I suspect that outside academic circles the poetry of Elizabethan playwright, wit, spy and all round bad boy Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is now little read. Certainly he doesn’t have the broad humanity of his contemporary William Shakespeare, yet he wields a fine supple verse line and was after all someone whom Shakespeare himself seems to have viewed with considerable if possibly grudging respect: although we cannot be sure, there is a good case to made that he is the ‘rival poet’ of the Sonnets, and certainly when in Sonnet 86 Shakespeare refers to ‘the proud full sail of his great verse’, that would seem a tribute very applicable to Marlowe’s work.
Here are lines from the concluding scene of Marlowe’s play ‘Dr Faustus’, where the midnight hour is approaching at which the doctor’s soul becomes forfeit to hell. In an age when there was a belief in literal damnation this must have been pretty scary stuff and it remains powerful even today.
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
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,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi! *
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.’
* Run slow, run slow, ye horses of the night