In Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” a humble shepherd waxes philosophical about all of the things that he would like to do to and for the woman that he loves. Given all the time in the world, he would certainly make good on all of these proclamations of offerings and activities. However, Sir Walter Raleigh’s rebuttal poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” gives a far more realistic and critical view of the shepherd’s promises, declaring that there is simply not enough time in life to do all of these things. Between these two poems, Raleigh’s reply has the more accurate sense of time, whereas Marlowe’s shepherd is a naïve idealist.
The shepherd asks the nymph to “come live with me and be my love,” demonstrating his intentions to pledge himself to her forever. (line 1) He then proceeds to list all of the things that he wants to do with her, like “sit upon the rocks / and see the shepherds feed their flocks,” among other romantic platitudes. (lines 5-6) This is contrasted heavily with the nymph’s negative reply, where she reminds him that “time drives the flocks from field to fold,” and that the flocks will not be there forever. (line 5)
There are many different things that the shepherd promises to the nymph; he wants to make her “beds of roses / and a thousand fragrant posies,” as well as flowers, gowns of the finest wool, and gold-buckled slippers. (lines 9-10) Silver dishes for meat “as precious as the gods do eat” served on an ivory table are also promised to the nymph. (lines 22) All of these lavish gifts are time-consuming and far too expensive for a mere shepherd to afford; therefore, there is good reason to be skeptical of his promises, as he could not possibly deliver them. Of course, most of this is merely an expression of how much he loves her, and if he had the time and money he would give these things to her. However, as life only lasts so long, the nymph rejects these notions, as they could not be reasonably fulfilled.
These sorts of platitudes are typical of the pastoral poem, as they are very idealistic and unrealistic; they represent the intent of uncomplicated, simple love. However, Raleigh’s reply proceeds “to tarnish Marlowe’s golden vision with reason, and to point out time’s destructiveness.” (Smith 1991) The youthful impracticality of Marlowe’s poem is offset by the realities of time presented by the nymph.
The nymph is acutely aware of how finite life is, and that everything he wants to do is impossible. In the first stanza, the nymph states that “If all the world and love were young…these pretty pleasures might me move / To live with thee and by thy love.” (lines 1-2) This is meant to state that the nymph, given that they had all the time in the world, would most certainly accept his offers of love and affection. However, because life does not last forever, she cannot readily take his suggestions as honest. She even implies that there is not “truth in every shepherd’s tongue,” implying that he is not being entirely truthful about what he wants to do for her.
“The flowers do fade, and wanton fields / To wayward winter reckoning yields,” (lines 9-10) according to the nymph. This helps to demonstrate just how useless the shepherd’s promises are, as nothing he makes for her will ever last. She is able to sum up the shepherd’s golden words and their realities by stating that “a honey tongue, a heart of gall / Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.” (lines 11-12) In other words, the thought behind his words and his “honey tongue” are very nice, but are far too fanciful to hold up to disappointment. The only thing that would happen is sorrow at the lack of accomplishment of his ideals, and the nymph realizes this.
Every single thing that the shepherd offers her, from gowns to posies, “soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten – / in folly ripe, in reason rotten.” (lines 15-16) Whatever he gives her will disappear, and it does not hold up to scrutiny. The nymph recalls the shepherd’s request to “live with me and be my love” (line 29) when she states that “all these in me no means can move / To come to thee and be thy love.” (lines 3-4) Basically, the nymph provides a point-by-point rational rebuttal of everything he promises her, and unequivocally states that she will not accept his offer.
In conclusion, while Marlowe’s shepherd has a very pastoral, perfectionist view of love, all but promising the world to the woman he adores, the nymph calls him out on his claims and rejects his platitudes. She recognizes that everything he makes will fade into time, and that if he spends all his time creating things for her and getting things for her, there would be no time to actually celebrate their love together. Raleigh’s poem creates the more accurate concept of time, because the nymph knows that time passes and things end after a while. Marlowe’s shepherd, on the other hand, keeps his head in the clouds and tries to offer everything he can.
Smith, Bruce. “The Passionate Shepherd.” Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A
Cultural Poetics. University of Chicago Press, 1991.