‘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.
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.
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.