non sibi sed toti

Classics Teaching Resources

Pastoral - Two dimensions or three?

The Life and Death of Pastoral - part 2

The Renaissance The Renaissance brought its gains and losses to Pastoral. One gain is that classical Latin returned. Men learned from Theocritus, Calpurnius and above all Virgil. What they learned was to use Pastoral conventions for a wide variety of poems. One loss is that freshness and originality gave way to cleverness in imitation.

As early as 1346 Petrarch wrote 12 eclogues. Eclogue II tells of a peaceful evening interrupted by a terrible hailstorm, which drives two shepherds to take refuge in the same rock (does this ring a Virgilian bell?). But the poem is not about shepherds at all, if we believe Petrarch's own letters. The peaceful evening (lenis somnus) is the peaceful state of the times. Shepherds making crooks for themselves are clergy seeking bishoprics. A tall cypress felled by the storm is Robert of Anjou who died three years before the poem. Saturn is the Pope, Venus Queen Joan, and clouds arising from the stinking north are her hangers-on. Naturally, the two shepherds are Petrarch and a fellow-poet who lament the death of Argus - who is also Robert of Anjou. It all seems a bit mechanical, though one can appreciate the line:

vidimus et nimbo velatam abscedere Phoeben
(We have seen Phoebe, the moon, too, disappear in cloud)

when we know that Phoebe is Robert's wife Sancha of Aragon who entered a convent (veiled - took the veil). We can see in all this how the stage is being prepared for Milton's Lycidas.

Mantuan, more than a century after Petrarch, was a leading Carmelite, and he used Pastoral to teach godly lessons, and happily mixed classical mythology with biblical characters when he wrote about shepherds. Paris was a shepherd; so was Moses at the burning bush. Likewise Apollo, and the men who heard the angels tell of the birth of the Christ. The seventh Eclogue recounts a vision of the Virgin Mary, perhaps a real vision seen by the poet, barely disguised by calling the poet Pollux and having the Virgin promise him a journey to heaven among Hamadryads and Oreads.

Castiglione, who wrote "The Courtier," a book of etiquette that ruled the sixteenth century courts of Europe, lost a friend from his student days, Matteo Falcone. He mourned him in a Pastoral, calling him Alcon and making him, of course, a fellow shepherd:

... quem totiens Fauni et Dryades sensere canentem,
quem totiens Pan est, totiens miratus Apollo,
flebant pastores.
Whom Fauns and Dryads heard so often sing,
At whom Apollo oft was wondering
And Pan, and shepherds wept.

To show he knew his Virgil, Castiglione included the line

formosum hic pastor Corydon cantavit Alexin.

But the renaissance poet who really tried a new line in Pastoral was Sannazaro (1458-1530). Why should shepherds always take the limelight? What's wrong with fishermen? So were born his Piscatory Eclogues - not pastoral but piscatoral, one might say. They "had an immense vogue" (McFarlane), but when you come down to it so much is familiar that the fishing background seems almost a gimmick. The old theme of unrequited love for Galatea (cf the Cyclops in Theocritus 11) is the subjectof Sannazaro's second Eclogue. Lycon, the rejected lover, sits in a seaside cave to sing his complaint. Instead of flocks and herds resting about him in the midday heat, dolphons, whales and sea-calves sleep at night, when of course the other fishermen are out with lanterns to attract their catch. Lycon's love-gifts were not sheep or pipes or carved bowls, but a thousand oysters, and lots more where those came from. I don't know if oysters had their aphrodisiac reputation in renaissance Italy, but if they did it is small wonder Galatea declined the gift. I'm not sure that she would have been impressed by his list of previous conquests, including a married woman, or by the fact that Lyde was busy trying to win his love at that moment. But there is a nice touch at the end of the poem. Where conventional pastorals end with the coming of evening, this one ends with dawn:

cum tandem extremo veniens effulsit ab ortu
Lucifer et roseo perfudit lumine pontum.

