Paul D. Miller (essay date April 1953)
SOURCE: Miller, Paul D. “A Function of Myth in Marlowe's Hero and Leander.” Studies in Philology 50, no. 2 (April 1953): 158-67.
[In the following essay, Miller considers the relevance of the mythological elements in Hero and Leander.]
Christopher Marlowe's poetic fragment, Hero and Leander, has received high praise from the time of its composition to the present. Douglas Bush passes judgment on the poem and summarizes its history in this fashion:
All the best qualities of the Italianate Ovidian tradition are embodied, and transcended, in Hero and Leander It is equally true that the poem exhibits in high relief all the vices of the tradition. Yet it remains for us the most beautiful short narrative poem of its age, and for Marlowe's contemporaries and followers the causes of our partial dissatisfaction did not exist. It was immensely admired before and after its formal publication, and was enthusiastically quoted and plagiarized for two generations.1
Una Ellis-Fermor accords the poem equally high praise:
[Almost all] that is beautiful in the imagery of the early plays returns in Hero and Leander with an added gravity of form, a firmness and maturity of moulding, that render it the highest work of his invention, and make the aspirations of Tamburlaine appear frenzied and forlorn.2
Yet despite their high praise of the poem, Marlowe's critics have usually regarded Hero and Leander merely as an unreflective hymn to sensuous beauty, as a poem of escape that implicitly denies the unpleasant realities of life by ignoring them.3 Bush remarks in this regard,
… Hero and Leander are not star-crossed lovers; the poem in its total effect is an unclouded celebration of youthful passion and fullness of physical life.4
Ellis-Fermor echoes Bush's belief that the poem is unblushingly optimistic,
… the poet of Hero and Leander does not “look before and after,” much less does he “pine for what is not.” There are no tears in his joy and his song is sweet without the aid of hinted sadness. Beauty is enough, and the love of beauty is neither an instinct in conflict with moral preoccupations and dark, obscure fears, nor a poignant devotion to a threatened and possibly doomed cause … the sunlight is unbroken; no northern twilight of the gods casts its shadow over the warm serenity of this mood.5
It may at once be granted that love and beauty are major issues in the poem. But it must further be insisted—what Bush and Ellis-Fermor deny—that the twin jewels of love and beauty shine with such breath-taking beauty chiefly because they are consistently set against the darkly contrasting foil of fate. Throughout the poem, Fate whispers persistently of Hero and Leander's doom. And it is Fate's “winged chariot” that makes their flight of love as briefly and intensely brilliant as a sparrow's passage through a brightly lighted mead hall into the darkness beyond.
In cherishing beauty and love apart from Fate, their proper foil in Hero and Leander, critics have lost sight of the poem's underlying unity. Consequently they have found only irrelevancy in the poem's abundant mythological content, particularly in its long account (I, ll. 385-484)6 of Mercury's intrigue with a country maid.7 Frederick S. Boas, for example, writes of this passage:
Influenced in part by Ovid, Marlowe crowds his canvas with such elaborate extraneous detail from the classical Pantheon that his hero and heroine become often obscured. This is flagrantly so in the last hundred lines of Sestiad I where quite irrelevantly Marlowe turns aside to tell a tale of Mercury, Jove, Cupid, and the Destinies. …8
The sense of Bush's comment on this passage is almost identical with that of Boas:
A hundred lines are occupied with a somewhat incoherent tale of Mercury, Cupid, and the Destinies; it is quite irrelevant, but furnishes occasion for more sensuousness.9
Yet does it not appear odd that Marlowe, who reveals such a rigid pattern elsewhere in the fragment, should in one section break away from his plan to invent an irrelevant myth one hundred lines in length?10 Surely there is evidence in his description of the lovers, for example, that Marlowe was following a strict plan of composition in Hero and Leander. To establish a clear structural parallel, he successively describes the hair, celestial paramours, outward appearance and surpassing beauty, first of Hero, then of Leander. He reveals parallel structure in details as well as in outline. Cupid, Marlowe observes, is reported to have fallen in love with Hero; in a parallel passage, Leander, it is revealed, wins the barbarous Thracian soldier's love. Marlowe shows sound judgment and a sense of proportion in these descriptions. Because she reflects the perfect beauty of Venus, the poet fittingly describes Hero's appearance more completely than Leander's. Small wonder Ellis-Fermor is impressed by the poem's “gravity of form,” its “firmness and maturity of moulding.”11 It is of course conceivable, but is it probable that a poet who reveals such strict adherence to plan elsewhere in his poem would fall into a hundred-line irrelevancy merely because he loves Ovid to excess or because he revels in sensuousness?
Continuing to ponder the judgment of Boas and Bush, one may also be puzzled that this incident in the lives of the gods should be included irrelevantly, when in his other writings Marlowe introduces the gods purposefully. In The Tragedy of Dido, Hermes has the function of foreshadowing the fates of men (V, I, 1459-62).12 In the same drama Cupid represents the inexplicable but irresistible force of love:
Now Cupid cause the Carthaginian Queene, To be inamourd of thy brothers lookes …
(III, I, 635-36)
And as Ellis-Fermor points out regarding Tamburlaine:
‘Jove,’ ‘Jupiter,’ ‘the gods,’ ‘heaven,’ appear alternately as mild euphemisms for the ideas the modern world conveys—equally evasively—under terms like Providence.13
If Marlowe's general practice makes it doubtful that he would sacrifice relevance to his sensuous love of myth, or functional to purely ornamental deities, then it may be well to look deeper for the purpose of the passage in question.
It may, in fact, be argued that the Mercury incident, whether or not it has a clear function in the poem, has some relevance to Marlowe's fragment. Mercury's courtship of a country maid, with its unhappy consequences, is significantly similar to Leander's courtship of Hero. Both pairs of lovers are alike in their personal characteristics. Both courtships are perilous affairs, and both, as it appears, end unhappily.
The two sets of lovers have similar talents and attributes. Both Mercury, the god of eloquence, and Leander, a sophister of no mean skill, irresistibly court their ladies with “speeches full of pleasure and delight.”14 Both Mercury's country maid and Hero are noted for innocence, but innocence undivorced from pride in their seductive charm. Marlowe has mixed reactions to the country maid:
Her mind pure, and her tongue untaught to gloze; Yet proud she was, for lofty pride that dwells In towered courts is oft in shepherds' cells …
(I, ll. 392-94)
He praises her innocence, yet censures her pride. Hero's innocence extends to her finger-tips. She has hands
… so pure, so innocent, nay such As might have made heaven stoop to have a touch …
(I, ll. 365-66)
Her scorn, a mark of pride similar to the country maid's, is kindled by a host of lovers' fires (I, ll. 122-23).
Both maidens make their lovers undergo fearful tests of love. Just as Mercury gets stiff resistance from the country maid on their first encounter in the grass, so Leander finds that Hero...
(The entire section is 3486 words.)