Hero’s Afterlife: Hero and Leander and ‘lewd unmannerly verse’ in the late Seventeenth Century

Roy Booth
Royal Holloway

Booth, Roy. "Hero’s Afterlife: Hero and Leander and ‘lewd unmannerly verse’ in the late Seventeenth Century". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.3 (January, 2007) 4.1-24<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-3/boother2.htm>.


  1. Stephen Orgel’s edition of the Complete Poems and Translations of Christopher Marlowe hinted at the ‘translatability’ of Marlowe’s major poem when he (perhaps over-generously) included Henry Petowe’s re-deployment of the characters as protagonists in a sub-Sidneian chivalric verse-romance.[1] The purpose of this article is to illustrate the lasting appeal of the Hero and Leander narrative to the seventeenth century. With an accretion of creative response to related texts by Ovid and Shakespeare, Hero and Leander was reworked in the first publication of William Wycherley - a writer ostensibly inimical to romance, but who produced a burlesque that manifests an unexpectedly sympathetic response to the original. Such a long-lasting presence in the changing literary scene owed much to the merit of Marlowe’s original version, but also depended on a humorous transposition of setting initially made by Ben Jonson. It does seem likely that Jonson’s naturalisation – with the Hero and Leander story relocated to London and the River Thames - was felt to be so apt that it helped to make the narrative a settled favourite for parodists. The river even seems to crop up in late non-parodic retellings of the story.

  2. George Chapman had judged the original Greek poem (by Musaeus the Grammarian) to be ‘the incomparable Loue-Poem of the world’.[2] The stubborn advocacy of a later enthusiast, Sir Robert Stapylton, made the narrative of Hero and Leander into a contested site in a minor cultural war. Stapylton set out to resist ‘the new-sickness of the mind’ which he saw manifested in the ‘lewd unmannerly verse’ of the burlesque poets. If they, in mock poems, made it a narrative only suitable for readers who were male, and looking for low-level amusement, Staplyton tried to promote the narrative as reading suitable for women, specifically for wives. His one man campaign culminated in an attempt to get his heroic tragedy of ‘Hero and Leander’ staged, perhaps in the same year as Wycherley’s long parodic poem (1669).[3]

  3. ‘The narrative’ necessarily involves ‘Hero and Leander’ as told by Musaeus and Ovid, as well as Marlowe.[4] Stapylton translated both the Greek and the Latin poems (and Martial’s Hero and Leander epigram).[5] But the fashion for burlesquing the story in the second part of the seventeenth century must mainly have derived from the popularity of Marlowe’s version in the first half of the century: it is hard to believe that Musaeus and Ovid alone would have triggered so much mockery.[6] As will be shown, Wycherley’s version rather insightfully conflates Marlowe’s poem with its Shakespearean rival, Venus and Adonis. When late seventeenth century parodists wrote an Ovid exulans or an Ovid travestie, besides Ovid himself, they were inevitably conscious of poems written in an Ovidian spirit in English.

  4. Marlowe’s telling of the ‘Hero and Leander’ story, ‘that partly excellent Poem, of Maister Marloes’, as Chapman called it, had been not so much an unfinished narrative, as one scarcely started: his 819 lines ended without having mentioned either the extinguished lantern, or Leander’s fatal nocturnal swim.[7] With a classical story so well known, and retold with such provoking incompleteness, completion by a second hand was to be expected, and George Chapman obliged. The joint version was popular, with surviving editions (with publisher) in 1598 (Linley); 1600 and 1606 (Flasket); 1609, 1613, 1617, 1622 (Blount); 1629 (Hawkins); and 1637 (Leake). Money could be made from the poem, and the text was transacted from publisher to publisher.

  5. It is reasonable to surmise that ‘Hero and Leander’, the story publicised by Marlowe’s very polished poem, rose to a kind of cultural ubiquity. Mortlake tapestries depicting the story, manufactured from 1625 onwards, survive. George W. Bush and President Putin of Russia are among those who have toured the room in the castle in Bratislava which contains a full set. Hardwick Hall, that great repository of textiles, contains another large tapestry version hung beside the easy gradient of its great staircase. Waller imagines Henrietta Maria, before she has met Charles, preparing for love: ‘And now she views, as on the wall it hung, / What old Musæus so divinely sung’.[8]  These luxury commodities must have had down-market parallels in painted cloths, wall paintings, plasterwork, and other smaller artefacts. The story lent itself to mildly erotic illustration, and to a compensating moral message about the expiration of youthful ardency: Abraham Fraunce moralised even as he testified to its basic appeal: Leander and Heroes loue is in euery mans mouth: the light of the lanterne or lampe extinct (that is, naturall heate fayling) lust decayeth, and Leander tossed with the cold storme of old age, is at last drowned.’[9] In his charming ‘A Remedy for Love’, Aston Cokain urged travel round Britain as a cure, but advised ‘Musæus English'd by two Poets shun; / It may undo you though it be well done.’[10]

