In Obitum Christopher Marlowe

Banner - Faustus - Marlowe Manwood epitaph translation

30 May 2018
· On the anniversary of Marlowe’s death, his snarky Latin trolling of a dead judge ·

Today marks the anniversary of mortality of playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe, whose life ended on this date in 1593. He was twenty-nine years old. The coroner’s inquisition concluded that he was stabbed during a disagreement over the split of a supper bill, but the report was possibly a ruse because he was possibly a government agent in need of a convenient disappearance. Or, possibly, someone inside the government saw his theatrical populism as a growing threat to the established social order, and wanted him silenced.

Or his death was possibly murder done by me.

Amazing Mystico's proof I murdered Marlowe - Marlowe Manwood epitaph translationThe proof. There’s much, much more
where this came from. I’m busted in Part 9 by
Patrick Jennings, aka The Amazing Mystico.

Facepalm column statueOther things that Kit Marlowe was supposed to be, possibly: an atheist, a blasphemer, a bravo, a buggerer, a counterfeiter, a duellist, an epicure, an heretic, a papist, a rake, and Shakespeare. Quite the list for someone who didn’t see thirty years, which might explain why not. Kit was barely out of Cambridge and his teens during my tenure as scribeherd at Fisher’s Folly but he could have been any or all of those things, excepting the last. I don’t judge him. A lot of those avocations were applied by slander or libel if not fact to me as well. Some still are (we’ll get to that). Though I was never a coiner.

Whatever fate befell him, Marlowe’s work remains: the too-short list including Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, The Passionate Shepherd (“Come live with me and be my love”), his translation of Ovid’s Amores, and a few more. At the end of this post you’ll find some lines from his Edward II, but the work I want to look over closely is one that’s usually overlooked.Back in February (2018) as I wrestled with my recollections of Mary Stuart’s 1586 trial, it dawned on me that one of the justices I served with at Fotheringhay later became the subject of Marlowe’s (possibly) last completed work. I made a note to write about it, and here we are.

Kit wrote his parvum opus near the end of 1592, five months before his (let’s assume) unfaked death. Twelve short lines in Latin hexameter, an epitaph for a prominent judge who had just died.

Portrait Roger Manwood - Marlowe Manwood epitaph translation19th century copy after an unknown original
(©National Portrait Gallery, London)

The judge was Sir Roger Manwood. Possessor of an imposing mien and the personality to match, he was Chief Baron of the Exchequer, head of the Court of Exchequer. He was not an accountant, but money played a leading role in his administration of justice. The Lord Chief Baron was a dealer in justice.

Modern sources attempting to clean him up retrospectively have had their work cut out for them:

A man of his times, he often resorted to bribery and corruption to advance his own interests, but [he] had a profound commitment to common law. He imposed harsh punishments where he felt they were needed, including cutting out of the tongue for disloyalty to the Queen and fines for non-attendance at church, but [he] was a generous benefactor to local causes.

Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society

Others have been more direct:

He is remembered as an exceptionally corrupt lawyer who gave vast sums to Kentish charities.

The History of Parliament

Marlowe and Manwood had history. In September 1589, Marlowe was attacked in the street (a different financial dispute). He was rescued by his friend the poet Thomas Watson, who was injured as he took over the fight and killed the attacker. Watson pled self-defence. Both poets were held, and Marlowe spent a couple of weeks in Newgate prison until he could post £40 bail. When he came to trial he was exonerated of wrongdoing, and one of the ruling judges was the Lord Chief Baron. Watson was convicted of manslaughter, and remained in Newgate until he received a royal pardon a few months later.

Manwood and Marlowe were both Men of Kent, born forty years apart. It is possible, though not proven, that some of Manwood’s ill-gotten largesse funded Marlowe’s scholarship to The King’s School in Canterbury. It has also been speculated, though not widely, that Manwood cuckolded John Marley (the common spelling at the time), and that Kit was the result of double adultery between the rising magistrate and the cobbler’s wife. This and possibly uncountable other conjectures [tangent post] are posited by Robert Ayres in The Death and Posthumous Life of Christopher Marlowe.

As I hewed my way through Ayres’s anagrams and probably-ities, I was brought to a standstill by an unexpected, lengthy non sequitur consisting of a very unfriendly depiction of myself.

