The education of a poet

Last week I wrote about how to get a BA in the sixteenth century in general terms. This week let’s look at the academic career of Christopher Marlowe, one of the greatest poets in English history. Perhaps someone out there would like to emulate his curriculum. No? Too much theology, perhaps.

Marlowe was baptised in Canterbury in February of 1564, the same year in which Shakespeare was born (in April). Kit’s father John was a shoemaker; no where near rich, but not poor by local standards either. He had four younger sisters — Margaret, Jane, Anne, and Dorothy — but no surviving brothers. His mother Katherine gave birth to five boys. A youngest named Thomas may or may not have survived to adulthood. If he did, nothing is known of him, nor would anyone have looked if not for his extraordinary elder brother.

A hornbook with an ABC
A hornbook with an ABC

The only book in the Marlowe household was a Bible. Kit went to the local petty school, like most boys who had access to one, at age 6 or 7. There he learned to read from an ‘absey’ like The ABC with the Catechism. Never miss a chance to slip in some sound religious instruction! That book was a huge cash cow for its publishers, incidentally. Kit also learned to read the Lord’s Prayer, add up sums, perhaps keep simple accounts. He got more interesting education on the streets, because Canterbury still hosted public plays and processions. Lots of drama for an eager mind. We can safely imagine Kit gobbling up every scrap he could grasp.

At 9, around 1572, he would have been sent to a grammar school, Latin being the grammar in question. There he got set pieces chosen for boys to translate and imitate. Someone during the next five years recognized talent and intelligence in this boy, because at age 15, he was elected a scholar (scholarship boy) at the King’s School. This was and is a fine school; it was the making of Christopher Marlowe. The world owes that unknown, alert, wise, sympathetic teacher an infinity of thanks.

King’s School, Canterbury

At King’s School, Kit found a mentor, one Mr. Gresshop, who introduced his brightest (we safely assume) pupil to the wide world of literature. Erasmus, Horace, Ovid, Virgil. Honan writes, “Whether or not Erasmus alone lifted him by the ears, thrilled his senses, or hurled him into another world, Marlowe came under the spell of the classics. And that changed him…. Marlowe was dazzled by the classics. Nothing in his imaginative life was to be the same again” (p.51.)

A centerpiece of a good education in those days was the memorization of vast amounts of poetry, in Latin and perhaps some English. They composed imitations of the masters and learned rules of rhetoric. Here’s Honan from p. 54: “Thus a master would stress the many benefits of classical rhetoric, and the usefulness of tropes and schemes. The trope is a ‘turn’ in a words’ meaning from a literal to an imaginative level, as in metaphor or simile, so that the word may reflect awareness or feelings otherwise lost. The schemes, as Marlowe knew them, chiefly involved repetition or symmetry, as in having clauses of equal length, or corresponding sounds in matching structures, and other devices which can affect tone, clarity, or rhythm in phrases or sentences.”

We should remember that Elizabethans loved order and symmetry more than originality, although they delighted in clever word plays. They valued useful lessons couched in handsomely constructed language.

Marlowe must have been the most verbally gifted student in his school, because he has astonished 5 centuries of critics with his poetry. But he must also have been one of the poorest; most of the students were gentlemen’s sons. Luckily for lovers of great writing, once again his gifts were recognized. He was granted a Parker scholarship to on to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University and take a degree. This was a high honor. Honan says, “Recipients had to be ‘forward in learning, and also well minded in the service of God'” (p.67). Marlowe would not be obligated to study divinity right away, but would be free to pursue a good liberal arts education. And who knows? Perhaps he would attract the interest of an influential patron somewhere along the way.

A.L. Rowse wrote that according to his contemporaries, Marlowe had a great deal of charm. “Where Shakespeare was discreet, tactful, prudent, a gentleman in his manners, with an easy humour and his eye on the main chance, Marlowe was arrogant and contemptuous, daring and challenging, unable to contain his scorn for ordinary people and their conventional fooleries while, with it, no doubt he had a great deal of charm…” (Christopher Marlowe, p.93.)

I recommended two books about Kit in this article, but here it is again, for convenience. If you’re only going to read one biography, read Park Honan’s (2005) Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy. This is a well-written, insightful, and sympathetic reconstruction of the man’s scantily documented life. But don’t read just one, because the second one is less clearly biographical but heaps more fun. The Reckoning, by Charles Nicholl (1992), looks at the same scanty documentation, but adds lots of information about the period to explore the mystery of Marlowe’s death. If you’re really into Kit, go on and read A.L. Rowse, Christopher Marlowe: His Life and Work. 1964. New York: Grosset and Dunlap. This one has more about the poetry and next to nothing about buttery books.

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