  6. Musaeus’ ‘Hero and Leander’ had for George Chapman the prestige of the primordial, pre-Homeric poem – his closing line reflected on the honour done to the lovers, when ‘They were the first that ever poet sung’. His own ‘Sestiads’ read all too like an attempt to ensure that a poem of such hallowed antiquity didn’t become as popular as Marlowe’s version threatened to make it (‘more grave and high / Our subject runs’ Sestiad III, 3-4). His deployment of an inadequacy topos sounds all too like a half-acknowledged desire to obscure the subject, and with it, its classical eroticism: ‘O sweet Leander … I in floods of ink / Must drown thy graces’ (Sestiad VI, 137; 139-40). Henry Petowe’s effort, star-struck with Marlowe (see his lines 57-90 in Orgel, ed. cit.), and doggedly romantic, seems to have been independently produced, rather than written as a reaction to Chapman’s work.[11] Though Chapman had threatened to over-elevate the topic, and Petowe to sink it, the two faithful lovers were still irresistible to all. Thomas Nashe introduced his own lively prose burlesque (written in the same year as Chapman and Petowe’s publications), with the observation that: ‘every apprentice in Paul’s Churchyard’, could ‘tell you for your love’ who Hero and Leander were, and of course ‘sell you for your money’ the poem about them.[12] Beneath the level of attainment represented by actually owning and reading a text of Marlowe’s poem, two broadsheet ballad retellings survive. As usual with publications as fugitive as these, there may have been others, as stories of unfortunate lovers were always popular with the ballad authors. The ‘Song of Hero and Leander’ in The Marrow of Complements (1654) may be a reprinted ballad.[13] Through the efforts of ‘ballad-mongers’, and the ballad singers, the Hero and Leander story was given the widest possible cultural availability, in much the same way that the most popular theatre works were retold in ballads for London apprentices unable to get to see them performed. One of these Hero and Leander ballads is wretchedly done, letting down its culturally deprived readers to the extent of operating on the assumption that the ‘Hero’ in a story has to be the male character, so ‘Leander’ becomes the name of the heroine.[14]

  7. This hapless and unintended travesty still contains one main clue to the unusual persistence of the narrative for seventeenth century London. The Hellespont has become a river: “This pleasant river Hellisponce, / which is the people’s wonder / Those waves so high doth injury, / by parting us asunder. / And though / There’s ferry men good store / yet none will start my friend / To waft me ore to that fair shore, / where all my grief shall end’. This assimilation of the geography required by the poem to the familiar geography of London seems to have begun as a joke by Ben Jonson. In Act V of Bartholomew Fair, Littlewit explains to Cokes how he has adapted the story for puppet actors:
    I have only made it a little easy, and modern for the times, sir, that’s all. As for the Hellespont, I imagine our Thames here; and then Leander I make a dyer’s son about Puddle-wharf: and Hero a wench o’the Bank-side (V iii 120-4)[15]
    The puppeteer Lanthorn Leatherhead had wanted a show reduced ‘to a more familiar strain for our people’ (116-7). The joke seems to have taken root because, at a basic level, ‘Hero and Leander’ was a story about a young man who crossed to the other side of a waterway to get sex. As the story was revisited by seventeenth century English writers, it mapped exactly onto their own urban geography. Abidos and Sestos became London and Southwark. Men in search of amusement seem to have preferred to travel by water across the Thames to the South Bank. Hero, ‘Venus’ nun’, waiting at her tower, inescapably recalled one of the ‘Winchester geese’ whose working premises clustered around the theatres. Hero’s status in Marlowe’s poem as the virgin priestess of Venus had always been a precarious one, but in the imagination of a contemporary Londoner, she was highly liable to being understood as one of Venus’ other ‘nuns’.

  8. Of course, the Hero and Leander narrative had always been strongly sexual in its suggestions. Leander, an ideal hero of romance, does not keep on his clothes for long, but swims through the water, naked and strong, giving such proof of his good genetic make-up that he invites reduction to a suggestion of the basic biology of sexual reproduction, a sperm swimming towards an ovum.[16] Reinforced by a geographical prejudice, such a story invited bawdy transformation. In Ben Jonson’s puppet play, Hero throws at Leander ‘a sheep’s eye and an half’ as she passes by in a ‘sculler’ (263). She ‘does do’ in an ale-house (367), we learn from the ‘whoremasters’ Damon and Pithias (379), and Leander addresses her in the love poetry of burlesque, where ‘love’ inevitably means a sexual transaction:
    And sweetest of geese, before I go to bed,
    I’ll swim over the Thames, my goose, thee to tread.
                                                                (V iii 431-2)
    Jonson’s joke naturalising Hero and Leander went on being repeated. The more inept ballad represents the Hellespont as a river. In a set of such radically misinformed verses, that might in fact have been the writer’s straight belief. The brief but leaden prose romance on ‘Hero and Leander’ (1680), which is padded out with a heterogeneous collection of old wood block prints, predictably supplies a rather battered composite woodcut of the Thames by way of an illustration (another generic block of a man and woman walking together has been wedged into the same forme, to represent the lovers).[17]

    Burlesque writers found the aptness of Jonson’s relocation irresistible, and filled out their versions with details drawn from the well-known features of London’s river:

    'Tis safer shooting London-bridge;
    Than crossing o’re the water to you.[18]
  9. These travesties of the basic narrative deliver intriguing details about the seventeenth century Thames and its traffic. This is taking a boat across the turbulent Thames in the same parody:
    when we’d cry’d thrice, who’s for over
    Unhook’t the head, and put a cover
    Of Tilt upon’t          (35-7)
    - shouting out who else wants to cross, presumably to share the cost of the trip, casting off, and putting up the boat’s awning (OED ‘tilt’ noun 1 sense 2). This particular burlesque apparently indicates that the places of entertainment on the Bankside had particular lights, to advertise themselves in at least a basic way:

