoria (‘The Art of Love’; an explicit guide to and commentary on lovemaking); and, most famously, the great and hugely influential (and intensely enjoyable) compendium of myths, Metamorphoses. Ovid was eventually exiled in 8 CE by Augustus for ‘carmen et error’ [a poem and a mistake]. To Marlowe’s generation, encountering him through works like Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae (1565), which discussed his exile, or Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses, Ovid provoked awe, admiration, imitation, and suspicion.  He was endowed with the prestige of being an author linked to European civilisation’s classical and Biblical past (‘He lyved at the time when Christ our sauiour was conuersaunt with vs here on earth’, says Cooper, N3).  But he was also seen as playful, erotic, explicit, (too) honest, cynical, and obsessed with representing and acknowledging mutability and multiplicity, especially when it came to representing gender and sexual relations in ways that could mean ‘yonge myndes might be styred to wantonnes’ (according to Cooper, N3).  Crucially, too, Ovid was not Virgil – author of the Aeneid, and laureate of empire.  To Patrick Cheney, this intensified his appeal to Marlowe, who was looking to establish himself as an alternative to poets like Edmund Spenser, ‘England’s living Virgil’ (71).  Why did Marlowe choose to translate these poems into English, though?  Perhaps because no-one else had, and perhaps because of what doing so said about Marlowe’s ambitions.

For a scholarship boy, from a humble Canterbury background, educated at Cambridge, and making his way in the Elizabethan world of words, these ambitions were prodigious. These poems may not be Marlowe’s earliest writings – Stapleton argues that ‘we have no evidence that the Elegies was an early work’ (27) – and this current rendering of them has tried not to make assumptions about echoes or anticipate influences.  That said, it is tantalising to imagine with Cheney that ‘Marlowe inaugurates his career by translating Ovid’s inaugural poem’ (10-11).  Wherever their place in terms of Marlowe’s career and his ambitions, making their content more widely available and democratising it ‘through the public space of the printed book market rather than through elite coterie circles’ (Moulton, 1998, 86) also ‘forged a bond between Ovid and Marlowe, who revived the Roman poet’s radical commitment to sexual licence and freedom of speech’ (Riggs 104). We might also suggest that translating Ovid takes him beyond the academy, just as vernacular bibles extended the theological and political franchise during the convulsions of the Reformation. Censoring literature is not far removed from burning scriptural translations and those who made them.

For all that licence (and risk), maybe Marlowe also felt his ambitions were equal to the challenge of working within strict formal constraints. Expressing ideas and arguments in rhyming couplets of pentameters meant every syllable and sound, and the contrasts and connections between them, had to count.  Those ideas and arguments, in elegies, traditionally revolved around loss: of love, lovers, and friends (especially other poets). Thinking about breaks in relationships requires or allows reflecting on bonds, too, not least across time.  Such reflection could, by Marlowe’s moment, result in ironic, critical contrasts, between past and present, and between people, as Georgia E. Brown notes: ‘An elegy was a poem of commemoration, but it was also a love lyric, and as such it had the potential to spill over into satire’ (113).  Formal constraints were no bar to intellectual transgression.


Perhaps this combination of stricture and satire, and intimacy and public-facing edge, is what caught Marlowe’s poems up in the Bishops’ Ban, but also what kept them timely and fascinating for their readers in their multiple editions. Versions of these ten poems (1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 3.13, 1.15, 1.13, 2.4, 2.10, 3.6, and 1.2) were first published – as Certain of Ovid’s Elegies – with Sir John Davies’ Epigrams at an unknown date (though ‘usually assigned to c.1594-5’ says Fredson Bowers, 2008, 309) ‘At Middleborough’.


Teesside readers should not get too excited: this is Middleburgh in what is now the Netherlands, near where Marlowe apparently spent time in ‘Flushing’, or Vlissingen, and such a designation was a common ruse to disguise the real place of publication, likely in London.  Another edition of the ten poems (with the same sequence and name, and with Davies’ Epigrams) followed, before the burning in 1599, published ‘At Middleborugh’.  Some point after 1602, and with yet another variant spelling of the nominal place of publication, the whole forty-eight poems appeared (published ‘At Middlebourgh’) as All Ovid’s Elegies, and three more editions followed based upon this one. 

In 1972, Fredson Bowers claimed the ten poems were ‘arranged in no perceptible order’ (151), but later scholars have not been so sure.  Stapleton asserts that ‘the editor of Certaine’ had ‘skilfully reordered…the English Amores’ into a ‘spare sequential narrative of an intricate series of soliloquies’, with their own ‘rhythm of arousal and response’ and an ‘ascending and descending pattern…of how not to act in love’ (38-41).  Comparably, Moulton identifies a ‘rough narrative…of effeminacy and sexual failure’ (81), which, we might add, also describes the waxing and waning powers of poetry.

As such descriptions suggest, the ten poems of Certain hold little back.  Nor do other poems in All Ovid’s Elegies: 2.15 fantasises about female masturbation; 1.7 expresses the speaker’s regret for physically assaulting his mistress; 1.14 describes the speaker’s mistress’ alopecia; 2.5 berates Corinna (the mistress) for her infidelity while 2.7-8 describe an affair with Corinna’s maid, Cypassis; and 2.13 responds to Corinna’s pregnancy, as 2.14 reacts (angrily) to her seeking an abortion.  Do not, therefore, read these poems in any format for heart-warming flights of lyrical fancy or moral consistency. Formally and intellectually, for all their intriguing brilliance these are clunky, gnarly, sardonic, and often unpleasant works.  Rhyme and rhythm are often strained, and arguments are conveyed in tones by turns hopelessly embroiled and carelessly detached, egotistical, contradictory and whining – indeed, a poem by ‘Ignoto’, inserted between Davies’ Epigrams and Marlowe’s poems in the earliest editions of Certain uses the early modern term for this to call elegies just that: ‘puling’.  In that sense, we might dwell on one word in their title: Certain.  M.L. Stapleton’s magisterial study of the Elegies and how they inform Marlowe’s aesthetic begins with an epigraph from John Florio’s First Fruits (1578) citing Ovid on love: ‘what fortune can defend me from Loue? I know not certaine’. In the face of the loves they describe and endure, these poems – and their subjects and speaker(s) – are anything but settled and sure, portraying dislocation more than fixity (and in this sense, remember, too, the variant spellings of the poems’ place of publication).  This mutability affects and is reflected in the poems’ form: couplets can try to order what seems disordered, yet they are also so readily, pleasingly prone to disorder, or shadowed by it, themselves.

printing press

None of this is a failing, though, but a necessary and vital performance of ambiguity, fluidity and flexibility, of the kinds Marlowe would have been rewarded for in his career as a commercial dramatist. At school and university, too, he had been taught to articulate controversiae and evince argumentum in utramque partem, that is, how to debate or defend different sides of a topic, question, or ‘disputes’, to cite the prologue to Doctor Faustus.  We’re used to perceiving these captivating, liberating qualities in Marlowe’s drama, and these poems offer comparable pleasures and provocations.  He had similarly been taught the value of imitatio, that is, copying other writers’ work, invariably from other languages.  Discussing linguistic and cultural hybridity in the early modern period, Steven Mullaney famously observed: ‘English itself began to study strange tongues. … The vernacular was not a fixed linguistic system so much as a linguistic crossroads, a field where many languages – foreign tongues, local dialects, Latin and Greek – intersected; …The voice of the Other, of the barbarous, sounded in the throat whenever the mother tongue was spoken; one’s own tongue was strange yet familiar’ (77–79).  We can therefore read these poems as Marlowe exploring the expressive possibilities of language, when what English could do in experimental conditions, with the catalysts of other tongues, was still uncertain. That is, Marlowe writes when much was in the process of being or becoming new when in contact with the old (and this sense of possibility is part of what makes Marlowe so brilliant and so open to remaking by us now).  According to the Concordance to his writing, Marlowe uses ‘new’ more times in All Ovid’s Elegies than in any other text (873-4).  The point of poetry, translated or otherwise, is to make the old new: ‘Behold, what gives the poet but new verses?’ (All Ovid’s Elegies, 1.8.57).

Ovid is a particularly energising figure with whom to do such work.  Golding’s 1567 translation of Metamorphoses begins: ‘Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreat’ (21).  That sense of mutability and plasticity, at once moral, sexual, somatic, linguistic, and existential, is present in Marlowe’s rendering of the Amores, too.  It matters, then, that Marlowe conducts his experiments in part in the form of elegy: experiencing loss enables both being and becoming.  Marlowe usually uses ‘being’ as a verb (as when having a ‘mistress’ or ‘favourite’ is described as ‘being fittest matter for a wanton wit’ in Elegy 1.1), but occasionally as a noun (as ‘virginity’ is termed ‘that which hath no being’, in Hero and Leander, 1.275; or when Venus says she ‘had’ her ‘being’ from the sea-god Oceanus’ ‘bubbling froth’, in Dido, Queen of Carthage, 1.1.129).  ‘Being’ was at once an action and a thing, suggesting that what is could be made to be something else.  In comparison, Marlowe also usually uses ‘to become’ as a verb to mean ‘to suit’ or ‘to fit’ (as in ‘red shame becomes white cheeks’, in Elegy 1.8), but occasionally to mean ‘to turn into’ (as in ‘May we become immortal like the gods’, Tamburlaine  Being and becoming, therefore, equate to and challenge propriety and identity alike.

Foregrounding mutability could be said to consolidate faith in established values.  When Sir Philip Sidney wrote in The Defence of Poesy that tragedy ‘teacheth the vncertaintie of this world, and vppon how weak foundations guilden roofes are builded’ (E4v), this was a warning to rulers, not a call to arms for their subjects.  Comparably, Stapleton suggests Marlowe drew on ‘the conservative authority’ of the classics to focus solely on ‘his ultimate success as a poet-playwright’ with ‘little interest in subversion’ (36).  Yet even if that were the case, we always have to remember that even simply recognising the potential for change (for becoming) can challenge what is (being), and that what someone means is not always what someone else understands.  In other words, whatever Marlowe intended (which we will never know), he was seen as having a significant interest in ‘poems that unabashedly trifle with decorum and orthodoxy’ (James, 103), not least, arguably, by those book-burning bishops, and the commentaries here explore this view.  As Cheney puts it: ‘Marlowe’s works are historically significant, not because they show the way out, but because they do not.  More accurately, they conceal the fact that they do not, for Marlowe superimposes onto his narratives of political oppression a second, hidden story: the (Ovidian) story of the poet’s assertion that, despite the oppression of kings, he is free through poetic immortality’ (25). Just as the notes and commentaries here try to keep previous scholars’ insights in play, so this version of these poems, as yet another form of reinterpretation, tries to help ensure a form of immortality – life ‘after death’ (1.15.40) – that Marlowe might affirm.



The primary aim of this endeavour was to share something as stimulating as it was beautiful.  In this regard, Chris Wakeling’s Corvus Press has done wonderful work.  Immense thanks are also due to David Walker, Monika Smialkowska, Paul Frazer, Hilary and Kelsey Thornton, and especially Georgia Dalton and Abby Smith, the two Northumbria University interns who worked on this project, for their insights, enthusiasm, and diligence.  They and the other readers did an amazing job on the recordings: gratitude and applause are due to Karolina Kubilaite, Chenyu Xiong, Emmanuel (Manny) Kabengele, Steven Stokoe, Kay Hepplewhite, Douglas Bailey, Stephen Sharkey, and Miles Gavaghan. As ever, my family were never far from my thoughts when undertaking this work, to whom it is dedicated with love.


Works Cited

Baines, Richard.  ‘A note Containing the opinion of on[e] Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion’ (1593), British Library, Harley MS 6848.

Bowers, Fredson. ed. The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Second Edition, 2 Vols. (Cambridge: CUP, 2008 edn.).

Bowers, Fredson. ‘The Early Editions of Marlowe’s “Ovid's Elegies”’, Studies in Bibliography, 25 (1972), 149-172.

Briggs, Kate. This Little Art (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017).

Brown, Georgia E. ‘Marlowe’s poems and classicism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe, ed. Patrick Cheney (Cambridge: CUP, 2009), 106-126.

Cheney, Patrick.  Marlowe’s Counterfeit Profession: Ovid, Spenser, Counter-Nationhood (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

Cooper, Thomas.  Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae (London: H. Wykes, 1565).

Derrida, Jacques. trans Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Of Grammatology (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976).

Dollimore, Jonathan. Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999).

Dollimore, Jonathan.  Desire: A Memoir (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

Drinkwater, Megan O. ‘The Woman’s Part: The Speaking Beloved in Roman Elegy’, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 63: 1 (May 2013), 329-338.

Fehrenbach, Robert J., Lea Ann Boone, and Mario A. Di Cesare.  A Concordance to the Plays, Poems, and Translations of Christopher Marlowe (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1984).

Freud, Sigmund.  ‘On Transience’ (1916), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Volume XIV (1914-1916), On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Vintage/Hogarth, 2001), 303-307.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘Of The Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’ (1912), in The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 7: On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and other works, ed. Angela Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), 243-60.

Garber, Marjorie. ‘“Infinite Riches in a Little Room”: Closure and Enclosure in Marlowe’, in Two Renaissance Mythmakers: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, ed. Alvin Kernan (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977), 3-21.

