Ovid in English: Christopher Marlowe

Ovid in English: Christopher Marlowe

One of the pleasures of anthologies is finding what one didn’t appreciate sufficiently at first reading. Apart from that most beautiful The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, I’d never much cared for Christopher Marlowe, but then came across his translation of Ovid’s Amores 1.5 in Christopher Martin’s Ovid in English. It starts:
1. In summers heat and mid-time of the day

which is truly wonderful. The seven lines following are a little mechanical, but then the magic picks up again with:

Then came Corinna in a long loose gowne,
10 Her white necke hid with tresses hanging downe,
Resembling faire | Semiramis going to bed,|
Or Layis | of a thousand lovers sped.
I snatcht her gowne: being thin, the harme was small,
Yet strivde she to be covered therewithall,
15 And striving thus as one that would be cast,
Betrayde her selfe, and yeelded at the last.
Starke naked as she stood before mine eie,
Not one wen in her bodie could I spie,
What armes and shoulders did I touch and see,
20 How apt her breasts were to be prest by me,
How smoothe a bellie, under her waste sawe I,
How large a legge, and what a lustie thigh?
To leave the rest, all likt me passing well,
I clinged her naked bodie, downe she fell,
25 Judge you the rest, being tyrde she bad me kisse.
Jove send me more such afternoones as this. {2}

It is not the melody of those lines which are so astonishing in a young man of eighteen, but the freshness of perception and that ever-changing rhythm. If we mark the pauses in the simplest way we see how varied they are:

Then came Corinna | in a long loose gowne ||
10 Her white necke hid with tresses || hanging downe |||
Resembling faire | Semiramis ||| going to bed ||
Or Layis | of a thousand lovers | sped |||
I snatcht her gowne || being thin || the harme was small ||
Yet strivde she to be covered | there | withall |||
15 And striving thus | as one that would be cast ||
Betrayde her selfe || and yeelded at the last |||
Starke naked | as she stood | before mine eie ||
Not one wen in her bodie | could I spie |||
What armes and shoulders | did I touch | and see ||
20 How apt her breasts were | to be prest by me |||
How smoothe a bellie | under her waste | sawe I ||
How large a legge | and what a lustie thigh |||
To leave the rest || all likt me passing well ||
I clinged her naked bodie ||| downe she fell |||
25 Judge you the rest ||, being tyrde | she bad me kisse ||
Jove send me more || such afternoones || as this |||

The verse is not perfect. The metre is manhandled in line 11, and is awkward in line 18, the accents falling on usually unstressed syllables:

Not óne wen ín her bódie cóuld I spíe

But other lines (1, 9, 24, 26) are shining accomplishment in verse craft. Note how the subdivisions are played off within couplets. The extended | in a long loose gowne || is followed by the shorter || hanging downe |||. The three-fold, slow-moving Resembling faire | Semiramis ||| going to bed || is dispatched quickly (indeed ‘sped’) in Or Layis | of a thousand lovers | sped |||. The same pattern appears in lines 13 and 14, but is broken (for good effect) in lines 23 and 24, the downe she fell climaxing the story. Again the pattern appears in lines 25 and 26, the exhausted Judge you the rest ||, being tyrde | she bad me kisse || being rounded off in the easy rhythms of Jove send me more || such afternoones || as this |||

To see what happens when the underlying iambic is not present to achieve these effects, look at the same passage in a modern translation:

And behold! Corinna comes, veiled in a loosened tunic,
her hair covering her gleaming neck in twin braids.
She was like shapely Semiramis entering her bridal chamber,
or Lais, loved by many men. I ripped off the tunic:
it was quite thin and put up little resistance —
all the same, she kept struggling to maintain its shielding cover. {3}

Free verse is difficult. It generates its rhythms out of the phrases themselves, and so needs an acute ear for the properties of words, their vowel melodies and consonantal textures. The first line is possibly scanned And behóld! Corínna cómes, véiled in a lóosened túnic, which is fine, though the repeated ú isn’t too attractive. The second line doubles the spondee: her háir cóvering her gléaming néck in twín bráids, and creates a curious double take with the repeated her, as though Corinna is being set up for rape. That vulnerability jars with the bridal of the line following, which is confident though not flowing: She was líke shápely Semíramis éntering her brídal chámber. Worse comes with the next line, where the attractive or Laís, lóved by mány mén, is hit by the coarse I rípped óff her túnic. In short, the rhythm is all over the place, doesn’t support the sense, or create the necessary continuity. More pleasing is this version in rhyming couplets by Anne Mahoney:

