Poetry in the Pastoral Mode
Scholars believe pastoral poetry began with Hesiod’s Works and Days (700 BCE), an oral poem of approximately 800 lines that was “part farmer’s almanac and part didactic exploration of the nature of human labor.” Critical opinion, however, favors the Idylls of Theocritus (written in the 3rd century BCE) as the progenitive work that defined the classic pastoral tropes we now recognize. The Idylls were approximately thirty assorted lyric pieces set in verse dialogues and soliloquys that were “sung” by herdsmen, goatherds and their female lovers. They were composed in epic Greek meter (dactylic hexameter), which lent a blend of simplicity and sophistication to the form, and recounted various tales featuring, inter alia, mythological characters, a love-spell for a neglected lover, a boxing match, singing contests, and other stories about local personages and their lives. The natural landscape and country life functioned as much the engines of the subject matter as background scenery.
Two hundred years later Virgil exploited these motifs in his Eclogues, whose main actors were, again, gentle shepherds living in a “symbolic [rural] landscape, a delicate blend of myth and reality.” Virgil followed this literary success with Georgics, a paean to farming modeled on Hesiod’s earlier work. Virgil’s individual genius elevated the genre by ennobling its expression, ridding the poetry of pettiness, exaggeration and sentimentality, so as to make it serviceable to grander themes. Because of this, Virgil’s pastorals became the cynosure for future generations of poets.
Thus, The Epodes by Horace used pastoral images of the countryside as a dreamy getaway from city life. In 14th century Italy, Petrarch (writing in Latin) revived the form and started a new-wave pastoral movement in Europe. Two centuries later in England, Edmund Spenser’s masterwork, The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), arguably the highest artistic extension of the form, contained shepherd dialogues, elegies, and fables, as well as a discourse on poetry’s role in contemporary England. Following Spenser’s example were Michael Drayton, William Browne, and Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote the pastoral poem, “Arcadia” and anti-pastoral works, “The Twenty-Third Psalm” and “The Nightingale.” John Milton used the pastoral frame in his early work, “L’Allegro” and its companion, “Il Penseroso,” again in “Lycidas,” as well as in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, where Eden was the living embodiment of the idyll. Further examples of the pastoral are seen in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the literature that attended the discovery and development of the early American colonies, which Leo Marx examines in The Machine in the Garden, one of the best modern commentaries on the form.
Marx finds that there are two distinct species of the pastoral, “one that is popular and sentimental, the other imaginative and complex.” In the popular pastoral, usually figured by the locus amoenus with its idyllic characterizations of rural life, the interdependence of man, animal and vegetation is the key to a happy and fulfilling existence. There are familiar references to the procession of the seasons (which, in turn, reflected the “seasons of life”) employed as an adaptive timeline for tales of a close-knit agricultural community that, among other things, tilled the land and harvested crops, cultivated livestock, hunted and fished, erected dwellings, barns and storehouses, celebrated life and love, mourned death and found escape from the ever-present reminder of their mortality in the worship of God.
On the other hand, we see an example of the complex pastoral in Virgil’s first eclogue, “The Dispossessed, ” where the shepherds, Tityrus and Meliboeus, discuss (in verse dialogues) the personal strife and community upheaval that ensues after the Roman government has dispossessed a number of small landowners in order to give the property to military veterans. Tityrus has retained his homestead because his suit was fostered by a benevolent sponsor, while Meliboeus is evicted and so must move away. Nevertheless, Virgil fashions a “feel good” ending by highlighting the charity and affection that extends between the two shepherds. In contrast to the sentimental pastoral, the complex form (which include the “anti-pastoral” type) are not as sanguine about life, often highlighting the embattled fronts represented by (1) the encroaching “civilized” world and (2) the unpredictable consequences of raw nature at its worst.
