The Pastoral

The Pastoral

First two examples of “pastoral” literature–a literary mode that goes back to the Ancient Greeks, to Hesiod and the poet Theocritus. It is a literature that describes–perhaps, better, romanticizes–rural life, particularly the life of shepherds and opposes it to the life of the city. Echoes of the old myth of the “golden age” surround these portrayals–which, by the way, are usually the work of urban poets. What do you see as the chief feelings and values conveyed by the following excerpts? To whom might such literature appeal, and why?

From Virgil, Eclogue 1

Happy old man! So these lands will still be yours, and large enough for you, though bare stones cover all, and the marsh chokes your pastures with slimy rushes. Still, no strange herbage shall try your breeding ewes, no baneful infection from a neighbour’s flock shall harm them. Happy old man! Here, amid familiar streams and sacred springs, you shall enjoy the cooling shade. On this side, as of old, on your neighbour’s border, the hedge whose willow blossoms are sipped by Hybla’s bees shall often with its gentle hum soothe you to slumber; on that, under the towering rock, the woodman’s song shall fill the air; while still the cooing wood pigeons, your pets, and the turtle dove shall cease not their moaning from the elm tops.
From Christopher Marlowe, “A Passionate Shepherd to his Love”

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals

Now for a very short look at pastoral after Renaissance writers like Marlowe eagerly imported it from Roman and Greek poetry into English. The following examples come from the 18th century to the present:
Consider this:
Francois Boucher, An Autumn Pastoral (1749)

Now consider this:
Thomas Gainsborough, Pastoral Landscape

Now consider this:
George Inness, Lackawanna Valley c 1855

Now this:

We could call the the progress of the pastoral, perhaps. The first two images move from artifice in the countryside to a realistic, yet still evocative portrait thereof–a portrait that depicts not upper class folk playing shepherds, but someone doing farm work. Do pastoral values survive this transition?

Then, in the wake of the industrial revolution, we see the entrance of technology in the Inness painting–do pastoral values survive this transition?

Then, in the last, this sort of contrast is intensified. In this photograph–which you already know– the Three Mile Island reactor (where our worst nuclear accident occurred) looms up over a farmhouse. Do pastoral values survive in this landscape?

But beware of chronology: versions of the pastoral are still alive and with us despite the previous image’s subtext–which amounts, perhaps, both to conveying irony about the present and also an attempt to proclaim the pastoral tradition dead. Heed what the fellow below says:

I am NOT extinct.

Postscript: The Golden Age

from Ovid, Metamorphoses

[The Golden Age] +

The age was formed of gold; in those first davs

No law or force was needed; men did right

Freely; without duress they kept their word.

No punishment or fear of it; no threats

Inscribed on brazen tablets; no crowds crawled

Beseeching mercy from a lofty judge;

For without law or judge all men were safe.

High on its native hills the pine tree stood,

Unlopped as yet, nor yet compelled to cross

Ocean’s wide waves, and help men leave their homes.

Towns had no moats; no horns of winding brass

Nor trumpets straight, nor swords nor shields existed.

The nations dozed through ages of soft time,

Safe without armies; while the earth herself,

Untouched by spade or plowshare, freely gave,

As of her own volition, all men needed

Lucas Cranach the elder, The Golden Age