Study Guide

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd Analysis

By Sir Walter Ralegh

  • Sound Check

    Horse-Drawn Cart

    Whoa Nelly! We at Shmoop think that this poem sounds exactly like a horse pulling a cart over an old country road. And, lucky you, we're going to show you why.

    The meter is regular and predictable, just like the hooves of a horse. It plods along at a relatively steady pace, not overwhelming the content, but complementing it nicely. And the deviations from the meter, like the one we see in "Time drives our flocks" (5)? We think those little changes match up perfectly with the rugged, unpredictable, occasionally hilly terrain of our country road.

    The tone is a little tired—"flowers do fade"—like rejecting this shepherd is just one item on a huge laundry list of things our nymph has to take care of that day (9). The slow tempo of a workhorse matches it perfectly. 

    The poetic devices—like alliteration, consonance, and internal rhyme—don't contribute musicality to this poem like they do in "The Passionate Shepherd." Instead, Ralegh uses them ironically, and uses normally smooth, melodic poetic devices to deliver a biting mockery of Marlowe's pastoral world.

    Take the alliteration of the F sound, for example: in Marlowe's poem, the alliterating F is used to describe happy, peaceful flocks being fed by the loving couple. We hear about caps of flowers, waterfalls, fine wool, and fragrant posies. Ralegh alliterates the same, soft F, but instead describes flocks in the fold, flowers fading and the death of once-wanton fields. The pastoral countryside of the shepherd is reduced to nothing more than fancy or folly, two things also scorned by the nymph. To us, the inversion of these poetic devices sounds like the crack of a whip. It drives the poem forward, but it's definitely meant to sting.

    So, how did we do? Are you convinced? If you agree, say "Three cheers for Shmoop!" If you disagree, say "neigh."

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" is exactly what it says it is: a poem from a girl to a boy who likes sheep, written in response to a poem said girl originally received from the aforementioned boy. Not very complicated, folks.

    Straightforward though the title may be, it points out an interesting facet of literary culture during the 1600s. We've made somewhat of a big deal about the connection between "The Nymph's Reply" and Marlowe's poem, "The Passionate Shepherd." What we haven't made a big deal about (until now) is the fact that the kind of poetic dialogue that Marlowe and Ralegh have going on here is actually not that big of a deal. That's right—people wrote "replies" and "responses" to other people's poems all the time

    Part of the reason for this is that the poetry-writing community in early modern England was relatively small—the time, supplies, education, and connections needed to become a well-known poet were only available to the very wealthy or the extremely determined. Also, the smallness of that poetic community created something really special: the literary coterie. (A coterie is just a small group of people with a shared interest. For example, we belong to a coterie of kitty scarf knitters. What? Don't you judge us!)

    If you were writing poems in 1600s, chances were that you had lots of friends and acquaintances who were also writing poems. You would write poems on the same subjects and get your other friends to pick which one they thought was best, you and your friends would send poems back and forth to each other in letters, and you might even write poems about how awesome your other friends' poems were. Ralegh was no exception. In addition to his obvious familiarity with Marlowe's work, Ralegh was friends with Edmund Spenser and Queen Elizabeth I (a poet herself), was referenced in some of Shakespeare's sonnets, and his travel writings were one of several guiding influences on The Tempest.

    Think back on the title for a minute. Notice how, even though it never mentions Marlowe's name, everyone and their mom seems to know that Ralegh is writing in response to "The Passionate Shepherd"? That, Shmoopsters, is the beauty of the literary coterie. It is also what we call a very, very, very small world.

  • Setting

    If you hang out with enough English nerds, you'll probably hear the word "edenic" thrown around every now and then. This basically means that something is "like the Garden of Eden" (in its perfection, beauty, etc.). With this definition established, we can now safely say that the countryside setting in Ralegh's poem is the opposite of edenic, a total contrast to the pastoral countryside portrayed in Marlowe's poem.

    In Marlowe's countryside, much like in the Garden of Eden, flowers are always blooming, the land is always fertile, and nature provides everything that people need to survive. In Ralegh's poem, the opposite is true. Marlowe's rivers are shallow, Ralegh's are raging. Marlowe's flowers are blooming, Ralegh's are withered and rotten. Marlowe's countryside is one where natural resources are given freely and happily, whereas Ralegh's fields are in debt, and being punished by winter for their springtime fertility.

