29.6.06

... as a glow brings out a haze ...

A couple of weeks ago I picked up, second hand, a copy of Dr Johnson & Mr Savage, by Richard Holmes. The book is a meticulous and fascinating account of the friendship between the young Samuel Johnson and the aging Richard Savage, during the year 1738. At this point Johnson, just arrived in London, was virtually unknown while Savage was, if anything, too well known. He was, says the back cover blurb ... a poet, playwright and convicted murderer who roamed the brothels and society salons of Augustan England creating a legend of poetic injustice ... Savage, an extravagant and fantastical man, with elaborate manners and radically unpredictable sympathies, died in prison in Bristol in 1744, more or less reconciled to his fate. Johnson then wrote his life and the drift of Holmes' thesis is that in that act of composition Johnson also invented the form of literary biography as it is practised today. It's a convincing enough argument but the chief joy of the book for me was its evocation of Savage himself as a talented but always disenchanted literary malcontent of a type I have occasionally known myself, both here in Sydney and in my youth in New Zealand. Then there is its picture of the milieu, Grub Street, with its manifold follies and complexities. When Alexander Pope, who generously supported Savage in his decline, so long as he stayed away from London, was writing The Dunciad, a great deal of the obscure and malign gossip it contains was given him directly by Savage, who seems to have had a quite extraordinarily compendious memory, especially for the faults and failings of his fellows. Savage's murder was committed in a tavern or brothel, late one night, when he and two others, after hours of roistering around town, burst impatiently into a private room which was just about to be vacated by those who had been drinking there. An argument ensued, swords were drawn and Savage stabbed a man in the belly ...

This tavern or brothel fight, with its strange concatenation of the pen and the sword, put me in mind of the death of Christopher Marlowe, and the book, recently republished, that Charles Nicholl wrote about it, called The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. I'd seen a copy of it in Abbey's bookshop a few months ago, it was still there, so I bought and read it next. Not, unfortunately, as good as the Holmes. Like so many books these days, it needed a good edit. And there is too much in it of supposition that, through repetition and subtle changes of phrasing, masquerades as fact. And yet ... it does reveal a world as strange and as fascinating in its own way as does the Holmes, in this case the Elizabethan underworld of spies, utterers, projectors and the like. I suppose where this fascination is most acute for me is the area of 'projection', the laying of 'plats', whereby what is essentially a fiction, or an invention, is advanced into the world as a possibility that might then be made true by subsequent events. Marlowe's death, in so far as it can be understood, seems to have been a result of one of these projections, perhaps an attempt to bring down Walter Raleigh: he and the three men who killed him had spent the best part of a day together - from ten a.m. until after six in the evening - mostly in conversation, about what we do not know. Perhaps Marlowe was required to act in some way that he refused to do and was killed as a result; perhaps his death had been mooted before the meeting but was not decided upon until the discussions had reached a point of futility. Nicholl doesn't say this but it seemed clear to me that two men - Skeres and Pooley - held him, either side, by the arms, while Ingram Frizier drove the twelvepenny dagger in above his right eye, probably severing the carotid artery. This was thought to be a desirable blow in the arcana of Elizabethan sword fighting but always difficult to bring off; Marlowe would probably have to be held for it to have been accomplished. As to the further gruesome details - that his brains came out after the knife was withdrawn, that he died cursing - these seem to have been made up, or just possibily circulated by word of mouth, after he was buried, next day, in an unmarked grave in a Deptford churchyard.

But his name, as they say, lives on ... whatever name that was. Contemporary spelling was so fluid that it appears as Marly, Morly, Marley, Marlin, Merlin, Morlow and other versions as well as the one that has come down to us. But that name has gained extra associations, with Joseph Conrad's decision to give it - the surname alone, without the terminal 'e' - to the narrator of his Heart of Darkness as well as several other tales; while Raymond Chandler's reprise in his hero, Philip Marlowe, took it into another realm altogether. I even hear it faintly chiming inside the reggae beats of Bob Marley, as the name of a plantation owner from the 16th or 17th century, growing sugar or tobacco and running slaves under the hot Caribbean sun ... it was Conrad's Marlow who thought, appositely, that the meaning of an episode was outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze ...

4 comments:

Jill said...

Hi Martin, I agree that the Holmes book is terrific, and so atmospheric. I picked up a remaindered copy a few years ago. Thanks for pointing me to the one on Marlowe. Jill

Martin Edmond said...

Yes, it's worth reading, tho' it isn't as good a book as Nicholl's one on Rimbaud's African years, Somebody Else. As for me, I've moved (inevitably?) on to Shakespeare: 1599, by James Shaprio. Utterly compelling.

Jack Ross said...

I agree about the Richard Holmes book ... there's some interesting supplements to his Johnsonian investigations in a book of essays called Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic biographer (he ended up with a subtitle, too): stuff about the 'Great Cham's' cat, and various other byways of lit crit -- it's a companion volume to his earlier Footsteps, which was also quite intriguing.

Martin Edmond said...

thanks, Jack - I'll look out for those supplements.