Hero and Leander Criticism
by Christopher Marlowe

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Paul D. Miller (essay date April 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 96,765 words.)