    Put another way, if Marlowe's setting is Disneyland, then Ralegh's setting is a day-long insurance seminar (no offense to you budding insurance agents out there). Still, for someone who writes in glowing detail about the beauties and resources of the New World, this cynical portrayal of nature is a little bit surprising. It is, however, a very effective strategy if Ralegh's main target is not nature itself, but the too-good-to-be-true representation of romance portrayed in Marlowe's poem. Much of the allure of "The Passionate Shepherd" depends on the beauty of nature being seductive to the shepherd's love. Everything is green and groovy over there. If Ralegh can establish that the shepherd's countryside is nothing but a load of phooey, the shepherd's argument comes undone at the seams and the nymph is left with the easiest choice ever. The question that then emerges is why is Ralegh's view of love so jaded and who was the ex-girlfriend that burned him so badly?

  • Speaker

    The title tells us that the speaker of this poem is "the nymph," but they don't mean "nymph" in the mythological sense. Back in the day, "nymph" was actually another word for girl, although it generally conjured images of beautiful young damsels as opposed to a promiscuous, plain-faced scullery maids. There is an undeniable element of innocence and beauty implied when you use the word "nymph" to describe someone, but the speaker in "The Nymph's Reply" seems to be anything but innocent or naive.

    In fact, the speaker of this poem sounds positively world-weary. Her world is one of always winter, never Christmas and, from her description, life hasn't left her any room for fun. One of the most intriguing questions about the speaker, though, is how much she buys in to her own argument. She says that winter will come and ruin all the fun so why have fun in the first place, but is she really convinced that's the way to go?

    Take a look at stanzas 1 and 6. Here, the nymph says that if she knew she could be young, happy, and in love forever, she might consider living with the shepherd, but winter comes just as regularly for someone who's permanently 22 as it does for some miserable spinster who continues to age. So what is the nymph's real problem with accepting the shepherd's offer? We at Shmoop think this sounds like a really fun question to dig into and, if you have any time to spare while you're busy preparing for the wayward winter's merciless onslaught, we suggest you check it out.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    This is a no-nonsense kind of poem that doesn't waste time bogging you down with complicated language or confusing syntax. A truly thorough reading of "The Nymph's Reply," however, does involve having a fairly extensive knowledge of the Marlowe poem, too. Final verdict: we're placing this poem at base camp because, even though it's technically just one poem, you kind of need to know two if you want to get the most out of your climb.

  • Calling Card


    Sir Walter Ralegh was a guy who lived large. He took big risks and those occasionally reaped big rewards. The ones that didn't work out, though, really didn't work out and ended up getting him into a lot of trouble. Just a few short years after enjoying favor and popularity with the royal family, Ralegh found himself locked up in the Tower of London and ultimately executed upon charges for treason.

    While he certainly had lots to be cynical about later in life, it's interesting that scholars credit most of his poems to an earlier period where he seemed to be in good spirits and, by most standards, very successful. The cynicism we see in "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" crops up over and over again, however, as we continue to see Ralegh portraying Time as a ruthless force propelling us towards death and life as nothing more than a series of falsehoods and trivialities waiting to disappoint us. But don't take our word for it. Check out some of these other poems by Ralegh and see for yourself: "What is Our Life?," "The Lie," "Farewell, False Love," and "Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk."

  • 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."

  • The Shepherd

    Seeing as this poem is a reply to "The Passionate Shepherd," it makes sense that shepherds would be mentioned and might carry a bit of symbolic weight. We mention in the "Summary" that shepherds, as a poetic image, are frequently associated with all that is warm, fuzzy, and lovely about the countryside. What we didn't mention is that, if you've got shepherds in a poem from Elizabethan England, you also have a potential reference to good old Queen Bess herself. This is thanks to a guy named Edmund Spenser, who also happened to be a good friend of our author, Sir Walter Ralegh. We also didn't mention the possibility that the Queen and Sir Walter were a little bit more than platonic pals. We don't know about you, but it sounds like line 2 just got a lot more interesting!

