(Poetry for Students)

This poem is a response to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” written in 1599. In Marlowe’s poem, the shepherd asks the woman that he loves to run away with him and live the simple life outdoors, where he will make her clothes from flowers and shells and the wool of their sheep, and life will be a celebration of their youthful love. In her response, Raleigh has the nymph list reasons why the ideal life that the shepherd describes is unlikely to happen. The shepherd emphasizes his love, as if love alone can conquer any problems, and he lists the things that he is willing to do for her as well as the splendors of the simple country life. The nymph, on the other hand, looks at the darker side of human nature. In the second line, she brings up the idea that shepherds do, in fact, lie sometimes, implying that she would be foolish to believe everything that he claims. Throughout the rest of the poem, she explains reasons why, whether he is sincere or not, she has to be skeptical that their life together would be as the shepherd describes it. Her main point is that the shepherd’s plans do not account for the changes that are inevitable over time, and so the future that he foresees will almost certainly not come to pass. Her skepticism is based on the fact that she understands his hopeful vision, but that she also sees that he does not understand the world well enough to make an accurate prediction.

Abstinence and Chastity
An element that is important to understanding the nymph’s reluctance, but that is never explicitly stated in the poem, is the value she places on her chastity. Her main argument is that the young lovers will probably, over time, lose interest in one an- other as youthful beauty fades and eventually part. To readers who assume that the two could then go on with their lives separately, this might seem unimportant. This view, however, does not take into account how much would have changed in the nymph’s life by the sheer fact of having lived with the shepherd. To a young lady of the sixteenth century, the importance of retaining her chastity and the circumstances under which she would give it up could not be overstated. There would be no going back to the person she was before once she decided to live with the shepherd. To the strong Christian sensibilities of Elizabethan England, living and sleeping with the shepherd would constitute a serious sin. To a great...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)