    Nor would I give one single Farden
    To sail by th’light at the Bear-garden.   (361-2) 
  10. So commonly were Leander and Hero turned into ‘Prentice brave’ and ‘wench o'th' Bankside’[19] (the term for Hero at l. 108 is lifted directly from Bartholomew Fair, V iii 124) that Alexander Radcliffe tried to give his version a fresher satirical edge by moving them both up-river and up to the next social class. In his mock poem, parodying Ovid’s Heroides 18 and 19, Leander is ‘an Usher of a School, and chief Poet of Richmond’, who has ‘contracted a more then ordinary Acquaintance with Mistress Hero of Twitnam, a Governess or Tutress to young Ladies’.[20]

  11. More usually, the direction of burlesque was downwards. James Smith’s scatological version reduced the narrative to unrelieved physicality: Hero first sees Leander as he is visiting what appears to be a place used as an informal public toilet: she has already paid her own visit.[21] She watches him defecate, clean himself with his thumb, and commence playing with himself before she approaches him. They have sex, and arrange a second liaison. For this, Leander makes his swim, the watch on the opposite shore try to arrest him, but he escapes with the severed nose of the chief watchman stuck in his anus.[22] This gets left behind as he escapes from Hero’s weapon-flailing father when the lovers are discovered next morning. An unrelentingly scatological poem like this is of course designed to be offensive, and flaunts the witlessness of its narrative with all the deliberate nonchalance of pornography. Leander is predictably ‘the well-hung youth’ (p.22), while the actual sexual encounters are in a way bathetically healthy, considering the studied squalor of the rest of the poem:
    Her legs were ty’d in true-loves knot,
    On top of back, full well I wot                                                        (p.30).
    Smith indulges excursions into extended metaphor for the sexual encounters, and these tend to be archly flowery rather than obscene. This verse narrative, so obviously thrown together, was reprinted with inexplicable frequency. But the writer had read his Marlowe, who provides the inspiration for Neptune as actively homosexual, rather than just a personification of the ocean:
    Neptune, the dreadfull God of Seas,
    On whom did never stick March-Fleas.
    Taking in hand his good Eele Spade,
    Towards Leander streight he made:
    The Shad and Shole of Sprats did flye,
    At sight of Neptunes angry eye.
    The God then turn’d him up-side downe,
    And view’d his parts from heel to crown,
    He dally’d with his elfine locks,
    And bears him up from shelf and rocks
    His cheeks, his lips, his chin he kist…      (pp.16-7)

    Leander brusquely responds to this wooing by telling him to save his breath to cool his broth.
  12. Matthew Stevenson offered a relatively brief and tame ‘Leander to Hero’ and ‘Hero’s Answer to Leander’ in his The vvits paraphras’d (1680).[23] But it was William Wycherley who wrote the most extended ‘Hero and Leander’ parody. Dismissed in passing by Kate Bennett in her ODNB article on the dramatist as ‘mediocre’, and ignored critically despite the large bibliography Wycherley’s plays have accumulated, Hero and Leander in Burlesque (1669) is at once an interesting response to the two greatest Elizabethan epyllia, Hero and Leander and Venus and Adonis, and the best of the burlesque poems produced during the mania for that kind of composition in England.[24] Wycherley’s verse narrative is leisurely, the text running to seventy six pages, making it over-long for what wit it delivers. But it does capture Wycherley in transition between the poetry he might have read in his youth, and the plays that followed.

  13. Poetry in the late Commonwealth, the 1660’s and 1670’s saw some unpredictable developments.[25] Verse anthologies like Wit Restor’d (1658) and Mock Songs and Joking Poems, all Novell (1675) seem (if it is not just an artifact of hasty compilation and shortage of material) to evince something which might be an attempt to align elite and popular poetry. ‘Wit’ poems of the gentlemanly pleasures of Bacchus and Venus appear alongside traditional and broadsheet ballad materials; a rather frenetic desire for mirth seems to override social and artistic distinctions.[26] ‘Plain Poetry is now disesteem’d, it must be Drollery, or it will not please’, wrote the publisher of Musarum deliciae.[27] Davenant, as poet laureate, seems to have created a taste for bad poetry: parodies of his Gondibert, and lampoons about him (often renamed ‘Daphne’ in mockery of his laurels) were published alongside James Smith’s ‘Hero and Leander’ travesty.[28] Mock poems were in fashion, and courtiers who had rejoiced at the restoration of the monarchy exhibited a taste for poems in which mythical figures and great heroes were reinvented as citizens and peasants. Charles Cotton’s versions of Scarron’s travesties of Virgil saw empire-founding epic reduced to comic georgic.[29] Meanwhile, the genuine epic poem, Paradise Lost, emerged from a man who had to the very end been prepared to argue the ‘ready and easy way’ to establish an English commonwealth.

