Hero and Leander is a short, amorous epic written in rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter. It is divided into cantos called “sestiads,” after a verse form which gains its name from the isle of Sestos, where the action takes place. Apparently, Christopher Marlowe wrote the entire first two sestiads of 484 and 334 lines. Some believe these two chapters were meant in themselves to be a complete poem; others believe that Marlowe did not live to finish his work. In any case, George Chapman, the famous translator of Homer, took up the work and completed it by adding four more sestiads. Although appreciated, the Chapman augmentation is not cherished, venerated, or studied with the same interest as the Marlowe chapters, which are considered the best poetic work in that genre during the Elizabethan period.
Hero and Leander could be called an “amorous epic” to distinguish it from the longer Homeric epics which are on heroic subjects. It lacks the sober dignity and solemn tragedy of classical Greek tragedy and epic. Some critics have suggested calling it an epyllion, which carries the sense of a shorter and less serious narrative work. The classical models for these works, so popular in the sixteenth century, were the long, sensuous, and humorous poems of Ovid, particularly the Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.), the Heroides (before 8 c.e.), and the Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.). Ovid was popular in the Middle Ages, providing the literary material for a cult of love which expressed itself in verse romances and the poetry of the troubadours, though the explicit sections of his works were treated as allegory.
The English Renaissance—gay, vigorous, delighting in the senses and a newly discovered sense of personal freedom—disrobed classical love literature of its embarrassed indirection, and sensual, worldly, playful poetry abounded. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander was one of the most popular and influential works following this tendency. It describes the brief and illicit courtship of Hero, a young priestess of the temple of Venus on Sestos, and Leander, a handsome young man of the city of Abydos. The two are separated by the rough seas of the Hellespont, and Leander braves the waters in order to spend evenings with Hero.
The complete legend involves the tragic death of the lovers. Neptune, the god of the sea, becomes enamored of Leander as he swims across the Hellespont. Leander rejects Neptune’s love, and the god drowns Hero in anger. This tragic tale was told by the Greek fifth century poet Musaeus, and it is the Greek or a Latin translation of this poem which is the textual basis for Marlowe’s work. Marlowe, however, barely foreshadows the lovers’ unhappy fate in his two sestiads; this grave duty has been left by history to Chapman. It is possible to read Marlowe alone, therefore, and see nothing but a bright, humorous, sexy poem about two young lovers enjoying their first carnal knowledge, as well as Leander dealing embarrassedly with the homosexual love interest of Neptune, who, showering Leander with jewels and lasciviously fondling him as he swims, seems the picture of an aroused, wealthy, older bon vivant.
The poem begins with a straightforward exposition and then veers instantly into a florid description, full of classical allusions, of Hero’s beauty. Marlowe fills the text with such allusions, an ostentatious display of knowledge of antiquity that is part of the genre. Hero’s beauty is so great that the god Apollo once offered her his throne. Her sleeves are decorated with a representation of naked Venus chasing her beloved Adonis; the figured border of Hero’s dress is stained with the...
(This entire section contains 1343 words.)
blood of desperate lovers who killed themselves because she rejected them. In a spirit of humorous exaggeration, Marlowe describes her breath as so sweet-smelling that bystanders praise it and honeybees swarm about her mouth. Marlowe calls her “Venus’ nun,” which means literally that she is a virgin serving the cult of Venus in the temple at Sestos. Yet, “Venus’ nun” is also an Elizabethan expression for a prostitute.
The description of Leander is equally exaggerated and even more replete with classical allusions. The allusions recall stories from Homer, Vergil, Ovid, and Greek tragedy. Leander’s tresses are like the Golden Fleece—the Argonauts would have traveled to Colchis for them. Cynthia, the moon, is pale in grief that she cannot have Leander. His body is as straight as the magic wand of Circe, the enchantress from the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). Jove would have accepted drink from Leander’s hand and replaced the lovely servant Ganymede with him. Hippolytus, who preferred hunting to love and died rather than accept improper amorous advances, would nevertheless have fallen in love with Leander.
The narration is taken up again with a description of the annual festival at Sestos of Adonis, the boy loved by Venus. Since the festival is in honor of the goddess of love, guests journey there to find new lovers. Hero stands out as the most beautiful woman there. She is compared with the stars and all sorts of heavenly bodies. People rush to see her; many fall in love with her and die of her indifference (to “die” is, in Elizabethan parlance, colloquial for sexual climax).
