04 May 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/18

       Ah Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned 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 damned.
Oh, 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. Oh, 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! Oh no, it will not harbour me.
You stars that reigned 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,
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 watch strikes.
Ah! Half the hour is past,
'Twill all be past anon.
Oh God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
Yet, for Christ's sake whose blood hath ransomed me,
Impose some end to my incessant pain.
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be saved.
Oh, 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 changed
Unto some brutish beast.
All beasts are happy, for when they die
Their souls are soon dissolved in elements,
But mine must live still to be plagued in hell.
Cursed be the parents that engendered me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer,
That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.
       The clock strikes twelve.
Oh, it strikes, it strikes! Now body turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell.
       Thunder and lightning.
Oh soul, be changed into little water drops
And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found.
       Thunder. Enter the DEVILS.
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me.
Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile.
Ugly hell, gape not, come not, Lucifer!
I'll burn my books. Ah, Mephostophilis!
       Exeunt with him.

Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Act V, scene 2, ll 143 - 200

This is of course the final speech of Doctor Faustus from Marlowe's celebrated play, one of the early classics of the English stage. Our first sight of Faustus was in his study, giving a long speech studded with learned phrases in foreign tongues and with philosophic speculation; our last sight of him is in his study, giving a long speech again studded with learned phrases and speculation. Yet the later speech has a desperate edge that was missing earlier, when the bold doctor, after deciding to explore the wicked arts, lectures his devil, Mephostophilis,* on stoic courage: "What, is great Mephostophilis so passionate / For being deprived of the joys of heaven? / Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude, / And scorn those joys thou never shalt posess." (Act I, scene 3, ll 83 - 86) (There's a sly pun, I think, in the man Faustus suggesting the demon Mephostophilis should learn manly fortitude: this is the classic attitude of the new learning of the Renaissance, suggesting that man is the measure of all things, pushing aside the spirit-world of earlier times.)

The desperate edge shows up not only in what Faustus says, but how he says it. The speech is full of exclamations (oh! ah!), of repetition (it strikes, it strikes! My God, my God! no, no!), and of broken-off lines, in which the normal five-beat count of iambic pentameter gives way to a three-beat line, adding a bit of jaggedness to the rhythm; here's one example of several:

Yet will I call on him. Oh, spare me, Lucifer!
Where is it now? 'Tis gone:
And see where God stretcheth out his arm,
And bends his ireful brows.

Faustus begins by wishing that his remaining hour will stay suspended, thereby sparing him the eternity in hell that comes with midnight. His call on the sun (fair Nature's eye) to rise again and remain in place may be a subversive echo of the Lord holding the sun and moon still at Joshua's request when he led the Israelites against the Amorites (Joshua 10:12 - 13). Faustus too wants more time, so that he may repent. But we should always keep in mind that he could have repented – can still repent – at any time. We can see throughout this speech how he approaches repentance and then pulls back. He caps this section with a Latin tag: O lente, lente, currite noctis equi, which means O slowly, slowly run, you horses of the night. The horses of the night are the one's pulling Time's chariot forward. It's an apt quotation for Faustus's situation, but it indicates his mind is still drawn towards fleshly things, because the ironic source is Ovid's Amores, in which it is said by a lover who wants night to last longer, much longer, so that he may keep on making love with his beloved. Scholarly Faustus still can't resist displaying his knowledge of the Latin classics; sensual Faustus can't resist the thought of love.

We begin to enter a dimension beyond the ordinary physical reality of the world: in the magnificent line See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament we are brought into what might be Faustus's hallucinations or an actual manifestation of divine presence. The spirit world is growing stronger, and Faustus feels demons plucking at him when he calls on Christ: he calls on Christ, but ends up begging Oh, spare me, Lucifer! And the saving vision vanishes.

Faustus then reflects on the wrath rather than the mercy of God (God stretcheth out his arms / And bends his ireful brows). He wants the earth to swallow him up, or the stars to pull him up disembodied, like a foggy mist. He also evades responsibility for his own actions, blaming the stars that reigned at my nativity, / Whose influence hath allotted death and hell – pretending that the astrological influences over his life predestined his end, rather than that he, of his own free will, chose to make his bargain with the devil. Later he will blame his parents, then admit he should blame himself, and then switch again to blaming Lucifer instead.

The watch strikes, indicating half the hour – half of Faustus's last hour – has passed. In an interesting passage, we are reminded that the play is set in Lutheran Wittenberg and was performed in Protestant England because Faustus doesn't name Purgatory, but that is essentially what he asks for when he wants an eventual end to his time in hell. For the play's first audience, many with fresh memories of the recently jettisoned Catholic Church and its sale of indulgences guaranteeing early exit from Purgatory, this passage must have seemed subversive in ways both desperate and playful. They surely would have considered that even within Christianity there were different ways this might have played out.

Faustus cannot keep his mind from darting speculatively; the thought of an eternity in hell makes him wonder why some creatures must have souls to such an end, and why the soul is immortal; this leads him into a consideration of the theory of metempsychosis, or reincarnation, espoused by Pythagoras. He started with the Christian hell and winds up considering pre-Christian theories of the transmigration of souls. One aspect of how he approaches and retreats from repentance is the way new philosophies (or rather, new versions of old philosophies) pull him away from the redemptive message of traditional Christianity.

Midnight strikes. And the theatrically striking atmospheric effects kick in: thunder and lightning. Faustus begs to be transformed into air, or into water drops, so that he may dissolve the way dead animals do: as he said earlier, All beasts are happy, for when they die / Their souls are soon dissolved in elements. . . . Devils surround him, and he exclaims My God, my God, look not so fierce on me: but is he referring to the wrathful aspect of God, or just using the name as a (blasphemous) exclamation as he begs the now visible devils not to threaten him so? He ends by abjuring his books, as he earlier wished to renounce the soul: he is rejecting the very things that drove him on, inspired him, made him a seeker of knowledge. His final cry is to Mephostophilis. He is damned.

I had several teachers who regretted the middle parts of this play, in which we see how Faustus used his temporary power over the devil: he had twenty-four years, which he mostly squandered. They wanted only the daring seeker. But I think that's the point of the play: given infinite worldly power and possibility, Faustus ends up using it mostly for things like playing practical jokes on the Pope or getting some scholarly sexy-time with Helen of Troy (it reminds me of the current joke about smartphones: "I have a device in my pocket which can access the entirety of human knowledge. I use it to watch cat videos and argue with strangers.") But though Faustus may have wasted his time, he is also motivated by a restless, inspiring, irresistible urge to find out all he can in this world, and the next. He's perpetually suspended between the new and old, the possible and the impossible, our potential and our weakness.

I took this from my ancient Penguin English Library copy of The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe. They seem to have an updated edition now, edited by Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey, but mine is the one edited by J B Steane. All current editions are based on the two early printings of the play, one from 1604 and the other from 1616, but there are significant differences between the two and there is much scholarly debate over which is more authoritative (both were published long after Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl and as usual with Elizabethan plays no manuscripts survive). Steane primarily uses the 1616 text but draws on the earlier one when he feels it is superior. This was standard practice for his time, but lately, given the increased interest in revisions and collaborations in the Elizabethan theater, this practice is frowned upon. As with the restoration of artworks and the historically informed performances of music, the current preference is for stripping away accumulated attitudes and traditions in an attempt to present the work in something like its original state (or at least to make it clear where the editor/restorer has intervened). All this is by way of explaining why this speech may look a bit different in your copy of the play than it does here. It's useful to be reminded that these old monuments of English literature are more unfixed than they may seem.

* My edition spells it thus, instead of the more familiar Mephistopheles.

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