Study Guide

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd Summary

By Sir Walter Ralegh

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd Summary

We know from the title that this poem is a response, or reply, to someone and/or something else that's already been written—in this case Christopher Marlowe's poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love." Reading Marlowe's poem is pretty essential to understanding what Ralegh is doing with his response, but even without having read it we still get the gist of what "The Passionate Shepherd" is about by reading Ralegh's first stanza. (Hint: Ralegh's answer is not promising for the shepherd in question.)

Whereas Marlowe's lyric begins with optimistic (and ultimately idealistic) promises, Ralegh's poem begins with a conditional statement that sets up a rejection of Marlowe's shepherd's proposal: I might be persuaded to come live with you if a) I didn't have real world problems to think about and b) you had been telling the truth about what our life together would be like, but I do and you weren't so see ya… never.

The next three stanzas seal the deal, listing the ways and reasons the shepherd's promises are too good to be true, like the fact that flowers he promised will wither and die, or that it will eventually get too cold for them to hang out with the sheep by the river. These might seem like odd reasons to turn down a potential love interest, but here is where being familiar with Marlowe's poem is really useful: each stanza in Ralegh's verse dismantles, dismisses, or qualifies a promise made in the corresponding stanza of Marlowe's original. Nifty, eh?

By the time the final stanza arrives, the nymph seems to have basically crushed the poor shepherd's dreams. The poem, however, has a slightly more optimistic conclusion than you might have expected. The nymph's final words to the shepherd imply that, were some of the more humdrum realities of life removed (like the fact that we all get old and die and that somewhere in between now and then we have to pay for like, 200,000 meals and maybe some clothes), perhaps her answer would be different. It's a moot point because the situation she describes is unobtainable, but that doesn't mean those final lines aren't worth a good, close look.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    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."

    Lines 3-4

    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?
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 5-6

    Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
    When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,

    • Stanza 2 looks like it might provide some answers, and it's not looking good for our shepherd. But let's break it down a bit further.
    • Although it isn't explicitly stated, the first line of stanza 2 essentially starts with a big, old BUT: if lines 1 and 2, then maybe lines 3-4, BUT… the coming of winter drives sheep away from the pasture and into the stables, rivers are occasionally violent and destructive, and cold rocks don't make the best sitting places.
    • Ralegh plays around with the meter of the poem a little bit in these two lines. In line 5, for instance, the first two words, "Time drives" are written as a spondee (a pair of two stressed syllables) instead of as an iamb (a pair of syllables where the first is unstressed, the second is stressed). We get into the importance of this in the "Form and Meter" section, but be sure to keep an eye out for further metrical irregularities. If a poet is breaking his metrical pattern, it's usually for an important reason.
    • If you haven't read Marlowe's poem, you're probably a little bit confused as to why sheep, rivers, and cold rocks just entered the picture. For a little cross-referencing refresher, check out this website that puts both poems on the same screen.
    • As you might have noticed, many of the same images that appear in Marlowe's poem also show up in Ralegh's reply, only in slightly different states. Whereas "The Passionate Shepherd" depicts the countryside in full springtime bloom, Ralegh's poem contains a colder, angrier, more somber portrait of nature.
    • Marlowe's rivers are shallow, Ralegh's are raging. Marlowe's sheep are grazing in the open; Ralegh's have been taken in for the winter.

    Lines 7-8

    And Philomel becometh dumb,
    The rest complains of cares to come.

    • The Marlowe/Ralegh parallels continue, but before we can really dig into them, we should unpack the wording of these two lines. 
    • Philomel, or Philomela, is a character from Greek mythology who was turned into a bird. Her name, however, has come to represent several things, including a) a nightingale and b) a musical instrument kind of like a violin. When line 7 talks about Philomel becoming dumb, it can mean that either the musical instrument ceases to play, or the nightingale is no longer singing. This, folks, is both an allusion to Greek mythology, and a poetic symbol that packs a lot of punch. So much punch, in fact, that we've dedicated a whole segment to it in the "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section—just for you! Go ahead and check it out. We know you want to.
    • Line 8 is another line with a potential double-meaning. It could mean that, when winter comes, the "rest" of the people—meaning everyone who doesn't have their head up in the clouds like Marlowe's shepherd—complain of the woes and hardships associated with the coming season. It could also be a musical reference, however, to a "rest" or pause in the playing of the philomel or the singing of the nightingale, a musical silence that contrasts with the "melodious birds" we find in the second stanza of Marlowe's poem.
    • Another way in which Ralegh mirrors Marlowe is with his use of poetic devices. The second stanza of Marlowe's poem is heavy on alliteration, so Ralegh's second stanza uses a lot of it, too. 
    • Even though both stanzas use the same poetic device, they couldn't sound more different. The heavy, sharp, cutting sounds used by Ralegh, like the hard C in "complains of cares to come" and the R of "rivers rage and rocks grow cold" are harsh sounds that parallel an equally harsh vision of time and nature.
  • Stanza 3

