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The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

by Sir Walter Ralegh

Stanza 4 Summary

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

Lines 13-14

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

  • Welcome to stanza 4, which starts by naming some objects, most of which are clothes and other household items.
  • This isn't just any old packing list, though. The clothing and other items mentioned here—the gowns, shoes, beds of roses, hats, skirts, and posies—all appear in Marlowe's poem.
  • In "The Passionate Shepherd," this same list is presented by means of a poetic device called a blazon. Blazons are a kind of poetry in which the speaker of the poem praises another person, usually a woman, by singling out different parts of her body and using metaphors to describe how beautiful and awesome they are. The description typically dedicates one line to each body part, working up from the woman's body and ending with a description of her face, hair, or eyes. 
  • By compacting Marlowe's 8+ line blazon into only two meager lines and stripping away all its descriptive details, the speaker is undermining the romance traditionally associated with the poetic device. Spoilsport!
  • Let's take a closer look at a few of the items mentioned in this list, then—namely, the cap, the kirtle, the bed of Roses, and the posies. First up: vocabulary check. It's good to know that "cap" is another word for hat and that "kirtle" is a totally outdated word for skirt. Okay, enough vocab. Now let's move on to the juicy stuff!
  • The bed of roses is a prime example from the Marlowe poem of how the speaker in "The Passionate Shepherd" uses and sees nature. For him, nature is a tool of seduction, and he relies on the beauty of nature to make his offer to the nymph more appealing. Roses are the perfect candidate because, as flowers, they are already associated with love, lust, and romance.
  • Do you know what a posey is? Probably not, since, much like "kirtle," it's not exactly common in our vocabulary anymore. Back in the 1600s, though, the word "posey" was pretty versatile. It primarily meant a bunch of flowers, kind of like a small bouquet, but it was also used as another word for poems and poetry. Both definitions seem potentially applicable here, so which "posies" is Ralegh referencing? How does your choice of definition impact your interpretation of the line?

Lines 15-16

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

  • Ouch. Ralegh is officially dissing all of Marlowe's shepherd's plans, and basically saying that his promises are worthless because those gowns, skirts, caps, and beds of roses will become piles of smelly, rotten flowers. Whatever happened to, "it's the thought that counts"?
  • Line 15 is pretty self-explanatory, but line 16 is a bit more confusing. It helps if you know that "folly" is another term for foolishness; so all the gifts offered up by the shepherd are ripe in foolishness, but in reason and practicality, they come up sorely lacking. 
  • If you've been keeping tabs on the meter and rhyme scheme in this poem, you might notice something different about this stanza. Instead of just the last syllable of each line rhyming, the last two syllables of each line rhyme. This is officially called a feminine rhyme, and, much like we see in this stanza, a feminine rhyme usually means that there is an extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line. 
  • But what does Ralegh's use of feminine rhyme mean? Generally feminine rhymes are considered softer endings, but the words like "forgotten" and "rotten" seem to be emphasized, not softened, by the double rhyme. Is this another perversion of a typically romantic poetic device, perhaps?
  • Let's look closely at the final words of this stanza: roses, posies, rotten, forgotten. The pairing here seems pretty obvious: roses become rotten, posies become forgotten. This brings up interesting questions regarding the permanence of poetry, too. What does it mean for Ralegh, a poet himself, to say that Marlowe's "posey" is just as impermanent as the spring flowers? Hmm.
  • Now back to the roses. Remember how we said that Marlowe's shepherd uses nature as a method of seduction? Well, this makes the nymph's attack on the impermanence of that bed of roses a double-whammy; it is both a rejection of the shepherd's offer and also a general dismissal of the love, romance, and seduction roses often symbolize.
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