Of course, one is inclined to give more credence to these complex and anti-pastoral viewpoints: rural life was not sweeter, simpler, or less threatening than its metropolitan counterpart. Before the advent of mechanized farming and advanced medicine, the pasture and the farm were more realistically associated with brutally hard physical labor, primitive education, the lack of economic and cultural advantages, and the likelihood of disabling illness and early death. As a result, the pastoral genre is steeped in an overarching resignation to the inevitable political, social, economic and natural hardships, as well as the consequent domestic unrest, to which the rural community regularly fell prey. We see these recognizable scenarios play out in twentieth century poetry also, e.g., in Robert Frost’s anti-pastoral poems, “The Death of the Hired Man” and “Home Burial.” Though the farmer has taken the place of the Virgilian shepherd, the poems still employ, dramatic dialogues to report the familiar events that the times have visited on the rural community.
When we speak of the pastoral mode, it is important to understand that it is merely one of the genres that writers use to frame or infer a particular kind of narrative. A genre has literary artifacts, familiar characters, plots and associated figuration, such as metaphors, tropes, symbols and emblems. There are many other genres with their own figurative schemes, like the Arthurian Romances which recount tales of the adventurous life, courtly romance and the virtuous quests of the Knights of the Round Table [e.g., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (anonymous author) and The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser], and picaresque fictions [e.g., in poetry, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, and in the novel, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes] which were part morality play and part sensationalist societal exposé. In contemporary life, authors engage us with courtroom dramas, detective stories, science fiction and modern romance to similarly leverage narratives using genres that embody given cultural, historical and metaphorical frameworks.
The pastoral mode, however, because of its figurative associations with Eden, seems fundamental to a way of thinking of a truly “natural life” before man’s fabled “original sin,” when nascent artifice, arising from Narcissistic vanity and perverse love, tricked the first farmer-caretaker out of his land and birthright. Hence, the pastoral constitutes a primal sense of place that we feel instinctively, as William Butler Yeats said (in Lake Isle of Innisfree), “in the deep heart’s core.”
Yet long before Yeats’s time, poetry’s pastoral cloak, at least when worn by the shepherd or other rustic, was torn and tattered. Samuel Johnson took Milton out to the woodshed for putting on the shepherd’s guise in “Lycidas” which, despite its ingenious mastery of language and form, falls prey to cultural ennui for obvious reasons :
Nothing can less display knowledge or less exercise invention than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion and must now feed his flocks alone, without any judge of his skill in piping; and how one god asks another god what is become of Lycidas, and how neither god can tell. He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honor. 
Even Alexander Pope’s efforts to revive the Virgilian pastoral and adapt its characters and discourse to his own time and place (18th Century London) are generally considered failures for facial unsuitability.
In fact, the lineage of the archetypal Virgilian pastoral effectively dies out at the very end of the sixteenth century with Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (1599), a lyrical poem written approximately twenty years after the publication of The Shepheardes Calendar. Like many of Spenser’s imitators, Marlowe takes on the mantle of a humble shepherd in order to flatter and seduce his lady. Given this background, the poet and his readers may be assumed to have implicitly acknowledged that the poem was more in the way of sentimental kitsch art, operating within an old genre that was then primarily intended to serve as an advertising vehicle for the poet himself. [Before Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe was recognized as the foremost playwright of his time and the first to make full use of blank verse (iambic pentameter) for his dramas, the most famous of which is The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.] The ruse of the “Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is logistically ironic in a modernistic sense when we consider that Marlowe, one of the preeminent authors of his day, was born in Canterbury, schooled at Cambridge, by some accounts a spy and homosexual, and, clearly, a city dweller in Elizabethan London, not, by any degree, a rustic from the shepherding Lake District. It may be safely assumed that the cognoscenti reading the poem knew this and were in on the joke.