There is a moment of tragic foresight when Hero and Leander first see each other, but instead of continuing with a description of the meeting of the lovers, Marlowe provides an elaborate digression by describing the fabulous temple of Venus. It is adorned with representations of mythology; these frescoes and bas reliefs, a convention in heroic literature, are usually an evocation of battle and heroic deeds. Yet in this light, amorous epic, they are a list of amorous indiscretions by the gods—appropriate adornment for a temple to Venus. The courting scene begins tenderly with commonplaces about love at first sight. Then, however, follows a long speech by Leander against virginity. One sophism after another, it is designed to seduce Hero at all costs.
Hero’s answer expresses her maidenly ambivalence, for although she is attracted to the young man, she nevertheless makes a show of defending her virtue. She supplicates Venus to save her from this threat to her chastity, but Cupid, the god of love, hovers above her and beats back her prayers from heaven. He then flies to the “palace of the Destinies,” where the Fates, three old women, weave each person’s fortune and future. Cupid asks the Fates to arrange a happy outcome for Hero and Leander, but they will not, because of an injury received from the god at an earlier time. The story of this ancient insult to the Fates, another lengthy digression, ends the sestiad.
The second sestiad is devoted to the actual seduction of Hero. She flees to her tower on Sestos. Leander follows. They kiss and embrace, but no more than that, because Leander does not yet know the facts of life. As instinct instructs him further, however, he again presses Hero to have intercourse with him. The narrator describes in delicious detail their amorous contention and Hero’s attempt to maintain her virginity. This level of description proceeds throughout the entire poem as an alternative to the mythological allusions and classical tone. Leander leaves without having completed “the rites of love.” Soon, however, he swims again to Sestos, this time attracting Neptune as his naked body cleaves the waters. Leander’s rejection of the sea god is the basis for his downfall, which will occur in the Chapman section of the epic.
The rest of the sestiad is the actual final seduction of Hero and an evening of lovemaking. In the morning, the sun rises to find Hero standing by the bed, watching Leander. Marlowe achieves a grand climax by paralleling her early rise with the rise of the sun, which chases away embarrassed night. The 1598 edition contains at this point a cryptic Latin expression, Desunt nonnulla, which means “something is lacking.” That probably indicates the publisher’s understanding that Marlowe broke off in his composition before it was completed.
Hero and Leander has been considered by many to be the finest of the English Renaissance’s “mythological poems.” One of the chief devices of a mythological poem is classical allusion, references to texts and legends of Greek and Roman antiquity. The allusions in Hero and Leander, however, are uneven in tone and often have an unmeasured quality. For example, in praising Leander’s beauty, Marlowe writes, “Even as delicious meat is to the taste,/ So was his neck in touching, and surpass’d/ The white of Pelops’ shoulder.” Pelops’s shoulder is indeed white, because it is made of ivory, a god having in fact eaten the fleshly shoulder when it was served up by Tantalus, Pelops’s father, in a stew. Yet there is also the poet’s description of the carvings on the walls of Venus’s temple: “There might you see the gods in sundry shapes,/ Committing heady riots, incest, rapes.” The poet then tells of Zeus’s seduction, as a golden shower, of Danae; his marriage to his sister, Hera; his love play with the boy Ganymede; and his appearance as a bull to rape Europa. Marlowe then describes Mars and Venus, who were trapped in an iron net by Vulcan after they committed adultery together; and the destruction of Troy because of the rape of Helen.
Nineteenth century critics such as A. C. Bradley saw in the sensuality of Marlowe’s imagery and the flamboyance of his classical allusions a certain Renaissance enthusiasm and “frank acceptance of sensuous beauty and joy.” M. C. Bradbrook introduced in the mid-1930’s, however, a new reading of Marlowe’s poem which sees these allusions as ironic, parodic, and generally humorous. The reference to Pelops, for example, is not infelicitous or inapt but sharp-edged and complex; it means that Marlowe is not taking Leander’s gratuitous beauty utterly seriously. He creates an ironic distance and does not uncritically portray Leander’s amoral sensuality. The poet’s list of rapes, incests, and acts of sexual violence by the gods could be seen as sarcasm or at least not the acceptance without regard to taste and decorum usually attributed to Elizabethan “enthusiasm.”
In general, the devices of Marlowe’s poem parallel those of true heroic narrative, but because the subject is love, not war, there is a deliberate contrast as well. When aggression is replaced by passion, romantic wooing replaces mighty heroic deeds.