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Terry Gifford

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eBook - ePub


Terry Gifford

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About This Book

Updated throughout, this new edition provides a clear and invaluable introduction to the study of pastoral. Terry Gifford traces the history of the genre from its classical origins through to contemporary writing and introduces the major writers and critical issues relating to pastoral. Gifford breaks the term down into three accessible concepts – pastoral, anti-pastoral, post-pastoral – and provides up-to-date examples from literature and film. New chapters explain the continuing tradition of georgic literature and the recent evolution of pastoral in their historical contexts. Pastoral is essential and engaging reading for students and academics alike.

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The term ‘pastoral’ is used in four broadly different ways. First, the pastoral is a historical form with a long tradition which began in poetry, developed into drama and more recently could be recognised in novels and nature writing. We can speak of Renaissance pastoral dramas, such as Shakespeare’s, or of Augustan pastoral poetry, such as Pope’s, and agree that we are talking about a literary form that is used in each of these periods, and we can recognise motifs that derive from certain early Greek and Roman poems about life in the country, and about the life of the shepherd in particular. Indeed, to refer to ‘pastoral’ up to about 1610 was to refer to poems or dramas of a specific formal type in which supposed shepherds spoke to each other, usually in pentameter verse, about their work or their loves, with apparently idealised descriptions of their countryside. This form of writing was so recognisably pastoral that it might almost be called a genre. In the best work in this European tradition, idealisation of the environment was complicated by the labour involved in working in it, or the tensions of love relationships experienced in it; in the weakest texts only simple idealisation is offered to the reader. This definition of pastoral is summed up by Leo Marx as ‘No shepherd, no pastoral’ (Marx 1986: 45). For the reader or audience, this literary device, that was a fundamental pastoral movement, involved some form of retreat and return, either within the text, or in the sense that the pastoral retreat ‘returned’ some insights relevant to the urban or court readership.
But beyond the artifice of the specific literary form, there is a broader use of ‘pastoral’ to refer to an area of content. In this sense pastoral refers to any literature that describes the country as providing an implicit or explicit contrast to the urban. For example, the novels of James Herriot about a North Yorkshire vet could be called pastoral because their country setting is a major presence in the narratives. A poem about trees in the city could also be called pastoral because it focuses upon nature in contrast to the urban context. A delight in the natural is assumed in describing these texts as pastorals. Here a pastoral is usually associated with a celebratory attitude towards what it describes, however superficially bleak it might appear to be.
But that simple celebration of nature comes under scrutiny in the third use of ‘pastoral’. A Greenpeace supporter might use the term as a criticism of the tree poem if it ignored the presence of pollution or the threat to urban trees from the city council. Here the difference between the literary representation of nature and the material reality would be judged to be intolerable by the criteria of ecological concern. A farm worker might say that a novel was a pastoral if it celebrated a landscape as though no one actually sweated to maintain it on a low income. In this case the difference between the textual evidence and the economic reality would be judged to be too great by the criteria of social reality. This is a sceptical use of the term – ‘pastoral’ as pejorative, implying that the pastoral vision is too simplified and thus an idealisation of the reality of life in the country. Here, what is ‘returned’ by retreat is judged to be too comfortably complacent to qualify as ‘insight’ in the view of a user of the term ‘pastoral’ as a pejorative.
However, a fourth use of the term is neutrally descriptive of literature concerned with a life of pastoral farming practices in raising grazing animals. Thus, much Australian literature might be described as pastoral in being concerned with the lives of pastoralists. Ruth Blair has argued that even such an obvious statement is complicated by early settler writing invoking European idealised pastoral tropes, although the ‘challenging land’ offers farmers the opposite of ‘fulfilment and ease’ (Blair 2015a: 119). Indeed, vegan critics might say that a national identity and literature invested in the slaughter of animals could never render pastoral as a neutral agricultural term. Nevertheless, texts that are centrally concerned with pastoral activities in which the humans are ‘pastors’ to animals would have to be called pastoral texts. So, it remains for the reader to consider whether a James Herriot novel should be characterised as pastoral in having the features of a literary device, or just generally pastoral in content, or pastoral in the critical, dismissive sense, or ‘merely’ concerned with the rearing of sheep and cattle.
