Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2940
A quick reading of Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” offers a brief though descriptive argument that the shepherd hopes will convince the object of his affections to agree to come and live with him. If the reader considers merely the projection of the woman who is only seen through the shepherd’s imaginings, she is reduced to little more than a caricature, ridiculously clothed in floral tributes. Of course, the shepherd cares little for this problem, since the emphasis of the poem is only on his “passionate” desire to possess the woman. The woman, who has no name and no identity, also has no voice. She exists only within the shepherd’s plea. Marlowe’s poem, which was derived from the Greek pastoral tradition and was inspired by a legend recounted by first-century Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, prompted a number of responses, including an anonymous poem, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” which is usually attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh, and John Donne’s poem “The Bait.” Marlowe and his responders viewed their shepherd poems as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their talent as witty and clever poets. As a result, their poems are focused almost solely on displaying the talents of the writer. The women in these poems, who are only nominally present as objects, or in Raleigh’s case, seemingly as a responder, are silent voices in a courtship dialogue that excludes the very object of the courtship.
The absence of the woman’s voice in early English poetry is an issue that was observed nearly a century ago by Virginia Woolf. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf tells the story of how she went to the British Museum Library in an effort to determine the different fates of men and women who had lived in England during the past several centuries. In the histories she pulled from the shelves, she found little mention of women. The brief observations she did find referred either to women’s roles as whores or wives. This was not true of the women in literature, whose presence appeared to contradict their historical reality. Woolf pointed out in her text that while women seemed to have made no real mark in English history, they “have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time.” This observation is especially true in the love poetry of the Elizabethan period. This poetic tradition relied upon women as the impetus for the poet’s creation. Although England had a woman ruler, power for women did not filter down to other women. In fact, just the opposite was true, since women were generally more oppressed under Elizabeth I than they had been under her father’s, Henry VIII’s, reign. And yet while women may not have been the stimulus for political and social change, they were crucial to the poets’ work. As she searched through historical accounts for stories of women’s accomplishments, Woolf recognized the contrast between the images of women in fictional texts and that of women in historical texts. She concluded, “Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her [to be] a person of the utmost importance.” The illusion advanced in Elizabethan poetry that women had important roles created a false impression of women’s reality. Literature posed no exception in a society that valued women only as wives and mothers. Most poets were men and only a few Elizabethan women composed poetry; women were instead the objects of poetry and drama, as they had been in centuries past.
The tradition of the wooing or invitational lyric was already well established before Marlowe took up the formula. Ovid’s Metamorphoses offers a model with which Marlowe would have become familiar during his education at Cambridge. In Book XIII of Metamorphoses, the cyclops, Polyphemus, woos the sea nymph, Galatea. Polyphemus is the frightful monster who eats men and who Odysseus blinded in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Polyphemus has moved to Sicily and fallen in love with Galatea, who does not return his affection. Galatea loves Acis as much as she hates Polyphemus. To win her love, the Cyclops first praises Galatea’s beauty, and then he tells her that he has a cave that will provide shelter for them, as well as “apples weighing down their branches, grapes yellow as gold on the trailing vines, and purple grapes as well. Both these and those I am keeping for your use.” The monster also promises strawberries, cherries, plums, and chestnuts, if only Galatea will agree to marry him. Polyphemus also promises a flock so great he cannot count the total; milk to drink; and pets with which to play. None of his many promises move the maiden to agree. Though his promises are more practical than those of Marlowe’s shepherd, they are no more effective. The Elizabethan poets looked back to classical Greek and Roman literature for their inspiration, and a close reading of many of the great Elizabethan texts reveals a reliance on these earlier works. Although Marlowe borrows a story from Ovid, he makes crucial changes. The shepherd is no longer a frightening monster, and the reader does not learn if the woman’s affections have already been promised to another lover. One of the most important aspects of Ovid’s story that Marlowe does not borrow is that, in Ovid, the woman has a voice; indeed, it is she who tells the story to Scylla. Just as Marlowe ignores the woman’s voice, so too do most of the responses to his poem.