  14. The publication date of Wycherley’s pastiche ‘Hero and Leander’ coincided with that of Sir Robert Stapylton’s attempt to swim against the current of the artistic Hellespont and re-dignify the subject, The Tragedie of Hero and Leander (1669). The dramatist – and, previously, translator of Musaeus - complained in his prologue about the prevalence of parody:
    For Love and Honour (Theams of former Ages)
    Are turn’d into Burlesque, on modern Stages:
    Where a Jack-Pudding acts great Alexander,
    And Puppets play mock Hero and Leander.
    That Hero  and Leander (further fam’d
    Then any Land which Alexander claim’d)
    Should be disparag’d; Mimick, scorn, not Wit,
    Deriding what the noblest Poet writ.
    It is unlikely that Stapylton’s verse, intended for the stage, would have been enough to turn the tide had it ever been performed. This is the catastrophe of the play, with Hero sighting the body of the drowned Leander. Stapylton seems to have been unable to shake off a self-subverting elevation of manner that would have better served one of the puppet plays:

    O Horrour! horrour! Floating by the Shoar:
    His Body swims: Leander, speak once more?
    Oh, Whither is that mighty Spirit fled?
    What Nothings are the bodies of the dead! …
    A long, long Farewell to Love’s Bitter-sweet;
    Death has divorc’d us, yet in death we’l meet.
                                             [She flings her self into the Sea.
    She’l drown her self? Some Plank, some lucky Fish
    Or Fisher, save her: 'tis too late to Wish.

  15. Prior to this abortive last throw, Stapylton had done his best to keep the Musaean lamp alight. Embattled amongst the ‘lewd unmannerly verse’ of his time, he consistently represented ‘Hero and Leander’ as poetry of matrimonial love.[30] His translation can in effect be read as an example of Cavalier separation poetry, with a Hellespont instead of a Civil War. He had high hopes for its post-war social benefits. In the 1647 dedication ‘To the Ladyes’, he asserted that the ‘Courtship here is directed to a Sacred end, and onely invites you after our Deluge of bloud …to restore your now unpeopled Country’. Leaving Musaeus to work his magic on married women, Staplyton then briskly explained to his male readers that there were the various candidates for the original authorial ‘Musaeus’, and gave the high points of the poem’s critical heritage, quite neglecting to inform them about the other facet of his translation’s cultural mission. His version of the relevant letters 18 and 19 from Ovid’s Heroides gets a separate and defiant dedication to his ‘deare wife’, though he knows that the ‘Wits’ would decry writing to your own wife as much as they would mock a man being seen ‘walking with’ his marriage partner. Certainly from Staplyton’s rather obsessive point of view, the Hero and Leander story has become a major strategic objective, to be held at all costs, in a cultural war.[31]

  16. Wycherley’s poem might be read in the expectation that it will handle the Musaeus-Ovid-Marlowe narrative as sardonically as The Plain Dealer later did Twelfth Night. But Wycherley handles a genre (mythological verse narrative) that had in effect split into two (romance and mock romance) rather affectionately, doing a kind of justice to both the form and its derivative. His burlesque of Hero and Leander almost completes a full circle through bawdy reduction back to reinstatement of the teasing ironies typical of Marlowe’s original. Leander, in this manifestation, is a barber’s apprentice, and to describe his finical charms, Wycherley revisits the conceits upon whiteness which are so characteristic of the epyllion, in which the cynosure protagonist can only, in the end, be compared in beauty to him or herself:
    His Towels, like his skin, were white, and fine,
    Nought but his face his bason could out-shine;
    So pickt, so wash’t his Combes of Ivory,
    Unless his teeth their whiteness nought came nigh    (p. 5)
    Retelling Marlowe’s poem, Wycherley simultaneously recreates Shakespeare’s, for this Leander is Adonis brought to late seventeenth century London. Hero is a barmaid at a tavern called ‘The Tower’ (p. 8) in Southwark. Wycherley’s humour, perhaps unexpectedly, is too delicate to make her merely a prostitute, the normal ‘wench o’the Bank-side’. Instead, her original role as Venus’ priestess is turned into her being a matchmaker (neither is she unambiguously a bawd). Faced with the foppishly decorative but coy Leander, Hero is characterized as experienced enough to woo him effusively, and deal robustly with his evasiveness. She becomes Shakespeare’s Venus:
    Hero therefore (that knew the world) took on her
    For slouching Lad the wooing in brisk manner;
    And roundly said, Feat Youth, for want of speaking,

    D’y’ think that I will suffer a heart-breaking?
    When Men are become Women, Women then
    May without shame (I take it) become Men.
    He pushes her away, in falling over (itself one of Venus’s specialities in Shakespeare’s poem) she inadvertently reveals enough to excite even him, so an assignation is made, which he keeps, her nurse admitting him to ‘The Tower’ while exaggerating the need for him to be quiet, because Hero knows that ‘Love is inhans’d by fear; / So stollen Bread and Cheese is mighty Chear’ (p. 63).

  17. Despite her expertise, she overestimates his capacity to hold his drink, and he falls into a stupor before love-making can occur, which cues Wycherley makes a joke about what the reader of an epyllion might be expecting after the accumulated narrative delay: ‘So of lewd expectation quite did miss, / As now chaste Reader doth I’m sure, of his’ (p.66). Venus and Adonis had exploited the same kind of teasing denial, with its Ovidian story of the Goddess and her first mortal lover turned into a narrative of frustration.