Golding, Arthur.  The Metamorphoses. ed.  W.H.D. Rouse. (1567; London: De La More Press, 1904).

Green, Peter. trans. and ed.  Ovid: The Erotic Poems (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1982).

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Hansen, Adam. ‘Writing, London, and the Bishops’ Ban of 1599’, The London Journal, 43: 2 (2018), 102-119.

Hopkins, Lisa. Christopher Marlowe: A Literary Life (London: Palgrave, 2000).

James, Heather.  ‘The Poet’s Toys: Christopher Marlowe and the Liberties of Erotic Elegy’, Modern Language Quarterly, 67:1 (March 2006), 103-27.

Judd, Alan.  A Fine Madness (London: Simon and Schuster, 2021).

Mann, Jenny C. ‘“Slack Muse”: All Ovid’s Elegies and an English Poetics of Softness’, Modern Philology, 113: 1 (2015), 49-65.

Marlowe, Christopher.  Complete Plays and Poems, ed. E.D. Pendry (London: J.M. Dent/Everyman, 1995 edn.).  Unless otherwise stated all references to Marlowe’s works are to this edition.

Marston, John. The Works of John Marston, ed. A.H. Bullen (London: 1887), 3 vols.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) (1857-58).  trans.  Martin Nicolaus (London: Allen Lane/New Left Review, 1973).

Moulton, Ian Frederick. ‘“Printed Abroad and Uncastrated”: Marlowe’s Elegies with Davies’ Epigrams’, in Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, ed. Paul Whitfield White (New York: AMS Press, 1998), 77-90.

Moulton, Ian Frederick.  Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England (Oxford: OUP, 2002).

Mullaney, Steven. The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).


Orgel, Stephen. ed. Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Poems and Translations (London: Penguin, 2007).

Riggs, David.  The World of Christopher Marlowe (London and New York: Faber and Faber, 2004).

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. eds. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2008).

Sidney, Sir Philip.  ‘Leave Me, O Love’, Certain Sonnets (c.1581; accessed 21/12/21):

Sidney, Sir Philip. The Defence of Poesy (London: William Ponsonby, 1595).

Stapleton, M.L. Marlowe’s Ovid: The Elegies in the Marlowe Canon (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

Toulalan, Sarah. Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: OUP, 2007).

Venuti, Lawrence. Contra Instrumentalism: A Translation Polemic (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

Webster, John. The Selected Plays of John Webster, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Cambridge: CUP, 1983).

Elegy 1.1


(read by Karolina Kubilaite, Georgia Dalton, and Chenyu Xiong)

Quemadmodum a Cupidine pro bellis amores scribere coactus sit


We which were Ovid’s five books now are three,

For these before the rest preferreth he;

If reading five thou plain’st of tediousness,

Two ta’en away, thy labour will be less.

With Muse upreared I meant to sing of arms

Choosing a subject fit for fierce alarms.

Both verses were alike till Love (men say)

Began to smile and took one foot away.

Rash boy, who gave thee power to change a line?

We are the Muses’ prophets, none of thine.                 10

What if thy mother take Diana’s bow?

Shall Dian fan when Love begins to glow?

In woody groves is’t meet that Ceres reign,

And quiver-bearing Dian till the plain?

Who’ll set the fair-tressed Sun in battle ray,

While Mars doth take the Aonian harp to play?

Great are thy kingdoms, over-strong and large,

Ambitious imp, why seek’st thou further charge?

Are all things thine? the Muses’ Tempe thine?

Then scarce can Phoebus say, ‘This harp is mine.’         20

When in this work’s first verse I trod aloft,

Love slacked my muse, and made my numbers soft.

I have no mistress nor no favourite,

Being fittest matter for a wanton wit.

Thus I complained, but Love unlocked his quiver,

Took out the shaft, ordained my heart to shiver,

And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,

Saying, ‘Poet, here’s a work beseeming thee.’

O woe is me! He never shoots but hits;

I burn, Love in my idle bosom sits.                     30

Let my first verse be six, my last five feet;

Farewell stern war, for blunter poets meet.

Elegian muse, that warblest amorous lays,

Girt my shine brow with sea-bank myrtle sprays.



Quemadmodum a Cupidine…: Cupid compelled him to write of love not war.

1-4 We which…less: Ovid’s Amores originally comprised five books, but a later edition had three.  This parallels the way Certain of Ovid’s Elegies, in turn, reduces or abstracts All Ovid’s Elegies.

3 plain’st: complains.

5 upreared; arms: prepared, raised up; weapons and war.  Marlowe uses the word ‘upreared’ infrequently: to describe actual arms in Elegy 2.5, or city walls in Dido, Queen of Carthage. 3.4.  Someone is planning battle, or defence.

7 Love: in this incarnation, the boyish god Cupid, termed ‘Rash’ (impetuous) a few lines later.

7-8 ‘Both verses…one foot away’: Latin epic poetry about wars and heroes by the likes of Virgil was written in dactylic hexameters (six lots of a long syllable followed by two short syllables, though there could be variation using spondees, or two long syllables), while love elegies, like Ovid’s here, traditionally offered a couplet composed of a hexameter and pentameter (five lots of metrical ‘feet’; so, one less ‘foot’).

10 the Muses’ prophets: poets serve the nine inspirational Greek goddesses of art and culture.

11 Diana: chaste and austere goddess of hunting and the moon.  If Cupid’s mother – Venus, goddess of desire and love – took Diana’s bow, this would upset the order of things as inappropriately as if Diana stirred up passion, or took over working the land from Ceres (the goddess of fertility, agriculture and grain) if she in turn started to go hunting in woods.  Ovid’s poem cites Minerva, goddess of wisdom, not Diana.

13 meet: appropriate, fitting.  As an adjective, this word occurs in the Elegies more frequently than in any other of Marlowe’s works.

15-16 Who’ll set…to play: More inappropriate behaviour. What happens if Mars, the god of war, starts playing with the harp of the Muses (who lived in Aonia), and blond-haired Apollo (also known as Phoebus), the sun god (and god of poetry), dresses himself for battle?

18 charge: power, authority, commitment (from the speaker).

19 Tempe: a beautiful valley in Thessaly (Greece), frequented by the Muses and Apollo.

21 I trod aloft: took my first steps writing poems, punning on the idea of metrical feet.

22 slacked: weakened, softened, or dissipated, physically, sexually, and otherwise.

22 numbers: lines of metrical verse, with a set amount of syllables in each.

24 wanton: debauched, immoral, sexually licentious.

26 ordained: ordered or (pre)determined with authority; people are ordained as priests (Marlowe wasn’t, but studied to be), so this could be suggesting that the desire provoked is holy, or blasphemous.

26 shiver: break apart.

28 beseeming: suiting, fitting, appropriate for.

29 He never shoots but hits: he never misses.

33 warblest amorous lays: sings songs of love sweetly and pleasantly.

34 Girt… sea-bank myrtle sprays: decorate or bedeck his shiny, gleaming, radiant head, with a plant associated with Venus, born from surf.  The reference to being crowned with myrtle also echoes – and deflates – praise of ‘Caesar’, Octavian, later the Emperor Augustus, in the first part of Virgil’s Georgics.  Ovid’s poem ends with a Muse crowned; here, to emphasise their power when it seems like they have none, the speaker is.

Elegy 1.1: Commentary

What does love do to you? Appropriately, for the first in a sequence of poems featuring inappropriate behaviour, this poem asks lots of questions about propriety, what is ‘ordained’, and the impropriety of how love turns the world upside down. The compulsively repetitive nature of the questioning signals what seems to be the speaker’s increasingly exasperated, desperate, incredulous state.  In their apparent inexperience, lacking a lover, they cannot believe this is what love does to you, and that they, and many others, can end up disfigured by desire: ‘I burn’. Poetry is deformed as well. Our speaker meant to write about ‘arms’ (the first word in both Ovid’s salacious Amores and Virgil’s epic Aeneid), not this hobbled nonsense lacking the right number of (metrical) feet, and betrays their concerns (and their era’s anxieties) about a shift from bellicose masculinity to slackness and softness. 

In Before Pornography, Ian Moulton notes that ‘sexual activity is seen as effeminizing in the period in part because women were perceived to be more sexually active and avid than men’ (74).  He notes elsewhere that ‘to take erotic possession of a woman was to weaken oneself as a man, spiritually through a moral surrender to effeminate pleasure and physically through the spending of valuable seed’ (Moulton, 1998, 79).  If a man wrote about sexual activity and desire, he increased the risk and spread of degenerate effeminacy. At the time, in The Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney sought to disarm these arguments by using an ironic array of images strikingly consistent in their ‘femininity’: ‘Now then goe we to the most important imputations laid to the poore Poets…that [poetry] is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires, with a Sirens sweetnesse, drawing the minde to the Serpents taile of sinfull fansies; … before Poets did soften us, we were full of courage given to martial exercises, the pillers of man-like libertie, and not lulled a sleepe in shadie idlenes…[Poetry] abuseth mens wit, training it to wanton sinfulnesse’ (F4v-G2r).  What Sidney says people say about poetry was particularly relevant to what people said about translated poetry, as weaker, inferior versions of authentic originals (as Eve was to Adam): ‘all translations are reputed femalls’, wrote John Florio, translating Michel de Montaigne’s Essays in 1603.  As M.L. Stapleton notes (9-12), a poem from the same year saw Ovid’s ‘Muse’ as ‘wanton’ while accepting his ‘life was chaste’, and Ovid himself was, in 1600, identified as ‘effeminate’, in an Oxford sermon (admittedly, whilst also being quoted as an ‘authority’ on Scripture). As translations of Ovid’s poems about desire, Marlowe’s Elegies could, then, from one perspective, be seen as the worst of the worst when it comes to threatening masculinity.

The apparently diminished persona in this poem is, therefore, passive, a victim, and innocent (morally and, at this stage, sexually).  This introduces a sense of powerlessness in response to representing and experiencing desire that recurs in these poems, what Patrick Cheney calls ‘a kind of pre-Freudian erotic determinism’ (43).  However, Cheney also notes that when the poem refers to Cupid as a ‘Rash boy’, ‘even Ovid would have understood that god to be the rash boy within’ (53).  Is it easier to say that desire is something existing outside or done to you and your words, against your will, or something that emanates from you?  The reality, argues Jonathan Dollimore in Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture, is somewhere between the two: ‘The truth of desire is…sought in terms of the deep self, yet it…is…radically social, an effect of social being’ (86).

In turn, this means expressions of desire occur within a social context too.  So what is said here about desire applies to poetry.  Saying you have no choice but to say goodbye to writing about ‘stern war’ because your muse has been ‘slacked’ by love is a great cover for cultivating what Hero and Leander would comparably call a ‘slack muse’ (1.72) in a ‘stern age’ (1.302), where censorship was very real (as the burning of these poems evinces).  But as Cheney notes, of line 9: ‘Marlowe changes Ovid’s original verb for ‘give,’ ‘dedit,’ to ‘change’ itself…and he converts the generalized literary form, ‘carmina’ (song, poetry), into the synecdochic ‘line.’  Marlowe’s ‘change’ to the original self-consciously identifies his program of changing the lines he inhabits’ (53). In other words, Cupid doesn’t change things; he does.  And he has fun as he does: ‘blunter poets’ would not enjoy writing (with showily rattling alliteration) about ‘fittest matter for a wanton wit’.  The speaker even distances themselves from identifying Love as the cause of this (emphasised by the sequestering brackets): ‘(men say)’ this is what happened, suggests line 7.  The earliest versions of Certain of Ovid’s Elegies both have the line ‘I [not Love] slacked my muse’.  Why be coy about such power? Because assumed diffidence performs the kind of necessarily protective abdication of responsibility for his words that Marlowe would showcase in the prologues to the two parts of Tamburlaine, for example (where audiences are invited to ‘applaud his fortunes as you please’; and where those audiences’ acclaim has ‘made our poet pen his second part’). 

Even if Cupid did have such powers, why describe him like a Puckish sprite, as in line 18?  Aside from the potential immorality this devilish infant might provoke, Marlowe’s only other use of the word ‘imp’ in his work offers a hint.  In Dido, Queen of Carthage, Marlowe’s take on Virgil’s epic of empire The Aeneid, Juno calls Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, an ‘ugly imp’ (3.2.4) because he is the offspring of yet another of her husband Jupiter’s adulterous liaisons (this time with Venus).  In that play, though, Cupid is impersonating Ascanius, so Juno is actually insulting him. Ascanius would eventually carry on his father’s predestined imperial ambitions in founding Rome.  But for Ascanius to be displaced by Cupid, even briefly, intimates how Marlowe’s turn from Virgil’s virile heroics to Ovid’s suggestive eroticism realises an early and persistent interest in critiquing ‘the literary, political, religious, and sexual ideals of Queen Elizabeth’s nascent Empire’ (Cheney 15). Comparably, Moulton asks a question many did in Marlowe’s time: ‘if the prime of English manhood were effeminized, how could they defend the country against its foreign enemies?’ (1998, 80).  People were right to wonder.  As Marlowe echoes the ways in which Ovid begins and ends this poem mocking his Roman rival, and what he represented, so the imperial ambitions of ‘Great…kingdoms, over-strong and large’ – Aeneas’, or Elizabeth’s – are upended, embodied, and abbreviated in the shape of an ‘ambitious imp’.


