Explain the meaning of the poem "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd " by Sir Walter Raleigh.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" is a satiric reply to Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." The irony of this satire is that a mythological spirit depicted as a maiden is more realistic than the shepherd. The flaw in the shepherd's pastoral lyric of invitation ironically pointed out by this maiden is that the idyllic life that he and the nymph will share is limited by its temporality. 

That the nymph finds the shepherd unrealistic is indicated by the beginning line which begins with "If," an indication that all else that follows is set upon the "world and love" remaining "young." This anti-pastoral presents the argument that time works against youth; the verse moves quickly through the use of rhyming couplets and alliteration, the repetition of initial consonant sounds, as in the following examples:

These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold
Where rivers rage and rocks grow cold...
The rest complains of cares to come.

In the third stanza, there is also personification in lines 9 and 10 as "fields" and "winter" are attributed human characteristics,

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields,

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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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"The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd" was written by Sir Walter Raleigh, an English nobleman associated with the court of Queen Elizabeth I. This poem was not written for publication in a modern sense, but it would have been circulated privately among other aristocrats as a display of cleverness within a social circle in which writing elegant occasional verses was considered a way of displaying one's sophistication and cultural capital. It assumes that the audience would have been familiar with Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and other similar pastoral poems of seduction and shows Raleigh's skill by providing a clever response to the conventions of the genre while simultaneously flattering Elizabeth, who prided herself on being a virgin queen. 

Rather than arguing that the fleeting nature of life on earth suggests that the nymph should engage in sensual pleasures while she can, as does Marlowe's poem and many other similar ones such as Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress", instead this poem argues that because such sensual pleasures are fleeting and trivial, there is no reason for the nymph to indulge in them. Instead, lurking in the background of this is a religious argument that it would be foolish to risk eternal damnation for a few moments of sensual pleasure. 

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robinson89's profile pic

robinson89 | (Level 1) eNoter

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What uses of literary language does this poem contain?  Please give examples.

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