Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love and the Nymph's Reply

Yesterday's song/poem, "O Mistress Mine" by William Shakespeare, probably falls within the carpe diem sensibilities of last week's "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell or the other week's "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time" by Robert Herrick. It's also a bit romantic, I think, albeit in a light-hearted vein. The idea of music and making the most of love put me in mind of a different poem from Elizabethan times, written by an alleged rival of Shakespeare's, Christopher Marlowe.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
by Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.


The skinny on Marlowe and this poem

Christopher Marlowe was a famous poet and playwright in the time of Shakespeare. He was also a drunkard with an anger management issue, a homosexual, and quite possibly a spy.

Christened in early 1564, Marlowe was presumably born in late 1563 or early 1564 to a tradesman and a clergyman's daughter. Marlowe was one of the first (if not the first) playwright's to use blank verse in his work. He led a life shrouded in mystery, including some sort of secret "services to the Queen" which may have included spying on the House of Stuart. Based on an analysis of his works and widespread consensus in the writings of his contemporaries at the time, Marlowe is believed to have been gay. He was killed in a tavern by means of a dagger through the eye, allegedly over a dispute involving the tab, although the men with him at the time were all secret service (and in some cases, loan sharks as well). To say nothing of his murder occurring within a few days of his arrest for heresy. But perhaps I digress.

Analysis of the poem: Based on Marlowe's knowledge of much older Greek poems in which older men wrote in this sort of fashion to seduce younger men, this one can be read (if one chooses) as a love poem to a male, although it's usually read as a love poem from a man to a woman. The poem is constructed in four-line stanzas written in rhymed couplets, and using iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). In some cases, there are nine syllables in a line owing to Marlowe's decision to conclude with a "feminine" ending (taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUMta), but that does not alter the analysis of the metre employed. Savvy?

Now, sometimes poets engage in dialogue. One could argue, for instance, that T.S. Eliot's incorporation within The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock of specific references to Marvell's To His Coy Mistress is a form of dialogue. But sometimes, the dialogue is far more direct. And far more personal.

And so it was that Sir Walter Raleigh (founder of Roanoke, courtier to the Queen, played by Clive Owen (yum!) in Elizabeth: The Golden Age) felt the need to mock or one-up or put down (hard to know for certain) Marlowe for his poem, crafting a poem in direct response that borrows both the rhyme and metre and the conceit of the poem, and adding a title that made clear what he was up to for good measure:

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
by Sir Walter Raleigh

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy Love.

But Time drives flocks from field to fold;
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold;
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.

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

Thy belt of straw and ivy-buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,—
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy Love.

But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy Love.


More on Raleigh and his writing

Raleigh was about 12 years older than Marlowe, inasmuch as he is believed to have been born in 1552. He engaged in Court-sanctioned piracy (known as "privateering") against Spain on England's behalf, and was richly rewarded for it. He not only planted English settlers in what is now Virginia, but also in parts of Ireland. He became a particular favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He also struck up a romance with one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, whom he married on the sly when she was already pregnant. Upon the Queen's dicovery of the "unauthorized" marriage, she threw Raleigh in jail and dismissed his wife, Bess, from her service. He eventually came back into the Queen's good graces, but upon her death was thrown into the Tower of London for 13 years because he'd (allegedly) plotted to overthrow King James. Released from prison to lead an expedition to South America, he returned to England only to be beheaded at the request of a Spanish ambassador. But again, I digress.

Raleigh, an older and, to his own mind, wiser poet than Marlowe, wrote a response to Marlowe's Passionate Shepherd poem which can only be read as a put-down. On the surface, the response is based on the "love's" belief in the transience of life, but really, it was intended as a criticism of Marlowe's youth and naiveté. Although it would appear that Raleigh (apparently) gave Marlowe credit for intending the poem for a female, not that that's dispositive.

Interestingly, both of these poems come from the 1590s. I use the word "interestingly" because it seems to me that the first one, while a bit courtly, reads extremely well in the present day and because, moreover, it seems to me that Raleigh's reply reads as if it could have been written now (apart from the "thees" and "thous").

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