Frances, our president, has led the last two meetings in a study of Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus. Here she gives us her thoughts on the experience.
To watch a performance of Dr. Faustus is to be absorbed in the characters of Faustus and Mephistophilis and their struggle, and to be entertained by the comic scenes, dazzled by the displays of magical powers and the pageantry of the mimes and masques, and almost overwhelmed by the horror of the finale.
Reading the play, however, gives me another perspective. I focus more fully on the language, and reading the play is to experience a giddying sense of whirling through time and space. We traverse the globe and its surrounds in the references to lands from the Americas to the Orient, from the Antarctic to Lapland; to the sun, moon and stars, and all the layers of the firmament; and to the ocean depths. We see or hear of people from the ancient past – actual or mythical – and personages contemporary with Faustus, including ruling princes and claimants to the Papacy, side by side with clowns and peasants.
There is an impression of watching through a marvellous lens. At times we can focus minutely on the one man, Faustus, in his study, but then the vision widens: to Wittenberg, to Germany, to Europe, to the entire (known) world, as Faustus flies across it with Mephistophilis.
Visions of great figures from the past expand our sense of passing time, but Time, in another way, is always before us in the knowledge that Faustus has a specified number of years to live. We see those twenty-four years passing almost unnoticed, filled with vain and shallow displays of magical trickery, and then suddenly we are at the final hour; the inexorable ticking and chiming of the clock marks the arrival of the pre-determined and inevitable doom.
The extraordinary power of the language evokes vivid images, from the depths of hell to the limits of the universe, often achieved through the striking juxtaposition of everyday colloquialisms with sophisticated poetic techniques.
Here are some of my favourite phrases and images, which illustrate the immense sweep of Marlowe’s vision throughout the telling of this epic struggle.
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow.
… fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl…
Now that the gloomy shadow of the night….
….Leaps from th’Antarctic world unto the sky
And dims the welkin with her pitchy breath…
Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere
Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.
Had I as many souls as there be stars …
Learned Faustus …
Did mount him up to scale Olympus’ top,
He views the clouds, the planets and the stars,
The tropics, zones and quarters of the sky,
From the bright circle of the horned moon
Even to the height of Primum Mobile.
... the restless course
That time doth run with calm and silent foot.
… the topless towers of Ilium …
… fairer than the evening’s air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come.
The stars move still; time runs; the clock will strike …
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
… such a dreadful night was never seen
Since first the world’s creation did begin.
And after the horror of Faustus’ end, there is the pathos of the Chorus’s moving commentary:
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight.
Although the play derives from Christian teachings, there is a wider spectrum attained by the frequent references to the Greek and Latin classics:
Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky
And more frequented for this mystery
Than heretofore the Delphian oracle.
Were she as chaste as was Penelope,
As wise as Saba, or as beautiful
As was bright Lucifer before his fall.
Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?
You shall behold that peerless dame of Greece,
No otherwise for pomp and majesty
Than when Sir Paris crossed the seas with her
And brought the spoils to rich Dardania.
An added pleasure for me, as a modern-day reader, is the constant memory of other literary references. Milton, Marvell, Byron, Yeats and Auden are some whose lines echo and chime with Marlowe’s images. The fall of Lucifer in “Paradise Lost”:
…. Him (Lucifer) the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire …
Marvell: But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…
Byron: She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies …
Yeats: And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Auden: ... and the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky …
There must be thousands more such quotations which any single phrase might conjure, for each reader, and one could ponder indefinitely on the mutual influences which are at work on our great writers.
Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921) Dr Fausto: oil on canvas,
Rio Grande do Sul Museum of Art, Porto Alegre, Brazil