The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
by Sir Walter Ralegh
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every Shepherd's tongue,
- Before we even get started, we're going to backtrack. We're going all the way back to Line 0, a.k.a. the title, a.k.a. "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd."
- The title is pretty important, but there is one supremely important thing that the title tells us about this poem that you must know before you read any further, and that is the fact that this poem was written as a response to a poem by Christopher Marlowe called "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," which is basically a love poem from a shepherd to his… well, love. So there. Now you know.
- Now, onto the poem!
- "The Nymph's Reply" opens with a hypothetical: If everyone in the world were young and in love, and if love were some new, yet undiscovered feeling…
- And also all the shepherds need to be honest…
- Then… wait—there is no then. At least not yet. The first two lines of this poem are just a hypothetical, and a rather intriguing one at that. Why is the speaker bothering to describe this impossible scenario? What is the speaker's problem with shepherds? Ralegh, it seems, doesn't want to give away too much too soon.
- Shepherds, as a poetic image, represent the countryside and all that is good, innocent, fun-loving, and gentle in the world. They don't sound so bad, right? So why might Ralegh be attacking a figure that represents such warm and fuzzy values? And what is the impact of his declaration that said shepherds are full of lies?
- Also, when was the last time you looked in someone's tongue? Pretty recently? No, we thought not. So what kind of sick, sadistic nymph do we have here, running around slicing open the tongues of shepherds? The answer is, of course, that our nymph is nothing like that. Ralegh is using a bit o' figurative language here, something we in the poetry business like to call metonymy (pronounced meh-tawn-uh-mee).
- Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word or phrase is replaced by another with which it is closely associated. It's like hearing on the news that "The White House is expected to make a statement" about something. You know that the newscaster doesn't mean that the actual building is expected to speak, but, instead, that the President will be making an announcement. In line 2, then, "tongue" functions metonymically as a stand-in for "words" or "promises."
These pretty pleasures might me move,
To live with thee, and be thy love.
- Thank goodness. Like all good "If" statements, the one offered in line 1 does, in fact, have a "then" clause attached to it. In this case, if everyone in the world were young and in love, and if love were some new, undiscovered feeling and if certain shepherds told nothing but the truth, THEN the speaker might be convinced to live with someone and be their love—which is the main gist of the Christopher Marlowe poem to which this poem is responding.
- Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up the truck. When did all this "come live with me" business enter into the mix? And who, exactly, is the someone in question?
- According to the title, we are dealing with an exchange between a girl, or nymph, and a shepherd. The structure of these lines sets up the poem as a dialogue between two people, and judging by the request mentioned in line 4, it appears we are getting the second half of the conversation. This matches up with what the titles tells us about this poem being a "reply" to the shepherd.
- Enter Marlowe. Here is your undebatable proof that Ralegh is responding directly to Christopher Marlowe's poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love."
- How do we know? Marlowe's poem uses the exact same phrasing, "live with me, and be my love" that we see Ralegh use at the end of line 4. This, folks, is what we in the poetry business like to refer to as an allusion, or a super-cool phenomenon that occurs when one piece of literature references, echoes, or invokes another.
- Another thing that all good Shmoodents (see what we did there?) should do when looking at a piece of poetry is take note of the meter and rhyme scheme. The first quatrain of this poem is written in a very regular iambic tetrameter and has a rhyme scheme of AABB. Is that Greek to you? Well, hop on over to "Form and Meter" and we'll spell it out for you.
- There's also some alliteration going on in these lines. (Hmm. We just wonder if that will be a recurring trend in the rest of this poem.) In this case, the repeated sounds are the P of "pretty pleasures" and the M of "might me move."
- But what does all this mean for the nymph and the shepherd? Clearly the nymph's hypothetical scenario is unobtainable, but is that her final word on the subject?