Study Guide

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Running Through a Meadow

    You know The Meadow Run? It's that thing in the movies, where two lovers, long separated, suddenly spy each other across a large, open expanse of grass and flowers and can't help but sprint towards each other as music swells up all around them and then there's an awesome kiss at the end.

    Yeah. We think this poem sounds like that. The regular rhyme scheme creates a flow, kind of like the sound of footsteps, which builds upon itself as the poem progresses. Marlowe's clever use of poetic devices like internal rhyme, assonance, consonance, and alliteration, provides the music in the background by keeping the tone of the poem musical without reducing it to the sing-songy verse often associated with iambic tetrameter.

    You can see this best in stanza 1:

    Come live with me, and be my love
    And we will all the pleasures prove,
    That valleys, groves, hills and fields,
    Woods, or steepy mountain yield.
    (1-4)

    The internal rhyme in me and be adds a musical sound to the poem, but by putting the rhyme in the middle of the line, Marlowe avoids making the poem jingle like a nursery rhyme. Marlowe uses consonance by repeating the L sound in the stanza to the same effect. Finally, the rhyming couplets hurry the reader along from one stanza to another, kind of like the lovers gradually pick up speed until the scene climaxes with their epic meeting in the middle of the field.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    At first glance, not much. "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" seems to be a pretty bland and unimaginative description of what goes on in the poem, particularly when you contrast the straightforwardness of the title to the poetic beauty of Marlowe's lyrics. But the contrast brings up an important point—Marlowe didn't name the poem. And while it's tempting to think that this makes the title less important, the Renaissance editor that slapped on the poem's conventional title has drastically influenced the way it is read.

    The rather boring title names "the passionate shepherd" as the speaker of the poem. The mention of "shepherd" alerts readers from the get-go that this poem is going to be heavy on fluffy sheep, fields of flowers, babbling brooks, and other tropes of pastoral poetry. The title also firms up the addressee of the poem: the shepherd's love. So now the readers also know that country boy's got a crush and that he's hoping this poem will work some magic for his cause.

    But these are all things that you can get from reading the poem—right?

    Wrong. 

    We've been occasionally referring to the speaker as a he for clarity's sake, but if you look again, you'll notice there are no hims, hers, shes, hes, or any other gender-defining vocabulary words anywhere in the poem. The conventional title is actually the only thing that explicitly designates the poem's speaker as male (since he's not a shepherdess).

    If this seems surprising to you, then Marlowe has done his job well. Writing gender ambiguity was considered a great skill in the Renaissance, and Marlowe's ability to write a poem that seems like it conforms to gender expectations without actually confirming them was thought to be pretty impressive stuff.

    But hey, dude was a spy. So if anyone can pull it off, it's crafty Christopher.

  • Setting

    The Countryside

    We've said it before, and we'll say it again: "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is a poem set in the countryside, and not just any old countryside at that. This poem is a pastoral poem, which means the version of the countryside it depicts is a little bit too good to be true in real life.

    "The Passionate Shepherd" also focuses in on the countryside in springtime because, if you're already planning on eliminating all the unpleasant aspects of living in the country, why not just go ahead and present it in its best and prettiest time of year, too. Never mind that winter will come and kill off all those flowers and the baby lambs that are so cute now will eventually be turned into some sort of stew.

    But the springtime setting serves a double purpose; all the references to budding flowers, baby animals, and the month of May not only set the scene, they also emphasize the new life and fertility associated with the springtime, which is not a bad thing to mention if you're trying to convince someone it's a good idea to take you as a lover and to move in with you.

  • Speaker

    The title tells us the speaker is a passionate shepherd trying to woo his lover, presumably a woman, to live with him in the countryside. But Marlowe didn't title the poem, so even though this could be a valid reading, we can't just assume that's the only way to go. In fact, literary critics will tell you that the speaker could just as likely be a woman and write hundreds of pages about how this drastically alters the meaning of the poem. But (thank goodness), we're not in the business of writing hundreds of pages of literary criticism. We're all about the good stuff here at Shmoop.

    Let's start with what we do know. The speaker has obviously got some thoughts, plans, and opinions. He or she wants someone to move in with them and wants to be more than friends. The large number of promises and persuasive arguments that follow the initial "come live with me, and be my love", however, indicate that the speaker thinks this other person might take some convincing before the offer is accepted.