English Pastoral

But it is high time we arrived in England and the English language; to that strange artificial language of Spenser. Before anyone begins to feel guilty at not knowing much of Spenser, just listen to this:

"Probably no one has actually read every line of The Faerie Queen, but it is an enduring monument (in misapplied Gtthic style, with Elizabethan topknot) of English literature. We need it, and make use of it, as our major contribution to the Renaissance epic. ... The punishing length, utter confusion and unremitting tedium of Spenser's contribution serve not merely to impress uncreative minds but to illustrate generally that Eng. Lit. is not an easy option." (Brigid Brophy and others: "100 works of English Literature we could do without").

So it is not with unmixed awe that I approach The Shepherd's Calendar, even though Spenser in his Epilogue to the 12 eclogues for each month writes, with Horace and Ovid in mind:

Lo, I have made a Calendar for every year,
That steel in strength, and time in durance shall outwear:
And if I marked well the stars' revolution,
It shall continue till the world's dissolution;
To teach the ruder shepherd how to feed his sheep,
And from the falser's fraud his folded flock to keep.
Go, little Calendar, thou hast a free passport,
Go, but a lowly gat among the meaner sort.
Bare not to match thy pipe with Tityrus-his style...

Spenser was well acquainted with Theocritus, Virgil, and others. His shepherd hero was called Colin Clout, 'under which name (so the Glosse tells us) this poet secretly shadoweth himself, as sometime did Virgil under the name of Tityrus, thinking it much fitter than such Latin names, for the great unlikelyhoode of the language.' Colin is unhappily in love with Rosalind, and is himself loved by Hobbinol, a fact that the Glosse takes great pains to trace; back to Plato, and Socrates: 'who saith that indeed he loved Alcibiades extremely, yet not Alcibiades' person, but his soul.' The January Eclogue includes these lines:

It is not Hobbinol whereafore I plaine,
Albe my love he seeks with daily suit:
His clownish gifts and courtesies I disdain,
* (compare Virgil: Rusticus es, Corydon, nec munera curat Alexis)
His kids, his cracknels, and his early fruit, (biscuits)
Ah foolish Hobbinol, thy gifts be vain:
Colin give them to Rosalind again.
I love thilk lass (alas why do I love?)
And am forlorn (alas, why am I lorn?)
She deigns not my goodwill, but doth reprove,
And of my rural music holdeth scorn.
Shepherd's device, she hateth as the snake,
And laughs the songs that Colin Clout doth make.
Wherefore my pipe, albeit rude Pan thou please,
Yet for thou pleasest not where most I would
And thou unlucky Muse, that wonst to ease
My musing mind, yet canst not when thou should:
Both pipe and Muse shall sore the while abye
(sorely pay for the time they failed him)
So broke his oaten pipe, and down did lie.

We can perhaps see how Spenser treats Virgil as Virgil treated Theocritus, partly changing the landscape, closely imitating details while altering the context. Pan is there, fresh from Arcadia, and seemingly at home in the fields of North East Lancashire. Theocritus wrote one Idyll as a direct address to Hiero of Syracuse asking for patronage (idyll 16), and Spenser uses his October Eclogue (which by the by he spells Aegloga, as if to do with Aiges, goats) to complain about the low status of poets in England, but he does it as a discussion between Piers and Cuddy, two shepherds with their pipes, but learned shepherds who knew more of Virgil than his Eclogues:

Cuddy: Inxdeed the Romish Tityrus, I hear,
Through his Maecenas left his oaten reed,
Whereon he earst had taught his flocks to feed,
And laboured lands to yield the timely ear (Georgics)
And eft did sing of wars and deadly dread,
So as the heavens did quake his verse to hear. (Aeneid)
But ah Maecenas is yclad in clay,
And great Augustus long ago is dead,,,

For myself, I prefer Colin Clout in less academic mood, and I find the closing stanzas of December quite moving, and almost Shakespearean: Colin is feeling old and cold:

Now leave, ye shepherds' boys, your merry glee;
My Muse is hoarse and weary of this stound (toil)
Here will I hang my pipe upon this tree;
Was never pipe of reed did better sound,
Winter is come that blows the bitter blast,
And after winter, dreary death doth haste,

Gather together, ye my little flock,
My little flock, that was to me so lief;
Let me, ah! let me in your folds ye lock,
Ere the breme winter breeds you greater grief.
Winter is come, that blows the baleful breath,
And after winter cometh timely death.