    • Line 2: The reference to lying shepherds in line 2, then, can also potentially be read as an attack on Elizabeth I. Ralegh spent much of his adult life in good standing with the royal family, but due to the fact that he secretly married one of Elizabeth's ladies in waiting in 1592, he wasn't exactly on the best terms with the Queen when he wrote "The Nymph's Reply." Elizabeth, it's said, flew into a jealous rage and threw him in the Tower of London when she found out about the marriage (source). It's hard to know exactly what the relationship between Ralegh and the Queen was, but it's distinctly possible that the reference to shepherds and the general attack on romance and love in the poem could be relevant to Ralegh's personal history.
  • Nature Imagery

    In "The Nymph's Reply," nature and natural imagery are presented as constantly in decay and moving closer toward death. There is no mention of the rejuvenation and new life associated with springtime, only of rot and withering. It doesn't make for the prettiest picture, but it does effectively disqualify the overly idealized picture of eternal spring presented in "The Passionate Shepherd." It's also interesting to note that, as far as poetic images go, these pictures of nature are about as flat as they come. This isn't because Ralegh is a bad poet or has a phobia of adjectives, it's just another way in which he strips down the inflated version of the countryside presented by Marlowe's shepherd.

    • Line 5: In "The Nymph's Reply," nature is driven relentlessly forward by the passing of time. Here, the sheep that grazed happily at pasture in Marlowe's poem are being forced into the stables by the inevitable onset of cold weather. Ralegh is using this image to call Marlowe's bluff, pointing out that the scenery he uses as a lure will only be available
      temporarily, if that.
    • Line 6: Ralegh also presents nature as dangerous and harsh. It's hard to fault him for this portrayal, either, as living conditions in the countryside during the 1600s were anything but luxurious. The strength of this image lies in the fact that it cannot be contradicted by reality. 
    • Lines 9-10: The images of flowers fading and wanton fields being forced to surrender their bounty to reckless winter weather are presented as contrasts to the typical conception of the countryside as being green and fertile. Ralegh is admitting that, while flowers and fields do have their time to bloom, all too soon that fertility is stripped away from them. The image can also be seen as a representation of the prosperity of the shepherd and nymph, should she take his offer; during the spring, their life would be full and happy, but winter would replace all those joys with hardships with no guarantee of a recovery. Bummer.
    • Lines 13-15: Rotting flowers and forgotten poems introduce a final, negative force into Ralegh's countryside: death. Given all her talk of eternal youth, death and old age are clearly on the mind of our nymph. Unlike the shepherd, she sees only death in the countryside instead of the possibility for new life.
  • Philomel

    As we mentioned in the "Summary," Philomel, or Philomela, is the name of a Greek goddess who was turned into a bird. The word has come to represent so much more, though, and a lot of its potential symbolism plays into Ralegh's poem. Let's look at line 7 in light of some of these potential meanings.

    • Line 7 (Philomel as musical instrument): It makes a lot of sense for Ralegh to be talking about a philomel, the musical instrument. Shepherds were frequently depicted playing musical instruments, so the idea that their songs are fleeting and don't last forever certainly fits into the rest of the imagery of impermanence that Ralegh has been throwing at us. 
    • Line 7 (Philomel as nightingale): But it also makes a lot of sense if Ralegh is referring to the philomel, another term for the nightingale. The nightingale is native to Europe, but winters in Africa, so the "dumbing" of the philomel could be another way in which Ralegh is negating the "melodious birds" from Marlowe's poem and referencing the coming of winter.
    • Line 7 (Philomel as nightingale/poetry): The nightingale is also a favorite symbol of poets and often used as a symbol of poets and their poetry. What does it mean for poets and poetry, though, that the philomel becomes dumb and stops singing? This could be a dismissal of Marlowe's poem as only empty words, but it necessarily applies to Ralegh's writing, too.
  • Steaminess Rating


    There is not much going on here in the sexiness department, folks. In fact, this poem is so devoid of steaminess that it's hard to believe that it's a response to a very lusty love poem. Mixed in with all the depressing winter imagery, though, we do get a couple flares of something that might almost be desire somewhere in the discussion of eternal youth in the final stanza. It's not much, but it's all we've got.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Christopher Marlowe, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (2-6, 13-14, 17-20, 23-24)
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses. The Story of Philomela and Procne (7)