    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.
  • Stanza 4

    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.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 17-18

    Thy belt of straw and Ivy buds,
    The Coral clasps and amber studs,

    • In these lines, the nymph continues to reject the shepherd's gifts and promises. All of these things are gifts promised to the addressed by the shepherd in the Marlowe poem. Sounds like a pretty sweet offer to us!

    Lines 19-20

    All these in me no means can move
    To come to thee and be thy love.

    • But it looks like the nymph is not having it. Lines 19 and 20 really spell it out for the shepherd: all the gifts mentioned earlier cannot convince me to come and live with you
    • Once again, Ralegh's choice of wording raises intriguing questions. The word "means," for example, is defined as both a method by which something is brought about and also as another word for money and financial resources. So what is the nymph really saying? That the shepherd stirred her heart but not her pocket book? That she wants to come but there's just no feasible way she can make it happen? Or is this just a plain, flat-out no?
    • Compare and contrast these lines to their parallels in the Marlowe poem. Marlowe's shepherd speaks of being moved by pleasures and delights, not means, which sort of sounds like two totally different things. "Pleasures and delights" have an element of fun and frivolity associated with them, whereas "means" seem very cut-and-dry, by-the-books and otherwise totally dull and boring. It's as though we're getting more of this by-the-book nymph-itude happening here.
    • Lighten up, will ya? 
    • We've also got some cool alliteration and consonance going on in line 19—lots of M and N sounds all over the place. If you think about those sounds, doesn't it kind of sound like a mumble? Compared to the rest of Ralegh's diction, most of which is very pronounced and crisp, this line certainly seems to blend together on the tongue more than others.
  • Stanza 6

    Lines 21-22

    But could youth last, and love still breed,
    Had joys no date, nor age no need,

    • In what's likely the poetic twist of the sixteenth century, we encounter in the final stanza of "The Nymph's Reply" a serious BUT: "Sure, none of what you promise me is going to last, but if they did last, and if we didn't have to worry about the real world…" 
    • This poem seemed so set on debunking the naive, spring-happy take on love and romance held by Marlowe's shepherd, so why does our sober nymph seem to be backtracking?
    • Her caveat isn't a big one, and it sounds remarkably like something we heard back up in stanza 1. Once again, eternal youth and young love enter the picture.
    • And this time, they're accompanied by everlasting joys. 
    • What is the deal with the nymph's fixation on these impossible hypotheticals, though? Does she do it because she feels bad rejecting the shepherd straight up?
    • Is it some kind of twisted mind game? Or is she okay with being hypothetical because she knows that this can never come to be—love will always fade and the world will always get in the way?

    Lines 23-24

    Then these delights my mind might move
    To live with thee, and be thy love.

    • We get to line 23 and we can hardly believe it, but even in a world where youth lasts forever and joys are never-ending, the nymph would only maybe be convinced to take the shepherd's offer ("my mind might move"). Is this the harshest blow of them all?
    • And what are the "delights" being referenced? It's natural to think the "delights" are the shepherd's gifts mentioned above, but couldn't "delights" also refer to the eternal youth and everlasting joys mentioned in lines 21 and 22? We don't know about you, but we at Shmoop think the prospect of immortality and eternal happiness is much more delightful than a couple of gowns and hats made out of flowers—even if they did have ivy buds!
    • The poem ends with a tantalizing final stanza. What does the nymph really want? What is motivating her choices? How does the shepherd take her response?
    • We at Shmoop would love for the nymph-shepherd dialogue to continue (what would he say next?!), but sadly the Ralegh-Marlowe exchange ends here.