In the first stanza of Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," what could convince the Nymph of the shepherd's sincerity? What does the line "And truth in every shepherd's tongue" mean?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As a response to Christopher Marlowe's more serious "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love," Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" debunks the shepherd's sentimental, romantic vision.  So, in the first stanza, the nymph doubts the sincerity of the shepherd's proposal.  Written in the subjunctive mood, the first stanza sets up the hypothetical conditions expressed in the rest of the poem.

Thus, the nymph states that

If all the world and love were young,/And truth in every shepherd's tongue

she might be urged to come and live with the shepherd.  But, she doubts his sincerity, as she remarks in her biting comment about the "shepherd's tongue." The nymph, one of a class of inferior divinities of mythology, is used, interestingly, to further debunk the sentimental tone of Marlowe's poem.  Even the meter--iambic tetrameter--mocks Marlowe's tone because of the words that Raleigh uses. For, although they flow in much the same manner as Marlowe's, they are decidedly less romantic than those of the idealistic "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love."  For instance,

when rivers rage and rocks grow cold/And Philomel becometh dumb 

is in sharp contrast to Marlowe's

By shallow river, to whose falls/Melodious birds sing madrigals.

In the end, the subjunctive mood remains because the nymph realizes that the flowers, the promises, the "belt of straw and ivy-buds" are all temporal:

But could love last and youth still breed

Had joys no date or age no need

Then these delights my mind might move

To live with thee and be thy love.

dstuva's profile pic

Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The nymph in Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" is in no mood to be convinced of the shepherd's sincerity.  The line you ask about is evidence of that.  The opening stanza reads:

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.

The nymph means that if the world and love were young and shepherds spoke the truth, then the "pleasures" that the shepherd uses to woo her in Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" might move her to join him and love him.  The poem suggests that she knows the truth, however.  She knows better.  The shepherd does not speak the truth.  One might say that the shepherd is a bit idealistic, and the nymph is a bit cynical.

The bigger picture is that Raleigh is commenting on Marlowe's pastoral poem.  He is offering a more realistic depiction of life and love than idealistic pastoral poetry offers.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The poem starts out with the following lines that tell what could make the nymph agree to be the shepherd's love:

If all the world and love were young

And truth were in each shepherd's tongue

The line about truth means that one of the conditions would be that every shepherd should tell the truth all the time. This implies that she thinks he's lying when he tells her all that stuff about what he'd make for her.

What the whole stanza is saying is that she will never be his love because the world does not stand still -- it does not remain young.  All the stuff that the shepherd promised her in his poem (Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd...") can never happen because the world won't stay wonderful forever the way it seems to in that poem.

So I'm not sure that she doubts his sincerity.  I think she just thinks he's being foolish because all the things he promises can never be given.

 

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