An Analysis of "The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd" by Sir Walter Raleigh
The poem, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” was written by Sir Walter Raleigh, and is a response from a nymph rejecting a shepherd’s proposal of love. The poem is in iambic tetrameter. It is made up of six four-lined stanzas or quatrains, where each iamb regularly alternates between stressed and unstressed syllables. The emphatic rhythms focus on creating pauses in order to make the poem more rhetorically expressive. Additionally, Drummond notes that Raleigh “end-stops his lines very sharply and also provides strong caesuras, sometimes two in a line.
By expressing in imaginative detail the reasoning behind her rejections, stanza-by-stanza, the speaker within the poem, a young female nymph, responds to the shepherd’s vision of their "happily-ever-after." The nymph, having superior rationality, coolly objects the shepherd’s offerings and explains to him that all he proposes is of the limited timeframe of a mortal being; his offerings will not last.
The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Nymph Mocks the Shepherd
The poem begins and ends her explanation in the subjunctive mood; this helps set up the rhetorical style of the poem as she contrasts the hypothetical vision of the shepherd to her own morally reflective understanding. The diction of the poem is alluring. In the initial lines of each stanza, the nymph initially seems to adhere to the shepherd’s pastoral diction of a happy ending, but just as quickly as the beautiful imagery is laid out, she mockingly undermines his vision with a more literal view of how life is short and will soon be forgotten.
This sense of mockery is found in the end-rhyme of each line. In each instance, the words help portray what is to be considered within the context of the shepherd’s humanistic vision of their life together. The words forgotten and rotten, which are taken from the end of the fifteenth and sixteenth lines, help focus the imagery in the poem. The nymph explains to the shepherd that any gift he may give, to win her heart, will soon grow old, break, and be forgotten. She alludes that a timeless creature such as herself sees things as they will someday become, “Had joys no date nor age no need, / Then these delights my mind might move” (22-23), and that any gift she receives is already rotten in her eyes because of her foreknowledge of the change it will eventually go through.
Irony in the Shepherd's Proposal
As the stanzas progress, the darker, innate meaning of the nymph’s eternal message becomes less latent and can be manifested in the shepherd’s mortal view of life. It quickly becomes apparent throughout the poem that the nymph is attempting to help the shepherd. While the shepherd can only focus on his love for the nymph, thinking only of the gifts that he will give her, she attempts to show him the irony of their discourse, relaying to him the mortality of his pastoral life. When this complexity is understood, there are four reoccurring motifs that arise within the nymph’s explanation.
Motif #1: Mortality and Materialism
The first is the thematic approach of the entire poem itself. Behind the great insight of the timeless nymph, there is a structural understanding of life itself, something the shepherd is not utilizing in his conquest. She is wise because she understands the basis of a mortal life; this would be the understanding of her reason, and is portrayed in the entirety of the poem. Without reason, there can be no insight. Through reason, she approaches the reasoning of the shepherd, or lack thereof.
It seems the motive for this conversation is the shepherd’s passion for the nymph; from reasoning comes passion, from passion, comes love. When the shepherd compares his love for the nymph with the life that he lives, he offers her gifts, for everything he knows as a mortal being is materialistic and temporary.
Giving a materialistic gift to the nymph would be folly. She tries to show this to the shepherd, explaining that his views of the future are not the same as hers; the syllogism of her rationality “attempts to subdue the diction of the golden pastoral that is the shepherd, and show him the real world” (Drummond 27). The real world that she attempts to show in her rejection of the shepherd predicates the fourth and final theme within the poem, the understanding of time. Through a better understanding of mortality, reasoning, love, and time, the nymph sets out to help the shepherd comprehend the foundation of her rejection, why a life together would not work.
Through the undying timeless beauty that is the nymph, it seems as though the shepherd has lost all consciousness of reasoning as he attempts to fabricate his love for her through gifts and mortal standards or ideals. From the beginning, it should have seemed to the shepherd that this relationship could have no avail, and that simple deductive reasoning would bring about a quick denouement. However, the shepherd indicates the human propensity for self-delusion as he falls to folly over the nymph’s grace. The lack of reasoning is what creates this poem, and throughout the text, the nymph tries to revive reason within the shepherd.
