A literary analysis of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1588).
“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”
1. The poet
Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) was an English playwright and poet of the Elizabethan era, his version of “Doctor Faustus” (c. 1589) is still being shown on stages around the globe today (see: Better the 😈 u no). Marlowe, it is said, was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day. He also had, according to hearsay &c., a colourful life that can be correctly labelled as: short ‘n’ illustrious. While little is known about his fleeting time in London town (in distinction to his writings) stories of his ‘interesting’ affairs do abound and, let us be honest, who cares about fact checking when such tales are so titillating? He has often been described as a spy, a heretic, as well as a “magician”, “duellist” (a person who fights duels for their honour: pistols at dawn after a piss up and porn), “tobacco-user”, “counterfeiter” and “rakehell.” In short-form a rake was a ‘man’ who dealt in immoral conduct, particularly womanising. A typical rake would burn away his inherited wealth on fine wine, racy women and slanderous suggestive sing-song (think: libertine – o gawd n dyaames deen). If not out and out homosexual he was almost certainly bisexual. Homoerotic overtones and undertones have been noted in various of his works and, the object of the shepard’s obsession (see below) is neither obviously male or female ;P
2. The poem
What is this thing I hear they call “love?” What’s its fatal attraction? How is it that such an intangible thing can have such tangible consequences? J. H. Black. . . poetic step by poetic step we will dig and we will get to our Shangri-la. “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is a so-called pastoral poem, which is set in the English countryside in the season of Spring (beautiful bunnies and lovely lambs e t c).
This type of poem — Pastoral lyric — typically expresses emotions in idyllic conditions and contexts. In quatrains (4 line stanzas) of iambic tetrameter (8 syllables per line, 4 measures per line with 2 syllables in each measure), the poem’s narrator, the shepherd, invites the object of his desire to experience the joys of nature not least, one can assume, the birds and bees in particular. The narrator hopes to be transported with his loved one to the garden of Eden, where clothes, contraception, gender identity and inhibition are things for future generations to fret about.
Pastoral poems have their roots with shepherds waxing lyrical as they tend their crops and dream deliriously of the oh so attractive one back in the village (they say: back to David in the Bible and Ancient Greek poetry too). The theme/undertone is carpe diem and gratification of sexual passions today, not tomorrow. Spring: a time of flowering and budding birth. You know, escape to the country, throw of the vestiges of modernity (clothes, deadlines, con-form-it-y). As one critic commented, “if we could get away from these rules, we could return to a pristine condition of happiness” and gave the so-called “free love” movement of the 1960’s as an example of this utopian belief (ironically it was the very modern and mass produced pill that aided and abetted all a dat).
The poem was published in 1599 — after Marlowe’s death — and was counterpointed with many poetic replies some earnest, some mocking. Remember the “love” in the poem isn’t made male or female but in perhaps the most famous responding poem, the gender is left in no doubt. “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” by Sir Walter Raleigh was penned in 1600:
We see write away in “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” that Raleigh’s narrator is an older more jaded character. Who with (assumed age and experience) is telling the starry-eyed Shepard that romanticised love is a fallacy. Harsh realities (work, health, societal constraints) and that we age, tire and with any relationship, once consummated, the petty individual idiosyncrasies will soon mire all of that pent up passion and lust. I like what one critic wrote: “Normally we should sieze the day because time flies. Raleigh argues that because time flies, we should NOT sieze the day.” The truth is that ultimately Raleigh is right, but I’ll defend to death the quest for attaining (or regaining) true passionate love.
Time does not stand still; autumn and winter — after the summer heat — inevitably follows the spring. We must face reality and not live by fantasy (but really must we?).
Walter Raleigh’s retort uses the same meter and references to give us readers “mirror images” of Marlowe’s work. The nymph character plays devil’s advocate as it were and points out by doing so that all of the sheep herder’s promises are transitory. Mirror, mirror on the wall should we go with the heart or the head:
flowers do fade
fields yield to the harvest
We live in a fallen world, we’re born sinners (so say the monotheistic tomes) ripening fruit will ultimately shrivel. Birds become crestfallen (one would think even more so if abruptly abandoned by their true loved one).
These opposing lines are particularly telling:
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.
When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb,