The Middle Ground Between Marlowe’s Shepherd and Raleigh’s Nymph

For some reason in the past few weeks and months I’ve been revisiting love poems, from  Classical through the Renaissance.  Perhaps I’m feeling my second childhood, although I don’t remember the end of the first.  While certain poems of Catullus have been much in mind, an Elizabethan love lyric and a jaded old courtier’s parodying “response” have preoccupied me a bit.

Christopher Marlowe’s “A Passionate Shepherd to his Love” is well known to anyone who has ever been young and passionate.  Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymphs Reply to the Shepherd is equally well known to anyone who was ever a pinched and defensively smug young person without a date on a Saturday night.  I have been wondering whether there is a poem which stands somehow on the middle ground between Marlowe’s charming, beautiful, mannered, Arcadian cry of carpe diem, and Raleigh’s bitter little embrace of sad, narrow mutability.

Marlowe is sometimes credited with bringing the pastoral mode into English Literature with “The Passionate Shepherd”, although Spencer’s “A Shepheard’s Calendar” appeared more than a decade earlier.  Certainly Marlowe’s poem stands squarely on that rustic Arcadian road walked by shepherds, swains and their lovers from Theocritus, through Horace, Virgil, Tibullus, Spencer and, after Marlowe, to Milton, who murdered Lycidas with a magnificent pastoral elegy.  Marlowe’s poem is a beautiful exercise in what is a highly conventional mode. Everything of the Pastoral is crammed into the twenty-four lines: the geography of mountains, hills, fields, groves, river valley; the idylic agriculture of sheep, myrtle, roses and song birds; and the fantasy gifts envisioned of coral and amber and gold.  It is a tour de force and a pretty gem of a poem, a lovely fantasy to charm into warmth any heart that still can feel.

Marlowe was twenty-nine when he died, younger — in his early twenties, perhaps — when he wrote “The Passionate Shepherd”.  Raleigh was  in his forties when he wrote his “Nymph’s Reply”.  I would happily argue that the sensibilities of a forty-something-year-old man are rarely the same as those of a twenty-year-old man particularly when it comes to passionate love.  Raleigh’s poem, despite the appropriate trappings, is not in the pastoral mode. Rather, “The Nymph’s Reply” stands on that line of satire running through Juvenal up to and through Alexander Pope.  While Raleigh may stir a bit of a chuckle by pointing out the naivete of Marlowe’s Shepherd, what Raleigh is really doing is dismissing the pleasures of the world in a very Medieval way.  “The Nymph’s Reply” is really little more than a line from the Old English poem The Wanderer: “eal þis eorþan gesteal    idel weorþeð” (Every thing on this earth turns to waste).  Factual, perhaps, but not certainly or humanly True.

At one point I thought about trying to write my own Response, of finding some middle ground between Marlowe’s idyll and Raleigh’s morbidity.  There have of course, been dozens of Responses written in the last four hundred years. As much as I like to reinvent the wheel, I gave up on the idea of my own Response when I reread Wordsworth’s “She Was a Phantom of Delight” and saw that my goal had been realized far more completely than I could ever have done.
Wordsworth was not, of course, writing a “Nymph’s Reply”.  I don’t imagine he had any thought of Marlowe when composing “She Was a Phantom of Delight (although his poem is in iambic tetrameter couplets, like Marlowe’s and Raleigh’s).  But Wordsworth has captured Marlowe’s youthful care-not-for-tomorrow, has acknowledged the decay Raleigh cannot see past, and has found a permanence of love more profound than the two Elizabethan fellows seem to have imagined possible.  Wordsworth does this by shedding the conventional pastoral imagery as the poem progresses, moving from “May-time and the cheerful Dawn”, through simple, profoundly human realism in the middle bit of household life and ending on a transcendent note of Pantheism/Panhumanism.  The transient Phantom of Delight of Wordsworth’s youth becomes “something of angelic light” precisely because she became

A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food,
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

Wordsworth has been Marlowe’s Shepherd, but he grew up. He did not, however, grow out of his wonder, and his love, like poor Raleigh did.  With a clear, mature, unjaded eye, Wordsworth looks at his middle-aged Love, perhaps a little saggy and creaky, and at once he sees the Phantom of Delight, the Woman, the sorrows, the strengths and the joys. The only word I think is missing from Wordsworth’s poem is “Friend”.

Wordsworth stands on that middle ground I had searched for, between Marlowe’s dreamy Shepherd and Raleigh’s hopelessly pragmatic Nymph, and he sees so wonderfully much more than they or the poets who created them did!

The Poems

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined 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.

The Shepherds’ 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 Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

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.

Time drives the 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,
The 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.

