Was this the face that launched a thousand ships |Summary & Analysis|


The poem ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships’ is from the great tragic drama ‘Doctor Faustus’ (Act V Scene I) by Christopher Marlowe, the famous University Wits. Dr. Faustus is a typical renaissance icon who craves for Helen, a paragon of classical beauty and bursts into lyrical expression after seeing Helena. He is utterly amazed by her beauty that he thinks it justified that Greeks launched thousands of ship to recover their peerless beauty against Trojans who kidnapped Helen. He thinks it was not wrong to burn tall towers of Ilium for the sake of Helena. Helena in this scene stands for the indescribable charm and joy of pagan art and learning. It is a thirst for the very essence of all Beauty that Faustus lusts after. He needs sweet Helen and no lesser beauty to make him immortal with a kiss.

Faustus’ desire for beauty beyond human reach is a form of the soul’s desire for power- no trivial thirst for pleasure, but a longing to achieve the unattainable, and hold in human grasp the bliss reserved for a god. But when Helena kisses him, she asks forth his soul that was pledged to the Devil. It is implied that Helen and Devil are no different beings. Both stoke passions, sway reason and destroy the soul’s innocence. Dr. Faustus asks Helen to kiss him once more and return back his Soul as he feels that heaven lies in her lips and anything except her is waste and rubbish.

“All is dross that is not Helena”.

Faustus feels himself to be in love with Helena like Paris, the Prince of Troy and wants to sack Wittenberg in place of Troy. He wants to win over weak Menelaus and Achilles and be again kissed by Helena.

He compares her fairness to the evening air and considers her more beautiful and brighter than Jupiter when he appeared before Semele and lovelier than Sun god Apollo in stretched blue arms of Arethusa. He wants Helena to be her secret love.

This 20 line poem is written in perfect blank verse. Its might has obscured its technical precision, admirable lucidity and finish. Marlowe’s blank verse is unequalled by any of his contemporaries except Shakespeare. The lines are filled with breath of passion and wooden blank verse has become a trumpet, blazing out poetry and eloquence in high astounding terms.

Literary devices

Alliteration– “make me immortal’’

                       “give me my soul’’

                       “Brighter art thou than’’

                       “ Arethusa’s azure arms’’

Simile-        “fairer than evening’s air’’

                        “Brighter are thou than’’

                        “More lovely than the monarch of the sky’’

Metaphor-   “for heaven is in these lips”

                         “I will be Paris”

                          “Clad in the beauty of thousand stars”

Imagery-   “Brighter art thou than the flaming Jupiter

                     When he appeared to hapless Semele

                     More lovely than the monarch of the sky

                     In wanton Arethusa’s azured arms”

Hyperbole–   “I will combat weak Menelaus”

The use of myth and legend is integral to his thought and contribute to the music and melody of the verse. It reveals Marlowe’s fondness for the music that can be wrung from proper names and his skill in this respect is seen abundantly throughout.

The clarity of Marlowe’s diction in his finest moments is also noteworthy. He is neither rhetorical nor obscure, but speaks with a bright and lucid simplicity. Many of his happiest lines are woven from the words of everyday speech, often a sequence of monosyllables as in

“Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies”

This often quoted panegyric on Helen is one of the loveliest of lyrics. In its idealisation of beauty, in its piling up of one telling metaphor after another, in its riot of colour, in its swift transitions from one myth to another, in its music and melody, in its passionate intensity, exuberance and abundance, in its raptures exaltation of the beauty of woman, in its imaginative vastness, the passage remains unsurpassed among the love lyrics in the English language.


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