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 Shepherd’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 (I’ll never forgive him or be grateful enough) 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, as 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.

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