She Was a Phantom of Delight

William Wordsworth

She was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.

I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin-liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
A Traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.

I guess I haven’t completely wasted my life

Thirty-two years ago, shortly following my first scholarly publication (“On The Seafarer, line 34b”), after spending an idyllic summer in the Lucanian countryside helping to dig up a ruined Roman villa – a summer which a quarter century later inspired the twenty-four wee paintings which seem to have made me into some sort of “artist” – I sat down in a small upstairs room in a tiny house in the London suburb of Watford and translated a Latin love poem (Catullus 3) into English verse and wrote that translation out on the rear flyleaf of the little book of Latin poetry I was just now perusing once more.

I guess I haven’t completely wasted my life.

John Richardson's photo.


I posted this to Facebook last night, but some people don’t do Facebook, so . . .

There’s this thing trending on teh twitter called “#IDenounceHarper.

I can’t.

Denouncing my neighbour is something I don’t want to ever be called to do. It’s the ultimate of Fascist suggestions, a call to the absolute end of freedom of thought. Whatever I think of him, of his vision for Canada, of his record as Prime Minister, as political organizer, as stock boy, or as university student, Mr. Harper, like all Canadians, is, before all else, my neighbour.  I’m not going to jump on a foul intertube bandwagon and DENOUNCE the man, the husband, the father, the guy whose life’s course has been so similar to my own while arriving at such a dissimilar place.

I’ll happily criticize his policies, his tactics, his strategies, his ads, his claims, his choice of pet.  I’ll gladly vote for a candidate from a party opposed to his. I’ll shout from the rooftops that his vision of Canada is absolutely inconsistent with my own.

But I will not denounce Mr. Harper.

If he has committed or condoned crimes, we have a functioning Parliament and functioning Courts to deal with those.  I don’t expect to ever be called as a witness in proceedings against Mr. Harper. A vanishingly small percentage of Canadians should expect such a call. Our denunciations are nothing but the venting of spleen, usually anonymously, often stupidly maliciously.

Mr. Harper has done something I never would have had the guts to do: he threw his hat into the ring and he rose to the highest elected office in the land and governed as he saw fit.  I wish he never had, but I can’t denounce him for having more guts than me. 

I don’t want another minute of Prime Minister Harper, but, as much as I dislike my impression of him as an individual, I will not denounce him. 

In the end we are all neighbours in the most civil of  civil societies, Canada.

Vote. Don’t Hate.

I’ve gotta say this again . . .

There’s a general election on again here in Canada.  There’s a lot of vitriol being hurled about.  Social media has served to raise the volume of that vitriol.  And, yet again, Alberta is the target of a lot of the nastiness.  Certainly, all parties have nothing to lose and much to gain by bashing Alberta, which doesn’t have enough seats in the House to generally make a difference.

But the generalized Alberta bashing is not what I want to discuss here.

Today, I’d like to say something about the ease with which those who dislike our current Prime Minister blame Alberta for the “way” Harper is.

A Tale of Two Boomers

Mr. Harper and I were both born roughly fifty-five years ago, he in 1959, I in 1961, in Ontario, he in Toronto, I in Ottawa.  We both went to Ontario public schools, he in Toronto, I in Sudbury and Windsor.

We both moved to Alberta while still young, he (after two failed months at the University of Toronto) to work in his father’s company, I as a teenager entering grade eight in the Alberta public school system. Mr. Harper went to Calgary, I went to a suburb of Edmonton.

We both attended university in Alberta, he in the University of Calgary (BA 1985, MA 1991), I at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton (BA 1983, MA 1984).

Mr. Harper lived longer in Ontario than I did. I have lived longer in Alberta than Mr. Harper has.

I have never voted for any conservative party in any election. I suspect Mr. Harper has, once or twice.

My point

My point is that Mr. Harper and I are superficially similar fellows with superficially similar life histories, and yet, we are very different in almost every political way. If you blame Alberta for Mr. Harper’s politics, what’s my excuse? Why not blame Ontario, or Toronto, where Mr. Harper spent so much more of his formative years than I did? Mr. Harper and I both went to Alberta universities and worked in Alberta. How did I end up a left winger, if Alberta made Mr. Harper what he is?

My real point

Stop blaming Alberta! Finding some facile single explanation for a human’s character is as intellectually weak as the idea (I’ve heard it seriously suggested) that the Holocaust happened because young Hitler caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute.

No. Mr. Harper is cutting the arts neither because he failed the audition for a High School production of Oliver nor because he happened to live in Alberta for a while.

Stop blaming Alberta for Harper.


I’m going to state the obvious . . .

