Somehow the first line of this poem by Christopher Marlowe has passed into the English language as a synonym for Helen of Troy. It might be at least as famous as any line from Homer or Virgil’s classical versions of the Trojan Wars, the Iliad and the Aeneid. But who can say that this was in fact taken from Marlowe’s great play Dr. Faustus. The notoriety of the first line certainly matches anything from Shakespeare, but the whole piece then expands on the beauty and impact of Helen on her contemporaries and on Dr. Faustus himself through the power of imagination and fantasy,
The Face That Launch’D A Thousand Ships
Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
In this speech, Faustus imagines he is Paris, the one responsible for the abduction of Helen and thus the ultimate destruction of Troy, besieged by the Greek forces transported to Troy in the thousand ships of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus and Achilles. Cognizant of the tragic outcome, Faustus is so carried away by the prospect of Helen’s beauty that he would be prepared to sacrifice all for a taste of her love.
It is indeed a beautiful and powerful poem of the power of love in the face of all odds and the power of a myth resonating across the centuries, from Homer’s time to Marlowe’s, and from Marlowe’s to our own.
The Poetry Dude