  18. It is this playfulness with the conventions of both epyllion and burlesque poem that distinguishes Wycherley’s poem. Though he could play the role of ‘brawny Wycherley’, especially after being recruited to the task by Barbara Castlemaine, the writer had finished his education in a précieuse salon in France, and his manners remained what his contemporaries considered highly refined, ‘genteel’. Hero and Leander in Burlesque is less concerned with being smutty than with exploiting comically the cross-pollination of legendary stories and the ecphrastic motifs characteristic of its originating genre. Without Wycherley troubling much to localize the action, Leander follows Hero into a Chapel of Venus: it is neither the Bankside brothel which a fully burlesque poem might include, nor a Greek temple. His redaction of Marlowe’s memorable account of ‘the gods, in sundry shapes, / Committing heady riots, incest, rapes’ (Sestiad I 143-4) sets off with the graffiti of a South Bank bordello, but becomes Wycherley’s amused commentary on conventional depictions of Venus, particularly the various contrivances used by painters of erotic-mythological scenes to veil the genitalia of otherwise naked subjects: such artists with ‘Mechanick Drapery do hide / But their own botches, and frank Natures pride’ (p. 28). The amours of Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and Venus with Adonis, are described, as rendered by the ‘dawber’ (p. 27). Wycherley, as burlesque poet, is inventing a burlesque painter. A sub-Rubenesque ‘Judgment of Paris’ is described with relish, with its ‘three squabling Goddesses’: Juno with ‘the killing meen / Of Drunkards Eye, Purse-mouth, and bridled Chin’ (p. 37), and Minerva in a tin helmet (‘Her Mouth the Mansion of her Charms, or Shop / Of Eloquence he kindly had set ope, / To shew she was a Wit’ (p. 38) ), are both deservedly trounced by Venus, who though in post-coital disarray (‘tumbled, jumbled, tous’d, and mous’d, and wurry’d’ (p. 39) ) still has all it takes to arouse Paris: ‘All that he had about him stood an end, / The sole unfeigned way Lass to commend’ (p. 40).

  19. Wycherley’s delight in bad art reflects an equivocal response to Venus and Adonis in particular. Hero and Leander is recollected, in passages like the extended comic ecphrasis, but, unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe himself had no great reputation as a writer in the Restoration period.[32] His poem was just fair game, a popular jumping-off place, it had joined translations of Musaeus, Ovidian verse letters, and all the ballads, puppet shows, mock poems, and poor Staplyton’s earnest advocacy of the moral potential of the fable as being material to hand. But Shakespeare was a larger presence. Wycherley makes one explicit Shakespearean allusion, a rather respectful one to one of Falstaff’s quips.[33]  His reworking of aspects of the far less securely canonical Venus and Adonis perhaps evidences an uncertainty about just how to orientate to that poem. He had obviously read it attentively. For example, Hero tells the coy Leander in defence of her own forwardness in courting him that:
    When th’Asses solitary Miss doth bray
    For want of him, he does not farther stray,
    Nor stop his ears, her voice he thinks melodious,
    Nor is she for her Summons to him odious.                                                         (p. 47)
    Shakespeare’s Venus made the same type of argument from nature in regard to Adonis’ ‘palfry’ escaping to pursue the ‘breeding jennet’. Wycherley’s substitution of a braying female ass is both minimal and effective.[34] The tireless way Shakespeare’s Venus solicits kisses is neatly pastiched in Leander here shying away from Hero French-kissing him: reproached for doing so once, she promptly repeats the offence, for ‘from her Sluts Trick she cou’d not refrain’ (p. 53). In place of the expansive eloquence the sixteenth century poems allow to both Leander and the coy Adonis, Wycherley gives his Leander a rather more plausible embarrassed stutter. In Shakespeare’s poem, Adonis repeatedly struggles to escape from Venus’s grappling; Wycherley can give her a hold that subdues him far more successfully – Adonis would rather be off hunting, but ‘from her for his heart he cou’d not flirt, / Sh’ad better hold than by the tail of Shirt’ (p.33).

  20. ‘The tender spring upon thy tempting lip / Shows thee unripe; yet mayst thou well be tasted’ Shakespeare’s Venus had observed about the youthful Adonis.[35] Wycherley - as we still do - found this attention to the youth’s incipient facial hair faintly risible, and simply transferred the moustache to Hero:
    Her Brows soft Fur was of a paler Dye,
    Conformable to that which prettily
    Peep’d on her upper Lip, and cowardly
    Made shew of Heroine Virility.                                                       (p. 13)
    If Wycherley had been disconcerted by the detail in Venus and Adonis, the effect of putting this little moustache on Hero is not really hostile: as in Shakespeare’s poem, the woman has all the ‘virility’, and Wycherley responds to both the Shakespearean Goddess and her acolyte rather sympathetically. Adopting the pose of love-struck poet, Wycherley next amusingly suspends his blazon, warning himself of the fate of Pygmalion, that of falling desperately in love with the image he has himself created.

  21. Wycherley retells in low style the Ovidian story of Venus and Adonis the huntsman. This is how he renders Adonis’ propensity for early morning departures - not having him there to hand is as inconvenient for the Goddess as not having the chamber-pot within reach in the morning:
    when Night 'gan to peel, and Day was dawning,
    Up he wou’d get, and leave his Goddess yawning,
    Who waking, turn’d to th’ Wall, and thought t’ave had 'im,
    As other Utensils, where she had laid him                                                    (p. 16)
    When Adonis is killed by the boar, Wycherley makes explicit what is only suggested about the boar’s assault in Shakespeare’s poem, for the animal ‘Alas! first of[f] that chary Morsel carv’d / Sacred to Venus, while she for it starv’d’ (p. 23). Here, the adjective ‘chary’ hovers between ‘dear, precious, cherished’ (OED sense 3) and ‘cautious, wary, shy, fastidious’ (OED senses 4 and 5), and so between the Ovidian Venus and Adonis (who are lovers) and the Shakespearean, whose Goddess of love is starved of that particular ‘Morsel’.

