Christopher Marlowe – The Passionate Shepherd to his Love

This is one of the best known and most significant examples of the pastoral lyric poem. Tetrameter couplets give the poem a song-like quality, fitting with a tone that is both exultant and playfully suggestive. The meaning is very simple, an invitation to ‘Come live with me and be my Love’; interest in the poem comes from the beauty and vitality of the language.

The speaker strikes a tone between high, chivalric love and a suggestive sensuality. ‘All the pleasures prove’ carries a playful sexual connotation, where ‘prove’ means to test or experience, it also brings to mind a contest or duel between knights. ‘All the’ ensures we recognise this connotation with its specificity, saying ‘all the pleasures ordained for lovers’. The list that follows invokes majestic natural beauty according to the tradition of courtly love – it reflects both the life offered by the shepherd and the woman herself. This becomes pertinent when we note that ‘fields’ and ‘groves’ produce a ‘yield’, denoting a harvest or bounty, but carrying another meaning of ‘surrender’ in a sexual sense. As a result the further meaning of a ‘harvest’ or ‘yield’ of offspring becomes apparent. The poet therefore emphasizes a bounteousness or fertility in nature and in his ‘Love’, highlighting the harmony between them, a theme returned to throughout the poem.

The poem conveys a sense of beauty in its structure; its rythmic neatness and refrains suggest symmetry. Symmetry can also be seen in lines 7 and 8, which contain repeated ‘ll’ sounds and ‘m’ alliteration respectively at the start and end of each line. The word ‘falls’ might mean waterfalls, casting the birdsong as a kind of homage or worship to the beauty of nature. ‘Falls’ can also suggest strains of music, which gives a reading of the birds singing along to the sound of the river. The powerful idea of harmony therefore resurfaces here. The ambiguity around ‘falls’ offers a sense of both the visual and audible beauty of nature, contributing to a richness of sensory description in the poem.

Floral symbolism also plays an important role in the poem’s discourse. Roses represent passion and sex, while myrtle symbolises marital fidelity. To have these two symbols encompassing stanza 3 at the first and last lines suggests that contained within these two ideas, or protected by them, is the sum of everything the speaker is offering. The poet uses hyperbole typical of Petrachan and Pastoral love lyrics, ‘a thousand fragrant posies’. Drawing on convention in this way reminds us as readers of the tradition in which Marlowe wants to place his poem, and for the adressee adds a gravity and resonance through evoking classical precedents. ‘Embroidered’ suggests the delicacy and complexity of the woman, while also implying a willingness to undergo hard and dedicated labour on her behalf by the speaker.

The concept that a dress of flowers is appropriate for the speaker’s ‘Love’ draws on the idea of harmony between human beauty personified in her and natural beauty. This continues through to the ‘lambs’ of stanza 4 where a connection is implied between them, as a result of the wool’s suitability for her clothes. Lambs symbolise innocence and purity, but perhaps also helplessness and naivity. Through this connection, the speaker may be gently suggesting that his ‘Love’ needs the protection of a ‘shepherd’. The verb ‘pull’ is used instead of harsher sounding equivalents like ‘cut’ or ‘shear’, maintaining the gentle assonance of the two lines which fit what’s being described. The word suggests more the ‘plucking’ of fruit than of wool, therefore echoing back to the ‘yield’ of stanza 1, with all its associations of fertility and plentifulness.

With ‘slippers’ and ‘buckles’ of ‘gold’ we move away from pure pastoral, despite remaining in the realm of impossible finery – we are reminded perhaps of Greek Gods in luxurious but simple dress. This luxury is prevented from feeling overpowering by the alternation of rustic imagery ‘belt of straw and ivy buds’ with symbols of wealth. This interweaving of imagery perhaps reminds us of the ’embroidering’ of stanza 3, as well as extending the theme of ‘harmony’ to a perfect harmony of images themselves. The prodect is something beautiful and valuable, but still attractive for its pastoral simplicity.

The refrain that returns at the end of the poem gives another demonstration of symmetry in form, suggesting both the simplicity and innocence of a song, and a gentle insistance or encouragement from the speaker.


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