On-Line English Literature Discussion: The Lonely Shepherd

Appreciation of poetry was a much neglected area of development in my education that my first year English classes rectified all too effectively. We studied all kinds of verse: sonnets, lyric poems, narrative poems, and even briefly encountered epic poetry. A pair of poems we studied concurrently were Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” and Ralegh’s counter, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.”

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. 

From The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, by Christopher Marlowe

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. 

From The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd, by Sir Walter Ralegh

In our on-line discussion, we were asked which we preferred, the invitation or the reply. I thought it was an easy choice for me, but then I reread them to make sure:

I was all prepared to say I liked the response better than the initial invitation because I’m a cynic. But then I read them over again. While Ralegh’s response is feeling, artful, and more realistic than the invitation, the dreamy world we get a glimpse of in Marlowe’s poem is much more aesthetically pleasing to imagine. And, to be honest, the birds singing madrigals in line 8 of Marlowe’s poem kind of got me.

12 October 2016

I found, particularly in my first year of university, that all my classes, though unrelated, would overlap information in a way that helped my big-picture understanding of history. For instance, my astronomy class included a brief history of Galileo, my Western Art Music history class covered Galileo’s father as one of the founders of opera. Music history also enlightened me as to the madrigals mentioned in Marlowe’s poem:

The madrigals that the birds are singing, as I learned in my music history class, are a type of Italian song for two equal voices set to poetry (usually by Petrarch) of an amorous, pastoral, idyllic, or satirical nature. Because of the relation of the poems by Marlowe and Ralegh, one constructed as a direct response to the other, together they make a sort of madrigal: two equal voices of poetry, one pasotoral, the other satirical.

12 October 2016

It was a long time ago I shared that opinion, but I reread them both in full again before posting this. Marlowe’s poem is still much more appealing. It is ideal nature, eternal spring, forever young. Isn’t it, after all, part of the point of poetry to beautify life? But Ralegh’s response stands up to Marlowe without bitterness, a common-sense rebuttal that maintains the concept of an ideal reality: “If all the world and love were young, / … / These pretty pleasures might me move.” Ralegh’s reply strikes me as more sad and regretful that the shepherd’s premise isn’t sound–if only it were true and life could be that sweet and carefree! In the end, I can’t say I honestly prefer Marlowe’s poem as I seemed to then. I now rather prefer the view that I concluded with: that the two poems together create something so much more than one or the other of them could alone.

I’d love to hear in the comments whether you like poetry or think you should get into it more. If you do like poetry, drop me your favourite poem or poet.

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