    This seems reasonable, given the fact that this guy seems more than a little impulsive. "Come live with me" sounds very romantic, but it also doesn't sound particularly well thought out. Notice that the "come live with me" request doesn't include an offer of marriage or any promise of an enduring relationship.

    He's a Feelings Kind of Guy

    In fact, the speaker's arguments all appeal to sensations (the scenery's great, the lambs are cute and wooly), and feelings (love, pleasure, relaxation) as opposed to logical reasoning. The use of the word "passionate" in the title might not be Marlowe's, but it's a spot of description of the way the speaker seems to be making decisions—based on emotions and passions as opposed to reasoning. We mean, are these two even gonna have a roof over their heads?

    Perhaps the most important thing we know about the speaker, however, is that he or she is trying to enter into a dialogue with someone else who is keeping her mouth shut, big time. The poem demands a response, and yet Marlowe holds out on us. This raises interesting questions—what would the response be? How might it change depending on who you think the speaker of the poem is?—but also points to another crucial issue, which is the speaker's trustworthiness.

    Just how reliable do we think the speaker is? Do we believe what he or she is saying? Are we moving to the country in spite of our better judgment because those sheep sound just too darn fluffy to resist? This isn't a question Marlowe answers for us, but it's one that several other authors have found irresistible. Check out some famous replies by Sir Walter Ralegh, John Donne, Robert Herrick, and Ogden Nash.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    There are lots of things that make this poem a walk in the park: it's relatively short, the meter is regular, the phrasing is simple, and there aren't lots of fancy allusions, obscure metaphors, or complicated poetic devices to unravel. But the challenge of this poem is not being duped by its apparent simplicity. Underneath all that pretty language there is some pretty serious stuff going on, and we think it's worth a little extra legwork.

  • Calling Card

    Rhyming Couplets

    Christopher Marlowe died at the ripe old age of twenty-nine years old, which didn't give him a particularly lengthy career as an author. He was also more focused on drama than on poetry, so that makes pinning down his poetic style a difficult task. Luckily, there are a few things that characterize his poetry, one of which is his use of rhyming couplets. A rhyming couplet is a term for two adjacent lines of poetry that, you guessed it, rhyme. These lines appear one right after the other in a poem, so the whole poem will end up with a rhyme scheme that looks something like this: AABBCCDD etc.

    Marlowe eventually became famous for writing the poem "Hero and Leander," a work which many scholars say totally revolutionized the use of  heroic couplets in poetry. Now a heroic couplet is a special kind of rhymed couplet, one that uses iambic pentameter as opposed to iambic tetrameter like we see in "The Passionate Shepherd". But "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is one of the earlier works of Marlowe's career—one of the building blocks of what would eventually become one of Marlowe's greatest successes.

    One reason "Hero and Leander" was so successful as a poem written in heroic verse is because Marlowe manages to make the poem flow and rhyme without reducing it to a sing-songy type of beat. He does this by using enjambment (which we see in lines 2-4 of "The Passionate Shepherd"), alliteration (see lines 1-2, 5-6, 8, 18, 20-24), consonance (in lines 3-4, 7-8, 9-10), and assonance (in lines 1, 4, 6, 7, 18, 20, 24). Marlowe is certainly not the only person to employ these poetic devices, nor he is the only one to write in rhymed or heroic couplets, but he definitely changed the game for Renaissance poets. If you're reading something from the 17th century and it's written in heroic couplets, chances are you're reading the work of someone who was seriously influenced by Marlowe.

  • Form and Meter

    Iambic Tetrameter

    If "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" was one of the earlier poems you read in school, we're betting your teacher chose it because it's a great example of regular rhyme and meter. In this case, Marlowe writes in iambic tetrameter, which means he's got four iambs per line, making each line go daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. And he's got a pretty basic rhyme scheme: AABB.

    Check this out:

    And we will sit upon the rocks,
    Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
    By shallow rivers, to whose falls,
    Melodious birds sing madrigals. (5-8)

    With the exception of line 6, with starts off with a trochee ("Seeing" goes DAdum, instead of daDUM), this is pretty darn perfect iambic tetrameter. So perfect, in fact, it sounds more like a song than a poem.

    The entire poem is composed of six four-line stanzas, or quatrains, just like the one above. Each quatrain is made up of two rhyming couplets, the majority of which are written in perfect iambic tetrameter and, if you use Renaissance-era pronunciation, rhyme perfectly.

