The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
by Sir Walter Ralegh
Analysis: Form and Meter
Form and Meter: Iambic Tetrameter—Most of the Time
Copycat alert! Ralegh uses the exact same meter (iambic tetrameter—more on that below) and form (six quatrains, or four-line stanzas) in "The Nymph's Reply" that Marlowe uses in "The Passionate Shepherd." Coincidence? We think not. That being said, this combo isn't exactly rare and unheard of in the world of poetry.
So what is it, exactly? Well, an iamb is a two-syllable pair that joins an unstressed syllable in the front, with a stressed syllable in the back, creating the rhythmic foot of da-DUM. (If you say the word "allow" out loud, you'll hear a real, live iamb in action.) So, that's where the iambic comes from, but what about the tetrameter? Well, "tetra-" means four, so a rhythm of iambic tetrameter tells you that you've got four iambs to a line, or da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.
Now, iambic tetrameter is actually a relatively common meter, but many "serious" poets tend to avoid using it because of its tendency to sound a little sing-songy. The fact that Ralegh's poem comes off sounding anything but light and cheery speaks to his mad skills as a poet and his intimate knowledge of how sound and rhythm influence the tone and mood of a piece of poetry. Let's take a closer look.
The secret to Ralegh's success lies in the details. Take the first stanza, for instance:
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. (1-4)
Here, the meter is regular, meaning there are no unexpected deviations or changes from the four-beats-per-line/unstressed-stressed syllable pattern. There's a little bit of a slant rhyme situation going on with "move" and "love," but, overall, this very regular stanza sets the reader's expectations for the remainder of the poem. Otherwise, this poem has a very regular rhyme scheme: AABB. In other words, the first two lines of each stanza rhyme, and the last two line rhyme. This use of two rhyming couplets in each stanza seems to invert Marlowe's lovey-dovey emphasis on joined pairs. Here the lines are still paired up through rhyme, but the skeptical content reminds us that, despite this rhyming, romantic harmony just isn't in the cards.
We get that sense further if we go back to meter for a second. When we say that this iambic tetrameter most of the time, we mean that Ralegh sets up this pattern, but then messes with our expectations. Now, Shmoopsters, we call upon you to flex your ever-expanding poetic muscles and take a look at the first line of the second stanza:
Time drives the flocks from field to fold. (5)
Hint: your inner ear should hear something like this:
Time drives the flocks from field to fold.
Notice anything different? What's that wonky spondee foot doing where an iamb should be? Ralegh's use of two stressed syllables at the beginning of the first line does two things. First, it disrupts the meter, which helps keep the poem from sounding too much like a nursery rhyme. Secondly, if you look at the words on which Ralegh places the extra emphasis—"time drives"— his use of metrics has a second purpose. By stressing the first two words of the line, Ralegh forces the line forward at an unstoppable and uncontrollable pace, kind of like pushing a boulder down a huge hill. This mirrors the exact phenomenon Ralegh is discussing in that line, the unstoppable and uncontrollable inevitability of time to drive change.
Think that's some pretty impressive stuff? We certainly do. And what's even more impressive is that examples just like this can be found all over the place in Ralegh's poem. The rest of stanza 2 and also stanza 4 are good places to start if you're on the hunt for more metrical shenanigans in "The Nymph's Reply."