“Nymph and Shepherd,” The New Yorker October 20, 2008
It wasn’t until the third stanza that I realized this poem was more or less strictly about sex: “I plunged, I plugged, I twisted, and I sighed,” Hall’s shepherd admits, but only the nymph “achieved death’s Paradise routinely.” Until these lines, this nonce villanelle has, at least contextually, a more somber feel to it, even melancholic. As it turns out however, the poem is about play.
As a villanelle, the poem does have its repetons, though the lines themselves are not wholly repeated. Only the endwords died and tried are. The rest of the endwords maintain the villanelle’s ABA rhyme scheme. The poem is also one tercet short of the usual villanelle length, but since Hall’s work is a nonce form, I suppose that’s neither here nor there. The poem does progress nicely from stanza to stanza, however, so that the feel of the poem matures with the revision of each repeton, a final villanelle requirement.
The poem begins in gloom. Hall’s phrase “nymph of fatality” in the poem’s second line has a dire ring to it, something akin to angel of death although not as heavy-handed. The word “lethal” in line six bears a similar connotation; we think of lethal, and we think of deadly, as in lethal/deadly force. So, a certain darkness, a certain element of fear infuses the first two stanzas of “Nymph and Shepherd” although the foundation of the poem’s lighter side is also being set. For one, it’s odd that for all this danger, the poem’s speaker—the shepherd—seems little effected: he can’t die (well, except for once). What’s more, the nymph is enjoying all this. Hall writes, “She whooped, she laughed, she cried / as she contrived each fresh mortality.” What fun! And, the deaths are contrived, which, for me, suggests they are not as real—literally—as they could seem. The nymph is more clever, creative, and spontaneous with mortality than she is definite, premeditated, and deadly.
In the third, middle stanza, Hall tells us that the nymph “achieved death’s Paradise routinely,” and the cat is now completely out of the bag. This nymph is the Amazon of the orgasm, coming and going at will over the poor shepherd who just can’t match her skill and joy with sex. “I plunged, I plugged, I twisted, and I sighed,” he says; “I lagged however zealously I tried” while “[s]he writhed, she bucked, she rested, and, astride, / She posted, cantering on top of me . . .” She’s a love machine; he’s just a body there to operate it. Poor guy.
All in all, it could be argued that “Nymph and Shepherd” is a rather trite, typical, male-centered sex poem, and that’s probably true from one angle. It does idolize the woman love-goddess. On the other hand, it could also be argued that the poem twists male/female sexual roles by making the female nymph the aggressor, the seat of power, and the male shepherd the flat-backed receiver of overzealous, oblivious lovemaking. I don’t care about either of those readings particularly. What I do care about is the poem’s playfulness, its willingness to enjoy form and fun. I remember being told once that poetry was not ever about fun, never about “play,” that it must always be something serious and, therefore, taken seriously. And, sure, poetry should be taken seriously, but it’s egregious to think poetry isn’t also playful. Anybody who considers themselves a serious poet, as in a practicing poet, must enjoy language for the sake of language, for its cling and clang in both mouth and ear, for its obvious wordplay, for its fun. Donald Hall’s “Nymph and Shepherd” is a case in point.