Marlowe’s poem observes the generic pastoral references to mountains, woods, rivers, flowers, and like motifs for the purpose of distantly evoking rural beauty, a nostalgic longing for the purity of the countryside, and the prospect of personal and spiritual freedom, all of which appealed to the proto-romantic sensibility. Within the poem’s “argument” there is, of course, a transparent seduction, but here expects none but the most naive lady to succumb, which gives the poem a delightful playfulness. The poem has the textual attributes of a “song,” which would have been in keeping with its Virgilian model, and its “come live with me and be my love” refrain is the kind of ear worm that modern pop songs crave. Because of the poem’s character as ballad it almost too easily settles into the guise of rustic naiveté, devoid of the kind of wit displayed by John Donne in his takeoff, “The Bait,” and hardly comparable to Marlowe’s other lyrical work, e.g., the magnificent “Hero and Leander.” The hackneyed pastoral posture was viewed, particularly among the elite literary personnel of Marlowe’s social milieu, as a clichéd construct that could be easily ridiculed, as Sir Walter Raleigh proved in his wry response to Marlowe, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” [Although Raleigh’s “response” was in the tradition of medieval pastourelle, which featured the peasant girl’s successful rebuttal of the knight’s advances, the deliciousness of “The Nymph’s Reply” relies upon the twin ironies that neither author was truly invested in the pastoral guise and that Raleigh was not the subject of Marlowe’s original entreaty, thereby suggesting a form of cuckoldry by poetry.]
Since then poets have had to adapt the Virgilian model in selective ways that give a sense of contemporaneity to the the form, otherwise they face Raleigh’s sort of mockery. So the idealized vision of the Romantic William Wordsworth’s “To a Highland Girl” and “The Solitary Reaper” is roundly parodied by Victorian Thomas Hardy’s “The Milkmaid.” On the other hand, Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree (1890) memorializes the place where he spent summers as a child in such a personal way that he can convincingly sell his vision of idyllic greenery and birdsong, especially when he grimly juxtaposes it to the “pavements grey” at the heart of the mechanized urban vision we are all familiar with.
Notwithstanding the naive premises of the popular form of pastoral, however stretched and strained, the genre remains remarkably durable, even if it is increasingly used as a touchstone more than a framework. In modern and contemporary poems we witness the popular pastoral portrait with its cracked varnish juxtaposed to modernism’s industrial high tech, conflicted morality and garish breaches of decorum; when they are combined, we have a distinctive form of irony. Frank O’Hara’s confrontational lyric poem, “Song [Is it dirty]” (1964) plays the weathered pastoral sensibility off the sordid image of the city (e.g., such as depicted in William Blake’s “London”) and exposes them both as two-dimensional constructs befitting a primitive woodcut or simple morality play. The complexity of city life leads us to live according to a relative mix of values, to rub shoulders with folks who may be considered, in certain contexts, as having a “bad” character, even though they may be “attractive” in other ways. Whether or not the poem serves a gay subtext, as Marjorie Perloff thought, is secondary to O’Hara’s clear references to the pastoral antithesis. O’Hara’s sarcasm is evident:
Is it dirty
does it look dirty
that’s what you think of in the city
does it just seem dirty
that’s what you think of in the city
you don’t refuse to breathe do you
someone comes along with a very bad character
he seems attractive. is he really. yes very
he’s attractive as his character is bad. is it. yes
that’s what you think of in the city
run your finger along your no-moss mind
that’s not a thought that’s soot
and you take a lot of dirt off someone
is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly
you don’t refuse to breathe do you
Here we see the traditional polar extremes: the dirt/soot of the city and the moss of countryside. But soot is a product of the combustion of coal, which gives us heat and energy; and moss, although green, is not grass, but instead a plant without conventional roots, stems and leaves that is basically inedible (as distinct from lichens or algae). The reference to “no-moss mind” temps us to associate the old saw, “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” but otherwise infers an anti-pastoral, metropolitan sensibility. O’Hara pointedly challenges the given associations with his queries (“Is it dirty/does it look dirty . . . does it seem dirty”): i.e., by living in the city, the moss of the pastoral must be necessarily exchanged for the soot of the city. At least “that’s what” [some of us] think of in the city.”. But just as we “don’t refuse to breathe the air,” soot and all, we accommodate ourselves to life in the city. By analogy, the “bad” characters (however “attractive”) that one is forced to live with in the crush of the city represent a similar compromise. One of the notable aspects of modernism is its discourse on relative moral values as a variable lens through which to view life. Thus, a desirable complexity is achieved in the paradox: the “character” is not “less bad,” but nevertheless “improves constantly.” So that when we get to the final refrain, “that’s what you think of in the city,” the statement is more a corrective imperative than a mere declaration, just as the reprise, “you don’t refuse to breathe do you.” [As anyone who has read “Meditations in an Emergency” knows O’Hara didn’t buy the morbid view of the city: “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”]
If Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) embodies a unified theory of the American pastoral sensibility, the strain of our metropolitan reality became the subject of the personality crisis voiced by so many modern and contemporary poets. T.S. Eliot’s portrayal in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) is a walking-talking personification of the dilemma Georg Simmel presciently envisioned in “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), which began with this resounding sentence:
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life.