Faust and Mephistopheles by Delacroix - Marlowe Manwood epitaph translationMephistopheles Appears Before Faust
by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1824-1828
(The Morgan Library & Museum)

I wonder if Mr Jennings and Mr Ayres are acquainted.The point of all this backstory is to illuminate Marlowe as the gifted, transgressive iconoclast that he was, and to fill in what I know of the prior relationship between the bent poet and the crooked judge.

Manwood’s epitaph is possibly the last thing Kit ever wrote. It’s probably the shortest thing he ever wrote. For me, it’s certainly the funniest thing he ever wrote.The first thing we do, let’s look at the original.

  • Noctivagi terror, ganeonis triste flagellum,
  • Et Jovis Alcides, rigido vulturque latroni,
  • Urna subtegitur. Scelerum gaudete nepotes!
  • Insons luctifica sparsis cervice capillis
  • Plange! fori lumen, venerandae gloria legis
  • Occidit: heu, secum effoetas Acherontis ad oras
  • Multa abiit virtus. Pro tot virtutibus uni
  • Livor, parce viro: non audacissimus esto
  • Illius in cineres, cuius tot milia vultus
  • Mortalium attonuit; sic cum te nuncia Ditis
  • Vulneret exsanguis, feliciter ossa quiescant
  • Famaque marmorei superet monumenta sepulchri.

If you’re curious enough to not skip the video you may want to follow along in the text above it while you listen, because the words are not displayed. Sir Thomas would have been more than a little displeased had I recited as poorly as this bot has done, but my only other option was unspeakably worse.
• English Translation #1

  • Within this urn lies the terror of vagabonds, the harsh scourge of the profligate,
  • A vulture to the hardened criminal, Jove’s Alcides.
  • Rejoice, sons of the wicked! And you who are guiltless,
  • Weep with head bowed in grief and disheveled hair!
  • The light of government, the glory of reverend law is dead:
  • Alas, much virtue went with him to the dim shores of Acheron.
  • O Envy, for so many virtues spare one man;
  • Do not insult over the ashes of one
  • Whose countenance terrified so many thousands of mortals.
  • So, though the pale messenger of Dis assails you, may your bones rest peacefully,
  • And your fame outlast the monuments of your marble sepulchre.

• English Translation #2

  • The terror of him who prowls by night, the stern scourge of one who is profligate,
  • Both a Hercules, son of Jove, and a bird of prey upon the rough brigand,
  • Is encased in an urn. Rejoice, ye sons of wickedness!
  • Mourn, unoffending one, with hair in disorder over your pitiable neck.
  • The light of officialdom, the glory of the worshipful law, lies dead.
  • Alas, much virtue has passed with him to the barren shores of Acheron.
  • In view of his so numerous virtues, spare, O Envy, this one man;
  • Be not overly presumptuous toward the ashes of one
  • Whose glance has held thunderstruck so many thousands of mortals.
  • On these terms, when Death’s pale messenger wounds you, may your bones rest happily,
  • And may your fame survive the memorials of your marble tomb.

The first translation seems completely oblivious to anything going on beneath the surface. The second gets at least a hint of snark across, though perhaps not intentionally. It’s a bit more equivocal, which is an improvement. I can’t quite tell what the second translator is thinking, whether he’s been taken in as fully as the first one has.

Breaking down every phrase in Marlowe’s dense nugget is more than I’m up for these days. Four hundred years puts a lot of ferrugo on one’s Latin, but here are a few bits, to exemplify what I describe farther down the page as the untranslatable depth. These should get the point across.

Noctivagi terror

Right away we find that translation can lead to misinterpretation. I’ve seen ‘the terror of those who prowl by night’ explained as referring to the ‘School of Night’, supposedly a coterie of clandestine atheists run by Walter Ralegh, to which Marlowe was said to belong. The Lord Chief Baron was no friend to atheists: when the monarch heads the church, atheism becomes treason. Nor did he and Ralegh get along – there was disagreement and a grudge over the amount of a kickback that Manwood felt he was entitled to. A ‘School of Night’ inference makes the second-level meaning quite specific. The catch is that the coterie’s existence is either unproven or spurious depending on your point of view, and in any case the name ‘School of Night’ wasn’t used to describe it until the 20th century. I’ll stick with the literal meaning, Manwood as the fright-inducing enemy of wrongdoers in the dark. Literal doesn’t mean not funny. Kit is leading off by saying “This bloke was Batman.” Classic hyperbole.

