The first stanza of ‘‘Ye Goatherd Gods’’ is spoken by Strephon. He and Klaius are shepherds in Sidney’s larger work Arcadia, in which this poem originally appeared. In this stanza, Strephon appeals to the gods, nymphs, and satyrs, all of whom are common figures in pastoral poetry. These figures and the landscape—valleys, grass, and woods—establish the setting. Strephon then advises the gods, nymphs, and satyrs to grant the favor of listening to his complaining music. He says that his woes come in the morning and stay with him through the evening.
In the second stanza, Klaius appeals to the heavens in his woe. He addresses first Mercury (which can be seen in the evening), then Diana the huntress (which is the moon), and finally the morning star (or Venus). As in the first stanza, this stanza marks out time by the passing of the day. Klaius also uses Strephon’s approach of including landscape in his stanza, likewise emphasizing the outdoor and pastoral. Klaius’s fifth line echoes Strephon’s fourth line exactly; in both, the shepherds ask the ones they address to lend their ears to the music of complaint. In the last line, Klaius admits that his woeful song makes Echo grow weary in the forests.
In the third stanza, Strephon recalls his carefree days in the forests enjoying shade and game playing. He was known and loved for his music but now is banished because of his despair. Instead of playing enjoyable music, he is now like a screech owl to himself. The days of contentment and delight in music are gone, destroyed by his sorrows.
Klaius, in the fourth stanza, also remembers back to a simpler time of hunting in the forest and personifying music of the valleys. Now that his sadness has overtaken him, the whole day is so dark and absent of light that he feels that all day is evening time. His perception of the world is that it is now overwhelming and impossible to conquer. He likens a molehill to a mountain and claims that his crying has replaced music in filling the vales.
In the fifth stanza, Strephon describes his music as a swan’s song; the swan supposedly only sang before it died. He says that only his wails greet the morning, and they are strong enough to climb mountains. His thoughts are no longer like the forests he once loved but are now like barren deserts. It has also been a long time, he says, since he experienced joy or a respected place in society.
Klaius says in the sixth stanza that it has been a long time since the other people in the valley— who are happy—asked him to stop disrupting their lives with his music. He has grown accustomed to hating both the evening and the morning, as well as to having his thoughts pursue him like wild animals. He wonders if he might not be better underneath a mountain, presumably meaning dead and buried.
In the seventh stanza, Strephon relates his changed perceptions of the world since his sorrow overtook him. He now sees majestic mountains as gloomy valleys. Strephon anthropomorphizes nature by projecting onto it his own emotions, past and present. What he once saw in the mountains was what he saw in himself, and he now sees them as flattened and dejected, just as he sees himself. In the forest, he hears nightingales and owls, but their music is intermingled. Where he once found solace in the morning, he now feels only the serene that comes in the evening; serene here refers not to peacefulness but to damp evening air that was believed to make people sick.
In the eighth stanza, Klaius resumes Strephon’s discussion of the evening air, finding filth in it. He adds that at sunrise, he detects a foul odor; this is the scent of the flowers, but his perception of the world has changed as dramatically as Strephon’s has. Instead of finding beauty in the sight and scent of the flowers, he finds ugliness and offense. His perception is so altered that he describes the lovely music of the morning as being like the horrific cries of men being killed in the forest.
Strephon says in the ninth stanza that he would like to set fire to the forests and bid the sun farewell every night. He sends curses to those who find music. He envies the mountains and hates the valleys. His hatred extends to every part of every day—the night, the evening, the day, and the morning.
In the tenth stanza, Klaius also delivers a curse, but his is for himself. He describes himself as lower than the lowest valley. He has no desire ever to see another evening, and he proclaims his own self-loathing. He even covers his ears to block the sound of music.
At last, in the eleventh stanza, Strephon talks directly about the woman he and Klaius love. Reading more ofThe Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, the reader would know that the object of the shepherds’ love is Urania. Urania was one of the Greek muses, and her area of influence was astronomy and astrology. During the Renaissance, Urania was adopted as the muse of Christian poets. Strephon says that the woman creates music, and it is perfect. Her beauty outshines the morning, and her grandeur surpasses the mountains. The landscape is depicted as having beauty and stateliness, but it is no match for the woman the shepherds’ love. For all their complaining about the landscape, it must actually be beautiful to them for them to compare their love to it. Strephon says that when she left, he was cast down into utter darkness.
Klaius begins the twelfth stanza with the same two words that Strephon used to begin the eleventh stanza. This parallel not only keeps the reader’s attention on the new subject of the woman but also indicates that Klaius is continuing Strephon’s mode of expression. Klaius says that compared to the woman they love, the Alps are nothing but valleys. He adds that her slightest utterance brings music into existence, and her actions dictate the movements of the heavens and the lushness of the pastures. In their infatuation, the shepherds embrace hyperbole in describing Urania.
The concluding stanza, unlike the preceding six-line stanzas, is a tristich. A tristich is a stanza with three lines that do not necessarily rhyme (unlike a tercet, which is a three-lined rhyming stanza). In the tristich, Strephon and Klaius speak together. They reiterate that the nature that surrounds them will serve as witnesses to their sorrow. They say that their music actually makes nature wretched. They conclude with the declaration that the same plaintive song is what they sing in the morning and in the evening.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Sir Philip Sidney, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009