The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
Among the best known love poems in the English language is Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” first published in 1599. A popular reading for weddings, the rhymed couplets of this Elizabethan classic are especially suited to a garden ceremony.
“Come live with me and be my love,” calls the shepherd groom to his beloved in the famous opening line of the poem. The invitation is gentle and coaxing. Never in the poem’s several verses does the lover take his beloved for granted. To the contrary, he spends the entirety of the poem beckoning the beloved to his woodland home and offering up the exquisite bounties of nature. Together, he promises, they may explore the “pleasures” of the “valleys, groves, hills, and fields.”
Lest the beauties of the countryside fail to woo the beloved, the shepherd promises a trove of handcrafted floral luxuries:
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.
Who could resist such elegant treasures? Even the clothing—the “kirtle” is a long, flowing over-garment worn by women or men—will be decorated with leaves of myrtle, whose delicate, white, star-shaped flowers are symbols of beauty, love and marriage according to the tradition of floriography (the coded language of flowers). Fragrant myrtle crowns were historically worn by brides-to-be.
Beyond the bounteous natural riches, the shepherd promises still more treasures to behold: by the fourth stanza, he has offered “a gown made of the finest wool” from his flock and slippers donned with gold buckles. Marlowe leaves us to puzzle over the question of where the humble shepherd expects to find gold. The rich tastes of court life rest easy here amid the simple pleasures of the countryside.
Such is the tradition of the pastoral mode, steeped in the natural landscape and its floral wealth, whose beauties were sung by Marlowe and his contemporaries. He knew well the long tradition of Golden Age pastoral, a tradition of innocent, idealized country life, in which the honest shepherd—free from care or woe—is imbued with the noblest character of the aristocratic court. In the Elizabethan period, the Golden Age represented a literary ideal of a noble past—a world of peace, innocence, prosperity and beauty.
Marlowe was one of the originators of the idea of the Golden Age in pastoral English poetry, yet he had a classical Roman model to guide him. He was an early translator of the Roman poet Ovid’s Amores, the love poems, into English. There is something ingenuous about Marlowe’s poem throughout. And why not? He was a young man in his twenties when he wrote the Shepherd’s love verses. Would an older Marlowe have turned back to his youthful lyrics and been amused by his own naiveté? We shall never know. Marlowe was murdered under mysterious circumstances at the age of twenty-nine.
But Sir Walter Raleigh certainly regarded the poem as naively romantic. In a poetic response, the older Raleigh observed that, with time, “the flowers do fade.” His sober caution toward his younger colleague’s romantic ideal is a sensible reminder to eager young couples that time passes and marriage takes work.
Read the full text of Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love and Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd at poetryfoundation.org.