The devolution – from Shelley’s heroic Prometheus, the mythic analogue to the Romantic Napoleonic figure, to the disgruntled figure of the retired Ulysses in Tennyson’s eponymous poem, and finally to Eliot’s aging post-Romantic lover, who dares not “disturb the universe” – was, needless to say, a dramatic one over the course of a historically momentous one hundred years when modern civilization advanced in leaps and bounds.
The theme of this dialectic (nature vs. civilization) keeps reappearing in different forms, for example, in the subject of my last post, “Cascadilla Falls” (1987) by A.R. Ammons, where Eden’s perfection is translated though a Hobbesian vision of the mechanized universe, ever-moving with a relentless mathematical precision, that ultimately proves too much for us to “live by.” While Ammons’ poem turns on the nexus between nature and our place in it, the world seen through the eyes of Michael Dickman (in his wonderful “From the Canal“) – whose contemporary sensibility is colored by past drug and alcohol experiences and steeped in post-modern culture, knowledgeable of the effects of global warming and man’s corruption of nature (where we have indeed disturbed our universe) – may easily be taken for a double vision of the contemporary pastoral scene: at once fiendishly contaminated and extravagantly adorned by human invention, but appraised with the spiritual awe of a Romantic like John Clare. I discuss Dickman’s poem at length here.
We indeed live in a post-pastoral world, not in the sense that we are “passed it,” but that our naive views and expectations changed as most of us began to dwell and work in metropolitan areas. We are innately aware that literary conventions are merely ways of framing a story or coloring a portrait, albeit very useful ones because they allow a poet (or other author) to simplify the presentation of complex ideas using a familiar context that has recognizable associations.
This is certainly the case with John Ashbery’s “Some Trees” (1956), whose complex discourse is much less so when viewed through the convention of the pastoral mode. This pastoral framework is the “still performance” – with its nonverbal “speech” and archetypal images of “comeliness” – that provides a perfect figuration for the romantic prelude the poem represents. The poem sets forth a classic contemporary dialectic, one that takes place “as far . . . from the world as agreeing with it,” in the dramatic tension between our naive romantic tableau in the garden (the ones that would “touch, love, explain” and where “silences” become a “chorus of smiles”) and our cultivated “reticence” in the metropolitan reality. In these circumstances, the implied accents of the pastoral are our only “defense” against the city’s wintry discourse (using the seasonal pastoral metaphor in a “puzzling” way to describe the more reserved life of the city). Ashbery repeatedly uses pastoral memes as a backboard against which to bounce contemporary sensibility.
For contemporary poets the pastoral is, indeed, the ideal sounding board. Thus, in one of Stephen Dunn’s newest poems, “Unnatural” (2016), we witness a poet using the pastoral mode to make the counter-intuitive argument for the artificial (or “unnatural”). I want to bring your attention to the last four lines of that poem:
the artifice in what’s called artificial,
the often concealed skill involved,
without which we’d have no accurate
view of ourselves, or of lilies in a pond.