Most replies to Marlowe’s poem are constructed in a parallel lyrical style that mirrors the original text. Raleigh’s answer to Marlowe, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” is constructed in rhyming couplets, but the simple and direct lines mirror Marlowe’s style. The first line establishes that the woman does not see time as a limitless opportunity for the shepherd and his love to enjoy one another. Instead, the female speaker begins with the qualifying statement, “If all the world and love were young,” which reminds the shepherd that time is not static; the world and love are no longer young, since even love inevitably grows old. The second stanza begins with the word “Time,” which once again counters Marlowe’s shepherd, who would claim that all the pleasure was theirs for the taking. Raleigh’s speaker reminds readers that even pleasure must eventually come to an end. Rather than the optimism of Marlowe, Raleigh infuses his female speaker with a darker, more realistic tone that recognizes that “flowers do fade” and that the clothing he promises and the “beds of roses” will “Soon break, soon wither, soon [be] forgotten.” In Raleigh’s poem, Philomel, the nightingale, replaces the melodious birds of Marlowe’s poem. Nightingales sing only in the spring during the breeding season. Their song is not infinite, nor is time. Raleigh’s pragmatic female speaker ends the poem with the observation that she would willingly come and be his love, if only “could youth last” indefinitely. Although Raleigh employs a female speaker to respond to Marlowe’s shepherd, the reader does not hear the female voice. Instead the voice is that of Raleigh pretending to be a woman. The unheard woman of Marlowe’s poem remains a missing witness to the shepherd’s pleas.
Donne’s poem “The Bait” actually repeats the first two lines of Marlowe’s poem, adding only that this shepherd has “new pleasures” to experience. Where Marlowe’s poem inhabits an imaginary world, Donne’s speaker describes a very real world. Where Marlowe’s shepherd offers enticements to convince the woman—beds of roses, posies to envelop her, and clothing to cover her—the speaker in Donne’s poem invites the woman to remove her clothing and go skinny dipping in the river with him. Where Marlowe offers the artificial and idyllic world of the pastoral poem, Donne embraces the eroticism of love poetry. If she “wilt swim in that live bath,” the fish “will amorously to thee swim.” The sexual suggestion is much more obvious and more real than in Marlowe’s poem, where the suggestion to come and live with the shepherd is subtly woven into the “pleasures prove” of the entire countryside. These are the “new” pleasures that Donne’s speaker promises; his is the real world where the couple swims nude in the river. The male speaker concedes control to the woman, to whom even the fish pay homage:
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.
Donne’s speaker even promises the woman that if she does not wish to be seen by other observers, she might darken the sun or moon, since he needs “not their light, having thee.” Donne’s speaker does not waste his time on pleas for the woman to come and enjoy the “valleys, groves, hills and fields” of Marlowe’s shepherd, and he has no need to promise elaborate beds or clothing to entice her. The reason for the lack of promises becomes evident in the final two stanzas, in which the speaker says that the woman does not need the fancy silks that are often used to “Bewitch poor fishes’ wand’ring eyes.” The woman is herself “thine own bait,” and the “fish that is not catched thereby, / Alas, is wiser far than I.” Donne’s poem challenges the notion that it is the woman who is being wooed; she is the one who is in control. Although the woman’s voice is silent, her strengths are recognized; however, it is worth pointing out that her strength lies primarily in her ability to seduce the man with her nude body. This is clearly not an intellectual victory.
It would be easy to study Marlowe’s poem, Raleigh’s answer, and Donne’s response and limit the focus of these poems to the witty exchanges of the male poets, which many scholars argue were often written to impress other male poets. Except as object or in the case of Raleigh’s male-pretending-to-be-female persona, these poems are not about women, and only in the Donne poem is the woman even present. There is nothing within the poems, themselves, that might suggest a female audience. A different way to read these poems is suggested by Ilona Bell’s research. In Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship, Bell examines the role of courtship poetry and argues that much of this poetry was written as part of the courtship process and was intended to be a part of the courtship formula. Bell suggests, “The great Elizabethan lyric sequences typically begin by identifying the poet’s mistress as the primary lyric audience.” This premise contradicts many of the ideas about Elizabethan seduction poems, in particular, which, while nominally about women, were usually thought to appeal to a male readership. Bell is concerned that the female object is being displaced by twentieth-century critics who examine the Elizabethan poets’ exchanges of manuscripts and see, in that friendly poetic exchange, only male authority and a female reader who has virtually disappeared from the poem.
