‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ was written as a response to ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ by Christopher Marlowe. The speaker is a young, beautiful female nymph. A “nymph” is a creature from Greek mythology who is considered to be a personification of nature. They usually reside in the woods or the sea. They are minor deities in the larger Greek pantheon. In this poem, she replies to the shepherd’s proffered love by depicting the temporary nature of all pleasures.
Throughout this poem, the nymph describes how time, pleasure, and all possessions, are fleeting. These joys won’t last forever, nor will impetuous choices and sweet words. All of these things are like “spring” to “fall”. They might be beautiful now but when it comes time for the season to change they are going to fade like everything else.
‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ by Sir Walter Raleigh is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD, and so on, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Raleigh made use of iambic tetrameter when it came to the metrical pattern. This means that each line is made up of four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. He also avoids using enjambment, preferring to end the lines with end-punctuation.
Raleigh makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’. These include but are not limited to caesura, alliteration, and simile. The latter, a metaphor, is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is a good example at the end of stanza three with the phrase “A honey tongue, a heart of gall, / Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall”. Here, the speaker is comparing sweet, yet, at the end, meaningless, words, and impetuous choices to “spring” and “fall”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Rivers rage and Rocks” in line three of the second stanza and “complains of cares to come” in the same stanza.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. A good example can be found at the end of the first stanza with the line: “To live with thee, and be thy love”.
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.
In the first stanza of ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,’ the speaker, the nymph, begins by describing a possible world. She presents a hypothetical, “if all the world in love for young” and if “there was truth in every Shepherd’s tongue“. But, by suggesting these things, the nymph is implying that they are not true and do not exist.
She says that if they did exist then she might be moved to “live with thee, and be thy love“. This is directed to the shepherd who made his plea to the nymph in Christopher Marlowe‘s poem.
It’s obvious from the first lines that later on in the poem any hope the shepherd might’ve had is going to be dashed. Several of the lines in this poem can also be found in Marlowe’s poem. For example, the phrase “live with me, and be my love“. This is an example of an allusion. A reader should also take note of the use of alliteration in the third line with the phrase “pretty pleasures“ and following it, “might me move“.
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.
In the second stanza of ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,’ the nymph alludes to the way she really feels about the entire situation. She says that rather than the world being “young“ and beautiful it is filled with the ravages of time. The flocks are driven from “field to fold“ and the “rivers rage“ while the “rocks grow cold“. These images are clear examples of the pastoral poetic form. In the third line of this stanza, the nymph mentions Philomel, another character from Greek mythology. She is often referenced in literary works. In the stories, she was the younger of two daughters and was raped and mutilated by her sister‘s husband. She takes revenge and is transformed into a nightingale. If, as the speaker states, she were to “becometh dumb“ she would become mute and lose her ability to sing, her defining characteristic.
The stanza concludes by referring to “others“ who, unlike the shepherd, know about the “cares to come“. Other people are not quite as idealistic as the shepherd is.
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.
The third stanza of ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ brings in several images of nature fading. The flowers die, they wanton fields lose their crops and winter comes upon everything that was once prosperous. The next two lines reference someone’s “honey tongue,“ an example of metonymy, meaning spoken sweet words. The “heart of gall” represents bitterness or impetuousness. The speaker is suggesting that bold and thoughtless choices, at least thoughtless in regards to the future, as well as “honey tongue[d]” words are related to spring and fall. They are ultimately going to end in nothing just like spring. It is a time of prosperous growth that ends in fall when everything dies.
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.
A similar set of images is conveyed in the fourth stanza of ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ where the speaker says that everything the shepherd has gathered including “downs, “shoes, “and “beds of roses“ are all going to break in winter. The simple pleasures won’t last through the seasons.
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.
Since the nymph knows that everything is temporary and that no single thing is going to last forever, she tells the shepherd that his possessions are not going to convince her to love him. They mean nothing to her and cannot move her.
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.
In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker suggests that if youth could last and love was able to persevere throughout all the seasons. Plus, if joy did not have an expiration date then these “delights my mind might move“. But, this is not the case. She will not be moved to be the shepherd’s love.