. . . All politics is local.
We all know we don’t vote for Prime Minister, right? I hope we’ve all had enough of a Canadian civics education to remember that traditionally the Prime Minister was chosen by the House, like the Speaker continues to be, rather than by the somewhat aborted attempts by the Parties to make their Leader selection process U. S. style Presidential Primaries.  I expect that deep down we all know that when we look at that ballot, it is printed not with the names of potential Prime Ministers, but with (ideally) neighbours who are offering to be our representatives in the House of Commons.  Except for the few who live in a riding in which a Party Leader is running, the vast majority of Canadians do not vote for a Prime Minister.

So, what do the vast majority of us do with the partisan expressions of hope that a Leader can “count on our vote”?

Well, here’s what I’m going to do:

I live in Edmonton-Strathcona, the only non-Conservative-held Federal riding in Alberta. I like living here. I like being one of the outliers. I expect Linda Duncan of the NDP will win again.  I like her. I see her around the neighbourhood.  She goes for walks without an entourage. In thirty years or so of living in this neighbourhood I’ve never seen another MP just going for a walk.

I don’t want Thomas Mulcair to be Prime Minister.  His pigheadedness and apparent ignorance about our Senate frightens me.  I don’t want Stephen Harper to be Prime Minister any more. His vision of Canada is so antithetical to my own that it’s agonizing.  I’d honestly be content with another Prime Minister Trudeau.

But, all politics is local. If I were to let my vote be determined by who I want to be Prime Minister, I’d probably throw it away by voting for the Liberal candidate in my riding.  But I know my neighbourhood well enough to be convinced that a plurality want Thomas Mulcair as Prime Minister and/or Linda Duncan as their Member of Parliament.  I feel comfortable voting for the nice lady in the neighbourhood but I do not feel that it is a vote for Thomas Mulcair.  If I thought the Liberal candidate had a hope of winning, I might grudgingly vote for her, whoever she is, and through that I would vote – under protest because we don’t vote for Prime Minister – for a hypothetical PM Trudeau.  But, of course, it would be up to the voters of Papineau to decide whether Mr. Trudeau even returned to the House.

And here is where all the strategic voting plans fall apart: our politics is still ultimately local. We can do all the intellectual convolutions we want to try to support a Party’s candidate in hopes of having an effect on who becomes Prime Minister, but in the end, it’s up to the voters in the Leaders’ ridings to decide. There’s talk that both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair are in tight races.  I seem to remember some suggestion that even Mr. Harper’s race isn’t a completely sure thing.  All our support-by-proxy for a distant Leader means nothing if that Leader is defeated in his own riding.

So, yes, I’ll consider the Party Leaders and the Parties when I do my electoral calculus.  But most of the weight for my decision will come from knowing my own neighbourhood and thoughts about which candidate best reflects it and which candidate I actually see in the shops and parks and in the audiences at festivals.

I also tell myself that if we all made our decision on how to vote with an emphasis on candidates we expect to consider not Party directives but, rather, the hopes and desires of the constituency, maybe the Parties would start to realize we want to elect representative neighbours, not toadies of the PMO.

Then all politics would finally feel local.

So, I went to a restaurant . . .

So I went to a restaurant in Edmonton some time ago.  It is a virally popular restaurant that I won’t name.  I’m just not sure what to do with my experience, which is so totally at odds with what seems to be the overwhelming consensus of the #yegfood cognoscenti.

I went at lunch on a rare day I had time on my own. The place was packed. I placed my order – too go – and struggled to find a place to sit and wait.  I ordered what is essentially a sandwich of an ethnic variety.  It arrived in a styrofoam clamshell with a lidded plastic cup of sauce in due course.  All that quite comfortable.

But, the service was indifferent.  I don’t mean that the service was unremarkable – I mean the service exuded indifference.  There seemed to be no concern about the experience of an individual customer – there was another right behind in the line up.  Even at Taco Bell there’s a superficial effort to smile and say “Hi!”

And the food.  My sandwich was virtually inedible.  It wasn’t that it tasted bad or off – it was physically almost inedible because of the bread, which was a flavourless thing with the texture of an excessively crumbly cake. It could not be held without falling to pieces back into the stryofoam clamshell, onto my shirt and pants, and into the streets of Edmonton.  The soggy bits of meat were also without flavour, which is remarkable as the restaurant represented itself as serving a national cuisine noted for being highly flavoured.  Perhaps the cup of watery sauce would have added flavour, but the crumbly bread would have become a strange gruel in my hands at a single touch of whatever that liquid was.

