Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with author and literature professor Karen Swallow Prior. Karen specializes in classics and will be treating us to a discussion of classic love poetry. We invite you to respond to the poems—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Karen and each other, and write your own poems along the way.
Even if you have not read Christopher Marlowe’s famous poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” (1599), you probably know it anyway. Really. The romantic ideal of love this poem presents is the stuff of all the best love poetry that’s come before or after this poem: a feast for the senses consisting of melodious songbirds, beds of roses, woolen gowns, delicate morsels, and dancing; and a festival for the heart, complete with the invitation to live and love together in passionate union with nature in an eternal spring.
In all seriousness (yes, there was a hint of sarcasm above), “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” is a masterpiece of Renaissance literature, written by a contemporary of Shakespeare, and a fellow playwright as well. The piece exhibits many of the qualities that make poetry, at least in its more traditional sense: a fixed stanzaic structure, regular meter (a breezy iambic tetrameter), a traditional rhyme scheme (including eye rhymes), abundant imagery and alliteration, and, of course, love.
Yet, the theme of the poem builds on and transcends all of these: carpe diem, or “seize the day.” One might wonder from where such a theme arises, since nothing like it is mentioned in the poem. While seizing the day is never explicitly addressed here, it is implied everywhere in the poem. Nearly all of the pleasures promised by the lover—the songs of birds, clothing and bedding made of blossoms, and May-morning dancing—are transient pleasures, lasting no longer than the passing season. So while the lover’s promises sound tempting in their sheer luxuriance, they are as temporary as the first flushes of passionate love.
Read next week’s poem for a response to the lover’s invitation!
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
There will we sit upon the rocks,
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
There I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair linèd 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.
Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.
The shepherd 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.
Painting by Peter Lely (17th Century). Post by Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.
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