The poem “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe is a pastoral lyric piece about a shepherd who spends six stanzas arguing, trying to convince a woman to come and live with him and be his love. He promises this lover a bunch of extravagant possessions in exchange for her love. But, maybe he was arguing for her and offering her objects in exchange for sex… When one reads the title of the pastoral poem by Christopher Marlowe, one is filled with ideas of love. However, the poem is not about the love this shepherd has for a woman. This poem is about the desire for sex.
The piece has been misinterpreted by its readers for years. However, this poem is a plea to the narrator’s nymph, and he is trying to lure her to his place for sex. This theme can easily be masked by flowery diction like “passionate” or “love” but, the elements of the story-point of view, diction, and structure- enhance and unveil the true theme of the story. The theme of the story is a shepherd asking for sex from his lover. This interpretation is made valid through the poem’s elements and through a close look at poetic responses to the poem. By examining these elements and responses from poets, one can omit the traditional interpretation of the pastoral piece and possess a more honest, and genuine, view of “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Marlowe.
Diction of Marlowe’s poem is critical throughout the poem from the title to the last word. The most prominent diction in the six stanzas is “Come live with me and be my love”. This phrase is repeated throughout the poem. The narrator is asking his lover to come live with him. He wants her to live with him and have sex with him. Never does he mention marriage, only living together. That is because all he is looking for is a live-in sexual partner. If he wanted marriage, he would have mentioned it in his plea. Marlowe left out a marriage proposal on purpose. He didn’t include a marriage proposal because he wants to emphasize that the narrator has no attempt to marry this woman. He only wants sex from her. This is proven by his lack of a proposal. If he loved the woman, he would ask for her hand in marriage. But, all he asks for is her to live with him because he does not love her, he just wants to have sex.
Another example of the powerful diction in the poem is when the narrator says “pleasures prove”. This phrase in the poem produces a sexual tone. Pleasure is often associated with sex, so for the narrator to say it convinces the readers what he wants from the female of the poem. He is trying to seduce her. He uses his words, including sexual words to try to seduce her into wanting to live with him and be his love. This phrase from the poem gives the poem an erotic tone. The diction aids the reader in seeing the poem is about asking for sex, for it allows the readers to associate the word choice of Marlowe with what he is trying to convey. And, with the word choice in the poem, he is trying to convey that the narrator is looking for a sexual relationship.
The point of view is the heart of the poem. It holds the biggest amount of information to be interpreted. The point of view gives the reader a glimpse of what the narrator is like. The lack of other points of view in the story also exemplify what the narrator is like. The poem is told by the narrator and is told to an absent lover. The entire poem discusses what the narrator has to offer and what he wants in return. Through his perspective, readers gain a ton of insight on his character.
Through the narrator’s perspective, readers can pick up that the narrator is selfish and needy. He spends twenty-four lines arguing for this woman to come live with him. All readers pick up on though is him. The character never gives the reader any information on his lover or anything about her. He talks in first person, about himself, way more than he does in second person to her, or in third person about her. A traditional love poem would compare her to a summer’s day, or compare her to eyes to the sun. But, the narrator barely mentions this woman he says is the love of his life. Instead of comparing her to a summer’s day, he goes on and on about himself and his possessions and desires.
This lack of the woman’s perspective also contributes to the theme. The woman who he fancies is the muse of the poem, yet she’s invisible. She has no physicality, no name, no voice, and no identity. Author and lecturer Sheri Metzger, says “The woman, who has no name and no identity, also has no voice. She exists only within the shepherd’s plea. The women in these poems are silent voices in a courtship dialogue that excludes the very object of the courtship.” (1). Like the author says, women in poems during the Elizabethan era lacked a voice. They were the subject of the poems, but they lacked a role in the poems. They lived in a patriarchal society even though their land was controlled by a Queen, so inferiority in literature was quite common during the era.
In the case of “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, the unnamed woman also had no voice. It’s like she possessed no meaning. The minimal information on the woman causes readers to think the woman holds no importance to the poem. She also lacks importance to the man. He did not care about her. She’s just a woman he wants to have sex with. But, she is supposed to be the subject of a love poem. Her absence in the poem shows the readers this is not a love poem, and it is not about love. She is just an unimportant object. By examining the point of view, and the lack of point of view the reader can infer that the lack of the woman’s presence and input exemplifies he does not care for her. It shows the poem is about the narrator and his needs or desires. By putting the man in charge of the story, and omitting the woman, Marlowe is displaying the idea that the narrator is just interested in sex and not the love of the woman or anything else about the woman.
The structure of the poem is a tool for interpretation as well. The way Marlowe sets the poem up is prominent. The poem is twenty-four lines with six stanzas. It has an AABB rhyme scheme, and it has iambic tetrameter. The structure creates a rhythm in the poem, making the poem almost like a song. The structure of the poem creates a rhythm that is easy for the reader to follow. The biggest component of the structure of the poem that helps in validating the theme though is the use of objects.
Each stanza in the pastoral piece is dealing with the narrator telling his lover about the things he can give her. It is stanzas full of just listing objects. The narrator focuses more on the objects he can give her instead of telling the woman how he will love her if she goes to live with him and be his love. He focuses more on the objects he can give her instead of loving her because he doesn’t love her and doesn’t plan on loving her once she is there. She is just a piece of meat to him. Objectification, especially of women, was common in the Elizabethan era.