  22. The middle to late seventeenth century burlesque poem is a highly informal form – the underlying original narrative supplies a sufficient external point of reference for reader to sense where the story has got to, and how much more is likely to follow. The burlesque poet improvises freely around that original narrative development. Couplets impose a little order on the disorderly progress.[36] Installing discrepant low life characters as protagonists, these compositions might be read as an attempt to re-write (and retaliate for) the Commonwealth - but even Wycherley’s extensive effort quickly seems to lose sight of a political animus. At the very opening of Hero and Leander in Burlesque, Leander’s father, the ferryman between Sestos and Abidos, is described: as ferryman, he is also, by a local piece of metaphorical thinking, automatically made head of state. Physically, he is grotesque, with unevenly placed ears:
    one was still
    Prickt up to heaven to receive her will,
    T’other did earthward lop, good man, with pain
    To hear the needy, and oppress’d complain.       (p. 2)
    Unduly concerned about heaven and the poor, and installed for no adequate reason as head of state, Leander’s father is surely a Commonwealth man. The poem says blandly that ‘when you know his Education, you’l / Allow the man in all points fit to rule’ (p. 3). No sooner has the reader started to orientate to this, than the character is dropped, and with him, that type of politicized satire. The mock erotic poem takes over, and with it comes Wycherley’s own genial version of the ‘democracy of lust’ Peter Malekin sees in the poems of Rochester.[37] Hero is a barmaid who discreetly sustains an unstained reputation - in this she is like one of fine ladies in Wycherley’s plays. Leander may appear to be a barber’s apprentice imitating foppishness, but he is represented as genuinely fastidious, and so seems less false than the fops of The Plain Dealer. Nobody seems, finally, to be qualitatively different from anyone else. Amongst the poem’s invented settings, the Bankside Chapel of Venus, with its daubed obscene images, turns via Wycherley’s satire on painting into a place whose décor hints at the high class brothel or even the sub-Rubenesque images in an aristocrat’s private rooms. The satire of the mock poem cuts both ways.

  23. In the Chapel of Venus, this socially diffuse place, a palace of bawdy art, all women worship, with Venus self-displayed, and Priapus trying to conceal himself, but being brought into the open by the women:
    The mighty, and yet humble God did dwell
    There to his mind in dark, and narrow Cell:
    But cou’d not hide himself; for pale-fac’d Rout
    Of Virgin Penitents soon found him out.                          (p. 41)
    Wycherley would go on in The Country Wife to expose the way high society continues with, but prudently conceals, its universal worship of Venus and Priapus. Compared to that play, Hero and Leander in Burlesque is of course, ‘mediocre’. But its relaxed, rather tolerant narrative, in which Marlowe and Shakespeare’s poems are equally at play, perhaps reveals an unexpected amount of what shaped Wycherley’s imagination. Horner is, faintly, the attractive Adonis, who claims to have had his encounter with the castrating boar. Leander in the mock poems had been transformed into a London lover, going to hazardous lengths to satisfy the demands made on him by his mistress. As a victim of Hero’s sexual demands, he may also anticipate the discomfitures suffered by certain rake heroes.

  24. In Wycherley’s poem, the Venus who is worshipped, and Hero as her priestess and matchmaker, are both based on Shakespeare’s Venus, the woman untroubled by shame dealing with a risibly modest male. It seems that Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, had become important points of (sexual) reference, which compelled an imaginative revisit. Parodists like Wycherley were bound to reveal close knowledge of the Elizabethan poems during the task of extended mockery: the reductive version partially reinstates the original. The impulses that drove Hero, and Venus, Adonis, and Leander, may be re-written in grosser terms by the parody poems, but remain the same thing. A complete artistic repudiation of the late sixteenth century erotic poems was no more possible than a complete physical repudiation of their underlying subject.

In his dedicatory epistle to the translations of Ovid’s Heroides 18 and 19, added to his Musaeus translation in 1647, Sir Robert Stapylton writes of ‘lewd unmannerly verse (the new-sickness of the mind)’. The 1647 publication has no pagination, irregular page signatures, and some misplaced pages. The dedication comes half way through the volume, after his annotations on Musaeus.

[1] Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Poems and Translations ed. Stephen Orgel (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971). Petowe’s effort perhaps had more appeal than might be imagined, as the lovers underwent a second translation into romance, this time in prose, in J. S. , The Famous and renowned history of the two unfortunate, though noble lovers, Hero and Leander (1680).

[2] George Chapman, The divine poem of Musaeus. First of all bookes (1616.),‘To the Reader’, [A8v].

[3] Wycherley’s book was entered in the Stationers’ Register on November 9th, 1668. There does not seem to be an entry for Stapylton’s play.

[4] Sir Robert Stapylton, Musaeus on the Loves of Hero and Leander (1645, 1647). The later edition has a title page epigraph from Virgil, ‘Musaum ante Omnes’ (Aeneid VI, 666), even though Stapylton was aware that this Virgilian allusion could not have been made with reference to the Musaeus who wrote ‘Hero and Leander’.

