Literature

A Short Analysis of Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’

‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ is Christopher Marlowe’s most widely anthologised and best-known poem (he also wrote plays, including The Jew of Malta and Dr Faustus, which would influence Shakespeare’s early plays). A classic of the pastoral tradition of English poetry, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ deserves closer analysis because it contains so many features of pastoral verse and, in many ways, is the finest embodiment of the genre in English literature.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

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 yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

‘Come live with me’ is an old line in lyric poetry stretching from ancient Rome to Heaven 17, but perhaps the poet who gave this sentiment the definitive treatment was Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). In ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’, Marlowe’s speaker sings the praises of a life in the countryside (as opposed to the town or city), in an attempt to win round his would-be beloved, whom he addresses.

To paraphrase ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’:

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 yields.

‘Come live with me and be my lover, and we will make the most of all the pleasures that the valleys, fields, woods, and mountains afford.’

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

‘We’ll sit on the rocks and watch the shepherds feeding their flocks of sheep, and we’ll hear the birds singing their madrigals [elaborate songs sung by a group of performers] by the waterfalls.’

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

‘I’ll fashion you a bed out of the roses, and use the roses to make you a thousand sweet-smelling bundles of roses, as well as a cap made out of flowers to wear, and a kirtle [ladies’ gown] embroidered with myrtle leaves [an evergreen shrub].’

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

‘As I’m a shepherd, I’ll have plenty of lambs, and can make you a gown from their wool; I can also use their wool to make you slippers for when it’s cold, slippers with gold buckles.’

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

‘You can have a belt fashioned from straw and ivy buds, with clasps made of coral and studs of amber. If any of this appeals to you, come and live with me in this idyllic pastoral world and be my lover.’

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

‘The young lovers of the shepherds will dance and sing for your enjoyment every Mayday [when we get the Maypole out]; again, if this appeals to you, live with me and be my lover.’

The countryside, as the poem’s speaker presents it, is abundant and pretty, full of fine flowers, from which he will create ‘beds of Roses’ and sweet posies. The countryside also provides soft lamb’s wool, from which the lady’s gown and slippers can be fashioned. Who needs the town when you have everything you need in the country? Jewellery, too, can be made from coral and amber found nearby.

This, then, is a poem firmly in the pastoral tradition, and should be read and analysed as such. Pastoral poetry isn’t just writing about rural life and landscapes: it idealises the countryside, usually through the figure of the shepherd and beautiful, enticing images of the greenery and abundance of the countryside. And this is exactly what Marlowe is doing in ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’: the poem is almost an advert for life in the countryside as much as it is an attempt to seduce the young woman to up sticks and move to the country with the poet. (We’ve compiled more seduction poems here.)

In terms of its form and metre: the poem is fairly regularly metrical, written in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets, arranged as quatrains rhyming aabb. The iambic metre gives us the close approximation to human speech: although the poem is formal and artificial (Marlowe is taking on the idealised figure of the shepherd; in reality he was a playwright, poet, and possibly a spy, working in London), Marlowe writes in a fairly direct and down-to-earth way to his would-be lover. The tetrameter metre reminds us of song (giving us shorter lines than pentameter, which was used in Marlowe’s verse drama), which is also appropriate given the poem’s focus on madrigals, dances, and birdsong.

What did the woman say to this offer to ‘come live with me and be my love’? We know what the passionate shepherd said, but what his love replied, we are not told. At least, not by Christopher Marlowe. It took another poet – a man better-known as an explorer than as a writer – to pen her response. He was Sir Walter Raleigh, and he wrote ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ (presumably with his tongue firmly in his cheek as he took Marlowe’s rural flirt down a peg or two):

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.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb,
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and Ivy buds,
The Coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee, and be thy love.

A note on pronunciation: we’re unsure on precisely how we should analyse the rhyme of ‘love’ and ‘prove’ (or ‘love’ and ‘move’). Is this meant to be mere eye-rhyme, or did these words rhyme perfectly in Christopher Marlowe’s time? There is some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare would have pronounced ‘prove’ to rhyme with ‘love’ (or with ‘shove’), i.e. as ‘pruv’, so the same might be said for Marlowe too (although he was a Kent boy rather than a Warwickshire lad). So, that settles that, then.

The poem has been set to music numerous times; you can listen to it being performed here.

If you found this analysis of ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ useful, you might also enjoy our five fun facts about Christopher Marlowe.

2 Comments

  1. isabellacatolica

    Just in case it’s any help, at least Professor Crystal is quite certain of the pronunciation of “love” and “prove”: https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2016/03/28/shakespeare-spoke-original-pronunciation-rhymes-puns/

  2. True story – I have a friend who has studied Shakespeare in-depth for most of her academic career. She was dating a guy once, and he really wanted to impress her. So he sent her Marlow’s poem, not knowing it had a come-back. He was a bit taken aback when she replied with Raleigh’s!