1 May 2020: Poet’s Day 5
This week’s poems continue the theme of love, starting with Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral plea of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love“, continuing with Sir Walter Raleigh’s imagining of “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” and concluding with Christina Rossetti’s celebratory “The Birthday“.
I should have liked to include W.H. Auden’s poems. “As I Walked Out One Evening” is rather like last week’s Robert Burns poem, “A Red, Red Rose”:
I’ll love you ‘til the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky
The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.
There is also his wonderfully funny “O Tell Me the Truth Above Love”:
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
They will have to wait, but you can find them online if you search.
Poem 13. The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
“If these delights thy mind may move, then live with me, and be my love.”
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.
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;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined 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.
The Shepherds’ 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.
I like this poem for its simple evocation of pastoral themes and the shepherd’s attempts to woo his lady with ever more extravagant promises; one wonders how many of the shepherds’ swains would be willing to dance and sing for the lady every morning in May and where this lad is going to find “buckles of the purest gold” for his sweetheart’s slippers. Nonetheless, I find the poem charming.
Christopher “Kit” Marlowe was a playwright, poet and translator who influenced Shakespeare with his works such as Tamburlaine the Great, Doctor Faustus (“Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium”) and The Massacre at Paris. He was variously suspected of espionage, atheism and homosexuality, though at this distance it is hard to distinguish man from myth.
He is memorably portrayed in Shakespeare in Love by Rupert Everett, and the debt Shakespeare owes to him is made quite explicit when he proposes that Shakespeare’s plot for “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter” undergo some subtle changes that Shakespeare builds upon to create his romantic tragedy.
Poem 14. The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd
“All these in me no means can move to come to thee and be thy love.”
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every Shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move,
To live with thee, and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb,
The rest complains of cares to come.
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.
Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.
Thy belt of straw and Ivy buds,
The Coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee, and be thy love.
Aww, the poor shepherd boy. The object of his affections seems not to return his affections—in fact, she seems positively suspicious and gradually works down the list of his attractions, disparaging every one of them until she tells him at last that only if they could be forever young, escaping the ills of old age and provided there was no end to love and joy—only then might she be persuaded to join his idyll. We know that the lowly shepherd cannot guarantee any such thing, and so his love is unrequited.
Sir Walter Raleigh was famed for many things: he was a writer, soldier, politician, spy and explorer. He is credited with the popularisation of tobacco in England, having conducted two expeditions to what is now Guyana and eastern Venezuela. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London several times, first by Elizabeth I for an unauthorised marriage to one of her ladies-in-waiting; he was charged with treason after James I came to the throne but James pardoned him and granted him permission to sail in search of El Dorado, provided that he avoided hostilities with Spain.
During the expedition, his men attacked a Spanish outpost against his orders. When Raleigh returned to England, the Spanish ambassador demanded that the death sentence hanging over him be reinstated and Raleigh was consequently beheaded at the Palace of Westminster in October 1618. He was characteristically brave, testing the axe and commenting, “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries”. His execution was seen by many contemporaries as unjust, and his reputation seems to have survived intact.
Poem 15. A Birthday
“My heart is gladder than all these because my love is come to me.”
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
On the surface, this poem is an eloquent expression of the poet’s feelings about her lover, and of her happiness. Looking at it again, it seems like the poet is celebrating something slightly different: “my love is come to me”—is it that she has fallen in love and is happy now that she is feeling all these marvellous sensations?
Vair is red squirrel fur, far more acceptable in the 1800s than it would be now, but taken with the reference to purple dyes, it evokes rich and costly furnishings. The “peacocks with a hundred eyes” refer to the legend that Hera’s hundred-eyed servant Argus was immortalised after his death by the goddess through the markings on the peacock’s tail.
Christina Rossetti was an English writer who wrote a number of very well-known poems, including “Goblin Market” and “Remember”, and the words of the Christmas carols “In The Bleak Midwinter” and “Love Came Down at Christmas”. She was the daughter of Gabriele Rossetti and Frances Polidori (if that name seems familiar, Frances was the sister of Dr John Polidori, Byron’s physician) and the sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite artist and poet; William Michael and Maria Rossetti were both also writers.
She was engaged three times, but never married. After Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death in 1861, Rossetti was considered the foremost female poet of her time, receiving the adulation of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Swinburne and Tennyson. She wasn’t a strong supporter of women’s suffrage but she did oppose slavery in the American South, cruelty to animals and prostitution of under-age girls. She had a large circle of friends and corresponded widely.
In later life, she suffered from Graves’ disease and breast cancer, and she died in Bloomsbury at the end of December 1894. She is buried in Highgate cemetery.