Monday, April 21, 2008

Why do we read this poem?

For the last couple of weeks, I've been going through poems in dialogue with my 2nd year students--the post I did on Sir Robert Aytoun's version of "To His Coy Mistress" came out of that. Funny side note--one of my students for that class came across that post while googling for some information on that poem. Seems few people have written about it.

So last week we jumped into the series that Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" spawned, and it occurred to me, yet again, that Marlowe probably owes every bit of fame that poem has to the fact that Sir Walter Raleigh responded to it, because it's not very interesting on it own. I mean, formally it's gorgeous--the rhythms are perfect, the rhymes are tight, it fits the pastoral mode to a tee--but that's also the problem with it. There's nothing really, I don't know, kinky about it.

Marlowe's got this shepherd, and he wants this nymph, and so he promises her the world and then some. And? And that's the problem. There's no and to it. There's no reason why this would ever work, no matter how simple-minded the nymph. And that's what Raleigh picked up on and pointed out so brutally in his reply.

John Donne did a reply as well, titled "The Bait," and it's a good poem as well, taking Marlowe's initial metaphor and then setting off on a completely unrelated jaunt into the world of angling and all, but I don't think it would have had the effect on Marlowe's poem that Raleigh's did, because Raleigh's reply basically cuts Marlowe to shreds, while being a good, biting poem at the same time.

But even though I think Raleigh's poem is far better than Marlowe's, I don't think it would have survived on its own either, assuming it had been written in the first place. "The Nymph's Reply" needs "The Passionate Shepherd" as much as the shepherd needs to hear from his maiden. Neither is whole, and that's probably why they're nearly always placed in tandem in anthologies.

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