Elegy 1.3


(read by Emmanuel (Manny) Kabengele)

Ad amicam


I ask but right: let her that caught me late

Either love, or cause that I may never hate.

I ask too much: would she but let me love her;

Love knows with such like prayers I daily move her.

Accept him that will serve thee all his youth,

Accept him that will love with spotless truth.

If lofty titles cannot make me thine

That am descended but of knightly line

(Soon may you plough the little lands I have;

I gladly grant my parents given to save),                      10

Apollo, Bacchus and the Muses may,

And Cupid, who hath marked me for thy prey,

My spotless life, which but to gods gives place,

Naked simplicity, and modest grace.

I love but one, and her I love change never,

If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The years that fatal destiny shall give

I’ll live with thee, and die, or thou shalt grieve.

Be thou the happy subject of my books,

That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.               20

By verses horned Io got her name,

And she to whom in shape of swan Jove came,

And she that on a feigned bull swam to land,

Gripping his false horns with her virgin hand.

So likewise we will through the world be rung,

And with my name shall thine be always sung.




Ad amicam: To his mistress.

1 I ask but right: I’m only asking for what I deserve, or what is appropriate to request.

1 late: lately, recently.

3 would she but: if she would only.

6 spotless: pure, without corruption, taint or blemish.  Marlowe uses this word only four times in his work, twice in this poem (see line 13, too), and twice in Hero and Leander, as when Leander promises a similarly honest expression as the speaker professing ‘Naked simplicity’ here: ‘My words shall be as spotless as my youth, / Full of simplicity and naked truth’ (1. 207-8).  Spotless, though, works in the negative – something is pure and without corruption only by contrast with what is impure or potentially corrupt.  This meaning recurs in Hero and Leander’s other usage, when Hero, trying to resist such advances, ‘Vowed spotless chastity, but all in vain’ (1.368).  So spotlessness never escapes its opposite: degeneracy, and the kind of ‘infamy’ that ‘spots’ Edward II’s ‘nuptial bed’ (5.1), as he and his wife conduct relations with other people. 

7: lofty titles: high, even aristocratic, status.

8: knightly line: in Marlowe’s period, just a ‘sir’, not a lord or higher.

10: I gladly…: the speaker’s parents were prudent and frugal.

11: Apollo, Bacchus, Muses: We have already met Apollo and the nine Muses, as icons of poetry and art; Bacchus is the god of wine, good times, theatre and poetry.

16: If men have faith: a big ‘if’ during the Reformation; and if men don’t, does this mean the speaker can play around, forsaking the monogamy they have just sworn?

21 Io: Jupiter fell in love with Io but had to turn her into a cow to protect her from his angry wife, Juno.  The speaker suggests we remember this, and her, because of poems about her.

22 she: Leda.  Violated by Jove/Jupiter/Zeus while he was metamorphosed into a swan, Leda conceives Helen (of Troy fame), and also gives birth to Clytemnestra, women caught up in and on different sides of the wars their menfolk conduct. 

23 she: Europa. In this case, Jupiter is the one who transforms – into a bull – to carry off this Phoenician princess.

24 false horns: ‘Marlowe translates “cornua falsa”; modern texts read “vara” (bent)’ (Orgel).

Elegy 1.3: Commentary

What can’t poetry, and lovers, do? The lover newly-minted in 1.1. appears devoted, pure, and honest here, as the repetition of ‘spotless’ suggests.  Humble in status and naïve they may be in the arts of love, as a ‘prey’ who has been ‘caught’; they are equally, though, convinced in the end of the seemingly eternal power of the art they use to convey and preserve themselves and their desire: poetry.  In the previous poem Cupid could alter poetry, and he still holds sway here.  Yet the power of poems, and poets, registers in the images of poetry’s other presiding deities, in the final couplet. This power materializes in the order and structure of some of the lines, as with the lock-step repetitions of lines 5 and 6, for example. However, given this faith in poetry, in these adorned lines ‘Naked simplicity’ is anything but, and modesty rings false.  The speaker is caught between demanding their due and pleading for acceptance, between knowing their place and wanting more, between confessing what they ‘crave’ (not ‘ask’) and even threatening they ‘may [not never] hate’ (in the ‘Middleborugh’ version of lines 2 and 3). 

Ambivalence takes other forms, too. The idea of a ‘mistress’ signals both subjection (to her power) and transgression (of marital norms), yet the speaker also seems to express ‘a romantic reverence for fidelity that borders on the marital’ (Stapleton, 118) in lines 17-18.  The lovers’ names may endure, but we are not told what they are; indeed, the last line prioritises ‘my name’ over ‘thine’.  Lines 15 and 16 seem to denote unwavering devotion (as in a courtly love poem), but the object of that devotion is more or less personal and particular, shifting from ‘one’ to ‘her’ then ‘thee’.  The examples of affairs which conclude the poem are unsettling: the speaker may be casting himself as a divine lover, but who wants to be known as violated and bestial? In Edward II (1.4.), Mortimer Senior also alludes to the myth of Jove and Europa (referenced here at line 23) when talking about the King and the ‘peasant’ Gaveston, but cites a phrase from Book 2 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to say their bond is improper (in terms of transgressing hierarchy, if not transgressive sexuality): ‘Quam male conveniunt!’ [‘How ill-suited they are’; trans. Pendry].  Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s ‘bent’ to become ‘false’ in line 24 might be an error, but, in amongst the nods to phallic potency and cuckoldry, it also implies how hollow (but resonant and ringing) words’ echoes can be. 

Certainly, Marlowe revisits these ideas.  The phrase ‘I’ll live with thee’ (line 18), the feminine rhyme (ending on an unstressed syllable) of ‘love her / move her’, and the sense of a possession not yet attained (with the use, near the end of ‘will’ and ‘shall’), gesture to his most celebrated poem, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’, another work that contains complexity and conflict within apparent harmony.  In that poem too, as with line 16 here, Marlowe made an art of ‘if’ and the restlessness and conditionality it signals: ‘If these delights thy mind may move’.  Powerfully deployed elsewhere it called into question authorities political (‘If I be England’s king’, Edward II 3.2.135), and religious (‘if any god’, Tamburlaine When the Nurse so poignantly invokes ‘sacred love’ in Dido, she makes the location of such love conditional on being here: ‘If there be any heaven in earth, ’tis love’ (4.5.26-7).  Growing up in a Canterbury haunted by the martyrs of England’s Reformation and by the continent’s religious refugees, and sponsored at Cambridge to become a preacher, Marlowe would have seen and known that despite scepticism, ‘men’ in his age had ‘faith’, a grotesque and tragic overabundance of it, in fact (much good it did them). If he served as a spy, he would also have known how faith could be faked, or fatal.  Indeed, making one’s love of whatever kind conditional on whether men had faith or not is a way to escape devotions once professed.


Elegy 1.5


(read by Abby Smith)

Corinnae concubitus


In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,

To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;

One window shut, the other open stood,

Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,

Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,

Or night being past, and yet not day begun.

Such light to shamefast maidens must be shown,

Where they may sport and seem to be unknown.

Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,

Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,            10

Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed,

Or Lais of a thousand lovers sped.

I snatched her gown; being thin, the harm was small,

Yet strived she to be covered therewithal,

And striving thus as one that would be cast,

Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.

Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,

Not one wen in her body could I spy.

What arms and shoulders did I touch and see,

How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!           20

How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,

How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!

To leave the rest, all liked me passing well;

I clinged her naked body, down she fell.

Judge you the rest: being tired she bade me kiss;

Jove send me more such afternoons as this.


Corinnae concubitus: In bed with Corinna.

7 shamefast: shy, coy.

8 sport; seem to be unknown: play or have fun (and sex); be concealed or anonymous.  The dim light makes it easier for bashful women to fulfil their desires by not being themselves (they can ‘seem’ to be someone else), and for men to join them.

9 Corinna: the first mention of these poems’ main (but not sole) object of desire.

11 Semiramis: a beautiful Assyrian queen. 

12 Lais: a famous Greek courtesan, a sex-worker with rich clients.  The ‘Middleborugh’ text has the more graphic ‘spread’ instead of ‘sped’, here meaning prospering.

14 strived: struggled.

15 would be cast: she desires to be thrown (cast) down, and defeated, or is about to be (and what she actually desires is obscured).

18 wen: spot, mark, blemish.  She is deemed, to use the terms of 1.3, spotless.

24 clinged: clung to.  The ‘Middleborugh’ text has ‘fair white’ in place of ‘naked’.


Elegy 1.5: Commentary

Does this even happen? This poem seems to represent a longed-for moment of consummation, and the speaker savours it, as we can hear, for example, in the repeated, lip-smacking plosives of line 20, or the earthily alliterative ‘l’ in 22.  But that question, once asked by a student of mine, is valid.  For, despite the poem evoking something so physical, and someone so particular (the object of desire finally has a name), much seems indistinct.  In Ovid’s poem, Corinna does the seducing, but if the speaker here becomes the pursuer, does that make him her, or more masculine? We might also ask: when and where are we (and they) here, in this woozy, liminal state?  Dawn or dusk? Inside or outside? Sleeping or awake (or dreaming)? The poem’s structure seems to emphasise this blurring: at 26 lines, this is not quite two (14-line) sonnets, or, put differently, is two overlapping sonnets, with the mingling coming as Corinna’s ‘thin’ gown is ‘snatched’ and she is uncovered, willingly or otherwise. 

The woozy liminality cannot obscure the most important question of all: does the woman want this to happen or not?  Or does the speaker want them to ‘strive’ and enjoys the struggle as they do?  Like the speaker of John Donne’s ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’, issuing imperative orders, do they imply they know what the woman wants better than the woman herself? Ovid’s Ars Amatoria seems to suggest so: ‘It’s all right to use force – force of that sort goes down well with / The girls’ (1.673-4, trans. Green). The ‘striving’ and yielding of this moment also finds parallel in Hero and Leander (2.289-94), in one of the most remarkable passages in Marlowe’s body of work, for the ways it commingles the intimate and the cosmic, the personal and the political:

Even as a bird, which in our hands we wring

Forth plungeth, and oft flutters with her wing,

She trembling strove; this strife of hers (like that

Which made the world) another world begat

Of unknown joy.  Treason was in her thought,

And cunningly to yield herself she sought.

Perhaps what Richard Baines said about Marlowe in 1593 was right: he is advocating a ‘new Religion’, or rewriting the old one.  For Marlowe here, sexuality can – presumptuously, blasphemously – conceive ‘another world’.  But at what cost? Documenting pleasure records brutality.  Anticipating Walter Benjamin’s Theses on The Philosophy of History (1940), new worlds, sexual, ideological, theological and colonial, manifest exploitation and barbarism as civility.

If and when Corinna ‘fell’, it is meant as a moral and social descent, from aloof queen to hard-working courtesan, from decency to self-betrayal of the kind we also hear in Dido’s ‘doubtful speech’ (3.4) confessing (and repressing) her desire for Aeneas, and in the words Hero lets slip (‘Come thither’, 1.358-68).  She has more to lose: who is the male lover, then, to say ‘the harm is small’?  His self-absorption excludes her pleasure – all that matters is ‘all liked me’.  We can actually hear this solipsism in the repeated ‘I’ sounds of lines 17-22: ‘mine eye’, ‘I spy’, ‘I…see’, ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘thigh’. Yet for all it depicts an apparently self-regarding, self-pleasuring, position, the poem is also concerned to implicate and stimulate us, as readers, imperatively inviting us to fill in the blanks: ‘Judge you the rest’.  As Sarah Toulalan puts it: ‘The peculiar and distinctive quality of pornography as a type of representation is that it is not only a "thing": it is also thought to do incite action’ (3-5).  I have observed elsewhere (2018) that many of the texts burned with these Elegies by the bishops were very good at engaging their audiences – and that, perhaps, is why they were burned. In his 1598 Pygmalion, another work about a fabricated, fantastical female, John Marston anticipates how his narrative will entrap any voyeur in the scene he sets up for his (male) reader:  

Let him conceit but what himself would do 

When that he had obtained such a favour... 

Could he abstain midst such a wanton sporting, 

From doing that which is not fit reporting?  ... 

Who knows not what ensues? (Complete Works, 259-60)

Comparably, if this particular Elegy is a fantasy, it is about power as much as sex, including the power to excite others so they, too, cannot ‘abstain’. 

Elegia 3.13


(read by Steven Stokoe)

Ad amicam, si peccatura est, ut occulte peccet


Seeing thou art fair, I bar not thy false playing,

But let not me, poor soul, know of thy straying.

Nor do I give thee counsel to live chaste,

But that thou wouldst dissemble, when ’tis past.

She hath not trod awry that doth deny it;

Such as confess have lost their good names by it.

What madness is’t to tell night pranks by day,

Or hidden secrets openly to bewray?

The strumpet with the stranger will not do

Before the room be clear, and door put to.                  10

Will you make a shipwrack of your honest name,

And let the world be witness of the same?

Be more advised, walk as a puritan,

And I shall think you chaste, do what you can.

Slip still, only deny it when ’tis done,

And before folk immodest speeches shun.

