The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

by Christopher Marlowe

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How does a central idea develop over the course of the two poems "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love " and "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"?

Quick answer:

The central idea in the two poems, which are about love and its consequences, is that the world is imperfect and therefore love cannot last or be truly joyful.

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I would argue that the central theme of these two poems, the second of which is an "answer" to the first, regards the nature of love and of its consequences. Marlowe presents the idealized, pastoral conception of two people, the shepherd and his girl, living together in an Eden-like setting. It is as if the turmoil and harshness of the world have been nullified and the truism that love conquers all is fully validated.

Raleigh's poem serves not only as a reluctant woman's reply to a man. It is also an answer to the whole idea that love creates a perfect or even happy situation between lovers. The world, Raleigh indicates, is imperfect, and therefore love cannot last or be truly joyful:

Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
And rivers rage, and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complain of cares to come.

The two poems put together could also represent the progress of a relationship. Initially everything (as with many couples) is happy and idealized. Then reality sets in: imperfection in a relationship and the harshness of the outside world inevitably affect the couple and compromise their happiness.

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Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" was written as a satiric reply to Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." This means that the two poems are by two different authors and although they address related themes, there is no central argument made by both poems.

Marlowe's poem is a typical exemplar of the pastoral genre, in particular of the "carpe diem" amorous poem which argues that since life is short and beauty and pleasures fleeting, the female beloved should yield to the sexual advances of the male lover. Within the Christian community of early modern England, of course, engaging in premarital sexual activity would have been considered "fornication", a sin in the eyes of the church that would lead to social ostracism for the woman who yielded her virginity and perhaps became pregnant outside of marriage.

Raleigh's nymph presents a counterargument to Marlowe's shepherd, arguing that the fleeting nature of sensual pleasure is not an argument for indulging in it but rather emphasizes that its very ephemeral nature makes it ultimately not worth the risk.

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