The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

The mid and late 1590s were not, in truth, great times to live in the English countryside – or indeed the country at large. England saw a succession of poor harvests that led to a quadrupling of the price of flour, widespread famine and epidemics of diseases associated with poverty, a state of affairs that led to the drafting of the poor laws. It was, to say the least, an odd sort of time from which to emerge England’s best known pastoral lyric, Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.

Marlowe’s older, wiser contemporary, the explorer, colonist and accomplished poet, Walter Raleigh recognised that farming was not the easiest of trades even at the best of times. Marlowe’s shepherd insists the country is a land of pleasure and plenty. Raleigh’s Nymph is having none of it:

 

The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

 

If all the world and love were young,

And truth in every Shepherd’s tongue,

These pretty pleasures might me move,

To live with thee, and be thy love.

 

Time drives the flocks from field to fold,

When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,

And Philomel becometh dumb,

The rest complains of cares to come.

 

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,

To wayward winter reckoning yields,

A honey tongue, a heart of gall,

Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

 

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

 

Thy belt of straw and Ivy buds,

The Coral clasps and amber studs,

All these in me no means can move

To come to thee and be thy love.

 

But could youth last, and love still breed,

Had joys no date, nor age no need,

Then these delights my mind might move

To live with thee, and be thy love.

 

Raleigh Nymph doesn’t entirely contradict the shepherd’s visions, as unlikely as they seem to us: it is not that she doubts that he can give her roses and posies and kirtles and myrtles, but that time will wear these things down. The shepherd’s vision was a vision of a perpetual summer, but the Nymph knows that the winter in the countryside is more difficult, that the birds (Philomel is a personification of the nightingale) take their songs elsewhere, that ‘rivers rage’ and even the hardy flocks are taken into the fold. Her reply echoes with folk wisdom about the ravages of time on the young, the fleetingness of beauty and pleasure, the foolishness of romanticism – ‘tongue of honey, heart of gall’, ‘in folly ripe, in reason rotten’.

Given all that, given the foolishness of the shepherd’s invitation, the closing stanza is remarkably polite. She is, I suppose, trying to rebuff him gently. If youth lasted forever, she says, I would come and be your love. But it doesn’t, so I won’t.

(Readers may also be interested in the response of American poet William Carlos Williams here)

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3 Comments

Filed under Poetry

3 responses to “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

  1. I think I love the response even more than the question 🙂

    Lily

  2. Yes, she’s no fool that nymph.

  3. Pingback: Raleigh on his Execution | Andy Fleck's Blog

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