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet;

There use all tricks, and tread shame under feet.

When you are up and dressed, be sage and grave,

And in the bed hide all the faults you have.                 20

Be not ashamed to strip you, being there,

And mingle thighs, yours ever mine to bear.

There in your rosy lips my tongue entomb,

Practise a thousand sports when there you come.

Forbear no wanton words you there would speak,

And with your pastime let the bedstead creak.

But with your robes put on an honest face,

And blush, and seem as you were full of grace.

Deceive all; let me err, and think I am right,

And like a wittol think thee void of sleight.                   30

Why see I lines so oft received and given?

This bed and that by tumbling made uneven?

Like one start up, your hair tossed and displaced,

And with a wanton’s tooth your neck new-raced?

Grant this, that what you do I may not see;

If you weigh not ill speeches, yet weigh me.

My soul fleets when I think what you have done,

And thorough every vein doth cold blood run.

Then thee whom I must love I hate in vain,

And would be dead, but dead with thee remain.          40

I’ll not sift much, but hold thee soon excused,

Say but thou wert injuriously accused.

Though while the deed be doing you be took,

And I see when you ope the two-leaved book,

Swear I was blind, deny, if you be wise,

And I will trust your words more than mine eyes.

From him that yields, the palm is quickly got,

Teach but your tongue to say, ‘I did it not’,

And being justified by two words, think

The cause acquits you not, but I that wink.                   50




Ad amicam…: To his mistress, that if she sins she sins in secret.

This poem is numbered 3.14 in Ovid’s Amores.

1 Seeing…playing: Because you’re beautiful, I know it is pointless to try to stop you having sex with men other than me.

3-4 Nor do…past: I will not try and convince you to be faithful, but I will try and convince you to pretend you haven’t been doing what I know you have been doing.

5-6 She hath…by it: You’re only guilty if you confess (or get caught).

8 bewray: reveal.

13 Be more advised: take my advice.

13 puritan: specifically, a form of extreme Protestant, but more generally someone who looks devout, chaste and decent. As any number of early modern plays will tell you, though, the period’s Puritans were seen by many as anything but.

15 Slip still: Be unfaithful all the same.

17 toyings: (sexual) games.

17 meet: appropriate.

19 sage and grave: wise and serious.

24 come: arrive, and orgasm.

25 Forbear no wanton words: Don’t hold back from dirty talk.

26 pastime: pleasurable leisure activity.

29 err: be mistaken.

30 wittol: idiot and cuckold.

31-34 Why…new-raced?: Why do I see you exchanging notes with other lovers, and sporting love-bites?

36 If you…weigh me: Even if you don’t value my angry words, or what others say about you, value me.

37 fleets: flees, escapes, slips away.

41 sift: question or investigate.

42 Say…accused: I’ll say you were falsely accused.

44 And…book: And I see when you open yourself to another man.

47 From him…is got: It is easy to defeat someone who gives up easily.

49 two words: ‘non feci’ in Latin (I did it not).

50 The cause…wink: Your actions are inexcusable, but I can excuse them by turning a blind eye.


Elegy 3.13: Commentary

As one of the poems in All Ovid’s Elegies puts it: ‘what do not lovers see?’ (2.5.19). But when enduring the kind of love described here, you must keep your eyes wide shut.  With its five uses of ‘think’, and the resonant ‘know’ (preluded in line 2 by the assonance of ‘soul’), the poem anticipates the verbal echoes concerning thinking and knowing about infidelity in Othello 3.3., and Othello’s obsession there with ‘ocular proof’. Just as Othello asks Iago to help him ‘see’ what he does and does not want to see, so the speaker here creates the very images he cannot countenance: ‘in the bed hide all the faults you have’.  This could be read as liberally licensing a woman’s sexuality; she should not feel guilty for taking her pleasures.  When the poem says ‘do what you can’ the rhyme precludes saying ‘do what you will’, though that may be implied; by extension, however, the poem implies that this woman doing what she wills is a given and the real challenge is doing what she can get away with.  Line 43’s almost proverbial phrase ‘while the deed be doing you be took’ is a caution that anticipates she will be transported in sexual pleasure away from him, a pleasure that may debilitate decision-making.  He forgives her for she knows not what (or who) she ‘be doing’. 

But as what confidence pertained in 1.5 dissolves here, the speaker shifts between denial and acceptance, judgement, prosecution and defence, registered in the legal language (like ‘acquits’).  The speaker wants dominance and exclusivity – ‘yours ever mine to bear’ – yet knows it is an impossibility. They are also a director, offering notes on performance: they realise what goes on, but simply want it to be done – and hidden – better, the better to allow them to suspend (dis)belief.  Yet the series of imperative verbs and commands they offer are all the more desperate because they know they will not be followed.  Why would they be?  The speaker may say that it ‘will not do’ for strumpets or those designated loose women to be (and ‘do’) with strangers until the ‘door’ is closed, but they themselves have often violated private spaces; it is vain for them to claim or hope that what goes on in such rooms stays there, as the very fact that they can imagine what goes on proves. For all the profession of pain, indeed, maybe there is pleasure in that imagining: 'In a society in which there was...very little privacy...pornography offers the illusion of a private sexual world that we are not meant to see' (Toulalan, Imagining Sex, 162). 

It is vain, also, to imagine that the speaker’s perspicacity means it is possible to ‘Deceive all’ and not themselves too.  They recommend precisely what they cannot stomach. The pain of thinking on and sustaining these paradoxes is deeply felt: ‘My soul fleets’.  Yet, in another paradox, playing on the idea of ‘soul’ as semen, is there still more imaginative pleasure in that pain?  Certainly, the poem puns on ‘dead’: the speaker wants to die from despair, but also to continue to ‘die’, or orgasm, with a lover.  Little wonder the speaker tries to take back control.  Just as Donne’s persona in ‘The Sun Rising’ fantasises they can eclipse and cloud the light, so here we are meant to believe this ‘I’ can decide to overlook ‘your’ crimes, or that the attempt to regulate behaviour will work.  She does not need permission, and that is precisely why the speaker is compelled to give it.


Elegy 1.15


(read by Kay Hepplewhite)

Ad invidos, quod fama poetarum sit perennis


Envy, why carpest thou my time is spent so ill,

And terms our works fruits of an idle quill?

Or that unlike the line from whence I sprung,

War’s dusty honours are refused, being young?

Nor that I study not the brawling laws,

Nor set my voice to sale in every cause?

Thy scope is mortal, mine eternal fame,

That all the world may ever chant my name.

Homer shall live while Tenedos stands and Ide,

Or into sea swift Simois doth slide.                              10

Ascraeus lives while grapes with new wine swell,

Or men with crooked sickles corn down fell.

The world shall of Callimachus ever speak;

His art excelled, although his wit was weak.

For ever lasts high Sophocles’ proud vein,

With sun and moon Aratus shall remain.

While bondmen cheat, fathers be hard, bawds whorish,

And strumpets flatter, shall Menander flourish.

Rude Ennius, and Plautus full of wit,

Are both in fame’s eternal legend writ.              20

What age of Varro’s name shall not be told,

And Jason’s Argos and the fleece of gold?

Lofty Lucretius shall live that hour

That nature shall dissolve this earthly bower.

Aeneas’ war, and Tityrus shall be read,

While Rome of all the conquered world is head.

Till Cupid’s bow and fiery shafts be broken,

Thy verses, sweet Tibullus, shall be spoken.

And Gallus shall be known from east to west;

So shall Lycoris whom he loved best.                           30

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,

Verse is immortal, and shall ne’er decay.

Let kings give place to verse and kingly shows,

And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.

Let base-conceited wits admire vilde things,

Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

About my head be quivering myrtle wound,

And in sad lovers’ heads let me be found.

The living not the dead can envy bite,

For after death all men receive their right.                    40

Then though death rakes my bones in funeral fire,

I’ll live, and as he pulls me down mount higher.




Ad invidos…: To the envious, saying that poets’ fame lasts forever.

1 carpest: whinge, criticize.

1 ill: badly.

5 brawling: noisily argumentative.

9 Tenedos, Ide: locations associated with the Trojan war, and hence Homer’s Iliad.

10 Simois: a river near Troy.

11 Ascraeus: the Ancient Greek Hesiod, born in Ascra, author of the Theogony, an account of the beginnings of the cosmos and its gods.

13 Callimachus: writer of elegies from Alexandria; lines 13 and 14 are not in the two earliest printed versions of the poems.

15 Sophocles: Ancient Greek author of tragedies.

16 Aratus: Ancient Greek astronomer and poet.

18 Menander: Ancient Greek dramatist.

19 Ennius: Latin author of epic poetry.

19 Plautus: Latin playwright.

21 Varro: Latin poet.

21 age: period, generation.

22 Jason: of Argonauts fame.

23 Lucretius: Latin poet and philosopher, author of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things).

23 shall live that hour: shall survive until.

25 Aeneas’ war: described by Virgil in the Aeneid.

25 Tityrus: what Virgil calls himself in his Eclogues.

28 Tibullus: Latin love poet.

29 Gallus: also a Latin love poet.

30 Lycoris: the object of Gallus’ attentions in his love poetry.

34 And banks…: The Tagus was a river in Spain and Portugal, reputed by Latin poets to have golden banks and bed.

35 base-conceited wits: low-minded, simple idiots.

35 vilde: vile, horrible.

37 myrtle: associated with Venus, as we saw in 1.1.


Elegy 1.15: Commentary

By now, we’ve heard all about Cupid’s powers, but what about poetry’s?  Though the ‘Middlebourgh’ version of Ouid's elegies three bookes says it is ‘thy [the mistress’] name’ that will be chanted forever (in line 8), this poem isn’t bothered with ensuring the lovers’ shared ‘eternal fame’, but poets’, including the speaker’s (hence most versions say ‘my name’). So following 3.13’s account of the green-eyed monster in love, 1.15 transmutes concerns about envy into a discussion of poetry itself. And coming in the middle of the sequence of ten poems, this Elegy defensively recollects what the speaker rejected at the sequence’s start. Self-justification vies with self-confidence, then, as they question why anyone would question why they have turned from war, law, commerce and politics (hawking their ‘voice’ for ‘every cause’). 

For a voice in such a poem to say of itself that it is ‘unlike the line from whence I sprung’ is powerfully ironic: both Marlowe and Ovid deviated from the vocations prescribed by their upbringing (their social and biological ‘line’), and as a translation of Ovid, Marlowe’s line is and is not like its source.  Indeed, other writers become a kind of family as the speaker’s ‘line’, and many are listed here.  Yet if this is a poem about the way poetry can create connections across time and survive change when other things – flint, iron, kings – cannot, it is also perhaps ironic that in the ‘Middleborugh’ text of Certain of Ovid’s Elegies, this poem is mistakenly numbered as 2.15, does not include lines 13 and 14 given here, and omits ‘ne’er’ in line 32, to read ‘Verse is immortal, and shall decay’ [my emphasis]: this last example of textual corruption may seem like a paradox, or simply a suggestive printing error, but it does undercut the claims made by the poem itself about enduring mutability. The ‘Middleborugh’ text also flips the order of line 33 (‘To verse let kings give place, and kingly shows’) to read ‘Let kings give place to verse and kingly shows’.  The meaning is the same, but the priority is reversed. More significant, perhaps, is that use there of ‘Let’, one of three in the poem.  It is unclear who is being asked to permit what the speaker requests, or whether they will. Equally, who or what determines – or lets – a poet and their work live on? The Elegy affirms that satirists’ works will be read (and made) as long as there are people to be satirised, that pastoral poetry abides as long as men cut corn, and that as long as people love, they will read Tibullus.  If the social and moral conditions that made and inspired poets, and to which they responded, persist, so may the poets.  But if surviving is contingent on context then what happens if conditions change?  In the 1850s, Marx would grapple with this conundrum, when trying to understand how we still enjoy art long after the contexts in which it was initially produced and consumed have disappeared: is Achilles [in Homer’s Iliad] possible with powder and lead [ie. nineteenth-century methods of war, as distinct from Homeric weapons]? ... But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development.  The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure’ (43-44).  So for all the bravado, the poem hints at poetry’s built-in obsolescence as much as it trumpets its durability.  As far as Ovid knew, Rome would indeed long be ‘head’ of ‘all the conquered world’.  For Marlowe translating the poem, though, despite its culture and values entering other societies’ bloodstreams through the model of translatio imperii, the Roman empire is long gone, even if, under the Protestant Elizabeth, the power of ‘Rome’ (as in Catholicism) in England was still a threat.

The poem’s ambivalence about its own status is caught in its ending, and its threat or promise to ‘mount higher’.  Matters are not wholly resolved, and the concerns and claims of 1.15 necessarily recur in other poems in All Ovid’s Elegies. One notes ‘’Tis doubtful whether verse avail [benefit] or harm’ (3.11.13).  Another, 3.8, realises ‘Outrageous death profanes all holy things’, and ‘obscure darkness’ engulfs ‘all creatures’; however, ‘Verses alone are with continuance crowned’, therefore we should ‘Trust in good verse’ even when ‘sad flames’ consume it (and even as that emphatic imperative – ‘Trust’ – betrays uncertainty). 