    Sure, most verses in tetrameter end up sounding a little sing-songy when read aloud, but Marlowe avoids this effect by peppering his lines with poetic devices that sneakily shake things up and steer clear of the nursery rhyme curse. Take a look at this couplet from the third stanza:

    And I will make thee beds of roses,
    And a thousand fragrant posies
    (9-10)

    A perfect line of iambic tetrameter should end in a stressed syllable, but in line 9 Marlowe forces an extra unstressed syllable onto the end of the line (the -ses of "Roses"). You might think this would muck up the meter, but if you read the line aloud (go ahead, we're sure the other people in the library will find it inspirational), the extra syllable adds a little pizazz to the line without making it feel awkward or jarring.

    Marlowe's substitution of a trochee (DAdum) for an iamb in line 10 works in a similar way; the changes create variety and texture within the meter, so the poem avoids sounding like Little Bo Peep, but still colors within the lines, too. He creates a metrical musicality that mirrors the springiness of the countryside in which the speaker wants his lover to live.

  • Nature Imagery

    Anytime you're dealing with a pastoral, it's safe to assume there's going to be lots of nature imagery in the mix. We're talking frolicking lambs, rolling hills, babbling brooks, and cows that magically never poop. It's all drop dead gorgeous, and it's all too good to be true. Marlowe chooses nature's idealized form for "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" because nature is meant to be seductive. The speaker is hoping the beauty of nature will convince the beloved to move to the countryside, which is why Marlowe sneaks all of the natural imagery into the promises or arguments of the poem.

    • Lines 3-4: The speaker promises "all the pleasures" of valleys, groves, hills, and fields, woods, [and] steepy mountains." That's a lot of different kinds of scenery, which the speaker hopes translates into a lot of different ways to enjoy oneself.
    • Line 5-8: Not only is nature beautiful, it is also relaxing, peaceful, and safe. The image here of the two lovers sitting on rocks by a river, watching sheep graze in the fields nearby to the tune of birds singing is designed to be both beautiful and soothing.
    • Lines 9-12: The floral imagery referenced in this stanza—roses, posies, flowers, and myrtle leaves—suggests that this countryside is blooming, fruitful, and fertile. Fertility and prosperity were primary concerns for both women and men in Marlowe's day, and definitely good things to have in your pocket if you're trying to woo someone to come live with you.
    • Line 14: The reference to the lambs in line 14 shows how, in this idealized version of the natural world, the countryside provides everything you could need, similar to the way the Garden of Eden is described in the Hebrew Bible. Need clothes? Never fear, all the wool in the world is just a hand stretch away.
  • Plants

    Shmoop's gonna let you in on a little secret. Many of the specific kinds of plants mentioned in this poem have symbolic meaning attached to them, so we thought we'd give them the special treatment here. Read on for all the hidden meanings in the leafy greens.

    • Line 9: There's a reason the girls on The Bachelor get roses and not, say, turnips during the elimination ceremony. This is because roses, then as now, are the flowers of love, often associated with the Roman goddess of love, Venus, and her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite. They symbolize romance, passion, lust, and, during Marlowe's lifetime, royalty—the rose was the official flower of Queen Elizabeth and the Tudor family. By introducing roses into the mix, the speaker is adding a sex and regality to what was before a pretty G-rated scenario.
    • Line 10: We discussed the pun on the word "posey" in the "Summary," but the time period in which Marlowe was writing gives this word additional significance. Remember when you were little, and you played Ring Around the Rosie on the playground? You may or may not have learned since then that the game you thought was about flowers was actually about the Bubonic Plague, a super deadly disease that was kicking butt and taking (thousands of) names in Europe during the 16th century. Back in the day, the disease was thought to be transmitted by bad smells, so people would carry around bunches of flowers, or posies, in their pockets as an attempt to ward it off. The Plague was known to break out in especially crowded parts of the city (like, say, the theater district), so Marlowe's reference to posies in a pastoral poem could be read as a longing for the safety of the country or a lament about the dangers of urbanization and modern life.
    • Line 12: Myrtle trees are also classic symbols of love. Like roses, they are sacred to Aphrodite and Venus and also frequently present in marriage ceremonies and things of that nature. Maybe Marlowe was just looking for something to rhyme with the word "kirtle" (or was it the other way around?), but we think the romantic vibes of this plant are a little too convenient for its inclusion to be unintentional.
  • Sensory Imagery

    Spring has sprung! Or, you know, maybe not. But if you've been reading "The Passionate Shepherd to his love", you've probably got the twitter of birds, the smell of flowers, and green hills a-plenty all rolling around inside your head. Because of all the computer lingo we use these days, its easy to forget that a poetic image, unlike a digital image, doesn't have to be purely visual. Sensory imagery, or imagery that appeals to senses like smell, taste, touch, and hearing, is all over the place in Marlowe's poem. And his decision to take his poetic imagery beyond the visual helps bring the idealized countryside to life for his readers.

