The nymph’s reply to the shepherd

By granting Sir Walter Raleigh the royal patent to explore Virginia, he made the way for the English colonisation of North America. He is most known for his military career, but there is so much more. Including poetry. Nymph’s reply to the shepherd is a fine sample of sixteen and seventeen century poetry.


About the poet

Sir Walter Raleigh
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, there is not much to tell about the year of birth of Raleigh. It is believed that he was born on January 22 1552 or 1554 in Hayes Barton (Devon, England). He grew up in the House of Hayes Barton, where he was the youngest of five sons.

Raleigh played a part in the French religious civil wars. Around 1569 he joined the French Hugenots and returned to England in 1575 or 1576. He lead the Siege of Smerwick in 1580 against Spanish and Italian troops. According the the historical chronicles, he ordered the beheading of 600 captured soldiers.

In 1584 Raleigh was granted by no other than Queen Elizabeth to explore North America. His mission was to make it ready for settlement by British citizens. There is a sense of mystery to these adventures. He ordered three ships to set sail for an island in the state we nowadays call North Carolina. The destination was Roanoke Island. 107 colonists should settle there. It was Richard Grenville who lead this expedition. Once arrived, Ralph Lane was in charge. Grenville then returned to England. In 1586 a new expedition was set out to support those who had settled on the island. By that time most of the colonists decided to sail back with Francis Drake to England. Only fifteen people stayed behind.

A year later Raleigh made another attempt to start a colony on the island. This time it was John White who brought 89 men, 17 women and 11 children to the island. It turned out that the fifteen people who stayed behind were killed by locals. The fort was rebuild and the colonists were left behind.

White set sail to the island in 1588, but he was forced to return to England, after he was attacked by the French navy. It wasn’t until 1590 that Raleigh ordered another expedition to set sail to the colony. From this point on, things got mysterious. There wasn’t a trace left of the settlers. Only one message, carved in a tree was left behind. This was the word Croatoan. It is now believed that the settlers joined the local croatoan tribe. But still, it isn’t really sure. This makes these events sort of mysterious.

Raleigh’s power within the empire was by that time enormous. He played an important role in the dismantling of the Babington Plot of 1586. This was a conspiracy lead by the Catholics to overpower Elizabeth in favour of Mary Stuart. Mary was captured and beheaded. Raleigh was rewarded with an estate in Ireland near Youghal and Lismore. He never lost interest for the overseas colonies. From 1595 he went on a search for El Dorado, the famous city of gold.

After the death of Elizabeth, her successor Jacob I showed no mercy for Raleigh, when peace was signed with Spain. He was supposed to be executed for his attacks on Spanish ships. He was set free, after his captivity in the Tower of London – where he wrote the book A history of the world – to start a new expedition. The kingdom needed money.

A crucial error was the attach on the Spanish city San Thome in South America. The Spanish king was furious about this and demanded the execution of Raleigh. Jacob I gave in to the Spanish demands and ordered the execution of Raleigh. On October 29 1618 the execution took place in the Palace of Whitehall.


One could easily forget that Raleigh was also a writer and a poet. His work lacks the influence of the Italian Renaissance and is not to be missed. The poem The nymphs reply to the shepherd is a response to the poem The passionate shepherd by Christopher Marlowe.

The nymph’s reply to the shepherd

By Sir Walter Raleigh

The nymph's reply to the shepherd

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.


The 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,
Thy 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.

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