The non-Ovidian Elizabethan epyllion: Thomas Watson, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Barnfield
This chapter proposes a different approach to the so-called ‘Ovidian epyllion’, an amatory mythological narrative genre that emerged as a vibrant focus of creativity in late Elizabethan England. It demonstrates that alongside the pervasive influence of Ovid, this tradition owed much to the interaction between pastoral poetics and the precedent of certain late Greek short epics which enjoyed widespread visibility throughout Europe in the early modern period. Focussing especially on Colluthus’s Abduction of Helen and Musaeus’s Hero and Leander, the author argues that these works, and the modes of reading they invite and presuppose as a genre, shaped the English poetic tradition in ways that have not been properly appraised. The discussion recovers some of the varied early modern contexts of reading these works, and explores their invocation, translation, and imitation in England by Thomas Watson, popular avant garde versifier and exceptional Hellenist. Watson’s œuvre occupies an important but overlooked place in 1590s narrative poetics and the development of the Elizabethan epyllion. His engagement with Colluthus’s Abduction of Helen significantly reconfigures, this chapter argues, the literary landscape that inspired Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and affords not only a different way of reading Marlowe’s poem, but also external evidence that it is finished.