Adieu, delights, that lulled me asleep:
Adieu, my dear, whose love I bought so dear.
Adieu, my little lambs and loved sheep;
Adieu ye woods, that oft my witness were:
Adieu, good Hobbinol, that was so true;
Tell Rosalind, Colin bids her adieu.

I shall not stop to discuss The Faerie Queen, where the Knight Calidore in Book 6 has a brief sight of our old friend Colin Clout claying his music for 100 naked maidens to dance to, whirling around the three graces and in the very centre the poet Colin Clout's own lady - that is surely meant to suggest something about the power of love or the powe: of poetry or both, to transfigure the beloved. 'Thy love is there advanced to be another Grace.' But at the coming of the Knight Calidore the maidens scatter and the vision is lost. So the man of action cannot live in that Arcadia that the poet summons up, but even a fleeting vision of it stays in the memory and can influence the course of his life.


Which brings me to Shakespeare. Casting about for the most obviously pastoral among his 'native wood—notes wild', I chose this:

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird's throat.
Come hither, come hither, come hither.
Here shall he see no enemy
But winter and rough weather.
Who doth ambition shun
And loves to live i'the sun
Leaving his wealth and ease
A stubborn will to please,
Here shall he see no enemy
But winter and rough weather.

The song is, of course, from As You Like It, a play which makes explicit the very point I was trying to make just now. The story begins in a 'Duke's palace, in the real world of society and status. When the tensions there are beyond bearing, every character one by one, moves to the Forest of Arden, an English Arcadia if ever there was one, "The process of putting the complex into the simple" begins. And when every relationship has been worked out, there is a general return to the real world: The Duke says:

First, in this forest let us do those ends
That here were well begun and well begot;
And after, every of this happy number
That have endured shrewd days and nights with us
Shall share the good of our returned fortune
According to the measure of their states

The world of society and status is re-established, but changed by the visit to the land of Pastoral. By the way, an open-air production of this play that I saw recently brought on a real goat! This points up the unlikely mixture that Pastoral has contained from Theocritus onward, earthy realism and impossible sophistication. As the characters chased the goat across the lawn, they spoke the language of Shakespeare.

You can see the As You Like It pattern of a temporary visit to Arcadia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and perhaps in A Winter's Tale and even The Tempest. The Merry Wives of Windsor has a variant, which is instructive for our purpose. Here the good citizens of Windsor deliberately arrange a final pastoral episode in Windsor Park, where everyone including their intended victim Palstaff will be playing a part - as Herne the Hunter, or 'Like urchins, ouphes and fairies, gr&en and white', and there at last the truth is played out, and Falstaff brought to as near repentance as the fat rogue is capable of:

"'Tis time I were choked with a piece of toasted cheese,"

Arcadia really is an artificial construction, of the poet, of the citizens of Windsor; but it has its uses in the real world.

Three Poems

It is time we stopped theorising about pastoral, and heard the famous pair of poems, Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love", and Sir Walter Raleigh's "Her Reply", both written in the year 1600.

The passionate Sheepheard to his love

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Vallies, groves, hills and fieldes,
Woods, or steepie mountaine yeeles.
And wee will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Sheephcards feede theyr flocks,
By shallow Rivers, to whose falls,
Melodious byrds sings Madrigalls.
And I will make thee beds of Roses,
And a thousand fragrant poesies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle,
Imbroydred all with leaves of Mirtle.
A gowne made of the finest wooll,
Which from our pretty Lambes we pull,
Fayre lined slippers for the cold:
With buckles of the purest gold.
A belt of straw, and ivie buds,
With Corall clasps and Amber studs,
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with mee, and be my love.
The Shecpheards Swaines shall daunce and sing,
For thy delight each May-morning.
If these delights thy minde may move;
Then live with mee, and be my love.