[5] The epigram of Martial is translated in Stapylton’s Preface to his translation of the Ovidian epistles, Heroides 18 and 19, in his 1647 publication [Sig D2v, though the gathering is evidently disordered]. A simple quip about Leander begging that he be spared from drowning at least until his return swim, it also surfaces in the mock poems – Wycherley’s Leander ‘vow’d if they wou’d please but to reprieve him / From drowning 'till he came back, he’d forgive 'um’ (p. 73).

[6] Some later seventeenth century poets still saw Marlowe’s style as one to imitate: William Bosworth’s The Chaste and Lost Lovers (1653) is so indebted to Marlowe, particularly in ‘The Historie of Arcadius and Sepha’ (p. 8ff), that R. C.’s epistle ‘To the Reader’ explains ‘The strength of his fancy, and the shadowing of it in words he taketh from Mr. Marlow in his Hero and Leander, whose mighty lines Mr. Benjamin Johnson (a man sensible enough of his own abilities) was often heard to say, that they were Examples fitter for admiration than for parallel, you shall find our Author every where in this imitation.’ Jonson had mocked weak poets lifting from ‘Hero and Leander’ at the end of Every Man in His Humour.

[7] Chapman’s octavo volume, The divine poem of Musaeus. First of all bookes (1616) argues that the original is ‘the incomparable Loue-Poem of the world’ (‘To the Reader’, [A8v]), but is aware that readers may still favour Marlowe: ‘I perswade my self, your preiudice will encrease to the contempt of it; eyther headlong presupposing it, all one; or at no part matcheable, with that partly excellent Poem, of Maister Marloes. For your all one; the VVorkes are in nothing alike; a different Character being held through, both the Stile, Matter, & inuention [A7v-A8]. Critics arguing the completeness of Marlowe’s poem as it stands have included Marion Campbell, '"Desunt Nonnulla": The Construction of Marlowe's Hero and Leander as an Unfinished Poem', English Literary History, 51 (1984), pp.241-268, and W. L. Godshalk, 'Hero and Leander: The Sense of an Ending', in Kenneth Friedenreich, Roma Gill, and Constance Kuriyama (eds).).A Poet and a Filthy Playmaker (New York: AMS Press, (1987), pp.293-314

[8] ‘Of the danger his majesty (being Prince) escaped in the road at St Andrews’, ll. 137-8 in Poems, &c. written upon several persons (1686), p. 11..

[9] Abraham Fraunce, THE Third part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch. Entituled, Amintas Dale. Wherein are the most conceited tales of the Pagan Gods in English Hexameters together with their auncient descriptions and Philosophicall explications (1592), p. 45-6.

[10] Sir Aston Cokain, ‘A Remedy for Love’ in Small Poems of Divers Sorts (1658), 445-6.

[11] The Stationers’ Register entries for the two books are close together: March 2nd 1598 for the Marlowe-Chapman, and April 14th for Petowe. Petowe’s book was licensed ‘uppon Condicion that hee get further laufull auctoritie for the publisheinge thereof. before yt be published’, which may imply that he needed to get his work distinguished from Chapman’s. Marlowe’s incomplete version had been registered 28th September 1593 as ‘Hero and Leander / beinge an amorous poem devised by Christopher Marlow’.

[12] Thomas Nashe, Lenten Stuff in J. B. Steane (ed.), The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 424. Nashe’s work was ready for publication by January 11th 1599.

[13] The Marrovv of Complements (sic), (1655( [i.e. 1654], pp. 169-71.

[14]An Excellent Sonnet of the Unfortunate LOVES of Hero and Leander’ (1674). The other ballad is ‘The Tragedy of Hero and Leander: OR, The Two Vnfortunate Lovers’ (1665). There were at least two further printings of the 1674 ballad, though no correction was made to the swapping round of the lovers’ names.

[15] Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, ed. Maurice Hussey (London: Ernest Benn, 1964).

[16] Not even William Harvey in his intricate investigations of the mechanism of conception imagines the ‘seed’ as itself motile and swimming. But his Anatomical exercitations concerning the generation of living creatures to which are added particular discourses of births and of conceptions, &c. (1653) examines the various fluids of conception and the embryonic sac, and refers to a fable of birth from the sea in support of the general importance of liquid: “Or (as it is in the Fable) as if Saturne did then become an Eunuch, and threw his masculine evidences into the Sea, to raise a Foam, which might give birth to Venus: For in the Generation of Animals, Superat tener omnibus humor; A gentle dew doth moisten all (as the Poet hath it) and the genital parts doe foam and strut with Seed” (p.266).

[17] J. S. ,  The Famous and renowned history of the two unfortunate, though noble lovers, Hero and Leander giving an account of all that happened from the beginning of their loves, till both of them ended their lives in the sea for love of each other (1680). Illustration, p.21.

[18] Anon. Ovidius exulans (1673), Epistle II, ‘Leander to Hero’, 22-3.

[19] Ibid, Epistle IV, ‘Hero to Leander’, 108.

[20] Alexander Radcliffe, ‘Leander to Hero’ in The Works (1696).