Readers might wonder if the female object in Marlowe’s poem was real. The reader of this poem only notes the absence of name or genuine identifiers, and since so much of the poem is based on improbabilities, it might seem reasonable to assume that an actual mistress is just as unlikely to exist. However, Bell cautions against envisioning the shepherd’s woman as only a rhetorical device, as a “shadowy figment of male imagination.” Bell suggests the male poet has an expectation that the woman will respond to his wooing and that this expectation is suggested within the poem itself. Bell points out that “many of these poems also contain traces of a private lyric dialogue between a male poet/lover and a private female reader/listener.” According to Bell,
[T]he male lyric voice is inflected by the expectation of the female reader’s answering response. The poet/lover is always trying to anticipate or influence her response, but he neither writes her script nor directs her performance.
Although Bell’s evidence is at times quite compelling, in the case of Marlowe’s often speculated homosexuality, her argument weakens. Since it is unlikely that Marlowe would have used “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” to court a woman, it is reasonable to assume that the purpose of the poem is to display both Marlowe’s mastery of the pastoral tradition and his wittiness in remaking that same tradition. At the same time, the poem issues a challenge to his male readers, to whom he would have circulated the manuscript, to further improve upon the shepherd’s invitation. Raleigh’s and Donne’s responses, therefore, are more likely to be a part of the male poet’s attempt at witty repartee than any actual courtship process.
The Elizabethan poetic tradition of love poetry did not meet with universal approval. Sir Philip Sidney’s lengthy prose work, The Defense of Poesy, is Sidney’s effort to defend the work of poets to the Puritan writer Stephen Gossett, who in his School of Abuse argues that poetry is a waste of time, that it is composed of lies, and that it teaches sinful practices. Sidney’s response to these claims argues that the role of literature in a civilized society is to educate and to inspire those who read literature to ethical and virtuous actions. In writing about lyrical poetry—especially those works he labels as poems that “come under the banner of irresistible love”—Sidney suggests these poems, “if I were a mistress would never persuade me they were in love; so coldly they apply fiery speeches.” Thus Sidney refutes the argument that the readers of these poems would be swayed to believe in their reality; instead they would be entertained, which Sidney thought was an essential component for educating the mind. Readers of Marlowe’s poem would not believe the shepherd’s exaggerated claim that the delights of eternal spring are available just for the taking; nor would readers believe the shepherd’s offer to clothe his love in an endless layering of flowers. But readers would learn something about pastoral poetry, and they would be entertained by the poetic responses from Marlowe’s contemporaries.
In reading Marlowe’s poem and the responses that followed, what readers learn is that women appear in these poems not only as silent objects but also as prey for the male seducer. The image in seduction poems is that of the male seducer of a silent or absent female. Mary Anne Ferguson suggests in her introduction to the first edition of Images of Women in Literature that the image of women in literature “is the opposite of the all-powerful seductress,” which Elizabethan men were often warned to avoid. Instead of the threatening image of woman as seductress that the clergy attacked in their church sermons, the poetry of the period transformed the image of the dangerous and seductive woman into a voiceless sex object whose primary function was the fulfillment of fantasies and as man’s prey. However, this was an image that also had limitations. Ferguson argues, “It is difficult for a woman to be viewed in this single role [as sex object] for a long time.” Inevitably, the realities of day-to-day life, the bearing of children, the nursing of the sick, and the duties of running a household simply intruded on the artificial image of women in any role as limiting as that of either seductress or sexual object. Marlowe seems to recognize this fact, since he makes the shepherd’s desire only a transitory one. Sidney knew that there were “many things [that] may be told which cannot be showed—if they know the difference betwixt reporting and representing.”
In Marlowe’s poem, he is not reporting on reality; in its place he is representing an image that does not exist in Elizabethan life. Although his woman is objectified and silent, Marlowe never pretends that she is real. As a result, Marlowe fulfills one of the tenets of poetry that Sidney thought important—the obligation to “that delightful teaching which is the end of poesy.” Marlowe, Raleigh, and Donne created poetry that transforms and reworks the traditional art of poetry into something new and exciting. Their readers can only benefit and learn from these poetic lessons.
At one point in Woolf’s essay, she imagines what life might have been like had Shakespeare had a sister, Judith, who was his equal in genius. Woolf concludes that genius could not have been born to women, whose limited existence and opportunities began “almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom.” Marlowe’s poems and the best-known of the responses are all the compositions of men. With few exceptions, women in the Elizabethan poetic tradition were restricted to the role of nameless, voiceless objects. Woolf believed that the power to claim that voiceless woman as her own was the duty of twentieth-century women. Perhaps the next response to Marlowe’s invitation will be that of a twenty-first-century woman poet who will once again transform the poetic tradition.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.