The Nimphs reply to the Sheepheard

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every Sheepheards tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move.
To live with thee, and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When Rivers rage, and Rocks grow cold,
And Philomcll becommeth dombe,
The rest complaines of cares to come.
The flowers doe fade. and wanton fieldes,
To wayward winter reckoning yeeldes.
A honny tongue, a hart of gall,
Is fancies spring, but sorrower fall.
Thy gownes, thy shooes. thy beds of Roses.
Thy cap. thy kirtle, and thy poesies.
Soone breake, soone wither, soone forgotten:
In follie ripe. in reason rotten.
Thy belt of straw and Ivie buddes,
Thy Corall claspes and Amber studdes,
All these in mee no meanes can move,
To come to thee, and be thy love,
But could youth last, and love still breede.
Had joyes no date, nor age no neede,
Then these delights my minde might move,
To live with thee, and be thy love.

There yet again, if I may pick at it, is the suspicion that these are a youth and a lady of the court dressing up as rustics. A belt of straw and ivy-buds - certainly rustic, but not hard-wearing, I imagine - has coral clasps and amber studs, not to be found in your average hayfield.

I add one more set of verses inspired, thirty-three years later, by the Marlowe poem: John Donne's "The Baite." The editors of the Penguin book of English Pastoral Verse call it "little more than an exercise-piece, one in a long and ever more tedious series of replies to Marlowe's long-dead Passionate Sheepheard." I wonder if Donne had read Sannazaro's Piscatory Eclogues.


The Baite

Come live with mee, and bee my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and christall brookes,
With silken lines, and silver hookes.
There will the river whispering runne
Warm'd by thy eyes, more then the Sunne.
And there the'inamor'd fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.
When thou wilt swimme in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channell hath,
Will amorously to thee swimme,
Gladder to catch thee, then thou him.
If thou, to be so seene, beest loath,
By Sunne, or Moone, thou darknest both,
And if my selfe have leave to see,
I need not their light, having thee.
Let others freeze with angling reeds.
And cut their legges, with shells and weeds,
Or treacherously poore fish beset,
With strangling snare, or windowie net:
Let coarse bold hands, from slimy nest
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest,
Or curious traitors, sleavesilke flies
Bewitch poore fishes wandring eyes.
For thee, thou needst no such deceit,
For thou thy selfe art thine owne bait;
That fish, that is not catched thereby,
Alas, is wiser farre than I.


Milton was passionately devoted to the Classics. His lovely early 'L'Allegro' trips along in a happy 2-d evocation of an idealised countryside:

While the ploughman near at hand
Whistles o'er the furrowed land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe
Add the mower whets his scythe
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.

The hawthorn is a thoroughly English tree, but the inhabitants are from long ago and far away:

Hard by, a cottage—chimney smokes
From between two aged oaks
Where Corydon and Thyrsis met
Are at their savoury dinner set
Of herbs, and other country messes
Which the neat-handed Phyllis dresses,
And then in haste the bower she leaves
With Thestylis to bind the sheaves.

When Milton's friend Edward King, fellow of Christ's, Cambridge, Milton's old college, was drowned as his ship hit rocks on the English coast after leaving Chester for Ireland, Milton's response was a Pastoral, Lycidas. Let us hear a little of it, before allowing Doctor Johnson to smash it with his caustic wit:

Where were ye, nymphs, when the remorseless deep
Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old bards, the famous Druids, lie,
Nor on the shaggy tops of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream.

Here is familiar stuff - closely imitated Theocritus and Virgil, set in English shires. Neptune appearsfor one lost at sea, and Camus to bewail the lost Cambridge scholar, and St Peter to lament the intending Church of England clergyman - and to take a side-swipe at lazy and insincere clergy,

... such as for their bellies' sake
Creep and intrude and climb into the fold,...
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.