While this book will clarify each of these uses of pastoral, it will also engage with both the long-standing and the current lively debates around each of these usages. Chapter 2 will trace the origins of the traditional literary form and will define some of the key terms that distinguish different kinds of early pastorals, terms that are often applied to more recent work. Chapters 3 and 4 will discuss the common pattern of the pastoral process of retreat and return, whilst Chapters 5, 6 and 7 will show three parallel literary modes, the anti-pastoral, the georgic and the post-pastoral, that contrast with the traditional pastoral in ways that offer a critique of the convention. Chapter 8 will offer an overview of the evolution of pastoral literature and the ways it has been regarded, including some interesting recent international developments. Along the way some of the important issues about the pastoral will be discussed, drawing from the recent work not only of British and American critics, but from such contrasting cultures as Brazil and Norway. For example, does the pastoral still exist in contemporary writing? Ann Marie Mikkelsen, writing in 2011, suggests that although there is, indeed, a twentieth-century American pastoral poetry, it ‘has gone virtually unread for several decades’ (Mikkelsen 2011: 6). J. E. Congleton concluded that, William Wordsworth’s ‘“Michael” aside, no notable pastorals were written in England after the eighteenth century’ (Congleton 1952: 314). John Barrell and John Bull, the editors of The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse, would say that Herriot’s novels cannot be pastorals because, in their view, the historical form of the pastoral is dead and has been since the late nineteenth century when the distinction between the country and the city collapsed:
The separation of life in the town and in the country that the Pastoral demands is now almost devoid of any meaning. It is difficult to pretend that the English countryside is now anything more than an extension of the town.
(Barrell and Bull 1974: 432)
So can there really be no twentieth-first century continuations of the pastoral form? Must the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales now be described as an extension of the town on the grounds, perhaps, that so many town dwellers now own houses there? Are the shepherds of the Dales engaged in an activity that is in any sense ‘an extension of the town’? Is it impossible, then, to even consider any contemporary novels such as James Herriot’s as pastorals? Could one not argue that, by the end of the twentieth century, the whale and the dolphin had replaced the traditional sheep for a green poet like Heathcote Williams in Whale Nation (1988), his lavishly illustrated long poem, and in Falling for a Dolphin (1988), the long poem which followed it? Or that, sheep-grazing being under attack in the twenty-first century for having ‘sheepwrecked’ Britain’s upland ecosystems (Monbiot 2013: 154–64), sheep have been replaced in pastoral New Nature Writing by a goshawk (Macdonald 2014), owls (Darlington 2018) and even reptiles and amphibians (Kerridge 2014)? These are questions to which we will return, but the point to note here is that Barrell and Bull, in announcing pastoral’s demise, are using the term strictly in the primary sense of a traditional literary device.
On the other hand, the editor of the Macmillan Casebook on The Pastoral Mode has to admit that, far from being a dead form, there are now so many varieties of pastoral that it has to be regarded as ‘a contested term’. Brian Loughrey complains that there is an ‘almost bewildering variety of works’ to which modern critics attribute the term, ranging from anything rural, to any form of retreat, to any form of simplification or idealisation (Loughrey 1984: 8). In this second, more general, sense we can, for example, read in the work of certain critics about ‘Freudian pastoral’ (Lawrence Lerner in Loughrey 1984: 154), ‘the pastoral of childhood’ (Marinelli 1971), ‘pragmatic pastorals’ (Mikkelsen 2011), ‘revolutionary pastoralisms 
 like the lesbian-ecofeminist vision of Susan Griffin’ (Buell 1995), even ‘proletarian pastoral’ (Empson 1935) or ‘urban pastoral’ (Berman 1982) where no sheep are in sight for miles. The final chapter will explore some of these developments as what I call the ‘prefix-pastoral’ in a final overview of the evolving conceptions of pastoral.
Lawrence Buell, the American critic, has pointed out that ‘pastoralism is a species of cultural equipment that western thought has for more than two millennia been unable to do without’ (Buell 1995: 32). His term ‘pastoralism’ is used in the second, more general, sense, of writing ‘that celebrates the ethos of nature/rurality over against the ethos of the town or city’ rather than ‘the specific set of obsolescent conventions’ of the original literary form (Buell 1989: 23). If Barrell and Bull are right (and Buell seems to be agreeing with them here) there is, nevertheless, a strong sense that the environmental movement is producing a revival of interest in the writing of new pastoral literature in this general sense. Buell endorses Leo Marx’s prediction that the ‘wholly new conception of the precariousness of our relations with nature is bound to bring forth new versions of pastoral’ (Buell 1995: 51). This will be the focus of Chapter 7, where the best new writing about nature will be seen to be an extension of earlier writing that can be defined as having gone beyond the traditional conventions of the pastoral and the anti-pastoral in an alternative ‘post-pastoral’ vision.