That said, if mounting higher means projecting poetry more widely, then this may hint at the stage, and these poems do indeed serve as a testing ground for the skills needed there: ‘Marlowe’s rendering of the Amores into the Elegies…compelled him to learn an extremely important technique that he would need to master as a professional playwright in the London theaters: creating the illusion, in poetical form, of a human being speaking to others, and to himself or to an audience in soliloquy’ (Stapleton, 26).  Yet, as if anticipating the burnings of the Bishops’ Ban, poetry needs to ‘mount higher’ to counter the threat or promise of ‘funeral fire’.  Despite the very real challenge of dramatic censorship, there is self-assurance and faith in future fame – ‘I’ll live’ – and Marlowe would infuse his characters on-stage with this vitality too. Barabas falls from the ‘dainty gallery’ of his own staging above the audience of ‘worldlings’, to end up consumed in a hellish ‘extremity of heat’ (5.5.), but will haunt Malta and London even after death, revived by every performance, as our elegist is by every reader (and translator): ‘For while I live, here lives my soul’s hope, / And when I die, here shall my spirit walk’ (2.2.29-30). Heaven and hell might be fables but enduring on the stage was, because of the fantasies it evoked, a very real possibility.


Elegy 1.13


(read by Douglas Bailey)

Ad Auroram, ne properet


Now o’er the sea from her old love comes she

That draws the day from heaven’s cold axle-tree.

Aurora, whither slidest thou? Down again,

And birds for Memnon yearly shall be slain.

Now in her tender arms I sweetly bide,

If ever, now well lies she by my side.

The air is cold, and sleep is sweetest now,

And birds send forth shrill notes from every bough:

Whither runn’st thou, that men and women love not?

Hold in thy rosy horses that they move not.                 10

Ere thou rise, stars teach seamen where to sail,

But when thou comest, they of their courses fail.

Poor travellers, though tired, rise at thy sight,

And soldiers make them ready to the fight.

The painful hind by thee to field is sent,

Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.

Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them

To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

Thou mak’st the surety to the lawyer run,

That with one word hath nigh himself undone.            20

The lawyer and the client hate thy view,

Both whom thou raisest up to toil anew.

By thy means women of their rest are barred,

Thou set’st their labouring hands to spin and card.

All could I bear; but that the wench should rise

Who can endure, save him with whom none lies?

How oft wished I night would not give thee place,

Nor morning stars shun thy uprising face.

How oft that either wind would break thy coach,

Or steeds might fall, forced with thick clouds’ approach.         30

Whither goest thou, hateful nymph? Memnon the elf

Received his coal-black colour from thyself.

Say that thy love with Cephalus were not known,

Then thinkest thou thy loose life is not shown?

Would Tithon might but talk of thee awhile,

Not one in heaven should be more base and vile.

Thou leav’st his bed because he’s faint through age,

And early mount’st thy hateful carriage;

But held’st thou in thine arms some Cephalus,

Then would’st thou cry, ‘Stay night, and run not thus.’  40

Dost punish me, because years make him wane?

I did not bid thee wed an aged swain.

The moon sleeps with Endymion every day;

Thou art as fair as she, then kiss and play.

Jove, that thou shouldst not haste but wait his leisure,

Made two nights one to finish up his pleasure.

I chid no more; she blushed, and therefore heard me,

Yet lingered not the day, but morning scared me.




Ad Auroram, ne properet: To the dawn, not to rise.

1 her old love…she: Tithon, husband to ‘she’, meaning Aurora, the divine personification of the dawn.  She met him when he was young and handsome, and asked Jove to make him immortal.  He took her at her word and did so, whilst neglecting to keep him young forever.

2 heaven’s cold axle-tree: As Aurora brings day, the dawn rolls round to replace cold night like a chariot wheel on an axle.

3 whither; slidest: where; hurry.

4 Memnon: Aurora’s son; mythical king of Ethiopia; killed by Achilles at Troy, every year birds fight at his tomb.

9 that: so that.

10 rosy horses: these pull Aurora’s chariot.

11 Ere: Before.

14 them: themselves.

15 painful hind: in this instance, ‘hind’ means a peasant or farm-worker.  Up early and grafting hard they would be more pained than painful, though Marlowe tends not to portray rustics in a positive light.

16 slow oxen…: beasts of burden tasked with ploughing or carrying using a yoke on their necks.

17 coz’nest: rob or cheat.

18 pedants: teachers.

19 surety: someone servicing a debt.

20 one word: a word of guarantee in law.

25-6 All I could…lies?: I can handle the bustle and activity, but cannot stomach my lover getting up and going away; who could, except someone who doesn’t have one?

32 coal-black colour: Being King of Ethiopia, Memnon is actually black.  But Aurora, his mother, is metaphorically black, because of the perceived links in Ovid’s and Marlowe’s periods between blackness and envy.

33 Cephalus: handsome young Athenian abducted by Aurora.

40 Faustus quotes this line in the original Latin as he nears his end (5.2.143).

42 swain: country youth, or young lover (paradoxical as that sounds in the context of the line).

43 Endymion: a beautiful young man loved by the Moon (Aurora’s sister), who made him sleep forever on Mount Latmos so she could indulge herself whenever she wanted.

45-6: Disguised as Amphitryon, Jove (Zeus, Jupiter) prolonged a night of love with Alcmene, begetting Hercules.

47: chid: rebuked.


Elegy 1.13: Commentary

How do you make this moment – this now – last? This poem’s first word – ‘Now’ – recurs another three times in the subsequent six lines (and can be heard echoing in the ‘down’ of line 3, the ‘bough’ of line 8, the repeated ‘How oft…’ of lines 27-29, and in every address to Aurora as ‘thou’).  This could work to stress the immediacy and intensity of what is being experienced.  Yet what is being described is not a night of bliss, but a morning of loss, in which repeatedly invoking ‘now’ only stresses the transience of the moment, and Aurora’s control over it (not the speaker’s).  Sketching his early ideas on mourning, in ‘On Transience’ (1916) Freud tries to console anyone enduring loss: ‘Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment’ (305).  Sidney brilliantly captures something of this in ‘Leave Me, O Love’: ‘Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings’.  This can in part be glossed as meaning that anything that fades brings only fading or insubstantial pleasure (which should therefore be avoided); but also, because everything fades, including pleasure, this intensifies our experience of what is transient, including pleasure (which makes it irresistible).

Comparably, this poem tries to resist mutability but can’t: Stapleton notes ‘the alliteration and consonance of “w,” “f,” and “k” aiding in the illusory effect of slow, measured speech straining against the equally deceptive appearance of swiftness with the chime of the rhyme words, the internal sibilance of “s” in the second line, and the anaphoric “How oft”’ (64).  This sense of things not staying still reverberates in the poem’s metre, too.  We could read that first line as iambic, with the stress on ‘o’er’ (as a single syllable), ‘sea’, ‘her’, ‘love’, ‘she’, and with that pattern generating an internal rhyme (sea/she).  If not quite the kind of ‘mighty line’ we get in Tamburlaine, and while a bit plodding, this could convey a sense of inexorable motion.  However, if we hear ‘o’er’ as two syllables, and almost discount the first word as a throat-clearing prelude (suiting the way nowness is deflated here), the pattern becomes akin to dactylic (stressed-unstressed-unstressed), a galloping rhythm conveying almost uncontrollable motion (especially in a chariot!) even more powerfully, and creates assonance between the ‘o’ of ‘o’er’ and ‘old’. 

Age is as much a concern as vitality, then.  Freud’s brief essay notes that the ‘proneness to decay of all that is beautiful’ results in a ‘demand for immortality’ (305).  But unless you get that demand right, you’re in trouble.  As the previous poem mused, this truth can afflict writers (Freud himself avers that ‘a race of men may follow us who no longer understand the works of our poets and thinkers’, 306), a gorgeous youth like Tithon, or even his wife.  Whether steering her chariot, or preceding someone else driving one (as she does with Apollo, in Guido Reni’s ceiling fresco from the early 1600s, painted for Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s Casino dell’Aurora in Rome), Aurora herself was condemned to hunt for more young and gorgeous men (not only Cephalus, mentioned here, but also Orion). 

Reminding Aurora of this, the speaker may also mock her husband, Tithon, but they also sound like what he eventually becomes, an undying but desiccated cicada: ‘Whither’ (employed three times in the poem) means ‘where’. But it also suggests the homophone ‘wither’, a word Marlowe uses just once in his works, to emphasise how inappropriate and deathly it is not to enjoy bodily pleasures: ‘Unmeet is beauty without use to wither’ (All Ovid’s Elegies, 2.3.14). The way this poem sounds like time anticipates Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 12’, which is riddled with and punctuated by it, with its ‘When…When…When…Then’ structure, its successive images of mutability, and the onomatopoeic tick-tock of the first line: ‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’. Pragmatically, that sonnet identifies there is no ‘defence’ against ‘Time’s scythe’ ‘Save breed’.  With that solution in mind, does it matter then that the divine (if illicit) liaisons that Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s poem references here bore fruit? Jove and Alcmene beget Hercules, and according to some sources Aurora and Cephalus made another Tithonus (not the same person as Aurora’s actual husband, but an uncanny reproduction of him).  Perhaps translation, too, confers immortality. 

In the everyday here and now, though, dawn means graft, grift, war, and toil, from which our speaker seems detached (a bit like Marlowe’s dispassionate shepherd), observing but not doing much else (though even composing this poem inescapably evokes time). Aurora brings light but no comfort, shades and disorientation without illumination, and unsettling revelations.  Things that seemed sure become less so as she ‘slidest’ quickly through the sky.  People lose their way, and time is not on their side, or as Elegy 1.8 in All Ovid’s Elegies has it: ‘Time flying slides hence closely, and deceives us’.  In this regard, we might compare the speaker’s perspective less to Romeo and Juliet during their morning after, or even Donne’s lover in ‘The Sunne Rising’, and more to Faustus as his end nears, the sky ‘streams’ with the evening redness of ‘Christ’s blood’, and an hour passes in fifty or so lines (5.2.).

Compared to the previous poem in Certain of Ovid’s Elegies, then, 1.13 challenges any confidence in immortality, in poetry and in love.  The high proportion of dull, samey rhymes (not/not, them/them, me/me) is perhaps no accident.  A poem about the failure of poetry, then. Poetry (especially a translation, altering the source) cannot arrest but expresses mutability; poetry can try to control time to make words fit rhythm and rhyme, but this is vain; and poetry can try to persuade Aurora to stop (citing how she and other deities have bent time to their will), but it does not work.  She hears but does not alter her course.  Time’s terminal passage registers in the final couplet’s distinctive shift to past tense (and its feminine half-rhyme hinting that ‘scared’ could be ‘scarred’).  Right from the start, this is all already so ‘o’er’. Now what?


Elegy 2.4


(read by Miles Gavaghan)

Quod amet mulieres, cuiuscunque formae sint


I mean not to defend the scapes of any,

Or justify my vices being many.

For I confess, if that might merit favour,

Here I display my lewd and loose behaviour.

I loathe, yet after that I loathe I run;

Oh how the burden irks that we should shun.

I cannot rule myself, but where love please

Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.

No one face likes me best, all faces move,

A hundred reasons make me ever love.                        10

If any eye me with a modest look,

I burn, and by that blushful glance am took.

And she that’s coy I like for being no clown;

Methinks she should be nimble when she’s down.

Though her sour looks a Sabine’s brow resemble,

I think she’ll do, but deeply can dissemble.

If she be learned, then for her skill I crave her;

If not, because she’s simple I would have her.

Before Callimachus one prefers me far;

Seeing she likes my books, why should we jar?            20

Another rails at me, and that I write;

Yet would I lie with her if that I might.

Trips she, it likes me well; plods she, what than?

She would be nimbler lying with a man.

And when one sweetly sings, then straight I long

To quaver on her lips even in her song.

Or if one touch the lute with art and cunning,

Who would not love those hands for their swift running?

And she I like that with a majesty

Folds up her arms and makes low courtesy.                 30

To leave myself that am in love with all,

Some one of these might make the chastest fall.

If she be tall, she’s like an Amazon,

And therefore fills the bed she lies upon;

If short, she lies the rounder; to speak troth,

Both short and long please me, for I love both.

I think what one undecked would be, being dressed;

Is she attired? Then show her graces best.

A white wench thralls me, so doth golden yellow;

And nut-brown girls in doing have no fellow.    40

If her white neck be shadowed with black hair,

Why, so was Leda’s, yet was Leda fair.

Amber-tressed is she, then on the morn think I;

My love alludes to every history.

A young wench pleaseth, and an old is good,

This for her looks, that for her womanhood.

Nay what is she that any Roman loves

But my ambitious ranging mind approves?




Quod amet…: He loves women whatever they look like.

1 scapes: escapades, exploits, misadventures.

5 that: what.

11 eye: look at; the verb form, rare in Marlowe, implies where agency does and does not lie.

13 clown: peasant, rustic.

15 Sabine’s brow: The historian Livy described how Romulus sought to people the city that bore his name by raping (that is, abducting, if not worse) women from amongst the neighbouring Sabine population. Sabines were renowned for their simplicity and virtue (see also 1.10 and 3.7). The frowning woman in question, therefore, does not appear to have much time for ‘scapes’ or vice, though the speaker imagines otherwise, as if relishing the challenge.