Here then is Doctor Johnson: It is not to "be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no "berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethusa and Mincius, nor tells rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief. .... What image of tenderness can be excited by these lines?

We drove a field, and both together heard
What time the grey fly winds her sultry horn,
Battling our flocks with the fresh dews of night.

We know that they never drove a field, and that they had no flocks to batten. Among the flocks and copses and flowers appear the heathen deities; Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and Aeolus, with a long train of mythological imagery, such as college easily supplies. 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. This poem has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths, such as ought never to be polluted with such irreverent combinations. The shepherd likewise is now a feeder of sheep, and afterwards an ecclesiastical pastor, a superintendant of a Christian flock. Such equivocations are always unskilful, but here they are indecent."

Poor Lycidas! But Dr Johnson knew that this was the very stuff of pastoral. What he thought of Milton's Latin Epitaphium Damonis, again a peep on a real bereavement, on the death of his friend Charles Beodati, in the form of a conversation between Thyrsis and Damon, we do not know, although we do know that Johnson thought highly of Milton's Latin verse in general. Epitaphium Damonis, begins:

Nymphs of Himera (for you remember Daphnis and Hylas
And the long—mourned death of Bion)
Sing a Sicilian song through the towns of Thames.

Himeridea Nymphae (nam vos et Daphnin et Hylan,
Et plorata diu meministis fata Bionis)
Dicite Sicelicum Thamesina per oppida carmen.


16-year old Pope echoed in his Four Pastorals (one for each season of the year), this same thought:

Fair Thames, flow gently from thy sacred spring
While on thy banks Sicilian Muses sing.

But he also claims descent from Spenser:

'That flute is mine which Colin's tuneful breath
Inspired when living and bequeathed in death:
He said - Alexis, take this pipe, the same
That taught the groves my Rosalinda's name.

But Pope did not expand the possibilities of Pastoral, which was by his day a wornout genre.


Wordsworth loved shepherds, but they were real ones, not those of the pastoral imagination: He writes in The Prelude:

'Shepherds were the men who pleased me first...'

but goes on to compare the ideal, as we have been looking at it, with the real, in his own experience. He, as a schoolboy, looked at a real shepherd with some awe:

Meanwhile this creature spiritual almost
As those of books, but more exalted far;
Far more of an imaginative form
Than the gay Corin of the groves, who lives
For his own fancies, or to dance by the hour
In coronal, with Phyllis in the midst -
Was, for the purposes of kind, a man
With the most common; husband, father, learned,
Could teach, admonish; suffered with the rest,
From vice and folly, wretchedness and fear.

So pastoral died. The watery light of the Lakeland banished the theatrical lighting of Arcadia.

Surviving influences

But still writers make worlds to serve the purposes that Arcadia once could serve. Hardy invented Wessex, which no one could visit because it was the Wessex of his youth. The best sci-fi writers make their worlds and use them to explore truth. C.S. Lewis took his children to Narnia, and his adult Ransom to Venus, so that they could return to earth changed. The Wild West film is a genre of which some notable examples are definitely three-dimensional. But there are still poets who can write of the country life, and include a third dimension, and a depth of meaning and feeling which is telling. May I end with Seamus Heaney's "At a potato digging." Seamus Heaney is an Ulster-born Roman Catholic, very much concerned with the problems of Ireland, and also, like all Irishmen, with its history, and with his own childhood in the country. Here he watches an everyday farming scene and thinks back to the potato famine of 1845, when the crop was harvested, but rotted after three days, and hunger reduced men, women and children to walking skeletons, and then millions of them to rotting corpses.


A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.

Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand

Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble towards the black
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf

Recurs mindlessly as autumn. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.

Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
like inflated pebbles. Native
to the black hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem

the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
Good smells exude from crumbled earth,
The rough bark of humus erupts

knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed

Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,
wolfed the blighted root and died.

The new potato, sound as stone,
putrefied when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.

Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.

A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.

Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore.

Under a gay flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
Brown bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop

Down in the ditch, and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
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