Christopher Marlowe was a drunk, an atheist, a spy, and a poetic genius inside a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma.
Bold statements, we know, but they boil down to two things:
So let's dig in. "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is a pastoral poem, meaning it is set in an idealized version of the countryside, where life is good and the air is sweet. Plot-wise, the poem basically comes down one lover saying to another lover: "move to the country with me and once you're there we can play by the river, listen to the birds sing, and I'll even make you some bohemian chic clothing to boot."
The poem was first published—or at least part of it was—in 1599 in a hodgepodge poetry collection called The Passionate Pilgrim, but people who have spent decades in libraries studying Marlowe think that it was likely written in the mid- to late 1580s, a few years before his death. This places the composition of the poem somewhere near the beginning of Marlowe's career, and definitely before he became a bigshot in the Renaissance theater world.
Now Marlowe wasn't exactly people's first choice for moral compass of the century; he was busted counterfeiting money, he was convicted for crimes worthy of execution several times but somehow mysteriously never went to trial, he talked trash about God and the Anglican church, and he was a drunk with a bad temper.
The apparent simplicity and innocence of "The Passionate Shepherd" seems to contradict this image of a vice-ridden Marlowe, but the lyric actually packs a lot of punch once you look at it a little deeper: gender issues, social criticism, classical allusions, sexuality, and manipulation are all in there, too, just waiting to be unearthed.
Sound more like the scandalous Marlowe you know and love? We thought so.
We want this to be a love poem. Like, really, really, really badly because it's just so pretty. But it's a little too easy to read an undertone of "hey, let's get a little lovin' goin' on the side" and think "hey, shepherd, maybe you should take things a little more slowly before asking people to move in with you," for that to be 100% the case.
But the reality is that relationships were tricky business back in Marlowe's day, and they haven't become any simpler here in the 21st century. There's a fine line between lust and love, and Marlowe does a great job in this poem of showing his readers just how tricky it can be to tell the difference.
Take the first line: "Come live with me, and be my love." It sounds nice, but is it really? Is it a request? Is it straight from the lips of a Stage 5 Clinger? Or is it something more restricting? A demand, perhaps, or even a little bit of a threat, as in "Come live with me, and be my love (or else)"?
Marlowe doesn't tell us. And scholars, poetry lovers, and students alike have interpreted the first line in every way mentioned above, and then some. It's one of the most frustrating things about this poem—we want an answer—but also one of the most beautiful. If love were always obvious and lust never misleading, love wouldn't be nearly as special when people finally find it.