16 do, dissemble: both words connote acting.  Here, ‘do’ suggests, variously, ‘will [have sex]’, ‘be good enough’, ‘be appropriate’, ‘suffice’ or ‘satisfy’: Marlowe uses the word in similar ways in 3.13.  The speaker gloats (or fantasises) that the woman may look like she doesn’t want him, but she does really; this is comparable to the apparent self-betrayal we saw in 1.5.  This is in turn a fantasy about how doing leads to undoing, a loss of identity and status (and propriety) through desire.  To ‘dissemble’ means to perform one thing while pretending to be another; it is one of Marlowe’s keywords, as you’d expect from a dramatist (it and its cognates occur four times in The Jew of Malta, five times in the Elegies, and six times in Edward II). Marlowe depicts worlds where people seeking or deprived of power act to thrive and survive: ‘I must dissemble’ say both Barabas (The Jew of Malta, 4.1.47) and the Guise (The Massacre at Paris, 20.45), and the woman here has to preserve appearances.  But Marlowe imagines how dissembling fails, as others see through it, like this speaker does.  In Edward II, Mortimer compliments Isabella for how she has ‘Finely dissembled’ in the run-up to her husband’s deposition, but Kent immediately recognises that ‘they do dissemble’ (5.2).

17 learned: educated; of course, as ‘simple’ suggests in the next line, the speaker is equally happy with an uncultured, even stupid, lover.

19 Callimachus: We met this poet from Alexandria, another elegist, in 1.15. There we were told that though he is still celebrated, ‘his wit was weak’; that the lover prefers the current poet is and is not flattery, therefore.

21 Another rails at me, and that I write: Women complain about or because of what I write; I also write about their complaints, as here.

23 Trips she…what than?: Whether the lady can dance or has two left feet makes no odds; though ‘then’ and ‘then’ are often interchangeable at this time, and some editors (eg. Orgel) make ‘than’ then, the rhyme is worth keeping because it makes the poem’s unsettled half-rhymes even more noticeable.  If harmony falters elsewhere, here it is forced.

26 quaver: quiver, musically, and otherwise.

31 To leave myself…: forgetting or ignoring even my own desires, the woman in question could make the ‘chastest’ and most saintly man sin.

35 to speak troth: to tell the truth; ever ironic in poems full of tricks and dissembling.

37 undecked: undressed, without adornment or decoration.

39 thralls: enthralls, enraptures, subjects, and enslaves.  Seemingly, Marlowe’s only use of the word as a verb.  The speaker really is stuck.

42 Leda: If, as Marlowe famously put it in Doctor Faustus, Helen had ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ (5.1.99), her mother may well have been comparably beautiful, and, one might add, equally blameless for the death and destruction associated with them both through the Trojan wars. 

43 morn: the woman’s reddy-gold hair reminds the speaker of Aurora, encountered in the previous poem.

47 any Roman: no man’s beloved is safe from our speaker.


Elegy 2.4: Commentary

What has happened to the sentiments of 1.3: ‘I love but one’?  Our speaker here leaves 1.13’s impotence in the face of passing time for dust, as an open-minded, equal opportunity lech, indiscriminate in bestowing attention, welcome or not.  Their ‘ambitious ranging mind’ assumes the power to survey, grade, pick and choose all women, and all women are seen as up for it.  This simultaneously celebrates and obliterates women’s distinctions, just as they are and are not goddesses, or figures from myth.  An apparent love for all women betrays a hate for love and a rank misogyny: ‘I loathe’.  The poem’s excessive sibilance suggests the speaker’s slyness as he stresses what his mistress would or should do at his command. 

Yet what seems like an expression of toxic masculinity shows how such poison proves fatal to a man, too.  Formally, lines 17 and 18 contain a nice example of Marlowe adopting the conditional phrasing and parallelism that he would use in other works (see Brown).  Yet the patterning of the ‘heroic couplet’, reliant on juxtaposition and apposition, seeks to order and control the expression of desire, something that defies order and control, including the speaker’s.  Notably, those lines offer only ‘feminine’ half-rhyme, where the stress falls on the penultimate syllable, and where it is possible ‘crave’ and ‘have’ fail to concord (as the speaker’s urges go unrequited). 

Confessing self-hate at ‘vices’ and ‘loose behaviour’ becomes self-negation, and a recognition that the negated self (still) lacks power.  Recollecting and reflecting the era’s fear that desire, and writing about it, could effeminize those desiring, the ‘many faces’ this ‘I’ loves signal the fragmented persona that loves: ‘No one face likes [or resembles] me best’.  The ‘I’ that leered over Corinna in 1.5. is here made to ‘burn’, consumed, in a homophonic pun, by the ‘eye’ of an other.  Indeed, bearing desire’s ‘burden’ like a beast, the ‘I’ that cannot ‘rule’ itself notably disappears before ‘Am’ in line 9 (though the two earliest versions of the poem have ‘And’ instead).  The imagery of being lost at sea there recurs in the next poem in the sequence, where the strain is such there can only be half-rhyme (2.10.9-10). As Jonathan Dollimore puts it in Desire: A Memoir, ‘I can be wrecked by desire to an extent which puts ‘me’ deeply into question’ (54). 

Of course, any conditionals also contain what the speaker says they will ‘confess’, voiced only ‘if that might merit favour’.  And there’s no question of the intensity of the pleasure sought through such ‘favour’.  Marlowe uses ‘nimble’ only a handful of times in his works, but here the speaker repeatedly tells us he likes his women quick and agile (see ‘nimble’ and ‘nimbler’ in lines 14 and 24; notably, the ‘Middleborugh’ version also sticks in a ‘nimble’ before ‘hands’ in line 28).  Finally, this self-cancelling also works, as we have seen before, to abdicate responsibility for acting viciously: ‘I cannot rule myself [so you cannot blame me]’.  The poem also implies the speaker is not alone in this, hence the question at line 28, and the suggestion that even the ‘chastest’ can ‘fall’ – despite his assumptions, he is nothing special, and all men are like this, he suggests (like any apologist for male privilege).  ‘My love alludes to every history’ means many, not just the slippery ‘I’, are implicated in these ‘vices’.  But while that ‘ambitious ranging mind’ will seek to access all private, intimate spaces, and woo any woman desired, such a mind is also tormented, restless, obsessed, addicted.  Some say the ‘move / love’ rhyme in Marlowe’s ‘Passionate Shepherd’ is full, but he (at lines 9-10 here) and others use it too often for us to be entirely comfortable with this, because it suggests the way desire unsettles us, and the words we use.  As Freud would suggest, desire is never done: ‘We must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realization of complete satisfaction...when the original object of a wishful impulse has been lost as a result of repression, it is frequently represented by an endless series of substitute objects none of which, however, brings full satisfaction’ (1912, 258). Will the next poem prove this point?


Elegy 2.10


(read by Stephen Sharkey)

Ad Graecinum quod eodem tempore duas amet


Graecinus (well I wot) thou told’st me once

I could not be in love with two at once.

By thee deceived, by thee surprised am I,

For now I love two women equally.

Both are well favoured, both rich in array,

Which is the loveliest it is hard to say.

This seems the fairest, so doth that to me,

And this doth please me most, and so doth she.

Even as a boat tossed by contrary wind,

So with this love and that, wavers my mind.       10

Venus, why doublest thou my endless smart?

Was not one wench enough to grieve my heart?

Why add’st thou stars to heaven, leaves to green woods,

And to the vast deep sea fresh water floods?

Yet this is better far than lie alone;

Let such as be mine enemies have none.

Yea, let my foes sleep in an empty bed,

And in the midst their bodies largely spread.

But may soft love rouse up my drowsy eyes,

And from my mistress’ bosom let me rise.         20

Let one wench cloy me with sweet love’s delight

If one can do’t, if not, two every night.

Though I am slender, I have store of pith,

Nor want I strength, but weight, to press her with.

Pleasure adds fuel to my lustful fire,

I pay them home with that they most desire.

Oft have I spent the night in wantonness,

And in the morn been lively ne’er the less.

He’s happy who love’s mutual skirmish slays,

And to the gods for that death Ovid prays.        30

Let soldiers chase their enemies amain,

And with their blood eternal honour gain;

Let merchants seek wealth, and with perjured lips,

Being wracked, carouse the sea tired by their ships;

But when I die, would I might droop with doing,

And in the midst thereof, set my soul going,

That at my funerals some may weeping cry,

‘Even as he led his life, so did he die.’




Ad Graecinum…: To Graecinus, that he loves two at the same time.

1 Graecinus: a Roman politician and friend of Ovid’s.

1 wot: know.

11 smart: pain.

19 soft: Ovid’s Latin has ‘fierce’ or ‘wild’ (saevus).

21 cloy: overwhelm (to the point of suffocating disgust) with an excess of something rich or sweet.

23 pith: essence, energy or vigour.

24 want: lack.

26 I pay them home…: I deliver the goods, I satisfy.

31 amain: doggedly, with determination.

33 perjured lips: lips that speak untruths.

34 carouse: drink to excess, noisily; the wrecked merchants are invited to imbibe the waves.

35 droop with doing: become exhausted, spent, and detumescent through sex.



Elegy 2.10: Commentary

Why have one lover, when you can have two?  The poem even makes a joke about this, using (and rhyming, lazily) ‘once’ twice in the opening couplet, as it also (partly) replicates the previous one in the sequence.  Different lovers, like different lines or poems, blur into one.  Certainly, as in 2.4, any distinction between subjects and objects of desire gets lost in the grammar of heterosexual conjunction: there might be reference to a ‘she’ in line 8, but women are diminished to pronouns, ‘This’, ‘that’, or ‘this love and that’, in lines 7-10.  This is apt, because the poem, and the desire it expresses, are not really about the opposite sex. The focus is homosocial – between men – and as the speaker defines himself (again, as in 1.1 or 1.15) against go-getters in martial or mercantile worlds, this means getting his leg-over with multiple women really means getting one over other men.  Yet when the speaker says they ‘pay…home’ women with ‘that they most desire’, precisely what they desire is reduced to a blank pronoun, too.  Perhaps this is for decency’s sake, but affirming virile masculinity curiously evokes a description of another man which queries it and seems to go beyond homosociality; in Hero and Leander, the narrator says that despite or because Leander is seen as ‘a maid in man’s attire’, ‘in his looks were all that men desire’ (1.83-4). 

Suiting the argumentative, unsettled, back-and-forth of many of these poems, line 24 reminds us that to ‘want’ is to lack as much as to desire; in actuality, desire discloses lack, without guaranteeing satisfaction.  So far, so Freud (again).  But the speaker’s questions in 11-14 signal a growing awareness of this dilemma, as the sequence of 10 poems begins to end.  The pain is ‘endless’, and adding (stars to glittering heaven, leaves to green trees, water to the ocean, notches to bedposts) or doubling (as this poem does to others before it, including Ovid’s) offer no solution.  Desire is never complete but always deferred, becoming and producing what Jacques Derrida would term in Of Grammatology (1976), a ‘dangerous supplement’ that makes what you thought was full and solid seem empty and fragile: ‘The supplement adds itself, it is a surplus, a plenitude enriching another plenitude. … It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void’ (144-145). 

Potency is anything but: this seemingly energetic lover has to beg for licence, permission and power by pleading ‘let’ 6 times in 38 lines as he seeks his pleasures (in a manner akin to the strategies of 1.15).  And pleasure, like potency, sexual or otherwise, was a real challenge for Marlowe and his period.  We have already heard Sidney observe ‘Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings’, commingling condemnation of transitory, earthly delights with an awareness of how good they can be. Comparably, in Doctor Faustus, even as we are told (by the ‘Bad Angel’) ‘He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall’ (5.2.131), we also learn that the pursuit of sinful pleasure is paradoxically both what condemns and sustains Faustus, who would have committed equally sinful suicide ‘Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair’ (2.2.25).  Here, wanting pleasure leads to both self-affirmation and self-immolation: ‘Pleasure adds fuel to my lustful fire’. 

This poem might conceive and make a(nother) joke out of the pleasure of dying ‘on the job’ but in so doing it also imagines the speaker’s death (and not just through orgasm), and people speaking after and about him in words which are and are not his, as the final line implies.  This dissociation from what seems like self-expression climaxes in lines 29-30.  The poem Marlowe translates from Ovid does not feature the poet identifying himself, in the third person, yet this one names the source (as very few of the elegies do).  Who is loving, praying, fighting, or dying, then: the speaker, Marlowe, ‘Ovid’, or someone else? As our speaker implies, as if because sex ‘slays’ him, not ‘I’ but ‘He’s’ caught in ‘love’s mutual skirmish’ (with another, or between aspects of himself).  There is of course deniability and safety in such distancing.  But how can one overcome such self-alienation, or a lack of power, when the tools or weapons to do so appear to be shared and ‘mutual’, but are so self-defeating?  The next poem considers such questions in even more graphic detail.


Elegy 3.6


(read by Georgia Dalton)

Quod ab amica receptus cum ea coire non potuit, conqueritur


Either she was foul, or her attire was bad,

Or she was not the wench I wished t’have had.

Idly I lay with her, as if I loved not,

And like a burden grieved the bed that moved not.

