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Peter V. Marinelli

  1. 94 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub


Peter V. Marinelli

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First published in 1971, this book explores the theme of the pastoral in literature and the way in which it adapts itself to various forms. It examines some of the ways in which it has manifested itself, such as 'the golden age', 'Arcadia', 'Sparta' and childhood, whilst also identifying the central and unchanging core of meaning in the pastoral convention.

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Perspectives on the Pastoral

Towards the beginning of the eighth book of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, a book entitled ‘Retrospect – Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man’, there occurs a passage of almost two hundred lines which is of distinct importance to the pastoral tradition. It begins with a notable paragraph on the growth of the poet’s love of humanity, a paragraph which terminates in a simple assertion about a class of simple men:
For me, when my affections first were led
From kindred, friends, and playmates, to partake
Love for the human creature’s absolute self,
That noticeable kindliness of heart
Sprang out of fountains, there abounding most,
Where sovereign Nature dictated the tasks
And occupations which her beauty adorned,
And Shepherds were the men that pleased me first….
The word ‘Shepherd’, rendered more prominent by the capitalization, is for any reader in the European tradition an evocatory one. But the resonances of the word may move us too suddenly into a wistful recollection of the meadows and pastures of the golden Arcadias of classical pastoral, and therefore Wordsworth is prompt to clarify his meaning. He does so by interposing a series of idyllic reminiscences which lovingly record the development of the earlier pastoral, and at the same time divide it sharply from his own conception of that form of life and of the literature it inspires. He approaches the issue by a series of negative definitions. The Shepherds with whom he is concerned are not those whom Saturn ruled in the Latian wilds and who have left ‘even to us toiling in this late day,/A bright tradition of the golden age’. They are not such as ‘mid Arcadian fastnesses’ made a tradition of ‘Felicity, in Grecian song renowned’. They are not such as entered ‘with Shakespeare’s genius’ the forests of Arden or the rustic setting where Perdita and Florizel ‘Together danced, Queen of the feast, and King’. Nor, finally (and the concision of the allusion is attributable perhaps to the wealth of pastoral forms to be found in this author), are they ‘such as Spenser fabled’. The Shepherd who plays so significant a part in Wordsworth’s own spiritual development is rather a type whose rural ways and manners were the ‘unluxuriant product of a life/Intent on little but substantial needs….’ The line ‘Smooth life had flock and shepherd in old time’ points the contrast neatly: the fanciful creatures of old pastoral on the one hand, and the actual shepherd of modern times on the other. And though there are points of contact between the two – the latter also ‘tunes a flageolet to liquid notes of love’, he too occasionally spends hours of ‘unlaborious pleasure, with no task/More toilsome than to carve a beechen bowl’ – the poet is constantly aware that his contemporaries more usually move under skies less generous and serene than those of the ancient Mediterranean, in landscapes of wintry snows, hard labour, terrifying winds and an overawing solitude. In the poet’s idealizing imagination, the actual Shepherd assumes a giant shape: he becomes, beheld single against the sky, ‘A solitary object and sublime’. It is, perhaps, because the modern shepherd unites sublimity and reality that Wordsworth can draw the ultimate comparison between the delicate creatures of Arcadian fiction and what is essentially a moral being:
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….
The passage from which we have drawn these quotations is a microcosm of the old pastoral genre; a recollection, almost elegiac in tone, of its great age, its immense variety; and a witness of its death in the latter eighteenth century and its rebirth in the nineteenth under quite a different aspect. For if pastoral lives for us at all at the present time, it lives by a capacity to move out of its old haunts in the Arcadian pastures and to inhabit the ordinary country landscapes of the modern world, daily contracted by the encroachment of civilization and as a consequence daily more precious as a projection of our desires for simplicity. In the modern sense, pastoral is a very broad and very general term far removed from the more specific and distinct meaning attributed to it in earlier times. It scarcely has reference to a literature about actual shepherds, much less about Arcadians. For us it has come to mean any literature which deals with the complexities of human life against a background of simplicity. All that is necessary is that memory and imagination should conspire to render a not too distant past of comparative innocence as more pleasurable than a harsh present, overwhelmed either by the growth of technology or the shadows of advancing age. Certain Victorian novels, those of George Eliot for instance, deal with life in country settings in a period anterior to the Industrial Revolution and express the movement from complexity to simplicity in both time and place. In a more modern instance, we have exchanged the soft primitivism of Arcadia for a hard primitivism in New Hampshire and in so doing found it possible to speak of the pastoral part of Robert Frost. Instructed by William Empson we have been taught to see a sociological pastoral in works as diverse at The Beggar’s Opera and Alice in Wonderland. Or we have begun to transfer the aspects of the pastoral golden age into the time of innocence that every individual can remember, and to speak of a pastoral of childhood. Either the machines have come into the garden, or the world of adult experience casts its long shadows: in any case, it is a long time since the shepherds have all departed, leaving no addresses.
