Today’s poem takes us back to the first Elizabethan age in England, when poets and dramatists produced many of the eternally interesting and enriching works in the language. Christopher Marlowe is probably better known as a writer of plays than as a poet, but, as Shakespeare showed, it is quite possible to be a master at both forms of literature.
This is an extract from Marlowe’s narrative poem Hero and Leander, about the story of two lovers, one of whom drowned when swimming across the Hellespont to visit the other. It is a classic love story, and this extract stands alone as a meditation on the irresistible force of love.
from Hero and Leander: “It lies not in our power to love or hate”
BY CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE
It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is overruled by fate.
When two are stripped, long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows; let it suffice
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?
The poem describes the role of instinct and intuition as the basis for love, rather than reason. It is a very accessible poem, direct and expression and carried along rhythmically by quite short rhyming couplets.
The first two lines establish the basic premise that feelings of love and hate are not a product of reason, but of some force outside our power. The next four lines give two examples – we pick a runner to cheer for before the race even starts, and we have a preference for one of two identical gold ingots, both for reasons we could not explain. The next two lines focus on the mystery of how this happens. The final two lines come back to the experience of falling in love or being in love – if it is a result of conscious thought and choice, love is weak, but if it is love at first sight, then it will be strong – the love of passion and unreason.
This is a powerfully eloquent expression of a vision of the process of love which resonates very well with actual human experience, certainly the experience of this blogger, and probably of millions of humans everywhere.
The Poetry Dude