In fact, our view of ourselves changed when we made the first wheel — and most would concede that each time a new invention arrives – whether in the sciences (medicine, transportation, physics, chemistry, cybernetics, etc.) or in the visual, musical or theatrical arts (in the form of photographs, motion pictures, radio, TV, or the internet media), we never see ourselves in the same way again. Our perceptions change and become enhanced by our creations, without which, as Dunn points out, “we’d have no accurate/view of ourselves.”
While one might argue with Dunn’s choice of the word “accurate” in this poem, none can refute the fact that the scientific discoveries of the last hundred years have given us increasing degrees of insight into an ever-evolving, ever-refining “view of ourselves” and the world around us. Further, when Dunn points to “the often concealed skill involved” in our creations, not only is he referring to the fact that our technology relies upon the gathered knowledge of hundreds of years, but how easily we overlook our assimilation of technology’s complexity and its effect on us as the present reality becomes the “new normal” (or the “new natural”).
Dunn’s argument is not a new one. Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” (1919) laid the groundwork for this view, where the wilderness is “slovenly” in light of the order-imposing elegance of the jar (the modern heir to Keats’ Grecian Urn), “grey and bare” as it is. Stevens’ poems, as Dunn’s, often explore opposite sites of the equation.
We observe this in “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1934), in which Stevens gave us another way of thinking about the interplay between art and nature. “The Idea of Order at Key West” is an extremely beautiful poem, but a difficult read if you have no experience with Wallace Stevens’ work. A shorthand way into the poem is to recognize that the woman in the poem is a figuration of the human imagination and that her “song” is the way the mind translates the chaos of the world and gives it definable “order.” [Think, for example, how our primitive views of hurricanes and other extreme weather systems have changed so dramatically with the advent of weather satellites, advanced telemetry and meteorological science which help us to make fairly reliable forecasts about “acts of God” previously thought to be unpredictable. Through technological order we come to acquire a sense of adapting the forces of nature.] The last stanzas of the poem refer to the after-effects of this process (“when the singing ended”) when, like the “slovenly wilderness” in “Anecdote of the Jar,” nature assumes an order that had not been apparent to us before. In this way, our minds organize reality through our fictions (our paradigms) so that it is understandable to us. Here, Stevens uses a pastoral setting and a Romantic form of discourse, but not in the traditional manner (e.g., to extol the beauty of nature or find the instruction residing therein); rather he writes from a very modern viewpoint, describing, epistemologically, the way the mind perceives and imposes an “idea of order” on the restless world. If “Anecdote of the Jar” is the exterior view of this process, “The Idea of Order at Key West” is the interior one.
Notably, modern and contemporary poetry emphasizes the translation of experience through the preeminence of images. We attribute this to Ezra Pound’s hallmark aesthetic, “imagism” and William Carlos William’s prescription, “not ideas but in things” (based on Emerson’s rule: “fasten words again to visible things”). By eschewing abstraction, the poet fashions an enduring vision of experience akin to the work of a visual artist. As an ancillary effect, the focus on concrete representation allows the reader to participate in the construction of the text in a way that is similar to our approach toward “reading” impressionistic, surrealistic and cubist works of visual art.
William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923) is one of the most striking pieces of twentieth century poetry because of its iconic imagery. Here we see the pastoral mode at work with its classic barnyard images. Its introductory phrase (“so much depends/upon”) appears to invoke a primordial/Edenic viewpoint, as if to say that these symbols of husbandry and nature form the basis of life. But there is more to this deceptively simple piece. Although we may easily overlook the wheelbarrow when compared to the science and art of the early twentieth century (when the poem was written), this simple tool incorporates the principle engineering inventions of mankind, viz., the fulcrum and the wheel. In this way, the poem serves the function, much as the wheelbarrow itself, of an object trouvé, i.e., the found object that constitutes the artwork itself and simultaneously exemplifies the conceptualist aesthetic which invokes contextuality or a broader world of references, hence rendering its presence all the more significant.