In confronting the literary tradition of pastoral then, in opposing to it a world of contemporary or just-outgrown pastoral reality, Wordsworth and some of his immediate predecessors like George Crabbe in effect draw a line, apparently for ever, between the classical and the modern pastoral. Corin and Phyllis, generic names for an entire host of shepherds and shepherdesses of the antique tradition, function only in the world of literature; their dwelling-place is in a golden country of the imagination called Arcadia, and their time is that timeless time of the mind in regression from reality. They are shepherds hardly at all, for their real interests are love and poetry, and they are really only the occasion for poetry. By contrast, the shepherds of Wordsworth are real; they inhabit a familiar landscape of Grasmere Vale and Helvellyn, and they move in the world of the present or at least of the proximate past; they are the subject-matter of poetry. When Wordsworth in 1800 published a poem about realistic though idealized contemporary shepherd life called Michael and boldly subtitled it ‘A Pastoral Poem’, he was in effect challenging an entire conception of pastoral: the day of the courtly Corin was over. Earlier still, in 1783, when George Crabbe in The Village complained that ‘To sing of shepherds is an easy task’, his concern for the harried shepherd forced to beg from ‘Nature’s niggard hand’ led him to open attack upon the conventions of classical pastoral:
I grant indeed that fields and flocks have charms
For him that grazes or for him that farms;
But when amid such pleasing scenes I trace
The poor laborious natives of the place,
And see the midday sun, with fervid ray,
On their bare heads and dewy temples play;
While some, with feebler heads and fainter hearts,
Deplore their fortune, yet sustain their parts,
Then shall I dare these real ills to hide
In tinsel trappings of poetic pride?
(Book I, 39–48)
Even from so brief a consideration of pastoral from the point of view of those for whom and by whom one of its versions, the oldest and most long-lived, was definitely ended, it becomes apparent that the definition of pastoral is no simple matter. In the first place, from the time when Arcadia goes – from the Romantics thenceforward – all pastoral myths are essentially private pastoral myths. In the second place, the change of myth involves a change of attitude. In the universal myth of Arcadia we have a world of leisure, song and love that represents an idealization; in the private myth, what Wordsworth calls the ‘dignities of plain occurrence’, real though idealized, and interfused, perhaps inseparable from, a strong humanitarian sentiment. Now the emotions of pity and indignation are not only foreign, they are wholly inapplicable to the shepherd of the old pastoral. At first glance, the Arcadians are so comparatively felicitous in their lives and apparently so remote from actuality, that the question of sympathy for their lot never arises. The question is not one of mere heartlessness in our forebears, and a word of explanation upon this point is necessary. In general, classical pastoral begins with a conception of man and of human nature and locates it in a specific type, the shepherd, the simplicity of whose life is the goal towards which all existence strives; of that life, the individual details, the labours and vicissitudes, are neither insisted upon nor ignored; they are out of the question. The shepherd remains first and foremost an emblem of humanity, a general rather than a specific type, and his afflictions and joys are universal. The process is reversed in the romantic pastoral, which begins with the individual figure, concentrates upon his hard lot in life, and then magnifies him, almost insensibly, into a figure of titanic proportions, an emblem of general Humanity. In modern pastoral, the figure of the shepherd, whether idealized or real, vanishes entirely, his place being taken by some relatively simple figure, sometimes the worker, more usually the child.
If we could say that the earlier pastoral was merely decorative and pretty, however graceful, and the romantic and modern one philosophic and humanitarian, there might be little question as to where our interests and sympathies should lie. But of course the view is not so simple; the Romantics, after all, revolted against the old pastoral in the days of its degeneracy. There is, certainly, a decorative and purely nostalgic tradition in the earlier pastoral, especially in the lyric form, and though its logical conclusion would seem to be in the inanities of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess at a specially constructed pastoral village at Versailles, it has sometimes won the approbation and sympathy of certain modern critics who see the pastoral as an essentially simple form. The same critics usually deprecate the philosophic, satiric, moral and allegorical pastoral that represents the bulk of complex and serious pastoral art from the ancient world to the later Renaissance. The so-called ‘perversion of pastoral’ to those profound uses ultimately draws us into the no-man’s-land of personal taste, but that does not prevent us from a sifting of the major issues. If the decorative pastoral is really the province of appreciation, the serious pastoral is that of appreciation and what Rossetti called some fundamental brain-work. In a very real sense, all post-Arcadian pastoral is pastoral that has usurped a name; the instincts which give birth to a longing for simplicity are universal in time and place and pastoral may therefore be said to be intrinsic to man’s nature, but every private Arcadia created by a modern author or discovered by a modern critic really looks back to the original one as the source of its being. That is why this volume is devoted largely to the complexities of the older pastoral and then (again to limit) to the serious rather than to the decorative pastoral.