[21] The Loves of HERO AND LEANDER: A mock Poem: WITH Marginall Notes, and other choice Pieces OF DROLLERY (London: 1653). James Smith does seem to be the likeliest author, for the verses ‘Mr. Smith’s taking a purge’ in Wit Restor’d (1658), p. 28 share a vocabulary for exuberantly fecal events. Douglas Bush says of the Hero and Leander travesty that nothing could give ‘better proof of the strong stomachs possessed by some of our ancestors’, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Pageant Book Company, 1957), p. 290: the purge poem must have escaped his notice.

[22] Besides showing Smith’s fascination with ‘the nock’ as a subject, the grotesque detail perhaps parodies the anxieties provoked by Neptune’s erotic attempt on the swimming Leander.

[23] Matthew Stevenson, The vvits paraphras’d (1680), pp. 32, 38. The volume does versions of all Ovid’s Heroides.

[24] Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, mentions the poem in his broad survey in his Chapter 15, ‘Travesties of Classical Themes and Poems’, noting only that it ‘does apparently hark back to Marlowe’s elaborate descriptions of Leander and the temple, and perhaps Marlowe’s dialogue as well’ (p. 292).

[25] Douglas Bush in Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (originally published in 1932), taking a view based on the whole European Renaissance, conversely sees it as inevitable that a wave of burlesque should follow ‘in the wake of the classical revival’ (op. cit., New York: Pageant Book Company, 1957, p. 287). But politically, the fashion arrives in England at an odd moment. Bush takes no pleasure in these poems, finding them generally ‘dull and coarse’ (p. 292), and finally he dismisses them, along with his argument that they have something to do with the classical revival: Scarron may have, but ‘the English pieces were mostly the hasty scribbling of pot-poets’ (p. 293).

[26] David Farley-Hills’ study, The Benevolence of Laughter: Comic Poetry of the Commonwealth and Restoration (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1974), suggests a simple explanation for the vogue for comic verse, playing ‘a part in the ideological war’ between Cavalier gaiety and Puritan sobriety (p. 22), and suggests that at some level this audaciously careless verse represents ‘a loss of poetic nerve’ (p. 34). His study is mainly concerned to contrast this comic verse with later satirical poetry.

[27] Henry Herringham, in Musarum deliciae (1653), Sig. A3.

[28] James Smith’s scatological Hero and Leander appeared in Certain Verses, written by severall of the author’s friends to be re-printed with the second edition of Gondibert (1653), as well as printings in which it was the title poem (1651, and two editions in 1653).

[29] Scarronides: OR, Le VIRGILE travestie. A Mock-Poem. Parodies of Books I and IV of the Aeneid, editions in 1664, 5, 7, 1670, 2, 8, 1682, 1691, 1700. Cotton develops his version of Scarron beyond straight translation.

[30] Musaeus’ poem speaks at its opening of the relationship as a ‘darkened marriage never beheld by immortal dawn’. In Marlowe’s version, the two are ‘affied’ (Sestiad II, 26), which might be a verbal contract of marriage, but Chapman’s continuation gives Leander a vision of the affronted Goddess ‘Ceremony’, while Hero assuages her guilt for being ‘devirginate’ (Sestiad III, ‘Argument, 9) by presiding at a proxy marriage (Sestiad V). None of this made ‘Hero and Leander’ a securely matrimonial subject. Staplyton copes with the even more doubtful morality of the Ovid poems by dedicating his translation to his wife as a guarantee of their utmost respectability.

[31] The chivalrous Stapylton prefaces his translation of Juvenal’s sixth satire (in the lavishly illustrated Mores Hominum, 1660) with the explanation that the Roman poet only picked out the worst examples to dissuade a too elderly friend from marrying; though sun-spots have been discovered, the sun shines as brightly as it ever did, and so (he says) does female chastity (p. 151).

[32] The famous notice is in Edward Phillips’ Theatrum Poetarum (1675), where Marlowe is ‘a kind of a second Shakesphear … though inferiour both in Fame and Merit … in his begun Poem of Hero and Leander, he seems to have a resemblance of that clean and unsophisticated Wit, which is natural to that incomparable Poet; this Poem being left unfinished by Marlow, who in some riotous Fray came to an untimely and violent End, was thought worthy of the finishing Hand of Chapman; in the performance whereof nevertheless he fell short of the Spirit and Invention with which it was begun’ (pp. 24-5). Shakespeare figures, however, as ‘the glory of the English style’, who ‘in all his Writings hath an unvulgar style, as well in his Venus and Adonis … as in his Dramatics’ (p. 194).

[33] Wycherley’s ‘Hunting's said to be in fashion, / Much like to grinning Honours Recreation’ (p. 18) alludes to Falstaff (I Henry IV, V, iii).

[34] The same moment in Shakespeare’s poem is explicitly recollected in Smith’s The Loves of Hero and Leander. A Mock Poem. As the lovers have sex, Hero’s maid gets sexually frustrated, and ready to grab the first man  she sees:

By chance a Weaver passing by,
Looking aside, she did him spy.
Then as Adonis horse did fare,
When he beheld the Freez-land Mare,
Breaking his rains ty’d to a Tree…

     (p. 10)

[35] Venus and Adonis 127-8.

[36] Though even the doggerel couplet threatens to disintegrate in the favoured device in the burlesques of breaking a word at a line-ending to create a comic rhyme.

[37] Peter Malekin, Liberty and Love (London: Hutchinson, 1981), p.146.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).