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Themes in The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

Themes Examples in The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd:

Text of the Poem

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"Then these delights my mind might move..."   (Text of the Poem)

Once again, the nymph uses almost the exact same words as the shepherd in order to craft her response. This satirical use of his language reveals the divide between fantasy and reality: the shepherd and the nymph look at the same subject and see drastically different things. Ironically, the nymph sees the tools of the shepherd’s courtship as evidence for why she must reject him. While the shepherd has an unrealistic perception that nature is unchanging, the nymph’s realistic view of time reveals his promises to be impossible.

"To live with thee, and be thy love...."   (Text of the Poem)

The poem ends with a subtle rejection of the shepherd’s advances and, by extension, Marlowe’s pastoral fantasy. By listing impossible demands for everlasting life, the nymph avoids the shepherd while humorously critiquing his faulty vision of the world. In a sense, the speaker is offering a more-grounded vision, one which the shepherd is no doubt seeking to escape through his constructed fantasy. Raleigh is ultimately accusing Marlowe of inauthenticity. The character of the nymph is a pawn in Raleigh’s mission to reveal Marlowe’s poetic delusions for what they are, and in a broader sense to critique the pastoral tradition as a whole.

"and love still breed..."   (Text of the Poem)

In Raleigh’s imagination, the one good that would entice the nymph is no less than the proverbial fountain of youth. The speaker understands the fading nature of roses, kirtles, amber clasps, and, most importantly, her own form. Only the shepherd, who can realistically offer the impossible, may charm the nymph. This sentiment blends tones of both humor and heaviness. The notion is playful and yet serious in its acknowledgement of mortality.

"a heart of gall..."   (Text of the Poem)

The noun “gall” refers literally to the secretion of the liver, but metaphorically suggests a feeling of bitterness. According to the Greek medical theory known as “humorism,” gall was responsible for feelings of melancholy and sorrow. The sentiment in this line and the next is that the shepherd’s poetic seductions, the ways of his “honey tongue,” eventually lead to sorrow and waste.

"Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten..."   (Text of the Poem)

The nymph emphasizes the poem’s theme in this stanza by juxtaposing all of the things the shepherd promises her with “break,” “wither,” and “forgotten.” While the pastoral shepherd considers the life he promises her to be unchanging and idyllic, the nymph points out the reality of nature is to change. Promises and love cannot be eternal because over time they will break, wither, and be forgotten.

"of cares to come..."   (Text of the Poem)

Raleigh’s purpose in this poem is to deflate the pastoral paradise Marlowe sketches in “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” In Marlowe’s poem, the only care that the speaker has is whether or not he can seduce his love. In Raleigh’s vision, the cares and troubles of the real world apply their typical pressures. “The rest” refers to the rest of us, the inhabitants of the real world outside the romantic fantasies of young shepherds. For us, there are plenty of cares, and surely more to come as time marches on.

"reckoning..."   (Text of the Poem)

The noun “reckoning” has strong religious connotations. It refers to the act of accounting to God after death for one’s conduct in life. The speaker describes the flowers as yielding to winter’s “reckoning” to dramatize the confrontation between the pastoral and the reality of time and nature. In a sense, the pastoral must submit to winter and reckon for the falseness it perpetuated. The shepherd’s lavish promises must reckon with the nymph’s realistic understanding of the world.

"Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold..."   (Text of the Poem)

Once again, Raleigh twists the imagery in Marlowe’s poem. Marlowe’s “shallow Rivers” become “Rivers [that] rage.” Marlowe’s shepherd imagines how “we will sit upon the Rocks” while Raleigh’s nymph thinks ahead to evening when “Rocks grow cold.” As ever, the nymph is the realist, understanding that rivers can be dangerous and rocks cold to the touch, that night falls on even the most pleasant day.

"flowers..."   (Text of the Poem)

The “flowers” that the nymph refers to here are the flowers that the shepherd promises to turn into clothes for her in Marlowe’s poem. Specifically, she means roses, posies, and myrtles. While the shepherd focuses on the beauty of the flowers and of the objects he gives her, the nymph focuses on the ephemeral nature of the flowers and their inevitable fading.

"rest..."   (Text of the Poem)

The “rest” could refer to the other things in Marlowe’s stanza that the nymph does not mention here, specifically “birds sing madrigals”. While the birds in Marlowe’s poem are used as an example of beautiful harmony and perfection, here the nymph repurposes their song as an ominous sign of cares to come. This repurposing problematizes the pastoral: it is so focused on the good that it ignores the problems of the future.

"becometh dumb..."   (Text of the Poem)

The expression “to become dumb” means to lose the ability to speak. Philomel going “dumb” might also signify that her story has been forgotten. The nymph’s words might invoke a broader sense of time than the progression of that day. This reference could point to the time in history when humanity no longer remembers Greek stories and Philomel is silenced and forgotten. This larger vision of time realistically frames the shepherd’s love for the nymph as insignificant; if even the great stories of the Greeks fall into ruin, then no mortal love story can last the way the shepherd promises.

"fold..."   (Text of the Poem)

The noun “fold” refers to a pen or enclosure for animals. In Marlowe’s poem, the speaker tells the woman that they will sit on rocks and watch shepherds feed their flocks. The nymph’s reply here adds reality to the picture that the shepherd paints. Though they may enjoy watching the sheep for a time, eventually the sun will set and the sheep will go back to their pen. This challenge to his logic also indicates the progression of time which is absent from the shepherd’s vision of their future together.

"young..."   (Text of the Poem)

Marlowe’s shepherd promises his love an idyllic, timeless world. However, the nymph replies that the world is not “young.” To make this argument, the nymph draws on Christian theology and humanity’s fall from grace. In the Bible, Adam and Eve enjoy paradise in the garden of Eden, a peaceful place untouched by evil, time, or corruption. When they eat an apple from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are condemned to mortality. The “young world” is the pre-fallen, Edenic world. The nymph reminds the shepherd that they live in a fallen world and therefore everything he has promised is false.

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