    • Line 5: Sitting on the rocks isn't the most exciting of sensory experiences, but the subtlety is part of what makes the imagery so clever. Everyone knows what it feels like to sit on a rock, and reading that line adds a tactile dimension to the poem. It sparks a concept, rock-sitting, in your brain that adds texture to the mental image conjured by the poem without being so foreign or complicated that it distracts from what the poet is saying.
    • Line 6: See the shepherds! Watch the sheep! Let your eyes soak in the quaintness and beauty of everyday life all around you! This is a visual image. Standard, but effective.
    • Line 8: We're now sitting on rocks, watching sheep, and listening to birds sing in harmony to the sound of a nearby waterfall—all at the same time. The sensory experiences in lines 5-8 combine with each other to create a picture of bliss, comfort, and relaxation. By simultaneously ending the stanza and the description of the image with line 8, Marlowe leaves his readers with a multi-sensory image in their minds. 
    • Line 9-10: But the sensory imagery doesn't stop there. Lines 9 and 10 bring in the fragrant smell of flowers and the softness and sensuality of rose petals.
    • Lines 19 and 23: The use of the word "move" at the end of both these lines underscores the stimulating sensory atmosphere of the poem. Being "moved" by pleasures and delights implies an emotional and physical response as opposed to boring old thoughts.
  • Music

    The hills are alive with the sound of music, and we have more than just the Von Trapp family to thank for it. Music appears in "The Passionate Shepherd" literally and rhythmically, and it helps contribute to the lighthearted, lively countryside being portrayed by the speaker.

    • Line 1: Count the consonants that commonly occur and you shall see that some sounds are alliterated abundantly and appear in many more measures than others. As in many other poems, Marlowe makes use of alliteration, consonance, and assonance in this one. The first instance of this appears in line 1, with the L sound alliterating in "live" and "love." The L sound, among many others, follows the reader through the poem and adds a musicality to the lyrics when read out loud. 
    • Lines 2-4: We see more sound play here, too. Read the lines aloud to yourself and you'll see what we mean.
    • Lines 5-8: Here we're paying more attention to the kinds of sounds Marlowe chooses to repeat rather than the fact that he repeats them. The sounds repeated in the second stanza, the W of "we will", the S of "seeing the Shepherds", the M of "melodious" and "madrigals", and the ever-present L sound are not harsh, but light and breathy. By choosing to repeat these sounds as opposed to ones that have a little more bite to them (like the hard C or D sounds), Marlowe adds to both the musicality of his poetry and the lightness of its tone.
    • Line 8: The birds in this line are literally singing, and not just any normal bird calls—they're singing madrigals. What's a madrigal, you say? Well, it's not your average tune. Madrigals are fancy songs written for many voices singing in harmony and the arrangements are usually very complex. They were very popular in the Renaissance and clearly Marlowe's birds have, most impressively, picked up on the trend.
    • Line 21: The image of the shepherds swains dancing and singing is another literal invocation of music. Country festivals often appear in pastoral poetry and are stereotypically associated with lively games, community bonding, and obscure country folk traditions, many of which involve music and dancing.
    • Steaminess Rating

      PG

      It seems our frisky shepherd has nothing but honorable intentions: he just wants a little company while he explores nature, listens to tunes, and pulls gold shoe buckles out of thin air. But while there's nothing explicitly sexual in "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", the sexual implications that go with asking someone to move to the country and be your "love" are pretty undeniable. There's also all that talk of "pleasures" and then the whole bed of roses bit, which strikes us as being pretty heavy on the steamy side of things. So, is our speaker totally innocent? No. Is there a very real possibility of putting that bed of roses to use? Almost certainly. But it's not in the poem, so we'll keep the rating at PG.