It’s been a long time, more than a year, maybe two, since I went that one time to that restaurant.  People still rave about it.  I sometimes think about giving it another chance, but, to be honest, I gag a little at the thought.  Why should I give it another chance? There are lots of other places in Edmonton to get “authentic” (and physically edible) examples of that national cuisine.  If I were to go back, would I not be just submitting to peer pressure and contagious fashion, like a 70s teenager hating “Saturday Night” on first listen but running out to buy cropped tartan slacks and The Bay City Rollers the next day?  How many of us as adults continue to follow the crowd to the latest fashion, whatever our honest opinion would be if we considered the thing?  How many of us support local uncritically and thereby support mediocrity?  I fear too many do.

So, I went to an Edmonton restaurant that everybody raves about, and frankly, I hated everything about it.  It was a starkly naked emperor surrounded by a sycophantic hoard of loyal fans of the imperial threads.  Why would I want to give such an imperial birthday suit another chance?

Has anybody else had an experience like this? Have you tried the restaurant that everyone hails as the greatest thing since the discovery of bacon, only to find that there’s better and more “authentic” cuisine of its type at the 7-11 or the freezer section of the supermarket?

Why not share that experience in the comments section?




What will we do about Edmonton’s built heritage?

Edmonton has a problem with “built heritage” (old buildings).

This week in the news is the pending demolition of the Graphic Arts Building, presently studio space for artists, and the Reed Auction House, former home of the Artery. That city-owned – perhaps not heritage, but certainly old – buildings can’t seem to be saved is a repeat of so much of Edmonton’s brief architectural history.

Few today remember the glorious old Main Post Office that stood where the relatively featureless brick of the Westin Hotel now sits.  And who remembers the Varscona Cinema that stood on the corner of Whyte Avenue and 109 Street, replaced twice since its demolition?  The MacDonald Hotel was almost demolished once upon a time.  A Mayor not long ago is said to have described the old AGT Building, now the Legislature Annex, as “crap architecture” or words to that effect. In fact, the AGT Building is something of a landmark, a glass-curtain-wall tower built in Edmonton, of all places, before Mies van der Rohe’s iconic glass-curtain-wall Seagrams Building in New York.  Recent lamentation over the lost Etzio building on Whyte Avenue and now over the Graphic Arts Building and the Reed Auction House is refreshing.  I fear, however, that the two buildings on Jasper Avenue are doomed, in large measure by Edmonton’s historically consistent attitude to contemporary construction, which all old buildings started out as.

Edmonton’s boom and bust history has been discussed endlessly in a great many contexts. It is our reality.  We have usually built quickly and for the short term.  The Etzio building was a hastily built wood-frame building.  It was remarkable that it lasted ten years in Edmonton, let alone a century.  We rarely build to last, and when we do, we grow bored with it in a generation and tear it down or wrap it in the tin foil of architectural fashion. The Stanley Milner (formerly Centennial) Library has been the victim of this once already, having a tumorous stucco thing pasted to the front.  Soon the Library is scheduled to have a more complete and superficial exterior remake, being wrapped in literal tinfoil. Does anyone remember the architectural coherence of the original design?

The growing concern in Edmonton over preserving old buildings, Heritage designated or not, is, I think, a good thing.  But if we are to effectively preserve our built heritage in the years to come, we need to change out attitudes toward young and newborn buildings.  We need to encourage architects and developers with a long term vision, who build to last.  We need to look at our ten year old and twenty year old buildings and ask whether our grandchildren will rally to preserve them.  And, most of all, we need to encourage the proper maintenance, perhaps through some sort of financial incentives, of interesting buildings that are in danger of decay.

This last item needs a fine balance, however.  The Graphic Arts Building and the neighbouring Auction House are today valued by the arts community as affordable space for studios and events.  And the spaces are so affordable precisely because they have been allowed to decay.  If owners half a century ago had had incentives to maintain and upgrade the buildings, there would be a more general desire today to continue to preserve them but property value and rents would be higher, and the arts community would still be looking for affordable space.  We cannot ignore the affordability offered by what are effectively temporary buildings, but it would be nice if affordability were also offered by something other than decay.

I don’t have a clear road map for preserving Edmonton’s built heritage. I don’t know if such a map is possible.  But I’m certain that if we don’t build at least some buildings with a century-long vision, if we don’t look at young buildings with that vision, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be protesting the demolition of affordable, quirky, but, in the final analysis, fatally run-down temporary buildings.  And we’ll forever have very few century-old buildings.

Personally, I’m going to try to look at the relatively featureless brick of the Westin Hotel, and a whole lot of Edmonton’s young architecture, with a more positive, century-long vision.

As an endnote, I highly recommend Capital Modern, a website dedicated to educating Edmontonians about our Modern Architectural heritage from 1940-1969.