The Poetry Contest: Sir Walter Ralegh, Christopher Marlowe and John Donne
Traditional and New Historicists have remarked on the fact that social connections among courtiers seem to have had an influence on Renaissance verse. Even though many scholars believe that verses were copied by individuals or groups according to theme, careful consideration of one particular exchange among Sir Walter Ralegh, Christopher Marlowe and John Donne indicates that Ralegh did not write verse in isolation, but instead, that he was influenced and inspired to write by the verse of his fellow courtiers. Marlowe's poem, commonly titled "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love," or "The Milke Maids Songe" which begins "Come liue with mee and bee my loue" created the topical arena for Ralegh's "Nimphs Reply to the Shepherd"/ "Milk Maids Mothers Answer" beginning "If all the world and loue were young." Versions of these two verses were printed together in England's Helcion between 1618 and 1629 (Boas 221). Finally, Donne's "The Bait," beginning "Come liue with mee and bee my loue," echoes Marlowe's first line, but in some manuscripts differs greatly in the second line. This set of verses illustrates the way that poets reacted to, rewrote and responded to each others' poetry and represents a light-hearted exchange which then travelled in manuscripts as a set comprised of two or three verses. In addition to the physical juxtaposition of the reply in the Folger MS Ze 28 and many manuscripts, several key elements connect these two poems. Ralegh's verse answers Marlowe's request: "Come liue with mee and bee my loue/And we wil all the pleasures proue" (3-4) in the last lines of his first stanza, answering the following request: "Then pretty pleasures might mee moue/To liue with mee and be thy loue" (3-4). Ralegh's answer suggests that the pleasures that Marlowe uses to entice his nymph will fade when time passes, and only if they were everlasting could the nymph be persuaded to join him. Ralegh echoes these lines again in the last lines of the final two stanzas which are almost the same: "All these in me noe means can moue/To come to thee and be thy loue" (19-20), and the final stanza reads "Then those delights my mind might moue/To liue wth thee, & be thy Loue" (23-24). This reply, echoing Marlowe's request as well as his opening line, reminds the reader that this is an answer to another poem--indicating that Ralegh knew Marlowe's poem.
For Ralegh the themes of the "Nimph's Reply to the Shepherd"-- perhaps more cleverly titled the "Milke Maids Mothers Answer"-- are familiar Renaissance tropes. He laments the passage of time and its ill effects on beauty, a lament is a clever response to the seductive claims of Marlowe's poem. In the second stanza that parallels Marlowe's second stanza, Ralegh asserts that the passage of time brings a change of seasons less romantic than the ones Marlowe describes: "But time driues flocks from field to fold/When rivers rage, and rocks grow cold" (5-6). In the fourth stanza, the reply also contests the value of the gifts in Marlowe's third and fourth stanza by showing how time transforms those gifts as well: "Thy gowns thy shooes, thy beds of roses,/Thy cap thy Kirtle, and thy Posies/Soone breake, Soon wither, soone forgotten" (13-15). Ralegh mentions the rest of Marlowe's images in the fifth stanza, where he denies the value of the "Thy Gift of straw and Ivir buds,/Thy Coral clasps & Amber studs," (17-18). Ralegh not only echoes Marlowe's lines, but he also uses the images and specific examples from Marlowe's poem cleverly to denounce the shepherd. Ralegh further scorns the shepherd for an offering-- the verse-- that is "In follie ripe, in reason rotten" (16). This line suggests the basis for the entire poem. He takes all of Marlowe's images and shows how none are as valuable as the shepherd claims. Ralegh's poem also highlights one of the ways that a poet might respond to another. While it is true that a poet might choose to write topically, the poet might examine a poem for a way to improve the logic or make the image more appropriate to his situation. When Ralegh concludes his poem, he acknowledges Marlowe's verse once more, for "could youth last, and loue still breed/Had ioyes no date, nor age no neede" (21-22), then those delights might move him, at least to rewrite the image or the poem better than the poet before him.
Also beginning his poem with the echo line "Come liue with mee and bee my loue" (1), Donne, rather than responding to the requests of the shepherd, takes some of the same pastoral images and creates a different scenario. He creates a more complicated poem. Donne does not try to hide the manipulative nature of the shepherd or milk maid. He takes the image of the conniving shepherd and applies it to the milk maid as well. The new pleasures that Donne promises are fraught "wth silken lines and silver hookes" (4), indicating a game of mutual manipulation. The final stanza asserts that the milk maid is also trying to seduce the shepherd; Donne, however, creates a shepherd who acknowledges that his milk maid will not be wooed with empty promises, and he also characterizes the milk maid differently: "For thy selfe are thine own bait" (26). In contrast to Ralegh's cataloguing of Marlowe's images, Donne does not use any of Marlowe's examples. Instead, he attempts to write a poem that is both more persuasive to the milk maid and more complimentary to her than Marlowe's attempt. Donne's reply seems to challenge Marlowe in a different way than Ralegh's did. Rather than attacking the false promises of Marlowe's shepherd in the voice of the milk maid, Donne creates a wiser, more persuasive shepherd. This poem seems to create an intertextual conversation about the romance between the shepherd and milk maid.