The speaker of the poem is a nymph lamenting the death of her fawn. The poem begins with the nymph crying out that a band of “wanton troopers” have shot her fawn “and it will die.” She notes that the fawn never did these men any harm, nor did the nymph ever wish the men any ill. The nymph invokes Heaven and asks that her “simple prayers” might implore Heaven to forgive the murder. She goes on to claim, however, that Heaven always keeps an account of men’s actions, and “Ev’n beasts must be with justice slain,” otherwise they shall become victims of divine retribution.
The nymph goes on to claim that even if these hunters “wash their guilty hands,” they can never be fully clean or absolved of this grievous sin. At this point, the nymph’s narrative shifts to a memory of her former lover, Sylvio, and the happy time before she discovered that he had been unfaithful to her. Sylvio gave the nymph her fawn “Tied in this silver chain and bell,” as a symbol of his affections. Eventually, though, Sylvio “grew wild” and lost interest in the nymph, leaving her with the fawn while he “took his heart.”
The nymph says that she took the beast and began to care for it, taking joy in its sport. She wonders if the fawn had lived longer, whether it might have left her just as Sylvio did, but claims that its “love was far more better then / The love of false and cruel men.” The nymph remembers nursing the fawn with milk and sugar from her fingers and recalls its “pretty skipping grace” as they cavorted together. She also remembers the fawn loving her garden, where it would lie in the shade of “flaxen lilies” and feed on roses.
At this point, the nymph begins to see the fawn growing faint as death approaches. The fawn weeps, and the nymph says she will preserve its “two crystal tears” in a “golden vial” and place on it on a shrine to the Goddess Diana. The fawn then dies. The poem concludes with the nymph imagining a statue of herself weeping real tears that fall upon and engrave her breast, with a white alabaster statue of the fawn placed at her feet.
The speaker of the poem is a nymph, who narrates the death of her fawn in the style of a lyric pastoral. Over the years, critics have interpreted Marvell’s poem in many different ways. Some see it as a light-hearted fantasy, others consider it a psychological tale of lost love, and a few even imagine it to be a complex political allegory. The nymph’s speech is fairly simplistic and childlike, which contrasts sharply with the poem’s serious subjects of betrayal, violence, and death. However, such extreme variance between form and content is consistent with Marvell’s poetic technique at large, which aims to expose contradictions and paradoxes that, in turn, produce memorable aesthetic effects. The poem consists of 122 lines of rhymed couplets in iambic tetrameter.
From the beginning of the poem, the nymph emphasizes her deep psychological connection with the fawn. In many ways, the fawn's death mirrors the nymph's emotional response to her lover Sylvio's betrayal. The nymph's connection to the fawn is deepened by the fact that Sylvio gave it to her as a symbol of the love between them and of Sylvio’s “hunt” to capture the nymph’s affections. However, the nymph recalls that once Sylvio won her love, he became increasingly “wild” and dissatisfied, whereas the fawn grew more and more tame. The nymph suggests that she transferred her affections for Sylvio to the fawn, and its death now mirrors the death of the love between Sylvio and the nymph.
Marvell also constructs a series of parallels between the fawn and the nymph: just as the the hunters trapped, deceived, and killed the fawn, Sylvio deceitfully captured the nymph, won her love, and then abandoned her. The nymph describes the hunters' “guilty hands," stained with blood, suggesting that their sin is akin to Sylvio’s abandonment, and that both actions have had violent results. Marvell's association of blood with sin and guilt is a contrast to the images of whiteness throughout the poem. For example, the nymph feeds the fawn sugar and milk, which makes it become “more white and sweet then they,” and the fawn rests on beds of white lilies in the nymph’s private garden.
Marvell associates the nymph and her fawn with white, suggesting that they live in a world of innocence and purity. Their cocoon, then, is harshly trampled by the intrusion of men – first with Sylvio’s betrayal, and then by the group of male hunters who callously slay the fawn. Marvell aligns the nymph and her fawn with the natural world, pastoral idleness, and playful ease. The nymph’s memories of the fawn in her garden emphasize these associations, since the fawn spends its time resting on beds of lilies and chomping on roses. Even the nymph cannot spot the fawn when it lies down because it merges perfectly with the flower beds: she “could not, till itself would rise, / Find it, although before mine eyes.”
The final image of the nymph is a white marble statue weeping, with an even whiter alabaster figure of the fawn at her feet. Through this image, Marvell preserves their innocence and removal from the world of men. In addition, the nymph makes a protective gesture when she captures the fawn’s tears in a golden vial and places it on the altar of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt and an allegorical protector of women.
Finally, some scholars argue that the poem suggests an allegorical reading in which the fawn's death symbolizes the end of the antiquated English Church or even Charles I's demise. The “wanton troopers” that attack the fawn could represent Oliver Cromwell's army, which overthrew the monarchy and established the Commonwealth. The images of blood in Marvell’s poem recall the “bloody hands” of the group of observers that watch Charles I being executed in Marvell’s “Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return to Ireland.” Moreover, the nymph’s description of the fawn’s calmness and innocence in her garden resonate with Marvell’s depiction of Charles I as he faced his executioner, bowing his head calmly “as upon a bed.” Ultimately, though, these connections are tenuous, and it is impossible to ascertain whether or not Marvell intended to create a political-theological allegory within his lyric pastoral.