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...
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