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Marlowe’s mighty line is Marlowe’s blank verse with its new vigour, force and fire to suit his heroic
themes. “Blank” is a word derived form the French “blanc” which means white requiring something
to be filled in. So blank verse means verse without rhyme. It is unrhymed, iambic pentameter in
which each line is divided into five feet. In each foot, there are two syllables of which the first is
unstressed and the second is stressed. So in each line we have ten syllables (sound units) and five
feet (combination of syllables). In diagram form a line in iambic pentameter can be presented as: An
unstressed syllable (xx) followed by a stressed syllable (----)
xx---- xx---- xx---- xx---- xx----
Swinburne went so far as to declare about Marlowe “The first great English poet was the father of
English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse.” In fact, Marlowe cannot be called the
creator of English blank verse. However ,we can call him the great innovator who ,by his genius,
made it the supreme instrument of dramatic poetry for the first time. The blank verse actually came
from Italy and it was Surrey who first used blank verse for his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, and for
dramatic purpose it was used first by Sackville and Norton in “Gorboduc”, the first English tragedy,
which afterwards was called “Ferrex and Porrex”.
Blank verse of Gorboduc and other dramatic works before Marlowe was definitely artificial,
unformed and monotonous. The works were generally composed in heroic couplets with its
inherent artificiality which made the dialogues in drama unnatural. In the blank verse of this
Senecan school, we find the accented and unaccented syllable alternating with regularity and the
sense ending with each line. We find that the blank verse of Gorboduc with its end stopped lines
and the pause used to be placed at the same spot. All these stiff rules and rigid regularity made
their verse extremely monotonous and inflexible. So, there is no flow and music, no vigour in the
verse of Gorboduc. According to Saintsbury the blank verse previous to Marlowe was: “Like a dried
preparation, like something waiting for the infusion of blood for the inflation of living breath.”
The redeeming feature of the verse of Gorboduc was that it freed it from the fetters of rhyme. Here
are a few lines from Gorboduc:
“The silent night that brings the quiet pause,
From painful travails of the weary day,
Prolongs my careful thoughts and makes me blame”
If we read these lines aloud with proper intonation, it is quite obvious that each line consists of
exactly ten syllables and each foot is iambic without any sort of variation. This strict adherence is a
sort of mechanical regularity which creates monotony.
It was, in fact, left for Marlowe to infuse new blood and thus enliven the blank verse of his
predecessors with astounding vigour, variety and rhythm. And Marlowe’s genius worked wonders.
At one stroke, he freed it form the fetters of formalism, regularity and conventional restraints. In
place of blank verse of Gorboduc with its end-stopped lines (each line complete in itself) and dull
and regular beats, Marlowe introduced run-on lines (one line combined to the next line).
Sometimes, with feminine or weak endings, he varied the accent here and there and shifted the
caesura (pause) to the middle of a line to suit the sense and the subject. Faustus’s magnificent
apostrophe to Helen with its poetic excellence, romantic rapture and musical cadence is probably
the most celebrated verse-paragraph in England’s dramatic literature:
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships’
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss
O’ thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.”
Marlowe also created a wonderful rhythm of extreme flexibility and power by introducing feet other
than iambic ones. For example:
(a) With an opening pyrrhic (a foot of two short syllables) followed by a spondee (a foot of two long
“And to / show thee / what magic can / perform”
(b) With an opening trochee (a foot of two syllables---a long followed by a short).
“Now that / the gloomy shadow of / the earth”
Credit also must be given to Marlowe for perfecting blank verse to a great extent and giving it
amazing force, variety and rhythm. If we take up any passage for examination form the text it will
reveal that run-on lines are quite frequent and the position of the medieval pause is also much
varied as is clear in the lines.
“Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again ,and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but,
A year, a month, a week, a natural day.”
Or take the lines in which the blank verse not merely obeys the stress of passion but expresses its
very intensity in unforgettable cadences:
“The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must damn’d.”
There is elasticity, simplicity and the change in beat and pause in the lines:
“O’ what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence.”
The most poignant soliloquy of Dr. Faustus did Marlowe carry the blank verse as a medium for
dramatic expression with its poetic and passionate yet genuinely spontaneous language, the
sonorous music of his words:
“O’ soul, be changed into little Water drops,
And fall into the ocean, near be found!”
Marlowe gets into blank verse the melody of Spenser and frees the blank verse from the restriction
of the rhymed couplet, and from the elegiac and pastoral note of Surrey, to which Tennyson
returned. In “Faustus” Marlowe went further: he broke up the line to gain intensity, in the last
soliloquy: and he developed a new and important conversational tone in the dialogues of Faustus
with the devil. Compton Rickett says:
“He took the .blank verse of the classical school, hard and unflinching as a rock, and struck it with
his rod till the water of human emotion gushed forth.”
Marlowe’s blank verse, no doubt, reveals some drawbacks and glaring defects. It was often full of
strange and swelling phrases and thus the thundering speeches in his dramas often turned out to
be mere bombast and rant. Again as a critic remarks: “It is over-adorned with classical allusions, it
delights in ornament and sonority and, in the main, it is declamatory and lyrical rather than
dramatically suited to character and situation.”
The major defect is that it is pompous and high sounding and some here it appears to be artificial.
But these objections are not valid because high sounding ness and pomposity were the
requirements of the theatre of that age.
But whatever may be its defects or drawbacks, it was Marlowe who first gave British drama, a
powerful medium of expression through the mighty line of this blank verse. This was one of his
greatest contributions to Elizabethan drama. It was Marlowe who guided Shakespeare to the right
way of work and left it for Shakespeare’s inimitable genius to purity and perfection. Marlowe
influenced not only dramatists but also the poets of the coming ages. Milton adopted blank verse in
his great works, “Paradise Lost”, “Paradise Regain” and “Samson Agonistes”. Wordsworth wrote
his greatest work, “The Prelude” in blank verse. Though the later writers also used blank verse as a
medium of expression yet the greatest name is of Marlowe. J.A. Symonds says about him:
“He unlocked the secrets of the verse and taught successors how to play upon its hundred stops.”