To strengthen the argument, Metzger even says “In reading Marlowe’s poem readers learn that women appear in these poems not only as silent objects but also as prey for the male seducer” (3). This quote compares the narrator to a predator, and the objectified woman to prey. This fits the theme because it follows the plot. The narrator spends time trying to lure this woman in like a predator would. Although he isn’t trying to kill and devour his object like a predator, he is trying to pull in this woman for his own personal interest like a predator does. Instead of wanting to kill and devour her though, he wants to “love her”.
He tries to win this woman he sees as an object with other material things. The narrator offers objects as compensation for the sex he desires. It’s like an eye for an eye, but an object for an object. He is offering objects for this woman as his object. The objects act as compensation for the sexual favors from this girl. They are just natural possessions because he is a shepherd and that is all he can afford to pay her. Filling the poem with objects contributes to the objectification and the sexual tone of the poem that is part of the theme of sex.
A year after “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love” was written, an anonymous response came out that is credited to Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh’s poem is called “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”. This sequel is written by the woman to the shepherd and is a pessimistic rejection letter rejecting him and all of the pleasures he offered. Before even diving into this sequel, one can find out a lot about the prequel from the title. The word “nymph” is typically associated with sexual women. Due to this knowledge, one can already suggest that Marlowe’s piece is about a nymph, or about sexual relations with a woman and not about love. In the way the sequels are written, they hint at the idea of Marlowe’s poem being about a sexual partner instead of love.
Raleigh’s response is important in interpreting Marlowe’s because it “constructs a parallel vision more prone to questions concerning the validity and possibility of the shepherd’s idyllic portrait” (Taibl 1). It is told from the woman’s perspective and it pulls out the hidden sexual tone in its prequel. Raleigh replied this way because he knows the poem is about a plea for a sexual favor. The author replied this way on purpose. The title alone give off evidence of the theme of “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love”.
Another response to “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is by John Donne. His response to Marlowe is titled “The Bait”. This title also contributes to the sexual theme because bait is typically an object that is used for the user to get something. This sequel is also about a reply. It is written to the woman by the shepherd but a more realistic and also predatory approach. Like Raleigh’s this response, or sequel, answers stray information we may have missed in Marlowe’s poem.
It also contributes to the idea of the shepherd’s desire for a sexual relationship. This response validates the theme because it refers to the woman as bait, and by referring to the woman as bait he is saying “he wants to consumer her, just as she wants to consume him.”(Hamilton 1). This contributes to the objectification and lack of love in the poem. It isn’t about love, just consumption. Many authors were able to dig out the underlying message Marlowe was trying to convey in his pastoral lyric piece. The responses were written to further expand the idea of the shepherd’s plea for sex. So, by looking at these poems written in response to Marlowe, and their themes, one can use them to aid their interpretation of Marlowe’s piece being about a sexual relationship.
A person who believes in the traditional interpretation of “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love” might imply that the poem cannot be about sex because shepherds are innocent people. According to critic Karen Stein, “in the conventions of pastoral poetry, shepherds are uncorrupted and attuned to the world of nature. Such pastoral poems are the work of urban poets who idealize the simplicity, harmony, and peace of the shepherd’s life.” (1) However, many poets and literary critics have discredited this theme and have proven that the poem cannot be about innocent. Raleigh wrote a satirical piece to exemplify Marlowe’s is not a traditional pastoral poem. It may include a shepherd who is connected to nature and herds sheep, but this is a distinct shepherd. Donne objectified the woman and called her bait on purpose, because Marlowe did the same in his piece, just indirectly.
If Marlowe’s poem was about love and not sex, he would have used different diction and used his other literary tools differently. The poem did not demonstrate love. It may have demonstrated passion, but not passion as in love. It exemplified passion as in consistency and passion for sex and to get sex. Marlowe made this piece to make a different pastoral piece. He was considered a rebel and nontraditional person, so it makes sense that he would make a nontraditional pastoral piece where a shepherd is not herding sheep, but lusting for sex. Marlowe’s pastoral piece is indirectly about sex. It has been misinterpreted because of the traditional characteristics of a pastoral poem and because of the traditional life of a shepherd, but “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is indeed about a plea for sex. Therefore, the theme introduced in this essay still stands true.
In conclusion, after examining the poem’s elements and dissecting the sequel poems, one is convinced the theme of the poem is in fact about sex and not about love. The shepherd is passionate, but it is not about his awe over a girl. He is passionate because he is determined to get her there to his residence for sexual activity. This theme of prostitution or asking for sex is buried deep in the poem, but after using the elements of the poem and Raleigh’s poem response, the reader is able to dig up and pull out the real theme. Pastoral poems are typically perceived as simple poems filled with nature about the rural life of a shepherd. However, this pastoral poem is distinct. Marlowe takes a unique approach with the pastoral piece. The poem looks simple and sweet, but that is merely a scratch on the surface. Once you scratch through the surface and rip it apart, you see there is no simplicity or innocence in the poem. There is only lust, objectification, misogyny, desire, and sex. This poem gives a new, unexplored side of a shepherd. Shepherds do more than just tend sheep. They can have sex too…