How might one interpret Christopher Marlowe's "Elegia XV" ("Envy, why carp'st thou my time is spent so ill?")?
The fifteenth elegy in Christopher Marlowe’s collection of such poems is closely modeled on an original poem by the Roman poet Ovid. Marlowe’s translations of these poems reflect his strong interest in great classical literature. The present poem, in fact, emphasizes that great literature lives long after the people who write it have died. Ovid praises earlier poets and predicts that his own poetry will outlive him. Marlowe’s translation of the poem is part of the evidence suggesting that Ovid’s prediction has proven correct.
The poem opens with the speaker addressing a personified Envy. It asks why envy carps at the speaker for writing poetry when his time might be spent in more conventional ways, such as in military service, in studying law, or in selling his eloquence to promote various causes (1-6). The speaker rejects such activities because they are ephemeral: neither they nor the reputations they create survive beyond a person’s death. Instead, the speaker wishes to achieve a kind of fame that will live forever, long after he dies (7-8).
The next (and main) portion of the poem lists the names and accomplishments of the many great poets who had preceded Ovid and who had achieved widespread fame thanks to their great skills as poets. This portion of the poem contrasts the immortal achievements of these poets with the ephemeral nature of most human accomplishments (9-31). The gist of the speaker’s argument here is summed up in a single line:
Verse is immortal, and shall ne’er decay. (32)
The poem concludes with the speaker advising anyone who wants to do so to “admire vile things” (33). As for him, he asks Phoebus (that is, Apollo, the god of poetry) to help him achieve praise and fame as a poet. He hopes that his writings will especially be remembered by “sad lovers” (38), since most of the elegies deal with love as their main topic. Envy (that is, criticism and/or hatred) can only affect the living. After people die, they and their achievements are properly valued (39-40). The speaker is therefore confident that even as his flesh and bones are being cremated after he passes away, he will transcend death and live forever through his poetry.