The Passionate Shepherd to His Love Themes
by Christopher Marlowe

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 b.c.e.), 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 third stanza reads:

Thy gown, 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 putA wreath of wrinkles, and thy footBe shod with pain: not silken dressBut 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.


(Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 911 words.)