But the development of what Jonathan Bate called ‘literary ecocriticism’ in his influential book Romantic Ecology (Bate 1991) has also led to the rereading, through modern ecological perspectives, of earlier literature, such as the pastoral, that engaged with our relationship with the natural environment. Ecocriticism is concerned not only with the attitude to nature expressed by the author of a text, but also with its patterns of interrelatedness, both between the human and the more-than-human, and between the different parts of that more-than-human world. A major contribution to this development has been the growth of ecofeminist theory, originally in France and the USA, but now world-wide. Ecofeminist criticism has drawn attention to the gendered nature of the history of our species’ ‘conquest’, control and exploitation of the environment by pointing out that it is the same patriarchal mind-set that dominated both the environment and women. Indeed, Carolyn Merchant’s early work showed that nature and woman have been regarded as interchangeable by scientific thought developed by Francis Bacon in the Renaissance (Merchant 1980). So the more recent development of ecofeminist criticism (see Kerslake and Gifford 2013) that is fully aware of our current environmental crisis and its gendered origins will pose new questions for our definitions of pastoral. American ecofeminist poets and novelists, such as Adrienne Rich (1986) and Ursula Le Guin (see Sawyer 2006), have already been writing new kinds of pastoral that might be defined as such in the primary sense of developing the literary device of retreat and return. Elizabeth Jane Harrison (1991) has made the case for a distinctively ‘female pastoral’ in southern American novels by writers such as Alice Walker and Sherley Williams.
The third, pejorative usage of pastoral has led to contemporary writers, in Britain at least, being reluctant to acknowledge that they are writing in this form at all. There was no such problem in the past since writers expected the reader to accept that certain conventions were at work if the text was declared to be a pastoral from the start. In 1800 Wordsworth published the poem ‘Michael’, which he subtitled ‘A Pastoral Poem’ in order to bring a number of assumptions into the mind of the reader. In fact, he then went on to challenge some of the most fundamental pastoral conventions. However, the poem begins conventionally enough in both content and attitude:
Upon the Forest-side in Grasmere Vale
There dwelt a Shepherd, Michael was his name;
An old man, stout of heart, and strong of limb.
His bodily frame had been from youth to age
Of an unusual strength; his mind was keen,
Intense and frugal, apt for all affairs,
And in his Shepherd’s calling he was prompt
And watchful more than ordinary men.
(Wordsworth 1984: 225)
This shepherd appears to be idealised by the writer who emphasises his ‘unusual strength’ and the skill of his craft. But already there is an unexpected attention to his mind, which at two points is implied to be of a broader cast than might be assumed by an urban reader. He is not only ‘watchful more than ordinary men’ – and perhaps, the separate line implies, in matters beyond his work – but he has developed a mind that is ‘apt for all affairs’, definitely including those beyond his calling. Wordsworth’s shepherd has a maturity, integrity and dignity that is both produced by his work and extends beyond it. The affront to sophisticated readers of poetry in 1800 can be imagined. But Wordsworth goes further in attacking the patronising simplification of a common pastoral convention of the rural worker as bucolic clown. He addresses the reader indirectly:
And grossly that man errs, who should suppose
That the green Valleys, and the Streams and Rocks,
Were things indifferent to the Shepherd’s thoughts.
Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed
The common air; The hills, which he so oft
Had climbed with vigorous steps; which had impressed
So many incidents upon his mind
Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
Which like a book, preserved the memory
Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,
Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts,
So grateful in themselves, the certainty
Of honourable gains; these fields, these hills
Which were his living Being, even more
Than his own Blood – what could they less? had laid
Strong hold on his affections, were to him
A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure which there is in life itself.
(Wordsworth 1984: 226)
Characteristically, Wordsworth forces the reader to acknowledge that fear is also present in the joy of this man’s life, that experiences of hardship qualify the advantages of the beauty of his environment, but, most importantly, that by learning to live with it interactively this lowly worker has achieved the ‘honourable gain’ of moral responsibility and a fulfilled vitality as a human being that connects him with the life-force itself. Here Wordsworth uses the pastoral mode to subvert conventional assumptions about the shepherd by making a realistic and broader portrait of an actual person in an actual village. But is this all that can be said about this poem? What questions might we ask about the writer’s role in relation to his subject and his readership?
The pastoral convention has come under attack in the later twentieth century as critics have examined the frames within which the writer is presenting a pastoral view of the world. The most serious accusation is the suggestion that pastoral in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries created a false ideology that served to endorse a comfortable status quo for the landowning class who had been the reading public before the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most comprehensive and succinct attack of this kind is contained in the political definition of pastoral by Roger Sales, which is summed up in his statement that pastoral represents the ‘five Rs’: ‘refuge, reflection, rescue, requiem, and reconstruction’ (Sales 1983: 17). His view is that pastoral is essentially escapist in seeking refuge in the country and often also in the past;...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Dedication
  7. Table of Contents
  8. Series editor’s preface
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. 1. Four kinds of pastoral
  11. 2. Constructions of Arcadia
  12. 3. The discourse of retreat
  13. 4. The cultural contexts of return
  14. 5. The anti-pastoral tradition
  15. 6. Georgic literature
  16. 7. Post-pastoral
  17. 8. Evolving pastoral
  18. Bibliography
  19. Index