by Johnny Vaccaro
At the surface value, Christopher Marlowe’s poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” is the ideal scenario for a couple living in the countryside. Throughout the poem the shepherd paints a perfect picture to his love, promising her the comfort and appearance of the rustic countryside, many pleasures, fine clothes, and simple living. The shepherd makes it clear that if his love accepts his proposal then together they will experience the pleasures he lists. If one interprets this poem beyond surface value, and knows information about Christopher Marlowe’s reputation, one can decipher if the shepherd is trustworthy. Notorious for being a spy, Christopher Marlowe did not have a puritan reputation during the Elizabethan era, and it is safe to say that the shepherd in his poem is not trustworthy (Honan). The shepherd deceives his love with the witty use of setting, form and meter, figurative language, and visual imagery. The poetic devices in Marlowe’s poem help exaggerate and embellish the shepherd’s impractical proposals.
The shepherd tries to persuade his love to come live with him by exaggerating the idyllic countryside setting. Elements of the rustic countryside include, “Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,/ woods or steepy mountain yields,” shown here is a list of sites there are in the rustic countryside (774). Marlowe uses enjambment in these lines to embellish the setting; he extends the list of sites onto the next line to exaggerate the numerous places there are in the countryside. This line gives persuasion and appeal to the shepherd’s argument. The next quatrain, lines 5,6,7,8, also demonstrate an exaggerated use of setting, “And we will sit upon the Rocks,/ Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,/ By shallow Rivers to whose falls/ Melodious birds sing Madrigals” (774). The shepherd implies that living in the countryside will be a leisurely living. Instead of working, they will watch the other shepherds work while the birds sing in harmony with the water. The shepherd glorifies the simple rustic pleasures of the countryside, but it seems too perfect – almost fairy tale perfect. Moreover, in line 21 and 22 the shepherd claims there will be dancing and singing each morning of May for his love’s delight. The use of the word May adds to the setting of the poem because it specifies a specific season, spring. The shepherd’s enticing portrayal of the setting gives his love all the reasons to pack up and move in with him as soon as possible, but the shepherd cannot be trusted because he does not discuss the other three seasons. Throughout the entirety of the poem, the shepherd only mentions the idyllic setting of the countryside during spring. The use of setting serves as an intelligent deceptive exaggeration to persuade his love to come live with him. Though it is believable at first glance, in reality the shepherd’s proposal is impractical because spring is not the only season in the countryside. The only mention of a different season is in line 15 where the shepherd states he will make his love “fair lined slippers for the cold” (774). The shepherd never mentions the changing of seasons or the coldness of winter the people of the countryside endure. He only writes about the picturesque setting of the countryside in the spring! He tries to persuade and deceive his love with the exaggerated indefinite setting of springtime. The proposal is not realistic, but the shepherd does a sly job by using setting as his persuasion.
The shepherd’s use of form and meter is used to sooth and persuade his love to come live with him. With a classic rhyme scheme of aabb, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” is written in iambic tetrameter, which is four feet (tetra) of unstressed/stressed syllables (iambic), with seven stanzas each composed of two rhyming couplets. Iambic meter has a certain pace and tone when read out loud, the emphasis is on the second syllable rather than the first, as oppose to trochee, where the emphasis is on the first syllable rather than the second. The rhyming couplets sooth the person being spoken to (his love), and makes the shepherd’s argument believable. Let’s look at the first two lines, “Come live with me and be my love,/ And we will all the pleasures prove” (774). Besides the iambic meter the rhyming couplets make this first line easy to listen to, but also ambiguous because we don’t know what the shepherd’s intentions are. Is this a request or a demand? Also the internal rhyme, (me/be) makes the listener gaze over the first line without determining what the shepherd’s intentions are, so in fact the rhyme scheme is hypnotizing and enticing. Besides iambic tetrameter, Marlowe uses alliteration to make the shepherd’s proposals more appealing; “And we will sit upon the Rocks,/ Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks” (774). Seen in lines 5 and 6 the /s/ and /f/ consonants give the shepherd’s love comfort and ease, and does not give his love negative thoughts or the skepticisms to question his words. Moreover, in the next lines, Marlowe uses consonance to again sooth the shepherd’s love, “By shallow Rivers to whose falls/ Melodious birds sing Madrigals”(774). The /l/ consonant when read aloud is soothing and relates to the leisurely country living the shepherd pitches to his love. In line 23, alliteration is seen again, “If these delights thy mind may move,” the /m/ consonant makes this statement from the shepherd nonchalant and mesmerizing. The depth of the shepherd’s statement is easily gazed over because alliteration, and if one takes a closer look one will see that the shepherd is appealing to his love’s emotions and pleasures rather than her logical reasoning. The poem is filled with alliteration (1-2,5-6,8,18,20-24), consonance (3-4,7-8,9-10,) and assonance (1,4,6,7,18,20,24), and they all serve to entice and sooth the women to come live with the shepherd.
Throughout the poem, the shepherd also uses figurative language, visual imagery, and symbolism to describe what he “can” give her. We see that the poem is mainly an argument or the shepherd’s pitch to his love, but he poses impractical possessions a normal shepherd cannot provide. Line 13, “A gown made of the finest wool/ Which from our pretty Lambs we pull:” may be viewed as a contradiction because in a former line the shepherd states he and his love will leisurely watch the other shepherds work (774). Moreover, how will the shepherd attain the finest wool if he and his love are going to live a relaxed life? At first glance, the shepherd’s pitch is believable, but when thoroughly analyzed it is not cogent. To expand, the shepherd goes on to state he will make his love slippers for the cold with gold buckles. This is not realistic because in Marlowe’s era, shepherds were not gold carriers and there was not gold in the countryside to be discovered. The shepherd proceeds to say that he will make his love a belt of ivy buds and a clasp with amber studs (774). As mentioned prior, amber was expensive in this era and was not commonly owned by shepherds. We see a common trend throughout Marlowe’s poem: the shepherd tries to persuade his love with material possessions that are impractical. Even if the shepherd could provide his love with all the items he mentions, moving in with him would be an artificial love based on pleasure and material possessions.
Christopher Marlowe is a sly poet, and one who does not know his reputation would interpret this poem as kind acts a shepherd would do for his love, but it seems contrary. One needs to posit the question: what are the shepherd’s intentions? Are they sexually oriented? Sinister? His intelligent and witty use of poetic devices helps exaggerate and make the shepherd’s argument more appealing and persuasive. Marlowe leaves the audience questioning if the shepherd’s motives and desires are pure.
Marlowe, Christopher. “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Spencer Richard-Jones, 12th ed, W.W. Norton & Company 2016, p. 774.
Honan, Park. Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy. OUP Oxford, 2005. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.