Viewed alternately as a genre, mode, or convention in poetry (as well as in literature generally, art, and music), the pastoral tradition refers to a lineage of creative works that idealize rural life and landscapes, while the term pastoral refers to individual poems or other works in the tradition.

History of the Pastoral Tradition

The pastoral tradition can be traced back to Hesiod, a Greek oral poet active between 750 and 650 BC, roughly the same time as Homer. His most famous poem, Works and Days, is part farmer’s almanac and part didactic exploration of the nature of human labor. Following Hesiod, the first written examples of pastoral literature are commonly attributed to the Hellenistic Greek poet Theocritus, who in the third century BC wrote Idylls, short poems describing rustic life. The term idyll means “little scenes” or “vignettes.”

In 38 BC, the Roman poet Virgil famously published his Eclogues (also called the Bucolics) in Latin. His second great work, the Georgics, was modeled after Hesiod and praise the experiences of farm life.

In Virgil’s First Georgic, the speaker is instructive, describing how the work is done:

The time has come for my groaning ox to drag
My heavy plow across the fields, so that
The plow blade shines as the furrow rubs
   against it.
Not till the earth has been twice plowed, so twice
Exposed to sun and twice to coolness will
It yield what the farmer prays for...

During the Italian Renaissance several poets imitated Virgil, including Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, followed by Bernardo Tasso, Luigi Tansillo, and Giambattista Marino. These later poets wrote examples of the pastoral lyric, shorter poems describing beautiful rural landscapes (or locus amoenus, “Latin for "beautiful place”) and depicting the country as a setting of innocence.

The conventions of the pastoral genre were established by sophisticated urban poets whose beautific portrayals of rural life perpetuated fantasies and misconceptions about the rural lifestyle. Descriptions of undemanding rustic chores, such as watching over sheep from atop a sunny hill, functioned for some poets as critiques of city or court life. The seemingly perfect leisure of outdoor solitude also embodies erotic fantasies, as shepherds are portrayed chasing after pretty young girls, abandoning their responsibilities.

The earliest examples of the pastoral style in English appeared in the late Renaissance period. A collection titled Eclogues by Alexander Barclay was published in the early sixteenth century, but the pastoral mode in English was established later, when Edmund Spenser published his debut work, The Shepheardes Calender. The collection inspired countless pastoral verse deep into the seventeenth century. Imitated by Michael Drayton (The Shepherd’s Garland), William Browne (Britannia’s Pastorals), and later by Alexander Pope (Pastorals), Spenser’s Calendar also proceeded the country house poems of Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, and others, which describe the landscapes on which estates and manors of wealthy families were founded.

One of the most well-known love poems in the English language, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe, is a pastoral. Throughout the poem, the speaker describes the beauty of the landscape as a means for wooing his love interest:

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

Published in 1599, six years after Marlowe’s death, the poem inspired popular “anti-pastoral” works, most famously “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” (1600) by Sir Walter Raleigh. Other poems countering the tradition include Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Twenty-Third Psalm” and “The Nightingale.”

Another sub-genre of pastoral poetry is the pastoral elegy, in which a poet, in the form of a shepherd, mourns the death of a friend. The most famous pastoral elegy is John Milton’s Lycidas, written on the death of Edward King, a respected colleague at Cambridge University. Other examples include Thomas Gray’s “Elegy on a Country Churchyard” (1750), Shelley’s Adonais, and Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis.

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