Motif #2: Lack of Reasoning
The lack of human reasoning throughout time is alluded to within the last lines of the second-to-last stanza. The imagery refers to the creation story of man, showing mankind’s initial lack of reasoning, and is displayed within the poem, “A honey tongue, a heart of gall, / Is fancy’s spring, but sorrows fall” (11-12). The imagery produced here comes from the double meanings of the words “spring” and “fall.”
“Spring” first alludes to the seasons, as does “fall.” As they are juxtaposed together, there is a sense that in the spring months, life begins to grow and flourish, but during the fall season, life withers away, making ready for the death of life which is winter. On a further note, “spring” and “fall” becomes an emblem for human nature. The action of “spring” is “fancy,” and it represents the base of mankind springing forth from creation, the source of all that is. Contrary to a beginning, the word “fall” is “sorrow[ful]” as it symbolizes the fall of mankind, as it ages and withers away making way for winter or death.
Several critics have analyzed the poem and have related it to the Bible’s creation story. Brooke goes one step further and relates these lines to the creation story within the Bible. He states that before mankind fell, there was just “spring” or the beginning of life, with no death. In the beginning, there was still reasoning, for there was free will; free will will encompass reasoning because of the brain's natural ability to put value on right and wrong. He details that before the forbidden fruit was eaten, there was no awareness of death, but the “honey tongue” of Satan who had “a heart of gall” was too tempting for Adam to handle, so Adam disregarded reasoning and ate the fruit, which resulted in the eventual “fall” of man. Through this paradox, we are able to create a deeper relationship with the nymph as she attempts to reason with man and man’s “heart of gall.” The shepherd’s “heart of gall” is blinded by his compassion for the “honey tongue.” These results in what he believes to be love.
It always seems hardest to explain reason, when those who you are reasoning with have no sense to listen. As the nymph rejects the shepherd, she focuses on helping the shepherd realize that he is not in love with her, but in lust. The aspect of explaining his folly must be the most difficult task in her trilemma. If at first reasoning fails, surely the task of making someone realize their lust over love must prove to be much more difficult. In the line, “In truth in every shepherd’s tongue” (2), the nymph coaxes the shepherd to listen, telling him to realize that his motives are true, yet are destined to fail. She compares his love to folly and says, “When rivers rage and rocks grow cold” (6), which alludes to the emotional ups and downs of human nature. When in love, in the beginning, it feels as though emotions surge, just as “rivers rage,” but with “spring” and “fall,” the season or emotion eventually comes to an end, and in comes the death of winter, making the “rocks grow cold.”
Motif #3: Love vs. Lust
The battle between love and lust is also valued as a key aspect by many of the poem’s critics. Forsythe states that in the lines, “And Philomel becometh dumb, / The rest complains of cares to come” (7-8), Raleigh paints an exquisite picture of true love versus the shepherd’s lust. By saying these lines, the nymph clearly expresses that the shepherd's love for her is much like a momentary season and will soon pass out of existence, just as summer must one day turn to winter. The nymph uses the analogy of a love fated to die to refer to the shepherd’s love as only a momentary feeling that will soon pass. With the passing of this feeling, the shepherd will come to realize what the nymph had been trying to tell him the entire time, and he will realize that all he had offered such as gifts and emotion eventually wither and fade.
