The Dying Shepherd to His Love
Now hold me, my fair maide, for when I die
Thy face is my gate to eternitie,
Where on thy ruby lip soft will I rest,
And mine heart will embrace thy gentle breast.
This heated breath which swiftly doth escape
My lips, while soul forsaketh mortal shape,
Will come no more beyond this final gasp;
Giving but loose fingers for thee to grasp.
Each man is given but a single sone
Which, after setting low, more light hath none
But only murky night, where see we naught
Of what we wol to be or what we wrought.
To this swear I that twilights shroud is best
For in such darkness is our shame undrest
To only bliss and celebratioun:
We can but feel our sweet salvatioun.
Yet even darkness hath its guiding light,
For sprinkled stars dance on the veil of night
And overlook our gentle land below,
Augmenting that of which pleasure doth glow.
And even now thy starry lamp I see
Reflecting my face and my love for thee;
So smile on me, my dear, and grant me this:
That as I die, I share with thee my bliss.
This piece is based very heavily upon the late 16 th c. dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and the poems of his contemporaries who also wrote short poems based on that work (see below).
Thematically, the poem falls into the hugely popular pastoral tradition, being the repertoire of courtly poets who romanticized rural life, specifically that of the shepherd. The most famous poems of this tradition are Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (with the latter pulling double duty for not only romanticizing rural life, but satirizing courtly life at the same time).
The idea of a shepherd pursuing a (likewise rural) maiden is no innovation – the would-be lover is possibly the most widely-utilized character in the Renaissance lyric (though I cannot say if this is for purely artistic, or possibly practical means of wooing “uncultured” maids). Some of the most famous “pleading lover” poems from the Renaissance are still heavily studied today: for example, John Donne’s “The Flea” and “The Good-Morrow;” Ben Jonson’s “Come, my Celia” and “Drink to me only;” Thomas Campion’s “My sweetest Lesbia;” and the sonnets of Sir Thomas Wyatt (“Whoso list to hunt” and “They flee from me”), the Earl of Surrey (“Love that doth raine” and “When ragyng love”), and Sir Philip Sidney (Astrophel and Stella) – these sonnets themselves all based upon Petrarch’s Rime sparse and his quest to receive reciprocation from the unwilling Laura.
There are two major ideas in this poem borrowed from works in the list above. The first is “death,” in that the death referred to is not literal, but figurative and sexual. The notion of orgasm as death was extremely popular – la petit mort (“the little death”) was a common expression for sexual achievement, with the idea that every time a man achieves orgasm, his lifespan is lessened slightly. Thus a lech would be more apt to die off sooner than a virtuous man who abstained from lusty pursuits. Donne’s “The Good-Morrow” especially deals with this topic: “If our two loves be one, or thou and I / Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.” (ll. 20-21) The death and “slackening” refers to male orgasm and its aftereffects. Donne’s “The Flea” also deals with this to a somewhat lesser extent: “ Though use make you apt to kill mee, / Let not to that, selfe murder added bee” (ll. 16-17). T he referenced killing of the flea is like the killing/death of the male via sexual intercourse, which could (among other things) also mean the death-orgasm of the female (though this latter aspect is hardly dealt with at all).
The second major idea referenced in the poem (specifically, in the third stanza) is the image of the single day (man’s lifespan) followed by eternal night and darkness (death). This image was very popular in Renaissance literature, and stems back to the Roman poet Catullus, who wrote in his “Vivamus, mea Lesbia”:
soles occidere et redire possunt: The suns are able to fall and rise:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux, When that brief light for us has fallen,
nox est perpetua una dormienda. We will sleep in an unending night.
This poem is most notably mirrored in Campion’s “My sweetest Lesbia” (which is essentially a translation of Catullus), but it also appears in works like Jonson’s “Come, my Celia.” In each case (as in this poem) the narrator attempts to deal with this insight as best he can, essentially taking a “carpe diem” attitude in each, to make the most of life while we still have it.
Pastoral poetry of the English Renaissance had no specific verse forms or styles, save that for the most part, pastoral works had simpler rhyme schemes and somewhat archaic words and syntax (especially in Spenser) to mimic life away from court and fashionable civilization. Some pastoral lyrics of the time also moved away from iambic pentameter (10-syllable lines with five pairs of unstressed-stressed syllable “feet”) to octosyllabic lines, which served to “ruralize” the poem even further. Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd” follows such a pattern. This piece does not use octosyllabic lines; I admit I was in a zone of writing iambic pentameter when I decided to write this piece, and I didn’t want to possibly mess up a good thing I had going. I have imitated Marlowe’s AABB rhyme scheme (as mentioned above, a simple and very rural-feeling scheme, especially next to Spenser’s Faerie Queene stanzas of ABABBCBCC).
The language is almost entirely culled from the late 16 th c. sources I have imitated in thematic content. The only real exceptions are “celebratioun” and “salvatioun,” who utilize an extra syllable (making them 5 syllables long) as late 15 th / early 16 th c. archaisms (see above with Spenser) that make the piece slightly more rustic than it would otherwise be.
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