By Liz Mastin
Pastoral poetry is a huge genre and one can only touch on it in a column. “Pastoral poetry,” according to poet Edward Hirsch, “comes from the Latin word pastor, meaning Shepherd.” He continues, “the Greek poet Theocritus originated the pastoral in his ten poems (“idylls”) representing the life of Sicilian shepherds.”
According to Wikipedia, the ideology of pastoral, is that of “shepherds herding livestock around open areas of land according to the seasons and the changing availability of water and pasturage. It lends its name to a genre of literature, art and music that depicts such life in an idealized manner, and is geared typically for an urban audience.” Pastoral poetry stemmed from a yearning for perceived earlier times, when man lived more closely to nature. It sometimes seems to be a flashback to the Garden of Eden. “Pastoral is a mode in which the poet employs various techniques to place the complex life into a simpler one.”
Previous to Theocritus, the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, in his exposition “Works and Days” presented what he termed a golden age when people lived together in close harmony with nature; the golden age being the best age. The setting for the pastoral poem is usually a “Locus Amoenus,” or beautiful place in nature. Pastoral shepherds and maidens usually have Greek names, reflecting the origin of the pastoral genre, one famous Locus Amoenus (being) Arcadia, a rural region of Greece and the mythological home of the god, Pan. According to Wikipedia “the tasks of these shepherds with their sheep and other rustic chores is held in fantasy to be an almost wholly undemanding lifestyle which abandons the shepherdesses and their swains in a state of almost perfect leisure. This makes them available for embodying perpetual erotic fantasies!”
Some famous writers of pastoral poetry are the Roman poet Virgil, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, Michel Drayton, Christopher Marlowe, William Browne, Alexander Pope, (and) Alexander Barclay, Katherine Philips and Ben Jonson with their Country house pastorals. But many famous poets, besides, have written the pastoral poem. I enjoyed Katherine Phillip’s opinion that “the joys of the countryside and the lifestyle accompanying it (being the first and happiest life when man enjoyed himself) may be maintained by living detached from material things, and not over-concerning oneself with the world around us.
Virgil believed that a “young poet should learn his craft by writing pastorals before proceeding on to the grander form of the epic.”
Example of a pastoral poem:
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
By Christopher Marlowe
Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hill, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
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.
The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Come live with me and be my love.