Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790
The nymph’s reply begins in the subjunctive— the grammatical mood used to convey hypothetical or contingent action. The subjunctive is commonly expressed with the “if . . . were” construction: “If I were king,” for example, or, in the first line of the poem, “If all the world and love were young.” This usage sets up the primary rhetorical structure of the entire poem: the speaker is going to contrast the shepherd’s vision, his hypothetical world, with the realities introduced by the word “but” in the second stanza. While the second part of the “if” statement— “And truth in every shepherd’s tongue”—may seem the more biting, the nature of the contrast exists in the first part. What renders the shepherd’s vision false, the nymph says, is time: the world and love do not remain young. Thus, while she finds lovely the shepherd’s evocation of spring, shallow rivers, flocks of sheep and rocks that exist merely so lovers can sit on them, in reality these ideal images are time-bound, subject to change and decay. Thus, “time drives flocks from field to fold,” “rivers rage” from rainy weather, “rocks grow cold” with winter, and even the nightingale—the timeless symbol of beauty unmentioned in the Marlowe poem—becomes “dumb” with the change in seasons. In contrast with the nightingale are “the rest”—those who do not become dumb but who instead “complain of cares to come.” By this, the nymph means human beings who, burdened with the consciousness of passing time, are subject to the anxiety of future misfortunes. In the shepherd’s evocation, no such anxieties can exist because no such timeless world can exist: his vision, like Keats’s Grecian urn, is only a product of the imagination.
Raleigh makes frequent use of the poetic devices that give Marlowe’s poem its musicality. Yet the reader cannot help but sense the mockery in end-rhymes like “gall”/“fall” and “forgotten”/“rotten,” especially since they follow couplets in which Raleigh exactly duplicates Marlowe’s rhymes: “fields”/“yields” and “roses”/“posies.” It is as if the nymph adheres to the shepherd’s style one moment only to undermine it the next. The same is true for the way Raleigh mimics Marlowe’s overuse of alliteration, or the repetition of initial consonant sounds: “flowers” and “fade,” “wayward” and “winter,” “spring” and “sorrow,” “fancy” and “fall.” But the slyest form of mockery occurs in lines 9 and 10. Here, Raleigh imitates the glaring grammatical mistake found in the Marlowe poem: just as Marlowe fails to match the singular verb “yields” with its plural subjects in the first stanza of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” so Raleigh mismatches the same singular verb in line 10 with its plural subject “fields” in line 9. But there are also bits of original trickery in the Raleigh poem. In the last line of the second stanza the reader might find a clever double-meaning for the words “spring”—meaning either “source” or the season— and “fall”—an allusion both to autumnal death and the to the “fall of man.” This last meaning refers to the creation story: living in the timeless Garden of Eden and unaware of death or change, man fell prey to the “honey tongue” of Satan, who convinced man to eat the fruit of God-like knowledge. The consequence of such knowledge is, of course, the awareness of death. After Eden, one cannot live in “fancy’s spring” as the shepherd pretends one can. With human consciousness, one instead must suffer the burden of foreknowledge. Thus, the nymph reminds him, his gifts only symbolize decay and the passing of time: they “soon break, soon wither,” and are “soon forgotten.” While “in folly” such gifts may seem to exist always in their perfect, “ripe” state, to a reason-possessing and time- haunted human like the nymph, they are already “rotten” with the foreknowledge of change.
In the final two stanzas, the nymph shifts back to the subjunctive mood of the opening lines. Listing the last of the shepherd’s gifts, she says, “All these in me no means can move / To come to thee and be thy love.” This seems her final word: her rejection. Yet the last stanza offers a twist—a “but.” “[C]ould youth last,” she says, and “Had joys no date”—if the world were as the shepherd has promised, in other words, then indeed she would be “moved” by his offer and become his love. Although reason prohibits her belief in his promises, she nevertheless wishes such belief were possible. Thus, the nymph admits to the human need to believe in timelessness and immortality. At the same time, however, she must acknowledge that reason prohibits such belief, which it dismisses as “folly.”
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