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.


William Shakespeare – Sonnet 65

This poem follows all the principles of a Shakespearean sonnet, both in its form – crisply contained lines, standard rhyme scheme with a final couplet – as well as in theme – an idea pertaining to the basic essence of humanity, which is reflected upon and then twisted in the final couplet. In this case the theme is the transience of beauty, where the ravaging powers of time are considered through metephors, with the final suggestion that beauty might be immortalized in art, specifically poetry.

The list with which the poem opensĀ  aims to demonstrate the enormity of the problem described. The accumulation of objects, all with a figurative sense of power or endurance, are massed up and pitted against the strikingly apostrophised ‘sad mortality’, and are ‘o’erswayed’. This epithet, we feel, may have carried more force than the word ‘sad’ now contains. Nonetheless the image of a morose, melancholic force of destruction is perfectly apt for Time: its action is not deliberate, inspired by anger or hatred, but rather gradual and inevitable.

The first four lines conclude with the comparison of ‘beauty’ to a ‘flower’, emphasizing the vulnerability and fragility of beauty. Each of the 4 line ABAB sections in the sonnet end with a question – there is no enjamement. This taughtness and neatness of sense is an outworking of the poise and control that typify the ideal Shakespeare sonnet, demonstrating virtuosity and perfect manipulation of phrasing.

The following four lines bigin with a mixed metaphor, where ‘summer’s honey breath’ is laid under ‘siege’ by Time. This metephor contains echoes of the Hamlet soliloquy, ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’, therefore the surface meaning of ‘something weak against something strong’ is superceded by the implicit suggestion that something in beauty is impervious to time. We are made to wonder if the very fact of beauty’s fragility and ephemerality makes it invulnerable, just as a ‘breath’ cannot truly be laid under siege. This image anticipates the final line’s suggestion that an element of beauty is eternal.

The third set of 4 lines open with a dramatic exclamation, as the tone becomes increasingly desperate. The anaphora of lines 11 and 12 add to this atmosphere with another listing effect, almost as an accumulation of emotion. The lines are reminicent of a psalm or Biblical lament, with their balanced phrasing and language such as ‘miracle’. Worded as a rhetorical question, we are also reminded of the Book of Job. These allusions have two effects; firstly, they invest the poem with a significance and drama through the use of elevated, Biblical language. Secondly, our attention is drawn to the personified ‘Time’ figure, that seems almost to replace God in the poem. Beauty is Time’s ‘best jewel’, and it is Time that takes it away. In an equivalent poem by Herbert or Donne, the conclusion reached from the question posed here would surely be that God propogates beauty on earth, and restores it in heaven. It is therefore striking that Shakespeare makes no suggestion of this, seemingly deliberate in drawing attention to God’s absence. It would not be going too far to say that this is an atheistic approach to beauty.

In the final couplet, the ‘miracle’ is not beauty’s preservation in heaven, as we might expect, but rather a form of imortalization on earth in verse – ‘black ink’. The image acts in antithesis with the love ‘shining bright’, but as well as a literal meaning, it might refer to the object of beauty – we assume the poet’s ‘love’ – in her real state of destruction, where darkness carries the meaning of death with implied uncertainty about the nature of an afterlife.

This final resolution is proposed tentatively relative to the rest of the poem, the poet suggests that it is possible but not certain through the use of conditionals, ‘unless’, ‘might’. We are struck by the humility and vulnerability of the writer – uncertain as he is that his writings will survive and be read, thereby serving a record of his ‘beauty’.