The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

by Christopher Marlowe

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How does Marlow utilize carpe diem in "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"?

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I would say that the concept of carpe diem is a central theme of Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." However, I'd note that we could find additional degrees of nuance and criticism were we were to introduce a second poem—Sir William Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"—into this analysis.

In this second poem, we see the Shepherd rejected on the grounds that his vision of love is naive, and cannot hold up to the ravages of time. As the Nymph says:

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy bed of Roses
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy poises
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten. ("The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd")

Again, do be aware that Raleigh's poem is distinct from Marlowe's; but, in its response to Marlowe, it does provide interesting commentary on Marlowe's original work, and this commentary is deeply relevant to your particular question here. Raleigh's response reveals the degree to which the Shepherd's original entreaty is short-sighted and unsustainable (which is proven, at least in Raleigh's work, when he is rejected by the Nymph).

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Carpe diem means "seize the day," or (in other words) live with the realization that your days are numbered and you should try to enjoy life as much as possible in light of that truth. In love poems with a carpe diem theme, the speaker is usually trying to get the beloved to quickly reciprocate their advances before the both of them grow old and passionless.

The shepherd speaker of Marlowe's poem does not appeal to the carpe diem concept directly. He never says outright that the both of them are growing old or that the beloved should let him enjoy her beauty before age starts to overtake the both of them (as we see in plenty of Shakespeare's sonnets), but the sensual imagery and pastoral setting emphasize the springtime and its associations with youth. The evocation of a "May-morning" in particular emphasizes the fleeting nature of their youth. Spring inevitably turns to winter, after all, which accounts for the poem's earnest, urging tone.

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In the poem, the shepherd is wooing his nymph lover, trying to convince her to come and live with him. He makes the prospect on offer seem as enticing as possible, painting a luscious picture of all the bounteous joys of nature that the lovers will enjoy together:

And we will all the pleasures prove,

That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,

Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

The shepherd's courtship is gentle and respectful. But in keeping with the poem's illustration of the carpe diem concept, the narrator is keen to impress upon his love the necessity of grasping the moment; there's simply no time to wait. This is a limited opportunity and must be grabbed with both hands. Although the tone of the poem is neither pushy nor especially insistent, the shepherd's reference to all that lush, gorgeous foliage is instructive. It too will not last; come the winter time it will all be gone. By linking his offer to the beauties of the season, the shepherd narrator is emphasizing the necessity of his lover's coming to a prompt decision.

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“Carpe diem” (seize the day) poetry is love poetry whose main function is to seduce the loved one, the recipient of the poem (a nymph, according to Sir Walter Raleigh’s reply), and to convince her to act on her feelings in an immediate, emotional way (implied sexual), as opposed to allowing a proper courtship with social underpinnings (engagement, marriage, etc.).  Here the poet suggests that all the necessary ingredients are immediately available in Nature for a "marriage" that would have them "live together." – a bed of roses, a gown of wool (the wooer is a shepherd), a belt of straw, etc. – and that this setting, perfect as a May morning, is fleeting and should be taken advantage of immediately.

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