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The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd


by Sir Walter Ralegh

Stanza 3 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 9-10

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,

  • As we approach stanza 3, we're beginning to see a trend in Ralegh's imagery. Whereas Marlowe is totally focused on spring and all its beauty, Ralegh's poem chooses to focus on the impermanence of that beauty, epitomized by the coming of winter. 
  • In lines 9 and 10, the nymph argues that spring's flowers fade, and wanton, or luxurious, overly-fertile, fields will eventually wither up in the cold weather.
  • Ralegh's use of the word "reckoning" is particularly interesting. The word "reckoning" is Renaissance lingo for a bill, or the settling of an account, but it is also another word for the avenging or punishing of past mistakes and misdeeds. It seems like Ralegh is suggesting that nature somehow deserves the cruelty and death of winter as punishment for its springtime bounty. That's a pretty harsh stance to take, and now we're left wondering what else this imagery might imply about the speaker's view of time and the seasons. It seems that even the hottest of loves can run cold over time—at least according to this poetic set-up.
  • You might have noticed that alliteration is, once again, making an appearance. We have the F sound of "flowers do fade, and wanton fields" and then also a rolling W in the words "wanton," "wayward," and "winter." 
  • The repeated sounds in these lines are softer than the harsh sounds that we saw in stanza 2, but their implementation here is not meant to be calming or soothing. The meter and poetic devices are smooth, but they're a stark contrast to the death vibes coming from the content; the result is a sort of mockery of Marlowe's pastoral. By turning smooth, soft, soothing poetic devices around and showing how the sounds that pain such a pretty picture of the countryside can also be used to talk about death and decay, Ralegh exposes Marlowe's poetic trickery and the emptiness of the shepherd's promises. Harsh!

Lines 11-12

A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall

  • Lines 11 and 12 might read more like some old proverb your grandmother uses ("a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" or "don't cry over spilt milk") than a piece of early modern poetry, but that just might the precise effect that Ralegh is going for.
  • Before we unpack the age-old wisdom, let's take these lines piece by piece, since the wording is a little tricky. 
  • "A honey tongue": Remember back in line 2, when we talked about "truth in every Shepherd's tongue"? Once again, Ralegh is using metonymy as "tongue" is a stand-in for "words" or "promises." So, a "honey tongue" = honeyed (or sweet) words.
  • By contrast, "a heart of gall" can mean a heart of bile or bitterness. Is it just us, or does this sound like the meanest heart ever? When looking at this line, it's very tempting to assume that "gall" is meant to be read in its proverbial sense, as a symbol of something that is very bitter or cruel. Poetry is big on symbolism just like this, so while this is a totally understandable interpretation to explore, you should also make sure that the word in question doesn't have some other, non-symbolic-but-still-applicable definition before running away with the symbolic one. As it turns out, the dictionary-approved definition of "gall" is something more like "bold, impudent behavior." 
  • So, how do we know which definition is being used here? Do we think the speaker is talking about the shepherd's cruelty or his sassy boldness? Given the context of Marlowe's poem and the nymph's concerns about the short-term nature of the shepherd's plans, we at Shmoop are inclined to think that it's his boldness and lack of forethought that are falling under criticism here. Of course, we're always open to other ways of reading this stuff.
  • For now, though, onto line 12! So what is the nymph saying about sweet words and bold, impetuous choices? What does it mean for something to be "fancy's spring and sorrow's fall"? 
  • Our first big clue is the use of the terms "spring" and "fall" (yes, like the seasons). The use of these words here tells us that the relationship between fancy and sorrow is going mirror the relationship between spring and fall. But what exactly is that relationship? And what is "fancy"?
  • Fancy means lots of things of course, but, as a noun, it is defined as "a feeling of liking or attraction, typically one that is superficial" or "a notion or whim."
  • Now let's think about the seasons, and since nature and seasonal imagery have a big role in this poem (see the "Symbols" and "Themes" sections!), let's think extra hard about how the seasons are portrayed in this poem
  • Generally speaking, spring is considered the season of new life, rebirth, and the blooming of nature, but the nymph seems to focus mainly on just how short-lived that renewal is. What a Debbie Downer. Fall, on the opposite hand, is the season in which all that new life totally withers up because the weather becomes cold and inhospitable. All that coldness, however, is seen by the nymph in a weirdly positive light; for her, fall and the coming of winter are associated with long-term planning, reason, and practicality. Okay, so maybe she's not a Debbie Downer. Maybe she's a Practical Polly.
  • So, let's put it all together. Given what we now know, the lines essentially read: Sweet words ("honey tongue") and bold, impetuous choices ("heart of gall") encourage the birth of arbitrary decisions and unrealistic romantic gestures (fancy's spring) but ultimately prove nothing more than a prelude (autumn) to sorrow. 
  • Got it? You see, the message of these two lines is that favoring short-term pleasures over long-term obligations will only lead to sorrow. The nymph is clearly on Team Reason, Logic, and Practicality and thinks that the shepherd is totally wasting his time staring at flowers along with the rest of Team Whimsy. 
  • The proverb-like sound of the lines, then, is totally intentional. By designing the lines to invoke a feeling of age-old wisdom, Ralegh is using the tone to provide support for the nymph's very point: that long-term planning and age-old wisdom should not be cast aside for whatever joys the immediate present might appear to have.

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