The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is a love poem that contains six quatrains of rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter. In marked contrast to Christopher Marlowe’s plays about heroes and kings, this lyric poem purports to be the words of a shepherd speaking to his beloved. Its simple, musical language and fanciful imagery create an idyll of innocent love. The version of the poem that was printed in 1599 contained four stanzas attributed to William Shakespeare; the poem was printed again in 1600, in Englands Helicon, with only the six stanzas attributed to Marlowe.

In this poem, the shepherd persona speaks to his beloved, evoking “all the pleasures” of a peaceful springtime nature. He promises her the delights of nature and his courtly attention. The first quatrain is the invitation to “Come live with me and be my love.” Next, the speaker describes the pleasant natural setting in which he plans that they will live. Their life will be one of leisure; they will “sit upon the rocks,” watch the shepherds, and listen to the birds.

The shepherd does not refer to the cold winter, when herding sheep becomes difficult. He does not suggest that his work requires effort or that he may need to go off into the hills away from his beloved to herd his flock. Instead, he imagines their life together as a game enjoyed in an eternal spring. He promises to make clothes and furnishings for his beloved from nature’s abundant harvest: wool gowns from the sheep, beds and caps of flowers, dresses embroidered with leaves. Even the other shepherds seem to be there only to entertain the beloved, to “dance and sing/ for thy delight.” The poem ends by summing up the “delights” of the pastoral idyll and repeating the opening invitation.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Young Women’s Lives in Sixteenth-Century England

“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” presents an image of...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Marlowe was a university-educated dramatist who might have rivaled William Shakespeare had he lived longer. His plays probed the tangled passions of heroism, ambition, and power. He led an active theatrical life and frequented taverns: Indeed, he met his death at the age of twenty-nine in a tavern brawl. Yet he chose to write this poem in a shepherd’s voice, using a pastoral convention that was frequently employed by Elizabethan poets. The pastoral tradition of courtly love poetry idealized the beloved and ennobled the lovers, using idyllic country settings and featuring shepherds as models of natural, unspoiled virtue.

The poem’s images are all drawn from the kind springtime nature of the pastoral tradition and from music. This imagery creates a gentle fantasy of eternal spring. The poem appeals to almost all the senses—sight, sound, smell, and touch—as the speaker tells his love that they will watch “shepherds feed their flocks” and listen to birds singing madrigals (polyphonic melodies). He promises to make beds of roses, and clothing of flowers and wool for his beloved. Images of “shallow rivers,” “melodious birds,” “roses,” “pretty lambs,” and “ivy buds” evoke a nature that is pure, simple, blooming, and kind to innocent creatures.

To complement the pastoral imagery, the poem blends alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, and other sound patterns to create a songlike lyric. The labial l sound is repeated in words such as “live,” “love,” “all,” “hills,” “shallow,” “flocks,” “falls,” and “myrtle.” The sibilant s recurs in “Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,” in “shallow rivers,” “roses,” “sing,” and “swains.” The m sound appears in “mountain,” “melodious,” “madrigals,” “myrtle,” “lambs,” and “amber.” This combination of sounds creates a soft, harmonious, gentle tone.

The poem is written in regular four-line stanzas with rhyming couplets. Most of the rhyming words are words of one syllable, and most of the lines are end-stopped, thus emphasizing the rhyming words and the rhythm of the poem. The rhymes include such appealing words as “love” (repeated three times), “roses,” “flocks,” “fields,” “sing,” and “morning.” There are frequent internal rhymes and partial rhymes in words such as lambs/amber, may/swains, seeing/feed, and finest/lined. The meter is iambic tetrameter with little variation. All these factors—short, regular lines, repeated simple rhymes, frequent internal rhymes and partial rhymes, and alliterative patterns—turn the poem into a song, with a melodious appeal that echoes the music of nature that it describes; the poem has been set to music by several different composers.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)


The argument in any work of literature is the author’s principle idea. The shepherd’s argument in...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1500s: In 1582, the Gregorian calendar is introduced in Catholic countries. This calendar is designed to replace the Julian calendar,...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is a pastoral poem. Using the information you now have about pastoral poetry,...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

A recitation of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is included in the 1995 film Richard III, directed by Richard Loncraine and...

(The entire section is 82 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Christopher Marlowe’s lengthy narrative work “Hero and Leander” (c. 1593) is a mythological erotic poem that tells the story of two...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)


Bell, Ilona, “Elizabethan Poetics of Courtship,” in Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship,...

(The entire section is 514 words.)