The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Faun

A pastoral poem

This is one of a number of pastoral poems that Marvell wrote. It takes the form of a dramatic monologue, spoken by the nymph, which begins with an elegy or lament for the death of her faun and then moves on to raise wider spiritual and philosophical issues.

More on pastoral: See The Coronet

In general, Marvell's pastoralism centres on the locus of a garden, rather than the open countryside. This poem contains both open woodlands and a garden.

The English Civil War

Critics looking for a historical context point to the devastation caused by the English Civil War, which, at the time this poem was written, was either still going on or had just finished. ‘The wanton Troopers' are therefore soldiers Fawnfrom one of the armies. They are ‘wanton' because they have caused needless damage and death, as happens only too frequently in civil wars. They have killed the fawn, which then becomes metonymic, or a sign, of all such grief from needless destruction. Again, the nymph may be an actual girl that Marvell knew, whose pet deer really was shot. He imagines her in a pastoral setting, dramatising her situation, and through this, protesting at the violence. Similar hunting imagery is used in his poem An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland.

Classical and Christian references

The pastoral genre is a classical form in origin so Marvell uses Greek mythology. The poem refers to an incident in a Latin poem, Virgil's Aeneid (Book VII), in which Ascanius, son of Aeneas, causes a war by killing a stag without realising that it is the pet of Silvia, daughter of the royal gamekeeper. However, as a Christian poet, Marvell also uses these classical references symbolically, as many did many sixteenth and seventeenth poets. A second strand of allusion is woven into the poem, this time from Christian tradition, referring to the death of another innocent victim - the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The pastoral garden of Marvell may also evoke the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8-10), the Fall of Humankind and the loss of innocence.

The nymph in fact loses her innocence twice over, both times at the hands of men. Firstly, there is Sylvio who ‘soon had me beguiled', taking his heart away but leaving her the fawn. Marvell creates puns on the names of deer: heart/hart; dear/deer. Whether the fawn signifies a child is ambiguous. Secondly, the wanton troopers then shoot the fawn but don't kill it outright. The nymph cradles it in her lap, where it dies. We actually see it die during the poem. Marvell seems to be saying that is is no place on earth of pure Edenic innocence any more. Sooner or later, corruption will come – not through any wily serpent, as in Genesis 3:1, but through humans, corrupted by sex and violence. Now the nymph looks forward to being united in death and remembrance with her fawn.

The verse form

The verse form is iambic tetrameter couplets, which Marvell uses very flexibly to gain the effect of the speaking voice. The language retains the simplicity of a country girl, though at times, Marvell's own learning comes through, in terms like Deodands (something which has caused a death and is therefore forfeit to the Crown) or Heliades (daughters of the sun god Helios who were turned into trees). There is other symbolism, such as the red and white of the roses and lilies, flowers associated with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ.

Investigating The Nymph Complaining
  • Read through Marvell's The Nymph Complaining
    • To what extent is can you sense a deeper meaning in this a sad story about the loss of a loved pet?
    • What is the nymph's attitude to her ex-lover and the soldiers?
  • What do you find attractive in the poem?

(see Themes  and significant ideas > The Loss of Innocence).

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