Feb. 26, 2007

The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships

by Christopher Marlowe

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Poem: "The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships" by Christopher Marlowe, from Doctor Faustus. Public domain. (buy now)

The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies:
And all is dross that is not Helena:
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy shall Wertenberg be sack'd,
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest:
Yea I will wound Achillis in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars,
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter,
When he appear'd to hapless Semele,
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms,
And none but thou shalt be my paramour.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Victor Hugo, (books by this author) born in Besançon, France (1802). In the English-speaking world, he's mainly remembered as the man who wrote Les Misérables (1865) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), but in France he's considered one of the great French poets as well.

His father was a general in Napoleon's army, and Hugo rarely saw him. He lived with his mother in Paris, and he was tutored in the classics by his godfather, who lived in the family garden shed. It was only later that Hugo learned his mother and his godfather were having an affair, and that his godfather was plotting against Napoleon. The man was eventually caught and shot by a firing squad.

Hugo and his brother, Eugene, spent the rest of their childhood traveling around Europe with their mother, to Italy and then to Spain. The brothers entertained each other by writing poetry and plays. They both went to law school, but instead of going to classes they started a literary journal together. And then they fell in love with the same girl. Victor married her, and on the day of the wedding, Eugene had a nervous breakdown, and he never recovered, spending the rest of his life in a mental asylum.

As Hugo was beginning his writing career, he spent a lot of his time wandering around the slums of Paris. At a time when most novelists focused on the aristocracy, Hugo began to write about the people of the street.

He published his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, which made him famous. But his fame helped turn him into an enemy of the state. He spoke out against the regime of Napoleon III, who started out as an elected president and then declared himself emperor. Troops eventually showed up at his door to arrest him, but he had already fled the country, disguised in a workman's cap and a black coat.

He spent 20 years in exile on the island of Guernsey, where he began writing furiously. Every morning, he would stand at a lectern, facing a window with a view of the English Channel, and he would write at least 20 pages of prose or 100 lines of poetry. It was at that lectern that he wrote his masterpiece, Les Misérables (1865), which he'd been sketching out in his mind for more than 30 years.

Les Misérables is the story of a man named Jean Valjean. He is born into poverty in Paris, and as a young man he steals a loaf of bread and is thrown in jail for 19 years. After Valjean is released, he works his way up the ladder of society and becomes a successful businessman and mayor of a small town, only to be hunted down and imprisoned again for a minor crime he committed in his past.

When the book came out, Hugo said, "I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Misérables."

It was on this day in 1564 that the playwright Christopher Marlowe (books by this author) was baptized in Canterbury, England. We're not sure of his birthday. He was one of the most prominent playwrights of his lifetime, surpassed only by Shakespeare. When he began his career, most English plays were written in rhyming couplets, but Marlowe wrote in blank verse, without end rhymes. Other playwrights, including Shakespeare, followed his example.

He lived an exciting life. He was a child prodigy and managed to get into Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, even though he was the son of a shoemaker. His school records show that he was frequently absent from class because he was working for Queen Elizabeth's secret service. There is some evidence that he continued to work as a secret agent for the queen for the rest of his life. In the 1590s, while he was producing his plays, church officials began to accuse him of espousing atheism, a charge that could be punished by torture. On May 18, 1593, a warrant was issued for his arrest, but he died in a fight over a bar bill before the police could find him.

Conspiracy theorists have wondered about Marlowe's death for centuries, and there is a group called the Marlovians who believe that Marlowe's death was actually faked by the queen in order to protect Marlowe from the Church. They believe the queen actually whisked Marlowe away to Italy, where he continued writing plays. They also believe that Marlowe used an actor named Shakespeare as a front man to cover up his identity.

Marlovians point out that many of Shakespeare's plays mention places in Marlowe's home district of Kent, while they never mention the places near where Shakespeare was born. A tavern mentioned in Henry IV actually belonged to Marlowe's sister.

Marlovians also point out that many of Shakespeare's plays deal with themes of exile and false identity.

But few Shakespeare scholars take this conspiracy theory seriously. And so Marlowe is best remembered for his play Dr. Faustus (c. 1594), about a scientist who sells his soul to the devil and conjures up Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the history of the world.

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