There is a third difficulty inherent in defining pastoral. Apart from the question of historical demarcations evident in the lines quoted from Wordsworth, there is another matter evident there, of the forms that pastoral takes, that will bear some scrutiny. In Wordsworth’s evocative sketch of pastoral’s development, we become aware that it appears not only in the specific form in which it came to birth (the ‘Grecian song’ or idyll of Theocritus), but that it interpenetrates the drama, as in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale; the elegy, as in Spenser’s Astrophel; and the epic, as in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Expanding upon Wordsworth we could, of course, add to the idyll or eclogue, the pastoral drama and the elegy several other types of pastoral literature: the pastoral lyric extending from the French pastourelle of the Middle Ages through the songs of Marlowe and Ralegh and those of Housman and Frost; the pastoral mythological tale or ‘minor epic’, as in Boccaccio’s Ameto and Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe; the pastoral masque of Sidney, Jonson and Milton; the pastoral novel of Longus, Sannazaro, Sidney and Montemayor; and even (availing ourselves of the broad inclusiveness of the term in our own day) Laurie Lee, the modern British writer whose magical reminiscences of a childhood in Gloucestershire are a prime example of the pastoral of childhood. For each of these cases, therefore, we must find a way to talk about pastoral and its various uses that recognizes that is capable of assuming a form peculiar to itself and also of interpenetrating other forms as a creative element; a way, in other words, that accounts for the capacity of pastoral, traditionally the humblest of poetic forms, to take on various tonalities grander than the shepherd’s flute can offer and to marry, frequently and bigamously, above itself.
What emerges from a roll-call of names of writers of pastoral from Theocritus to our own day is an idea of the continuity with variations, the richness and exuberance, of the pastoral conception. In achieving so flourishing an estate, pastoral necessarily suffers from the complication of the terms used to describe it. It has not established itself as the prime term without competition from other terms. In the paragraph immediately above we have spoken variously and indiscriminately of the eclogue, the idyll, the pastoral; and we might have added the bucolic. The idyll is the general descriptive term we use for the poems of Theocritus; derived from the Greek ‘eidyllion’ (image or picture) it does not define a poetic type so much as to characterize a short poem, descriptive or narrative, which possesses a picturesque or idealistic quality. The eclogue is even less a distinct form of writing: in the original Greek ‘eclogē’ it means merely a ‘selection’ from an author’s writings, and it may perpetuate the notion of brevity already seen in the idyll. The word bucolic introduces a still vaguer notion: it derives from the Greek ‘boukolos’, a keeper of cattle as opposed to a shepherd or goatherd, and represents an enhancement of the social status of the figures of pastoral poetry; in our own time it frequently takes on a comic aspect as suggesting a rural lack of sophistication, a comic clumsiness that works to the detriment of the idealistic qualities of both eclogue and idyll.
Pastoral, it then appears, is the most all-embracing of the terms used for this kind of writing, and the fact that it is used in both the singular and the plural leads to a final complication. By pastorals we mean a particular kind of poem: the idylls of Theocritus, the eclogues of Virgil and Spenser, the Pastorals of Pope, are all poems of the same formal type, ‘mixed’ poems of description and dialogue, part-narrative, part-dramatic, and usually but not always in either hexameter or pentameter verse. For critics from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, pastoral in this sense means a particular kind or genre of literature, like Tragedy, Comedy, Satire or Epic, possessing like them its own decorum. More broadly, however, when we speak of pastoral in the singular, we mean really a view of life, an ethos or informing principle which can subsist either in itself, as in the poets enumerated above, or which can animate other forms of literature like the drama, whether they be wholly pastoral (as in the case of As You Like It) or only partially so (as in the cases of The Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline or The Tempest). Hence the word pastoral refers both to form and to content.
The great characteristic of pastoral poetry is that it is written when an ideal or at least more innocent world is felt to be lost, but not so wholly as to destroy the memory of it or to make some imaginative intercourse between present reality and past perfection impossible. As Professor Kermode puts it (English Pastoral Poetry, p. 15) pastoral poetry never arises in a time when there are children, as there are now, who have never seen a cow. Pastoral is therefore written from a point of view that we may call sophisticated. Nostalgia cannot be the emotion of those who are not conscious of having experienced a loss, and shepherds therefore do not write pastoral poetry. Were they capable of any kind of poetic production, the probability is that they would write from either a spirit of antagonism to their wretchedness, or a spirit of complacency in their comparative happiness: either alter...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Table of Contents
  7. 1 Perspectives on the Pastoral
  8. 2 The Golden Age
  9. 3 Arcadia and its Transformations
  10. 4 The Nearness of Sparta
  11. 5 The Retreat into Childhood
  12. 6 Conclusion
  14. INDEX