Et Jovis Alcides

Surface meaning: Hercules (Alcides is an alternate name), the heroic strong-man, fathered by Jove the powerful ruler of the gods. Second meaning: Hercules the avaricious strong-arm, bastard offspring of the powerful god-replacing ruler. Pokes not just at Manwood but also at Elizabeth’s religious settlement, which was anything but settled. The safe first level provides camouflage for the politically dangerous second. Kit did enjoy taking risks.

rigido vulturque latroni

Here’s the sharpest barb in the whole epitaph. A vulture (vulturque) is technically a bird of prey, but this is where it helps to know your raptors: vultures are not hunters but scavengers, feeding on carrion. And rigido doesn’t describe the thief (latroni) as hardened, it describes him as stiffening, a corpse in rigor mortis. Manwood was not the hawk of justice who stooped to seize the obdurate villain, he was the scavenger picking over the carcasses of vermin that he himself sent to the (metaphorical) gallows*. It’s brilliant.

*The Court of Exchequer dealt with matters of taxation and equity, not capital crimes.

Urna subtegitur

“Is encased in an urn” cracks me up every time. Deflation by understatement, in contrast to the hyperbole of the opening phrase. Look at the big hero now. First he was Batman, now he’s in a jar.

Livor, parce viro

Not so much humour as wordplay. A man, viro, is an anagram (I can cope with tiny ones) within envy, livor. So envy can indeed “spare this one man”, with the l left over. I suspect that Kit was also playing on man/Manwood, though that’s not in Latin.

Famaque marmorei superet monumenta sepulchri

“[and may your] Fame exceed (or outlive) the monuments of your marble tomb” – fama isn’t just fame, but also reputation, including rumour, gossip, and ill-repute. Fama covers a lot of ground. The pun turns the blessing into a curse: it’s Manwood’s infamy that will be remembered, greater and more enduring than his Kentish legacies or his marble tomb.

So far the monuments still exist, along with the infamy.

Roger Manwood memorial Canterbury - Marlowe Manwood epitaph translationThe marble tomb of Sir Roger Manwood,
St Stephen’s Church, Canterbury

Do you see what I mean? Foxy Kit bit the hand that possibly fed him in his youth, and probably kept him out of the clink later on. Marlowe turned De mortuis nil nisi bonum on its ear with wit that’s still razor-sharp after 425 years. If you aren’t chuckling, you aren’t paying enough attention.I did a great deal of translating, of both prose and poetry. Prose, at least when it’s not trying to be ambiguous, is straightforward, the task akin to ploughing a field. You work your way through it, furrow by furrow. If your plough is sharp, your oxen biddable, and your soil worth the effort, your field will be fertile. A good prose translation certainly demands fluency and facility in the languages involved, but it’s more craft than art [1].

Poetry is another matter.

When translating poetry between languages, you have to make choices between form and meaning. It’s virtually impossible to retain all of both. If you strive to hold onto the structure of metre and rhyme, you sacrifice the accuracy of the translated ideas. To convey the ideas precisely, the structure must be altered or abandoned. Call it the principle of complementarity in poetic translation. I hope Niels Bohr won’t mind.

The skill of the poet-translator lies in optimising these countervailing limitations, to carry as much as possible of the poet-writer’s creation and intention across the language border. This is an art of its own, not any less than that which produced the original.

An obvious example is Uncle Arthur’s (well…) 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Latin is dactylic hexameter, the translation rhymed couplets in iambic heptameter, called fourteeners, which I posted about not long ago. English flows better in this form (and better yet in pentameter, as I demonstrated later). Metre is handled differently in Latin than English, which makes holding onto Ovid’s rhythm very difficult. A translator must decide what form will best convey the sense of the original – the mood of the music, if not the exact beats. You translate the words, but you don’t just translate the words.

Wordplay is a problem, to put it mildly. Letter tricks, puns, double meanings like Kit employed in his epitaph – these things rarely cross borders intact, and all you can do is explain them in an aside or a footnote or a blog post. It’s not efficient and it’s anything but poetic.

A translated poem is to its original as a painting is to the solid objects it represents. It can be a bad painting or a good painting, but it’s still a rendered image of its subject. The real depth isn’t there, the light and shadow. But better a painting than no image at all. Since the Tower of Babel, translation is what we’ve had to live with.