A Glimmer of Hope, if Not for Mortality
The nymph first focuses the shepherd’s emotions for her. She tells him that not even the deepest love between two beings can last, that young love grows old, and never stays young. The possibility an undying love is represented within the first line of the poem, “If all the world and love were young” (1). She states that neither her world, nor the world of the shepherd stays the same, and she determines that everything grows with age, just as love will grow and eventually die with the mortality of the human body. However, there is a twist at the end of the poem where the nymph speculates on impossibility. In the last stanza, the nymph shows signs of the first glimmer of positive hope:
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. (21-24)
The word “but” changes the entire poem. For the first time, we are given the thought of what the nymph would be like if she were mortal. Drummond notes that this sudden conversion within the poem by use of the word “but,” “creates an unexpected stress on the poem, resulting in a force which we have been waiting for” (28). In this stanza, the nymph replies that if “youth last” and love never ended “love still breed,” that there could be hope between her and the shepherd. The impossibility is speculated upon when the nymph says, “Had joys no date” or “age no need,” then and only then could they be joined as one “to live with thee and be thy love.” Due to the shepherd’s mortality, this plausibly impossible ending helps erase some of the more morbid ideas that have been brought about through this poem. It helps show that even though all odds seem against certain something, there can still be a glimpse of hope left in the mind.
The nymph then proceeds to focus on the temporary items which are the shepherd’s gifts to her. In the lines, “Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten,– / In folly ripe, in season rotten” (15-16), the nymph reminds the shepherd that his gifts symbolize decay and the passing of time: they “soon break,” they “soon wither,” and they are “soon forgotten.” The nymph explains the intentional fallacy that while “in folly” the gifts may seem “ripe,” but to her, she sees the end of the “season” or life and in turn, the items seem “rotten.” The concrete word “rotten” creates imagery that can be juxtaposed with many parts of the poem. It concludes the end to all things as they eventually will rot once the life has been taken from them.
Motif #4: Time
The emotion of life moves forward to the final thematic element of time. The understanding of time and how the nymph uses it in her argument is the most important issue within this poem. Through time, the nymph shows the exhausting energy of human nature, pointing out that there is a beginning which is followed by an end. From the moment Adam ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, mankind was burdened with the knowledge of passing time and the realization of death. The nymph, who is an immortal being, as all nymphs are, too realizes this, but relays it differently to the shepherd. She sees gifts as they will soon become and love as it will someday fail; they will “fall” just as man will someday wither and “fall” to his death.
Sir Walter Raleigh
In conclusion, the nymph engages the ambiguous snafu throughout each line of the poem and replies to the shepherd with a multitude of images that help get her statements across. She implies that the shepherd lacks reasoning and that their circumstance was ultimately derived from the lack of reasoning. She alludes to the paradox of shepherd’s love, stating that in reality he is not in love with her, but has been overwhelmed with an animal-like lust for her. Finally, she speaks of the effect of time within this trilemma.
In the nymph’s eyes, anything that has mortality will eventually become “rotten,” so she sees all that is placed in front of her as such. She sees the end of the shepherd and the end of his gifts; as they age along with the world, they head towards a common place, always changing from young to old. Listing the last of the shepherd's gifts, in the end of the poem, the nymph replies, “All these in me no means can move / To come to thee and be thy love” (19-20). When she replies, “in me no means can move,” it seems to be the nymph’s final rejection of the shepherd. She has become set in her mind and in her heart. She has not only convinced the shepherd of her rejection, but she has convinced herself as well. In the end, she once again yields to the onward progression of time, allowing all to grow old, to change, and to wither away just as it was meant to be.
Lecture: The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd by Sir Walter Raleigh
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Drummond, C.Q. "Style in Raleigh's Short Poems." South Central Review 3 (1986): 23-36.
Forsythe, R. S. "The Passionate Shepherd and English Poetry." PMLA 40 (1925): 692-742.
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Raleigh, Walter. "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." BookRags. Yagmin, James. 1999. BookRags.com. 16 Oct. 2008 <http://www.bookrags.com/The_Nymph%27s_Reply_to_the_Shepherd>.
Raleigh, Walter. "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." Early Modern Literary Studies. Ed.
Raymond Siemens. New York: Norton, 1996. n. pag.
"The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd Summary / Study Guide." eNotes. eNotes.com. 16 October 2008 <http://www.enotes.com/nymphs-reply>.
The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh. Ed. J. Hannah. London: Bell, 1891. 11-12.
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