It is to Williams’ credit that, beyond the observation “so much depends/upon,” he does not interpose himself between these images and the reader, and thereby allows the reader to appreciate the unlimited import of the vision. Because of this we can imagine a variety of responses to the piece. A Marxist literary critic might view the poem as demonstrating how “so much depends upon” controlling the means of production. A neo-Romantic literary critic might view the poem as demonstrating the spirituality of nature. A post-modern literary critic with a deconstructionist bent might say this poem is a small “machine made of words” (the terms that Williams used to describe a poem) that, like a piece of software with open architecture, allows the user to think of it in multiple, albeit contradictory, ways that reflect the author’s ambiguous attitudes toward its subject matter. Yet, the pastoral mode used by Williams, combined with a tonality that bespeaks delight and awe, provides a fundamental emotional framework (as Yeats, we “hear it in the deep heart’s core”) to which all responses must bend like sails in the wind.
The Japanese haiku was championed by Ezra Pound primarily as an example of the concise use of images. But the form may also be used to illustrate Pound’s taxonomy of “three kinds of poetry”: the poetry of visual representation (phanopoeia), musicality or tonality (melopoeia) and the “dance of the intellect among the words” (logopoeia).
According to the classic definition, haikus are three line poems respectively syllabicated 5 –7 –5; but many English authors employ a free verse approach. The form, with its inherently concise expression and imagistic technique, generally relies upon seasonal and other pastoral elements to provide a recognizable framework.
One of the first and most famous English language haikus is Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Here, Pound employs the pastoral myth, encapsulating the seasons of life in this powerful ‘apparition” or dream-like vision of human faces, figured – like petals that the rain has caused to fall onto the bough – against the dark background of the station (which by reference to the “metro” we know takes place in a cityscape). There are many associations with these images, among which are:
-classic nature (petals and bough) v. human nature and technology (metro station),
-outdoors (country) v. indoors (city)
-the passing of the seasons (the petals have fallen on the wet bough) v. human mortality.
By comparison, Matsuo Basho’s famous end of life poem (using Robert Hass’s translation):
deep autumn –
my neighbor, I wonder
how does he live?
“Deep autumn” draws us toward the coming winter and, symbolically, the end of life. For those at the point of imminent death, as Basho was at the time he wrote this piece, the instinct to review and perhaps reevaluate the life we lived overcomes us; one reaches for a sense of community with the world, in part to seek some reassurance of the essential goodness of life. In the process of this reflection, we compare and perhaps distinguish ourselves from our neighbors — and in the modern electronic world a neighbor might be anyone. We ask: What was our neighbor’s life like and was our experience comparable? Basho’s haiku is regarded as one of the greatest ever written; it not only brings on the reflection I’ve referred to, but we also register surprise in Basho’s question, as if the all-consuming experience of living one’s own life naturally displaces our neighbor’s experience, and this shocks us with the recognition of a truth about our insular inner-lives. It is this pastoral sense of nature that shows us the way toward the communal experience.
For effective reading of modern and contemporary poetry, we should not dwell on a given poem as if was intended to communicate a single meaning, but reflect on the multiple ways the poem affects us, intellectually and emotionally. We want to avoid a purely instrumental or utilitarian way of thinking about language. Remember Ludwig Wittgenstein’s admonition: “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” In Williams’ formulation, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. . . . It isn’t what [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes.” As we go forward, we will start to think of the poem as a number of systems, of rhythm, rhyme, image, form, and ideas, each of which form a counterpoint to the others.
 Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (Oxford Univ. P 1964), p. 5. Although Marx gives primary credit to Theocritus for the birth of the form, scholars generally acknowledge Hesiod’s Works and Days (700 BCE) as the earliest example of pastoral literature. Thomas G. Rosenmeyer’s The Green Cabinet (Univ. of Cal. 1969) provides a thorough examination of the origins and uses of the pastoral lyric.
 James H. Hanford, “The Pastoral Elegy and Milton’s Lycidas,” Publications of the Modern Language Association, XXV (1910), 403-447.
 Marx at p. 19.
[This essay has been revised and supplemented since its original posting.]
© 2016 Steven M. Critelli
Categories: Literary Criticism