Bruegel Great Tower of Babel 1563· The (Great) Tower of Babel ·
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
(Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, also
Wikimedia Commons, Google Cultural Institute)

There’s another element of depth in a poem: the knowledge shared by poet and reader, the things assumed to be understood between them. This is often as much a matter of common temporality and background as one of language. Some poems fly across time and distance, others remain fixed to a calendar or a map. Marlowe’s references to Roman gods and mythic locations hark back to the classical-era epitaphs he used as his models, yet he parodies these as he imitates them. The fact that he wrote in Latin and not English indicates the epitaph’s nature as inside humour, meant only for those with the education and the savvy to get it. If Manwood had been around to read it he would not have been amused, he’d have understood that he was being pilloried, not lauded. It’s an intentional part of the joke that the seemingly sincere surface is all that most people will comprehend, especially those who need to rely on a translation. Roger Manwood’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes the beginning of another translation of Marlowe’s epitaph, with an introduction that utterly misses the point:

Manwood was the centre of many controversies and the subject of myth-making. Christopher Marlowe, perhaps his protégé, perhaps merely grateful that Manwood had released him at the London assizes in 1589, wrote a Latin eulogy, which starts:

  • Here lies the dour scourge of the profligate
  • Instrument of the hardened criminals fate
  • Fearsome to vagrants, Hercules from Jove sent
  • Celebrate you old lags! If innocent,
  • Weep with dishevelled hair and mournful breast,
  • Law’s light and glory now has gone to rest.

I invested effort and several shillings into trying to find the remainder of this translation, to see if the end of its rhyming-couplet form was as bad as the beginning. No luck, I’m not certain that the rest exists. But even those six lines illustrate the principle of complementarity, that form can only come at the expense of meaning. Why did the editors choose to use this distorted truncation? I can only guess. Perhaps to name-drop Marlowe in the article while burying the snark so deep that it didn’t have to be dealt with. From what I’ve seen, the ODNB prefers the conventional wisdom, even when it isn’t wise.Here’s the selection from the first scene of Marlowe’s Edward II. The speaker is Piers Gaveston, the king’s favourite, with all that term implies. Spelling has been slightly modernised from the 1612 quarto edition: I exciſed the accurſed ſs.

  • Gaveston: These are not men for me:
  • I must have wanton Poets, Pleasant wits,
  • Musicians, that with touching of a string
  • May draw the pliant King which way I please:
  • Musicke and Poetrie is his delight;
  • Therefore ile have Italian maskes by night,
  • Sweete speeches, comedies, and pleasing showes,
  • And in the day when he shall walke abroad,
  • Like Sylvian Nimphes my pages shall be clad,
  • My men, like Satyres grazing on the lawnes
  • Shall with their Goate-feet daunce the Anticke hay.
  • Sometime a lovely boy in Dians shape,
  • With haire that gilds the water as it glides,
  • Crownets of pearle about his naked armes,
  • And in his sportfull hands an Olive tree,
  • To hide those parts which men delight to see,
  • Shall bathe him in a spring; and there hard by,
  • One like Actæon peeping through the grove,
  • Shall by the angry goddesse be transformde,
  • And running in the likenesse of an Hart
  • By yelping hounds puld downe, and seeme to die,
  • Such things as these best please his Maiesty

Paraphrasing from another prominent common-law jurist:

In Marlowe’s youth his heart was touched with fire.

Mortui te salutamus, Kit.Tangent linked from within this post:

Notes[1] I foresee the possibility that Cow Eye Press – an esteemed Twitter acquaintance with an interest in translation – might disagree with me about artistry in prose translation. That’s fine. I’m making a generalisation based on my own experience, but any discussion of art has its subjective element. After a flagon of Rhenish I might debate this, but on the internet I’m flexible.

Regarding poetry, though – CEP’s website includes a thought-provoking set of topics and questions about translation pertaining to their book Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess, written by A J Perry. One of the topics at that link states POETRY IS THAT WHICH CANNOT BE TRANSLATED. I feel we’re on the same page. Is there any essential difference between Marlowe’s epitaph and Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear? No.

Cow Eye and I also share the page we’re on with the likes of Samuel Johnson and Robert Frost.
Sources/Additional Reading

  • • Banner image: from The remarkable life of Dr Faustus [etc], 1838, British Library collection []. The linked article, An introduction to Doctor Faustus: morality and sin, is worth the read.
  • The Death of Christopher Marlowe []
  • · by J Leslie Hotson
  • · The Nonesuch Press and Harvard University Press, 1925
  • · Hotson discovered the 1593 inquest report in 1925, and published it in this small volume, both in its original Latin and in English.

And in case you need to refocus after your dabble around the edges of Marlovianism: