Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 263

Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is a celebration of youth, innocence, love, and poetry. The poem participates in an ongoing tradition of lyrical love poetry. It casts the lovers as shepherds and shepherdesses who are at home in a beneficent natural setting. According to the conventions of pastoral...

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Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is a celebration of youth, innocence, love, and poetry. The poem participates in an ongoing tradition of lyrical love poetry. It casts the lovers as shepherds and shepherdesses who are at home in a beneficent natural setting. According to the conventions of pastoral poetry (which began with the Greek poet Theocritus in the third century BCE), shepherds are uncorrupted and attuned to the world of nature. Such pastoral poems are the work of urban poets who idealize the simplicity, harmony, and peace of the shepherd’s life.

This idealized vision has often been subjected to satire. Sir Walter Raleigh, a contemporary of Marlowe, wrote “The Nymph’s Reply to the Passionate Shepherd,” in which the young woman replies somewhat cynically. The fourth stanza reads:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Three centuries later, in 1935, responding to the economic devastation of the Depression, C. Day Lewis wrote “Come, live with me and be my love”:

Care on thy maiden brow shall put
A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
Be shod with pain: not silken dress
But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

The many parodies of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” render a kind of tribute to its enduring vitality and power.

Marlowe’s poem is an outstanding example of the pastoral lyric tradition. It succeeds because of its musical quality, its direct, conversational language, and its freshness of imagery and tone. It continues to be widely anthologized.

Themes

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Last Updated on October 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645

Nature Idealized

In “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” Marlowe paints a picture of idyllic nature without any of the real dangers that might be present. There are no responsibilities in this imaginary life, as the shepherd imagines the couple will watch other “shepherds feed their flocks,” while making no mention of his own flock for which he is responsible. There is also no mention of any wolves or predators that might prey upon the flock.

The shepherd then invites his mistress to experience all the pleasures the couple might enjoy in the countryside in May. That they will lie in “beds of roses” suggests the couple will make love outside and without shelter. Additionally, the “beds of roses” would probably include a significant number of thorns, which are guaranteed to reduce the shepherd’s passion. In the twenty-first century, the average temperature in England in May is 59 degrees Fahrenheit, with rain at least half the days of the month, and it is likely the weather was similar during Marlowe’s time, so lying outdoors without shelter might have been rather wet and cool. The nights would be cooler still than the days, especially in the “hills,” the shade of the “woods,” or the higher elevations of a “steepy mountain.”

The shepherd also promises to supply his mistress with “a gown made of the finest wool,” wool that he would “pull” from “pretty lambs.” An adult sheep can weigh between 150 and 200 pounds, and even a lamb old enough to be sheared would be quite heavy. The job of using the tools of the time to shear even one lamb would have been hard work, to say nothing of “pulling” the wool with your hands.

Anther promise the shepherd makes is that “the shepherd swains shall dance and sing / For thy delight each May morning.” With the need to protect the sheep from predators, the shearing of the lambs, the herding of the flock to fresh pastures, and the often unpleasant weather, shepherds would have no time for dancing and singing for the mistress’s entertainment each morning. And though the shepherd is concerned to clothe his mistress in wool, he provides no thought to feeding his love. What is she to eat? The shepherd never considers food, because in his imaginary world, food is not necessary. His courtship is the fanciful musing of a lover who seeks only to fulfill his passion with no thought to the real necessities of life. Marlowe creates a pretty picture of nature, but it is far from the reality of hard work and danger that shepherds often faced.

Static Time

“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is static. There is no movement of time in the piece, no past and no future. The shepherd is not suggesting a long-term arrangement when he asks the woman to “come live with me, and be my love.” There is no offer of marriage and no suggestion that they will establish a home together. The shepherd will cover his mistress in “a thousand fragrant posies,” but once picked, the flowers will begin to die. Within minutes they will begin to wilt, their stalks drooping more with each moment that passes. The same fate awaits the “belt of straw and ivy-buds,” which will also disintegrate quickly after their creation. The activities that the shepherd describes are of the moment. It is some time in May, and he is not looking forward to a summer together or the fall and winter that will inevitably follow. There is only the moment in which they will be together. Eventually, however, the realities of life would intrude. The couple would need food to eat and housing in which to live, children would be born, and life would be constantly evolving. The notion of the inevitability of time passing and life changing is missing from the shepherd’s plea.

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