And now my love Corinna did appear,
Loose on her neck fell her divided hair;
Loose as her flowing gown, that wanton’d in the air.
In such a garb, with such a grace and mien,
To her rich bed came the Assyrian queen;
So Lais looked when all the youth of Greece
With adoration did her charms confess.
Her envious gown to pull away I tried,
But she resisted still, and still denied;
But so resisted that she seem’d to be
Unwilling to obtain the victory;
So I at last an easy conquest had,
Whilst my fair combatant herself betray’d.
But when she naked stood before my eyes,
Gods, with what charms did she my soul surprise!
What snowy arms did I both see and feel!
With what rich globes did her soft bosom swell!
Plump as ripe clusters rose each glowing breast,
Courting the hand, and suing to be press’d!
What a smooth plain was on her belly spread,
Where thousand little loves and graces play’d!
What thighs! what legs ! but why strive I in vain,
Each limb, each grace, each feature to explain
One beauty did through her whole body shine;
I saw, admir’d, and press’d it close to mine
The rest who knows not? Thus entranc’d we lay,
Till in each other’s arms we died away;
0 give me such a noon, ye gods, to ev’ry day! {4}

The rendering goes beyond what the Latin strictly says, though intelligently, but the  lines have been padded out to meet the rhyme. Marlowe was blunter, finding the simple equivalent in English while staying alert to the properties of words. Both the Latin and Marlowe’s translation of this section   of this section have 18 lines:

Corinna venit, tunica velata recincta,
Candida dividua colla tegente coma
Qualiter in thalamos famosa Semiramis isse
Dicitur, et multis Lais amata viris.
Deripui tunicam nec multurar nocebat
Pugnabat tunica sed tamen illa tegi.
Quae cum ita pugnaret, tamquam quae vincere nollet, 
Quae cum ita pugnaret, tamquam quae vincere nollet,
Victa est non aegre proditione sua.
Ut stetit ante oculos posito velamine nostros,
In toto nusquam corpore menda fuit.
Quos umeros, quales vidi tetigique lacertos!
Forma papillarum quam fuit apta  premi!
Quam castigato planus sub pectore venter!
Quantum et quale latus! quam iuvenale   femur!
Singula quid referam? nil non laudabile vidi
Et nudam pressi corpus ad usque meum:
Cetera quis nescit? lassi requievimus ambo.
medii sic mihi saepe dies!   {5}


1. Christopher Marlowe. http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/marlowe.htm”.   Luminarium’s extensive and attractive site.
2. Martin, Christopher, (ed.) Ovid in English (Penguin, 1998) 340.
3. From Ovid’s Amores. John Porter (trans) 1995. http://homepage.usask.ca/%7Ejrp638/DeptTransls/Ovid.html”>Selections .
4. Ovid’s Art of Love (in three Books), the Remedy of Love, the Art of Beauty, the Court of Love, the History of Love, and Amours. Anne Mahoney. (Calvin Blanchard,   1855) Edited for http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Ov.%2BAm.%2B1.5.1
 5. P. Ovidius Naso, Amores, Epistulae, Medicamina faciei femineaehttp://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0068:text=Am.:book=1:poem=5:line=1″>Ars amatoria   Remedia amoris (ed. R. Ehwald).

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  1. Probably not bad for its time, but verse got rather smoother and more expressive after Marlowe, I’d have thought. Lines 9 and 10 seem a bit mechanical, don’t they?

  2. You perhaps ought to mention John Porter’s delightful translation, which starts:

    Amores 1.5

    It was hot, and the day had passed its middle hour;
    I lay my limbs on the couch, seeking rest.
    The window was half open, half closed —
    the light was like that which one finds in the woods
    when they gleam in half shadow as Phoebus flees before the twilight 5
    or when night has departed but day has yet to rise.
    Such light is de riguer for girls of a bashful nature:
    in it their timorous modesty can hope to find some friendly shadows.

    It’s on his website: http://homepage.usask.ca/~jrp638/DeptTransls/Ovid.html

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