Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

The Power to Change a Line: Marlowe's Translation of Ovid's Amores

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

The Power to Change a Line: Marlowe's Translation of Ovid's Amores

Article excerpt

Christopher Marlowe's translation of Ovid's Amores (c. 19 BCE), first published as Certaine of Ovids Elegies (c. 1590), shows a deep understanding of the technical structures and poetic themes of Ovid's Latin verse.1 He translates with an attention to elegiac line and couplet structure, which results in consciously Latinate English lines. The accuracy of Marlowe's scholarship has at times been doubted. Henry Lathrop finds the version "not creditable to Marlowe's scholarship," while Roma Gill discusses his "elementary mistakes."2 Yet these criticisms have for the most part been attributed to differences between the Renaissance text Marlowe used and modern editions, and to his textual commentary.3 Comparisons with these documents has laid criticism of his Latin competency to rest but there has been little sustained analysis of how his scholarly approach to Ovid's poetics manifests itself. Marlowe's intelligent rendering of the Amores can be seen through analysis of individual lines and couplets. It is here that Marlowe's almost obsessive recreation of Ovidian style is best observed.

Marlowe tries to write English as Ovid would. His aim is to develop a new method of expression formulated specifically on the principles of Ovid's Latin elegiac verse. As Eric Jacobsen describes it, "Marlowe knew what Ovid was doing in terms of rhetorical structure, and he saw it as his task to create a structure, if possible identical, but failing that, equivalent."4 Marlowe recreates Ovid where he can, and where he cannot, he finds an English poetic technique that can be used as an equivalent. He is so wedded to Ovid's style that sometimes "Marlowe will use a Latinate word order which is yet not the word order of Ovid's Latin."5 This consciousness of Ovid's stylistic habits is matched by a consciousness of Ovid's meta-textual approach to poetry. Ovid's Amores are intensely concerned with the role and nature of poetry, a concern Marlowe shares. Where Ovid provides a commentary on the capabilities of the poetic form, Marlowe adapts this to offer some comment on the capabilities of translation.

In the prolegomenon to Ovid's Amores the poet tells us that he had written a five book series of poems that he has now shortened to three books. He hopes this will alleviate their tediousness. Marlowe reproduces this as follows:

We which were Ovids five bookes now are three,

For these before the rest preferreth he.

If reading five thou plainst of tediousnesse,

Two tane away, thy labour will be lesse (AOE, 1.1.1-4)6

This is where the Amores begin, then, with a puzzle. If there were two extra books, why were they removed? Ovid is surely far too self-confident a poet to really fear they would have been tedious. If there were not, then why the introductory verse? Beginning the poems in this way encourages the reader to think about issues of textuality by making them aware that the poems they are about to read could exist in a different form. Ovid seems to invite critical interaction with his poems by opening them with an editor's note, a verse designed both to placate the disapproving reader and assure us of their mutability. From the beginning the poems are shown to be capable of being changed, adapted, or reworked. The opening epigram invites a translator as Ovid tells us clearly that this work is already defined by a process of editing and redefinition.

Marlowe takes up this challenge from the very beginning. The opening lines of a work of poetry are often important in Latin. Sextus Propertius' opening word in his elegies, "Cynthia" (c. 29 BCE), tells us that his mistress is his primary theme. The opening words of the Aeneid (c. 29-19 BCE), "arma uirumque cano," express not just its main themes but also Virgil's desire to create a Roman response to Homer. Ovid opens his Amores (his first work) with a satiric tone by imitating Virgil, telling his audience "Arma graui numero uiolentaque bella parabam" (Amores, 1.1. …

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