What is the significance of the word "if" in Sir Walter Ralegh's poem "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"?
In Sir Walter Ralegh’s poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” a beautiful young woman responds to the romantic proposals that had been issued to her by a shepherd in Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” The nymph, in effect, pours cold water on the shepherd’s passionate proposals, mocking them point-by-point and responding with sober realism.
The word “if” – the very first word in Ralegh’s poem – is important because it immediately signals the nature of the young woman’s reply. By beginning with the word “If,” she indicates how unrealistic (and even perhaps deceitful) the shepherd has been:
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. (1-4)
The first line implies that the world and love are not “young” in the ways that they were, for example, in the Garden of Eden before the fall and corruption of human beings. The love Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall was an innocent love, not yet corrupted by sin and selfishness. The nymph implies, however, that any such days of innocence are long past. Line 2 suggests that the shepherd cannot be trusted to be honest. “If” he could be trusted, then perhaps the nymph might return the affection he has offered her.
Much of the rest of the poem, however, is a catalog of various reasons why the nymph does not take the shepherd’s proposals seriously. All the evidence offered in stanzas two to five is evidence that contradicts the pleasant possibilities implied by the opening “If.”
Nevertheless, in the final stanza the nymph returns to the kind of response she had offered in the first stanza. She replies that “could” (another word for “if”) she and the shepherd escape from mutability, then she might agree to live with him and be his love (21-24). The clear implication of this final stanza, however, is that no such escape is possible.