Though both of us performed our true intent,

Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

She on my neck her ivory arms did throw,

Her arms far whiter than the Scythian snow,

And eagerly she kissed me with her tongue,

And under mine her wanton thigh she flung.     10

Yea, and she soothed me up, and called me ‘Sir’,

And used all speech that might provoke and stir.

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,

It mocked me, hung down the head, and sunk.

Like a dull cipher or rude block I lay,

Or shade or body was I, who can say?

What will my age do, age I cannot shun,

When in my prime my force is spent and done?

I blush, that being youthful, hot and lusty,

I prove neither youth nor man, but old and rusty.         20

Pure rose she, like a nun to sacrifice,

Or one that with her tender brother lies.

Yet boarded I the golden Chie twice,

And Libas, and the white-cheeked Pitho thrice.

Corinna craved it in a summer’s night,

And nine sweet bouts we had before daylight.

What, waste my limbs through some Thessalian charms?

May spells and drugs do silly souls such harms?

With virgin wax hath some imbased my joints,

And pierced my liver with sharp needles’ points?                    30

Charms change corn to grass and make it die;

By charms are running springs and fountains dry.

By charms mast drops from oaks, from vines grapes fall,

And fruit from trees when there’s no wind at all.

Why might not then my sinews be enchanted,

And I grow faint as with some spirit haunted?

To this add shame: shame to perform it quailed me,

And was the second cause why vigour failed me.

My idle thoughts delighted her no more

Than did the robe or garment which she wore.            40

Yet might her touch make youthful Pylius’ fire,

And Tithon livelier than his years require.

Even her I had and she had me in vain,

What might I crave more, if I ask again?

I think the great gods grieved they had bestowed

The benefit which lewdly I forslowed.

I wished to be received in, in I get me;

To kiss, I kiss; to lie with her she let me.

Why was I blessed? Why made king to refuse it?

Chuff-like had I not gold and could not use it?             50

So in a spring thrives he that told so much,

And looks upon the fruits he cannot touch.

Hath any rose so from a fresh young maid

As she might straight have gone to church and prayed?

Well, I believe she kissed not as she should,

Nor used the sleight and cunning which she could.

Huge oaks, hard adamants might she have moved,

And with sweet words cause deaf rocks to have loved.

Worthy she was to move both gods and men,

But neither was I man nor lived then.                60

Can deaf ears take delight when Phemius sings,

Or Thamyris in curious-painted things?

What sweet thought is there but I had the same?

And one gave place still as another came.

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,

Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday.

Now, when he should not jet, he bolts upright,

And craves his task, and seeks to be at fight.

Lie down with shame, and see thou stir no more,

Seeing now thou wouldst deceive me as before.                    70

Thou cozen’st me: by thee surprised am I,

And bide sore loss with endless infamy.

Nay more, the wench did not disdain a whit

To take it in her hand and play with it,

But when she saw it would by no means stand,

But still drooped down, regarding not her hand,

‘Why mock’st thou me,’ she cried, ‘or being ill,

Who bade thee lie down here against thy will?

Either th’art witched with blood of frogs new dead,

Or jaded cam’st thou from some other’s bed.’              80

With that, her loose gown on, from me she cast her;

In skipping out her naked feet much graced her.

And lest her maid should know of this disgrace,

To cover it, spilt water in the place.




Quod ab amica…: He complains that on being accepted into his mistress’ bed, he cannot perform sexually.

4 burden: A burden is a heavy load to bear; it was also a refrain in a song.  Is the speaker saying they are themselves a dead weight on the bed which does not move because no copulation is happening on it, and that both they and the bed grieve about this?  Is the bed – or the speaker – mouthing a lament about lacking vim?  If so, the elegy rhymes at this point only in suitably clumsy and repetitive negatives.

8 Scythian snow: Scythia signified lands east of Europe, in Central Asia, the birthplace of Tamburlaine (see

13 hemlock: poison that debilitates the nervous system, resulting in paralysis and death through respiratory failure.

14 It: his penis.  The pronoun is used in place of the thing itself many times in the poem, most notably at line 65. Line 65 of the ‘Middlebourgh’ version of all the elegies has ‘I lay’ instead of ‘it lay’.

14 mocked: ridiculed, but also mimicked, copied, replicated or replaced; it becomes or stands in for him, yet is and is not part of him.

15 cipher: a blank, nothing; someone insignificant.

15 rude block: a lump of wood; perhaps a reference to the tools of the printing press.

16 shade: a ghost; a shadow of himself.

17 What will…shun: If I’m having these problems now, in my prime, what will it be like when I grow old, something I cannot avoid?

21 Pure rose…lies: she rose from the bed still pure, like a Vestal virgin.

23-24 the golden Chie…Libas…Pitho: other women the speaker has slept with, multiple times.

27 Thessalian charms:  in the classical world, Thessaly (in Greece) was a notorious haunt of witches.  In All Ovid’s Elegies 1.8, we’re told the speaker mistrusts a ‘bawd’ (sex-worker) who uses ‘magic arts and Thessale charms’.  Yet Marlowe’s other references to the uses of such ‘charms’ temper apparent misogyny.  That most manly of men, Tamburlaine, may think it is ‘unseemly…for my sex’ to ‘harbour thoughts effeminate’ by contemplating ‘immortal flowers of poesy’, but he anticipates that hanging up ‘slaughtered’ female ‘virgins’ on ‘Damascus walls’ will be as ‘baneful’ to the people of the city ‘As are Thessalian drugs or mithridate’ [an antidote to poison] (1.5.1.).

28 silly: innocent.

29 With virgin wax…imbased my joints: someone has restricted and ruined my joints using an effigy or model in wax.

33 mast: acorns.

37 quailed: felt afraid.

41 Pylius: an elderly Greek King in the Trojan Wars; the suggestion is that her touch would make him feel young again.

42 Tithon: Aurora’s undying, but ever-aging, husband (see 1.13); as above.

46 lewdly I forslowed: through neglect or slowness, he has lost the ‘benefit’; this is both shameful and ironic, because he can’t actually be lewd (that is, rude and crude).

47 received in: allowed to penetrate.

50 Chuff-like: like a miser (a chuff).

51 So in a spring…cannot touch: This references the myth of Tantalus.  He stole ambrosia and nectar from the gods, and tried to feed his son to them.  For this, he was punished in Tartarus (in the pre-Christian underworld) with hunger (but fruit would evade his reach) and thirst (but water would withdraw from him).

53-54 Hath any…prayed?: Who would leave a woman so pure and without sin she could go to church?

56 sleight: trick.

57 adamant: something very hard and unbreakable.

61 Phemius: a brilliant musician in Homer’s Odyssey.

62 Thamyris: a musician blinded by the Muses in Homer’s Iliad.

71 cozen’st: tricks.

72 And bide sore loss with endless infamy: endure pain and shame.

73 a whit: a small amount.

80 jaded: bored or exhausted (from having spent time with a ‘jade’, or disreputable woman).


Elegy 3.6: Commentary

What to do when what makes you unmakes you? That is, how does someone cope when the act or behaviour that defines their identity – intellect, physical prowess, beauty, creativity, power or sexuality – comes to undermine that identity?  To put this another way, in the words painted on the alleged 1585 portrait of a 21-year old Christopher Marlowe (discovered in the 1950s in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge), what happens when ‘Quod me nutrit me destruit’ [That which nourishes me destroys me]?  Or to phrase this differently, again, what is the effect of realising that ‘like diamonds we are cut with our own dust’ (John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, 5.5.)?

Iterating these rephrasings and analogues reveals how what this poem articulates as a very (embarrassing) personal, intimate problem has a wider resonance in early modern culture. This seems appropriate, too, for a poem – a translation, of course – which is full of repetitions and doublings.  In this, one of the longest elegies, rhymes repeat, and words and images recur (charms, me, lay, mock, shame, idle, oaks, move), emphasising the speaker’s obsessive, desperate, tone, and how his powers of expression fail him.  This failure afflicts and is evident in poetic devices: more than any of the other pieces in Certain of Ovid’s Elegies, this one uses simple similes based on ‘like’ (six times). His connection with his lover faltering, it is as if the speaker cannot think of a better or more potent way to link things.  Redundancy is written into the poem, then, and the act of producing it.  As Jenny C. Mann brilliantly observes, glossing the imagery of line 15: ‘A “cipher” is a character or written sign, a symbol of no particular value in and of itself.  Here the poet likens his impotent body to a letter or symbol that has been blunted of meaning …  Both terms in the phrase “rude block” connote senselessness and a lack of form and may connect that senselessness to the technology of “block” printing’ (61-2).  The decline is apparently terminal, for someone who could, once upon a while ago, manage nine times a night. Mutability is unavoidable (‘age I cannot shun’).  These are the rewards of idleness (one of the age’s worst crimes) and infidelity; how can you ‘cast anchor’ when what 2.4 terms the ‘rough seas’ of desire are offered as an excuse for bad behaviour?

But if the elegy encodes impotence, the speaker and the poem know and show this with eloquent and painful precision.  Listen to how the way his lover talks to him changes. In line 11, the mistress speaks (something she is very rarely represented as doing in Marlowe’s versions of the complete Elegies; see also 2.18 and 3.4, and Drinkwater, 330), calling the lover ‘Sir’, showing humility, due deference, and respect for his status.  By the poem’s end, though, she has rejected being subject to his misogyny, to mimic his mockery and throw his accusations back at him – he likely has come from another’s bed (the previous poem in the sequence would suggest that, just as it too ended with others speaking of, and in place of, the speaker).  With this shift in the positions of who gets to say what about sex and gender, the elegy bears comparison to a poem from the early 1590s, The Choise of Valentines, by one of Marlowe’s one-time room-mates (and named co-author of Dido), Thomas Nashe, where another incapable man cedes the poem’s voice to a woman.

The speaker also comes across as a character from a play composed around the time of these poems’ first publication: they are an even more unsexy Hamlet, projecting ‘frailty’ onto ‘woman’, and stuffed with incapacitating musings and questions which don’t impress the mistress much.  Like Hamlet, they succumb to both existential crisis and anxious manhood: by line 66, ‘The speaker’s masculine member has changed to a vaginal rose’ (Moulton, 1998, 83).  Not in control of his mind or words, he is also not in command of his body, or a particular part of it.  How can she move him if even he can’t tell if he is or is not substantial, a ‘body’ or a ‘shade’: ‘neither was I man nor lived then’? No ‘Sir’, then, he’s certainly no ‘blessed’ or divine ‘king’ either, and even wonders why, Hamlet-citing Prufrock-like, he ever thought he was made to be one.  Crises of authorship are, in turn, crises of the authority and potency of the body political.

Thinking of power and the self make the poem’s connections to Tamburlaine (identified in the notes) telling, too.  Firstly, because although he is the model of an early modern voracity, captivating to men and women alike, Tamburlaine nevertheless necessarily endures a morbidity and mortality that cut him back down to size like our speaker here: however regretful this may make audiences wanting more of him, he ‘must die’, because he is human and because if he doesn’t then generic and social decorum will be disturbed.  However you manifest what power you possess, whether you’re a king or a clown, overreacher or vagrant, there seems to be no way out.

Secondly, because, as Lisa Hopkins points out, to the Elizabethans ‘the term Scythian demarcated an absolute otherness, naming a being so sharply inferior to civilised Western man that his very membership of the same species was open to doubt’ (49).  So, alluding to Tamburlaine and his world are in part a way to reinforce the othering our speaker performs: the fault is always somebody else’s. Yet, as Stephen Greenblatt no less influentially averred, ‘despite all the exoticism in Marlowe – Scythian shepherds, Maltese Jews, German magicians – it is his own countrymen that he broods upon and depicts’ (194).  Comparably, here, via the other that is Ovid, Marlowe makes his translated speaker appear other to himself, or alienated (or detached?) from himself and his unruly body parts. Yet what he identifies as coming from outside a bewitched being actually comes from somewhere within or amidst a diffuse, confused and self-fragmenting identity. Notably, line 65 of the ‘Middlebourgh’ version of all the elegies has ‘I lay’ instead of ‘it lay’ – depending on the version of the lament, his ‘it’ (or penis) is and is not him.  So as her words ultimately remain his, and as one Hamlet cogitates on the other one he meets on the walls of Elsinore, is the ‘spirit’ haunting and taunting him…him

2.4 identified the lover’s ‘ambitious ranging mind’; comparably Tamburlaine heralds all our ‘aspiring minds’, as he perceives our inherent, inevitable discoherence: ‘Nature, that framed us of four elements / Warring within our breasts for regiment’ (1.2.7).  What is happening to this elegy’s speaker may be cast as being as unnatural as springs running dry, or vines losing their fruit, yet these things do happen (and Marlowe will query assumptions about what is and is not ‘natural’ to brilliant effect in Edward II).  Given what Marjorie Garber saw as Marlowe’s obsession with boundaries and limits, it may look like there’s no way out (see ‘“Infinite Riches in a Little Room”: Closure and Enclosure in Marlowe’). But we would do well to remember: much of what makes these poems fascinating is the discontinuity of their voices and speakers; a man might become a woman; potentates can be made or displaced; an ‘other’ might be seen in the ‘same’; and all this is possible through performance (or not being able to perform, as the case may be).  And if we remember, we can see how, in essence, sometimes a lack of essence liberates, however painfully, or at least helps us for a time slip the skin we’re in.


