The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is a pastoral lyric, a poetic form that is used to create an idealized vision of rural life within the context of personal emotion. Pastoral poems had been in vogue among poets for at least seventeen hundred years when Marlowe wrote this one. The Greek poet Theocritis, in the third century B.C.E. (Shipley 300-1,) was the first pastoralist poet, and he, too, wrote about shepherds. All pastoral poetry, including Marlowe's, is to some degree influenced by this original practitioner. The poem is written in very regular iambic tetrameter. Each line contains exactly four heavy stresses, and the metrical feet are almost always iambic. Similarly, most lines contain eight syllables, and the few that don't create a specific poetic effect (such as lines 3 and 4), or have easily elided syllables which may be read as eight. This regular meter, sustained through the twenty-four lines, remarkably never descends into the sing-song quality so prevalent in tetrameter, primarily because Marlowe salts his lines with a variety of devices that complement the meter without drawing too much attention to its rigid regularity. Marlowe's use of soft consonants (such as W, M, Em, F) to start lines, with the occasional "feminine" ending of an unstressed syllable (in the third stanza) lend a delightful variety to an essentially regular and completely conventional form. In the first stanza, the Shepherd invites his love to come with him and "pleasures prove" (line 2.) This immediate reference to pleasure gives a mildly sexual tone to this poem, but it is of the totally innocent, almost naïve kind. The Shepherd makes no innuendo of a sordid type, but rather gently and directly calls to his love. He implies that the entire geography of the countryside of England "Valleys, groves, hills and fields/Woods or steepy mountains" will prove to contain pleasure of all kinds for the lovers. This vision of the bounteous earth (reminiscent of the New Testament's admonishment "Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them." Matthew 6:26) is a very common theme in pastoral poetry. The idealization of rural life is essentially what separates pastoral poetry from simple rustic verse. Realism, which would not come into being as a poetic or literary style for many centuries after Marlowe, has little place in pastoral verse. The next stanza suggests that the lovers will take their entertainment not in a theatre or at a banquet, but sitting upon rocks or by rivers. They will watch shepherds (of which the titular speaker is ostensibly one, except here it is implied that he will have ample leisure) feeding their flocks, or listening to waterfalls and the songs of birds. The enticements of such auditory and visual pleasures can be seen as a marked contrast to the "hurly-burly" (a phrase Marlowe used in his later play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, Act IV, Scene 1) of the London stage plays which Marlowe would write. These are entirely bucolic, traditional entertainments; the idea of Marlowe, the young man about town who chose to live in London, actually enjoying these rustic pleasures exclusively and leaving the city behind is laughable. Again, these invitations are not to be taken literally. Marlowe may well have admired pastoral verse, and the ideals of it (such as Ovid's ideals of aggressive, adulterous heterosexual love) were not necessarily those he would espouse for himself. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas are a kind of list of the "delights", mostly sartorial, that the Shepherd will make for his lady love. Here it becomes clearer that the "Shepherd" is really none of the same; indeed, he is more like a feudal landowner who employs shepherds. The list of the things he will make for his lady: "beds of roses" (a phrase, incidentally, first coined by Marlowe, which has survived to this day in common speech, though in the...
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