Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is a celebration of youth, innocence, love, and poetry. The poem participates in an ongoing tradition of lyrical love poetry. It casts the lovers as shepherds and shepherdesses who are at home in a beneficent natural setting. According to the conventions of pastoral poetry (which began with the Greek poet Theocritus in the third century b.c.e.), shepherds are uncorrupted and attuned to the world of nature. Such pastoral poems are the work of urban poets who idealize the simplicity, harmony, and peace of the shepherd’s life.
This idealized vision has often been subjected to satire. Sir Walter Raleigh, a contemporary of Marlowe, wrote “The Nymph’s Reply to the Passionate Shepherd,” in which the young woman replies somewhat cynically. The third stanza reads:
Thy gown, 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.
Three centuries later, in 1935, responding to the economic devastation of the Depression, C. Day Lewis wrote, “Come, live with me and be my love”:
Care on thy maiden brow shall putA wreath of wrinkles, and thy footBe shod with pain: not silken dressBut toil shall tire thy loveliness.
The many parodies of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” render a kind of tribute to its enduring vitality and power.
Marlowe’s poem is an outstanding example of the pastoral lyric tradition. It succeeds because of its musical quality, its direct, conversational language, and its freshness of imagery and tone. It continues to be widely anthologized.