Study Guide

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

by Sir Walter Raleigh

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd Summary


Lines 1–8
The nymph’s reply begins in the subjunctive— the grammatical mood used to convey hypothetical or contingent action. The subjunctive is commonly expressed with the “if . . . were” construction: “If I were king,” for example, or, in the first line of the poem, “If all the world and love were young.” This usage sets up the primary rhetorical structure of the entire poem: the speaker is going to contrast the shepherd’s vision, his hypothetical world, with the realities introduced by the word “but” in the second stanza. While the second part of the “if” statement— “And truth in every shepherd’s tongue”—may seem the more biting, the nature of the contrast exists in the first part. What renders the shepherd’s vision false, the nymph says, is time: the world and love do not remain young. Thus, while she finds lovely the shepherd’s evocation of spring, shallow rivers, flocks of sheep and rocks that exist merely so lovers can sit on them, in reality these ideal images are time-bound, subject to change and decay. Thus, “time drives flocks from field to fold,” “rivers rage” from rainy weather, “rocks grow cold” with winter, and even the nightingale—the timeless symbol of beauty unmentioned in the Marlowe poem—becomes “dumb” with the change in seasons. In contrast with the nightingale are “the rest”—those who do not become dumb but who instead “complain of cares to come.” By this, the nymph means human beings who, burdened with the consciousness of passing time, are subject to the anxiety of future misfortunes. In the shepherd’s evocation, no such anxieties can exist because no such timeless world can exist: his vision, like Keats’s Grecian urn, is only a product of the imagination.

Lines 9–16
Raleigh makes frequent use of the poetic devices that give Marlowe’s poem its musicality. Yet the reader cannot help but sense...

(The entire section is 790 words.)