Can someone please explain the poem, "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" by Sir Walter Raleigh?  

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kwoo1213's profile pic

kwoo1213 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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The nymph's reply to the shepherd is one that the shepherd does not want to hear.  She rejects him.  In her reply, she says that love is inconstant and that she does not believe that love is everlasting.  Because of this and because she clearly has trust issues, she rejects the shepherd.  In addition, she takes the shepherd's poem, point by point, and explains that the things that he wants to provide her with and show her will either die or change with time.  She ends the poem by saying that she cannot be moved to love him no matter what he promises her or says to her.  In the last stanza, she concludes this way:

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. (eNotes)
andrewnightingale's profile pic

andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Sir Walter Raleigh wrote this poem as a response to Christopher Marlowe's poem, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. In Marlowe's poem, the shepherd woos his love by making promises of an idyllic pastoral life and all sorts of material benefits if she chooses to be with him.

In The Nymph's reply to the Shepherd, Raleigh's nymph rejects the shepherd's advances since she finds his promises unsatisfying and hardly commensurate to her expectations of what an ideal relationship is like. Her comments clearly indicate that she finds the shepherd's promises limited since they are restricted to material values and do not relate to true commitment and loyalty at all.

The nymph is critical of the shepherd's honeyed tongue and suggests that it could disguise an acid and cold heart. The words promise much, but are only that. The shepherd hardly mentions what he actually feels and he might be devoid of true passion.

A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall,

The nymph rejects each of the shepherd's promises and emphasises the transient nature of all that he mentions. None of the promised delights he mentions are permanent and all are bound to die, fade away or lose their value over time.

What the nymph needs is something permanent, greater than the transitory, something that transcends the periodic nature of things. In her reply she states:

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.

The nymph therefore rejects the shepherd's appeal. She desires things which, one may believe, are impossible to attain: (ever)lasting youth, a regenerative love, permanent, timeless and inconsequential joy. However, although her request may seem paradoxical, her wish is not an unrealistic one. She seeks true happiness throughout her lifetime, i.e. her desire is that these qualities should endure during her stay on earth with the shepherd as her companion, and this is a promise he does not, or is unwilling, to make. 

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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"The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" by Sir Walter Raleigh was written as a response to Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." Both were witty love poems. They were not intended, as the later works of the Romantic era, or even many of Shakespeare's sonnets, to express deep personal emotions, but rather to display the cleverness and charm of the poet in portraying flirtation.

Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is an example of the "carpe diem" poem, one which urges a reader or interlocutor to indulge in immediate sensual pleasures and take risks because of the fleeting nature of human life and the uncertainty for the future.

In "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," the speaker takes a more pragmatic point of view, she suggests that although humans are mortal, youth and impulsiveness are fleeting, and one must plan one's life in light of the fact that carefree youth passes and one needs to plan for middle and old age. In practical terms, as the shepherd is not, apparently, proposing marriage, the trifles he offers will not compensate the nymph for the risks she would run in letting herself be seduced by the shepherd. Raleigh does not need to state explicitly for an audience that the woman who becomes pregnant outside marriage in his period loses the possibility of getting married, loses her place in society, and becomes an indigent outcast. Thus the nymph resists the shepherd's blandishments because she knows that the pleasures of youth are fleeting and the baubles she is offered worthless compared to the risks she would be taking in yielding to the shepherd.



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