On the Death of Sir Roger Manwood

by Christopher Marlowe

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Christopher Marlowe wrote this epitaph in Latin upon the occasion of the death of the great judge and Baron of the Exchequer Sir Roger Manwood, probably in the year of that man's death (and a year before the poet's own), 1592. The Latin epitaph, or eulogistic poem, was a very old form practiced by the Roman poet Ovid, among others. Marlowe himself did not translate his poem into English; he was a Cambridge classical scholar and assumed that anyone wishing to read a eulogy about the Lord Chief Baron would know enough Latin to understand it. It is a curious poem, in that it is written by a man who was once at the mercy of this judge in a case of wrongful death. But the judge had cleared Marlowe, and both men were from the county of Kent, where Manwood endowed a free village school that endures to this day. There is considerable scholarly speculation about why Marlowe, who was in trouble with the law often enough during his short life, would write a poem glorifying a judge. It may have been gratitude for his acquittal, or simply personal fellow-feeling for another Kentish man. It could have even been a set of veiled insults.

Latin is given to pun-making, and certainly a number of puns can be found in this poem, possibly alluding to Marlow's ambivalent feelings about Manwood.   The judge, whom Marlowe describes as the "terror of him who prowls by night," is also described as a "bird of prey" (vultur in Latin, which may certainly be read as "vulture," a less pleasing description) to criminals. This can mean that he was a just and stern judge to the evildoer, but may also imply a rapaciousness and greediness not in keeping with his high office. It is difficult to know for certain if this poem was tongue-in-cheek or sincere, and the English translation, by necessity, excludes a large number of the Latin puns that suggest the ambiguity. The last lines, which seem so unambiguous in English, "...may your bones rest happily, and may your fame survive the memorials of your marble tomb," actually contain a pun on "fame" (fama) which can mean "ill repute." While it is very difficult to determine if this poem was entirely sincere, in English it reads as a glowing and eloquent epitaph for a man who worked for justice. It describes Manwood as one whose sad death will cause the rejoicing of the evildoers because he is no longer there to strike them down. Marlowe calls upon the personification of Envy to spare Manwood, since he was held in such awe during his lifetime.

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