The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’: A Feminist Criticism of Raleigh’s
Response to Marlowe
Sir Walter Raleigh authored the poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” during the 1600s as a response to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, which was written a year before. Raleigh’s poem is a parody – a satirical reply to Marlowe’s pastoral poem, yet they share meanings, references, and even structure of iambic tetrameter, six (6) quatrains or four-line stanzas, each a combination of two (2) rhymed couplets (Sternfeld and Chan 176), but it takes a feminist meaning because it gave voice, and listened to the maiden (the Nymph) that the Shepherd is addressing to. THIS IS A VERY LONG, VERY CONVOLUTED SENTENCE! Marlowe’s poem is about the Shepherd who invited a certain lady to come and live with him, promising the pleasures the world (country) has to offer. The poem did not explicitly say if the lady is a mortal maiden or a nymph, but from the words used she is from a world different from the Shepherd’s. Armitage stated that Marlowe’s poem is pastoral, i.e. depicting rustic lifestyle, which is widely different (and definitely more appealing) than the densely populated and sprawling city of London (169). PERHAPS! While the words used in the poem are sweet, poetic, and beautiful, the theme which they represent is less than innocent. The Shepherd invites the lady to the pleasures that his world can offer, all of them materialistic and hedonistic in nature, and there were sexual/erotic messages hidden within the invitation:THEY REALLY AREN’T ‘HIDDEN,’ ARE THEY? ‘Come live with me and be my love’ (170), but in Raleigh’s response poem, the Nymph is clever enough to deduce the hidden messages, disagree with them, and totally deny the Shepherd’s invitation.
This paper requires an understanding of the two (2 THERE IS NO NEED TO TRANSLATE THE WRITTEN NUMBER INTO A NUMERICAL VALUE IN COLLEGE ESSAYS! SIMPLY ‘TWO’ IS FINE) poems, and the feminist angle of Raleigh’s poem cannot be established or analyzed without comparing and contrasting them. The first element that presents feminism in Raleigh’s poem is the tone. Marlowe’s speaker is the Shepherd, definitely a male, but his approach is as male as he is, in ways that men do when they try to persuade women with their promises, that turn sweeter as they go farther from reality. However, as this is a pastoral poem, which in its pure form portrays simplicity – a state of orderliness, and depiction of contrast against a different civilization (Heninger, 254). Underneath the lovely words about nature, forest, and ideal love which is full of all thing pleasurable, is superficiality, and wretchedness of man. The satirical take of Raleigh is effective because the Nymph’s tone is realistic and very practical; in fact too practical and frank for a woman if the historical context is considered. The 16th century is an era of a society strict with conventions, especially with respect to the role of men and women. Men had a larger role, and even in modern society they are expected to provide not only the basic needs, but also the hedonistic pleasures that life can offer to their partner, and eventually their family. The Nymph contradicts everything that the Shepherd has said, evident in the use of If-Then statements, specifically in the first stanza (Gale n.p.):
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 (Raleigh 243).
The greatest contradictions by the Nymph that further establishes the feminist theme of Raleigh’s poem are (1) the meaning of love; and (2) the harsh reality of life, in relation to time and temporariness of everything in this world. The Shepherd professes all that is ideal about love:
And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love (Marlowe 239 – 240).
The Shepherd’s take on love is everything pleasurable, beautiful, and enchanting. The Nymph contradicts these. Being a goddess who knows better than mortals, she sees through the folly of men and their wretchedness, and crushes the Shepherd’s statements as they are just empty promises, because time passes, and with it comes decay or the withering of everything trivial, even in some instances, love (Folsom 3).
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 (Raleigh 243).
Another element of the poem that presents feminism is the point of view. As mentioned, the speaker now is the Nymph, and she is speaking to the Shepherd as an equal to her and the members of her sex. In retrospect, her voice is the voice of all women who have important things to say, in all aspects aside from literature of the British Renaissance (Ji 54). As women shall carry the burden of motherhood and responsibilities of a domestic wife, the Nymph emphasizes that practicality shall not listen to empty promises of spring, for shallow love established on such trivial things and materialism, will wither and fade through time; however, true love that accepts reality stays until only souls are left, and if the Shepherd has this to offer, then maybe, the Nymph can be persuaded to live with him:
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 243).
Folsom, Zoe M. “Marlowe, Raleigh, and Dickinson: The Fragility of Love.” (2014).
Gale, Cengage Learning. A Study Guide for Walter Raleigh’s” The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”. Gale, Cengage Learning, 2016.
Heninger, S. K. “The Renaissance Perversion of Pastoral.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 22, no. 2, 1961, pp. 254–261. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2707836.
Ji, Chen. “Facing the Pastoral Love, the Females Have Voices——Listen to the Female Voices in English Renaissance from The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” Journal of Heilongjiang College of Education 5 (2015): 54.
Marlowe, Christopher. “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”. ENGL 200: Composition and Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011: 239-241.
Raleigh, Sir Walter. “The Nymph’s Reply.” ENGL 200: Composition and Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011: 243.
Sternfeld, Frederick W., and Mary Joiner Chan. “‘Come Live with Me and Be My Love.’” Comparative Literature, vol. 22, no. 2, 1970, pp. 173–187. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1769760.