Poet's Pick April 17
Christopher Marlowe: "Now hast thou but one bare hour to live."
Selected by Benjamin S. Grossberg
National Poetry Month 2018

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Benjamin S. Grossberg's Poetry Month Pick, April 17, 2018

  from Dr. Faustus:
"Now hast thou but one bare hour to live."
by Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593)

                                                             [The clock strikes eleven.]     
    FAUSTUS. Ah, Faustus, 
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. 
O, I'll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?— 
See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament! 
One drop would save my soul, half a drop:  ah, my Christ!— 
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ! 
Yet will I call on him:  O, spare me, Lucifer!— 
Where is it now? 'tis gone:  and see, where God
Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows! 
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me, 
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!
No, no! 
Then will I headlong run into the earth: 
Earth, gape!  O, no, it will not harbour me!
You stars that reign'd at my nativity, 
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell, 
Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist. 
Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud[s], 
That, when you vomit forth into the air, 
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths, 
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven! 
                                                             [The clock strikes the half-hour.]     
Ah, half the hour is past! 'twill all be past anon 
O God, 
If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul, 
Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransom'd me, 
Impose some end to my incessant pain; 
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be sav'd!
O, no end is limited to damned souls!
Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?
Or why is this immortal that thou hast?
Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be chang'd 
Unto some brutish beast! all beasts are happy, 
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements;
But mine must live still to be plagu'd in hell.
Curs'd be the parents that engender'd me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath depriv'd thee of the joys of heaven.
                                                             [The clock strikes twelve.]     
O, it strikes, it strikes!  Now, body, turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!
                                                             [Thunder and lightning.]     
O soul, be chang'd into little water-drops,    
And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found!            [Enter DEVILS.]      
My God, my god, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!
I'll burn my books!—Ah, Mephistophilis!


* Benjamin S. Grossberg Comments:
As an undergraduate, I was flush with sodomy—as a literary device rather than a physical act.  (I was a late bloomer.)  So I decided to write an undergraduate thesis on the drama of 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe.  I researched Edward II because Dr. Bartels directed me to, and because sodomy—a contemporary sign of political corruption—is right on the surface of that play.  But my passion was for Dr. Faustus, especially the relationship between the title character and Mephistophilis, so charged with forbidden desire.  Marlowe’s Faustus damns himself for magic, sure, but the play is coy right from the get go.  It’s not magic Faustus wants—or not just that.  Quoth Faustus as he signs over his soul in blood: “Lo, Mephistophilis, for love of thee/ I cut mine arm, and with my proper blood/ Assure my soul….” 

The monologue above is Faustus’ last, comprising his final hour before damnation.  Clock strikes throughout the passage—coming at shorter intervals—create Faustus’ sense of accelerating time as his bargain runs down.  And the lines themselves gesture toward frenetic action: panicked searching of the sky, headlong running into the earth.  It’s beautifully stageworthy.

Marlowe’s “mighty line” is on full display here, too: unrhymed and careening away from iambs to suit emotional necessity.  “Mountains and hills, come, come and fall on me. . . .”  Marlowe goes far out, but never so far that he can’t return to iambic stateliness: “and fall on me.”  Did 16th-century audiences hear the heightened realism of this newly elastic verse like 20th-century movie audiences first saw Technicolor Oz?  Like how we’ll experience the first fully immersive virtual environment?  Contemporary evidence suggests it was a sensation.

As an undergraduate—a Jewish one, no less—I walked around chanting this stuff in my head:

         See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.
         One drop would save my soul, half a drop. 

         My God, my god, look not so fierce on me!

But what really won me then, and still gets me now, was the final line—actually, the last two words.  The monologue is full of remorse as Faustus calls out the major players in his damnation: the Father and the Son, Lucifer, Faustus himself.  Who’s to blame for this fate?

         No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer. . . .

But the one figure Faustus doesn’t name seems readiest cause.  Earlier in the act, Faustus hits it, addressing Mephistophilis in terms rife with ambivalent desire:

         Oh, thou bewitching fiend, ‘twas thy temptation
         Hath robbed me of eternal happiness.

Now, at the end, Faustus can’t or won’t mention Mephistophilis at all—well, not until the very last words, his last in the play:

         Ugly hell, gape not, come not, Lucifer!
         I’ll burn my books.  Ah, Mephistophilis!

Lucifer should stay away.  The contraband books?  Burned.  But for Mephistophilis, there’s only his name and the ambiguous interjection, “ah.”  Is this a call for Mephistophilis to approach?  A call of reproach?  The plaintive language of a disappointed lover?  Even at twenty, I felt it: in these two words, a turn.  The passage becomes a love poem—for dangerous, forbidden love; what you can’t quite blame even as it damns you.

It was 1992; desire and death seemed inseparable.  My generation of gay men was hammered on the anvil of HIV—unlike, perhaps, the preceding generation, which had a chance to know sexuality before the virus, and unlike the generation after, which—with new therapies—saw disease progression halt among those in the community able to access the drugs.  I will never be able to separate desire from diagnosis.

And Marlowe, too, lived in a time when male-male desire and danger were inseparable: the sin inter christianos non-nominandum.  More than a personal sin, the precursor to apocalypse!  The contexts are vastly different, but I believe Marlowe left us a love poem that still resonates—one that pits fifty lines of terrifying consequences against the intensity of desire as expressed in the turn of a final sigh, and finds them nearly in balance.

About Benjamin S. Grossberg:
Benjamin S. Grossberg's most recent collections are Space Traveler (University of Tampa, 2014) and An Elegy (Jacar Press, 2016). His earlier books include Sweet Core Orchard (University of Tampa, 2009), winner of a Lambda Literary Award and the Tampa Review Prize for poetry. He works as Director of Creative Writing at the University of Hartford.

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