The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
by Sir Walter Ralegh
The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd Introduction
In A Nutshell
Like most people who succeed in life, Sir Walter Ralegh had his fair share of both lovers and haters. As it turns out, both got him into a serious amount of trouble. He was imprisoned in 1592 for secretly marrying one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies in waiting, and eventually executed on trumped-up charges for treason. Some people resented his unprecedented rise to wealth and popularity at court, while others admired him for his many talents as a soldier, courtier, philosopher, explorer, scientist, historian, and poet.
Either way you slice it, Ralegh had a totally fascinating life and brought a lot to the table. Literally. Ralegh is responsible for naming the great state of Virginia, bringing tobacco to Europe, the potato to Ireland, and Edmund Spenser to England. Talk about a contribution to society.
Given the super-impressive magnitude of things he accomplished, Sir Walter Ralegh's poetry is generally seen as one of his lesser contributions to the world at large. But the fact that Ralegh isn't known for his poetry in the same way that Shakespeare and John Donne are, doesn't mean that his poetry isn't worth reading. In fact, it's quite good and, in some ways, we have "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" to thank for introducing it to us in the first place.
"The Nymph's Reply" is a poem written in response to another poem, Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" which you can check out here. In the "Reply," Ralegh essentially takes the argument put forth by Marlowe's shepherd and totally disses it, calling the shepherd out on the impermanence and short-term nature of all his promises to the nymph. And given that Christopher Marlowe was one of the most famous poets and dramatists of the era, this wasn't exactly a subtle move. Ralegh was incredibly private with his poetry, however, and he banked on the fact that his poems wouldn't be printed to keep him out of the limelight.
As poems had a way of doing, though, "The Nymph's Reply" eventually sneaked its way into print around the same time that "The Passionate Shepherd" was also making its first printed debut (both had likely been circulating in manuscript for several years prior). "The Nymph's Reply" appeared partially in 1599 (in the same volume as the first appearance of "The Passionate Shepherd") and in its entirety in 1600. It's hard to say for sure, but it seems likely that the popularity of Marlowe was one of the things that launched "The Nymph's Reply" and Ralegh the poet into the literary canon, saving them for the rest of history to enjoy. So remember this, Shmoopsters: if you don't have anything nice to say, turn those insults into a poem and maybe one day you'll be famous, too!
Why Should I Care?
How different would your life be if you knew that you'd never get old? Would you travel more? Take more risks? Less risks? Have more hobbies? Would you be happier than you are now?
Everyone's answer to this question will be different, but it's a hypothetical that has captivated poets and song writers for centuries, the most recent incarnation being the song "We Are Young" by the band F.U.N. If you were in high school or college in 2012, you know exactly what we're talking about; you've heard this song no less than 532 times, can sing it in your sleep, and probably included it on a very poignant graduation playlist that your friends blared on the way to beach week.
This song is the "Forever Young" of the millennial generation, an anthem dedicated to celebrating youth in all its beauty and indiscretions. And while it might seem odd to draw comparisons between a pop hit from 2012 and a seemingly cynical poem from early modern England, "The Nymph's Reply" and "We Are Young" raise similar questions: how does our youth (or lack thereof) influence the way that we live?
The speaker in the poem implies that she might make some different choices "had joys no date, nor age no need" (22), but what about you? Is going after what you truly want regardless of the long term consequences actually the recipe for happiness, or, like the nymph, should we sacrifice the prospect of short-term delights for something more enduring? We at Shmoop don't pretend to have the answer, but we recommend Sir Walter Ralegh's poem as a good place to start.