Elegy 1.2


(read by Adam Hansen)

Quod primo amore correptus, in triumphum duci se a Cupidine patiarur


What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Or why slips down the coverlet so oft?

Although the nights be long, I sleep not tho,

My sides are sore with tumbling to and fro.

Were Love the cause, it’s like I should descry him,

Or lies he close, and shoots where none can spy him?

’Twas so, he struck me with a slender dart,

’Tis cruel love turmoils my captive heart.

Yielding or struggling do we give him might;

Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.           10

I saw a brandished fire increase in strength,

Which not being shaked, I saw it die at length.

Young oxen newly yoked are beaten more

Than oxen which have drawn the plough before;

And rough jades’ mouths with stubborn bits are torn,

But managed horses’ heads are lightly borne.

Unwilling lovers love doth more torment

Than such as in their bondage feel content.

Lo, I confess, I am thy captive, I,

And hold my conquered hands for thee to tie.             20

What needs thou war? I sue to thee for grace;

With arms to conquer armless men is base.

Yoke Venus’ doves, put myrtle on thy hair,

Vulcan will give thee chariots rich and fair;

The people thee applauding, thou shalt stand,

Guiding the harmless pigeons with thy hand;

Young men and women shalt thou lead as thrall,

So will thy triumph seem magnifical.

I, lately caught, will have a new-made wound,

And captive-like be manacled and bound;                   30

Good Meaning, Shame, and such as seek love’s wrack

Shall follow thee, their hands tied at their back.

Thee all shall fear and worship as a king,

Io triumphing shall thy people sing.

Smooth Speeches, Fear and Rage shall by thee ride,

Which troops have always been on Cupid’s side;

Thou with these soldiers conquerest gods and men,

Take these away, where is thine honour then?

Thy mother shall from heaven applaud this show,

And on their faces heaps of roses strow.                      40

With beauty of thy wings, thy fair hair gilded,

Ride, golden Love, in chariots richly builded.

Unless I err, full many shalt thou burn,

And give wounds infinite at every turn.

In spite of thee, forth will thine arrows fly,

A scorching flame burns all the standers by.

So, having conquered Ind, was Bacchus’ hue;

Thee pompous birds, and him two tigers drew.

Then seeing I grace thy show in following thee,

Forbear to hurt thyself in spoiling me.                         50

Behold thy kinsman’s Caesar’s conquering bands,

Who guards the conquered with his conquering hands.




Quod primo amore…: That, being carried away by first love, he suffers himself to be led in triumph by Cupid.

3 tho: then.

5 descry: catch sight of.

15 jades: old horses, but also disreputable women; see 2.4.

21 sue: appeal.

24 Vulcan: Husband (and cuckold) of Venus, and craftsman to the gods.

26 pigeons: Venus’ doves.

27 thrall: as slaves or captives, under his power; see also 2.4.

28 magnifical: splendid, grand.

34 Io: the Roman victory cry.

37 Thou: You, Cupid.

40 strow: scatter.

43 err: am mistaken.

47 Ind, Bacchus’ hue: in his Eastern wanderings, the divine Bacchus was supposed to have travelled as far as India, on a chariot pulled by tigers.  Does the reference to ‘hue’ suggest Bacchus’ travels in ‘exotic’ climes changed his character or complexion, burnt by the sun just as lovers are burnt by Cupid?

48 pompous: grand and splendid; but also self-important.  Cupid was often depicted in the chariot of his mother, Venus, which was pulled by two birds, as in a 1585 engraving by Marten de Vos.

50 spoiling: despoiling, taking possession through conquest.

51-52 kinsman…Caesar: as a purported descendant of Aeneas, himself purported son of Venus and Anchises, Augustus Caesar is (distantly) related to Cupid (also a son of Venus). The first Roman emperor, he ruled from 27 BC until his death in AD 14, and is also referenced (satirically) in 1.1.


Elegy 1.2: Commentary

Where or when does this end?  Perhaps never.  Cupid delivers ‘wounds infinite’, and with arriving at 1.2 we are (almost) right back where we started.  As Marlowe put it, in Latin, in his 1592 dedicatory epistle to Mary, Countess of Pembroke (author and translator, and sister of Sir Philip Sidney), in Thomas Watson’s Amintae Gaudia, ‘quomodo enim quicquam possit esse infinito plus?’  [how can anything be more than infinite?].  No surprise Stapleton calls the sequence ‘cyclical’ (42); there’s no way out.  The circularity not only creates an inescapable loop of psychological or emotional ‘torment’ but is sustained by and creates ‘bondage’.  The ‘heart’ of this ‘I’ is ‘captive’, and so is the speaker, forced to imagine and endure Cupid’s triumphal processions to whom all, as we already knew, submit. These cavalcades evoke those of potentates crusading for moral authority (as the ‘conquering’ Augustus Caesar was at Ovid’s time of writing; that this anticipates the English bishops’ disapprobation of those they ‘conquered’ is difficult, but tempting, to say).  As in the second sonnet of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sequence, the speaker is suffering love’s ‘full conquest’ and ‘lost liberty’, and is so subjected they call it ‘praise to suffer tyranny’; their alienation from agency and identity means they are ‘like slave-born Muscovite’.  Comparably, in 1.2, if you resist, ‘struggling’ like a horse or beast of burden, things get much worse: just ‘yield’. 

The advice to ‘yield’ might as well, of course, be directed not to the speaking self but outwards.  The poem, like others, is also trapped in misogyny, with the speaker enforcing a power over women because he lacks it socially or sexually (and at times poetically).  Horses were called ‘jades’, but so were women (especially sex workers), and elsewhere in All Ovid’s Elegies such bestialized people are silenced (despite or perhaps because of the way poems like the previous one gave a woman a voice).  1.8, for example, refers to ‘Dipsas’, ‘an old trot’ who has been instructing the speaker’s mistress in the arts of whoredom, and who ‘draws chaste women to incontinence’ by advising ‘Fair women play, she’s chaste whom none will have’. The speaker overhears Dipsas doing so and damns her: ‘The gods send thee no house, a poor old age’.  This follows a poem (1.7) where the speaker begs forgiveness for beating his mistress, repeatedly saying he ‘deserved chains’ for doing so, and yet is followed by another (1.9) which offers excuses saying ‘All lovers war…Doubtful is war and love’.

          Marlowe’s translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia (published as Lucan’s First Book in 1600) features the soothsayer Arruns intoning ‘War only gives us peace’ (669), but that last phrase from 1.9 reminds us: a poem may make us doubt its speaker, and their love, but it can also make us question ‘war’ and the powers waging it, too.  For Ovid, 1.2 works to deflate via satire and bathos the processions after Rome’s military victories in Spain and Gaul.  With characteristic perversity, 1.2 also shows conclusively how submission to Cupid’s powers brings about a transgression of social norms, as we might expect from someone seducing someone else’s wife.  Likewise, poetic and linguistic expectations are at times violated.  1.1 has already conveyed how the social and the aesthetic connect, but this poem (both the next and the last, depending on how you look at it) deploys all kinds of tricks to reveal how desire creatively disrupts expression. Take the use of ‘turmoils’ in line 8.  Still a fairly new word in English as a noun by the late 1500s, Marlowe employs it here as a verb, as he also does – in his only other usage – in his translation of Lucan, to describe how the ‘north’ wind ‘Turmoils the coast’ (408-9).  If not quite catachresis – using a word in a way that strains conventional usage – to modern or early modern eyes and ears, it comes closer to what George Puttenham in 1589’s The Arte of English Poesie termed ‘enallage or the figure of exchange’, and thus what Harry Levin discerned so brilliantly in The Overreacher (1954): in Marlowe, ‘The parts of speech, like the spheres that form his cosmos, are ever-moving’ (31).  For all its structures and strictures, language – especially poetic language – makes other ways of speaking, reading, being and becoming possible.  In line 9 of 1.2, ‘might’ is a noun meaning power: as Machevill says in the prologue to The Jew of Malta, ‘Might first made kings’.  The speaker here is coerced by what they lack. But Sidney uses the homophone and modal verb ‘might’ four times in three lines in the first poem of Astrophil and Stella (and it echoes in that poem’s final couplet of ‘spite’/‘write’).  What power makes happen could be different: there is always an alternative.  This reminds us that the instability, mutability and plasticity of Marlowe’s medium – language – amplify the meanings of the materials, and his influences, whether Ovid, or Sidney, ‘the bard of Apollo’ (as Marlowe terms him in that dedication to his sister Mary). Mutability means possibility, too: anything might yet happen, and infinity is no ending to speak of.  So yes, there’s a lot of imagery of and references to being bound, but, cutely, sometimes the speaker is only ‘captive-like’ (line 30): since Cupid can have a ‘show’ (line 49), is this a performance of passivity, a chosen subjection as ‘he gives himself willingly to the bondage of love’ (Moulton, 1998, 84)? Coming after 3.6, perhaps what seems like subjection, weakness and failure is also resistance, endurance and survival.

In his recent novel about Marlowe, Alan Judd has his protagonist say: ‘I have no time for stories invented to persuade us we never really die’ (141).  True enough, Marlowe might have been accused of being an atheist, and have had Faustus, a man with ‘no hope of heaven’ (5.2.88), say ‘I think hell’s a fable’ (2.1.130). But as we contemplate the sequence’s ‘final’ poem, we can reflect how often Marlowe grants some of his fictions an afterlife, a living on, of sorts: he is fantastic at exploiting the ambiguity of apparently terminal resolutions (moral and textual), and he finds different ways to avoid, or abdicate responsibility for, ending things.  Hero and Leander compromises closure with incompletion, adding to (or finishing) the second part with ‘Desunt nonnulla’ [some things are lacking].  Where one text suggests a supplement is required, another offers terminal additions that unsettle the fixity each end offers. As we now have it, Doctor Faustus has multiple endings that query the idea of a final point: 5.2 in the 1604 ‘A’ version, 5.3 in the 1616 ‘B’ version, the Chorus after them, and the Latin tag after that – ‘Terminat hora diem, terminat Author opus’ – hinting at everything happening and being written all over again just as one day follows another.

For its part, Dido distances itself from the very prescriptions of myth, genre, and history that its conclusion requires. Marlowe strains against the demands of such repetitions, at times reverting to Virgil’s Latin as if to remind us this story is not his own, and distance himself from what he and his characters have to say. Marlowe does not want to force Dido and Aeneas apart, and allow empire and duty to triumph over diversity and desire – but if he tells this story, he can do nothing else. With pained self-consciousness, the queen asks questions about the roles she has to fulfil as woman and ruler which draw attention to and resonate with coercive modal verbs like ‘must’, and which involve an obsessively repeated ‘I’, suggesting an attempt to affirm an always fragmenting yet expressive subjectivity, echoed and multiplied in the homophonic ‘Ay’:

Dido I am, unless I be deceiv’d,

And must I rave thus for a runagate?

Must I make ships for him to sail away? …

Ay, I must be the murderer of myself:

No, but I am not; yet will I be straight (5.1.264-71)

Marlowe only uses the word ‘freedom’ four times in his works, and it and its cognates are usually deployed in an ironic or compromised way – hardly a surprise in an era when so much of life was circumscribed, from what you were supposed to believe to what you ate, wore, wrote, and saw.  In Marlowe’s writing, freedom is temporary or time-limited, and self-cancelling.  Faustus plans to spend ‘in pleasure’ the ‘four-and-twenty years of liberty’ he attains through his deal with Mephostophilis, but that deal and those pleasures damn him.  Freedom is won through violence or coercion that deprives others of theirs.  Tamburlaine, we hear from Ceneus, fights ‘in disdain of wrong and tyranny’, to ‘Defend his freedom ‘gainst a monarchy’ (, yet himself becomes tyrannical when committing wrongs.  According to Lucan’s First Book, in the good old days, before the Romans grew ‘licentious and rude’ and men ‘ware robes / Too light for women’, ‘freedom without war’ would not ‘suffice’, or satisfy their urge to expand their power ‘unto the fields of hinds unknown’ (162-173).  Freedom is not conferred or guaranteed by status: ‘And yet I am not free’, says Dido (3.4.6), lamenting the strictures of her status as queen and as a character in a tragedy whose end she cannot alter.  Nor can freedom necessarily be gained through fine words of persuasion.  In the Elegies, the lover promises manumission for the eunuch Bagous if he guards his mistress less diligently and grants her ‘Stolen liberty’: ‘Do this and soon thou shalt thy freedom reap’ (2.2).  Bagous refuses.  And if freedom can be withheld by or from others, so the self cannot sustain it.  In another elegy whose title translates as ‘He cannot leave loving’, the speaker declaims ‘Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain’ of love, but this is vain self-delusion and bluster, and he knows he will still love ‘though against my mind’ (3.10). 

In the case of 1.2, and Certain of Ovid’s Elegies, there may seem to be no avoiding Cupid’s or an emperor’s triumphs, nor an easy way out of the binds of ‘war and love’, death and desire, domination and liberty.  But do these poems show us what confines us, the better to enable others – including the other selves we embody or repress – to be or become free?


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