Pastoral Literature of the English Renaissance Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Pastoral Literature of the English Renaissance

The pastoral is a literary style or type that presents a conventionalized picture of rural life, the naturalness and innocence of which is seen in contrast to the corruption and artificiality of city and court. Although pastoral works are written from the point of view of shepherds or rustics, they are always penned by highly sophisticated, urban poets. Some major, related concerns in pastoral works are the tensions between nature and art, the real and the ideal, and the actual and the mythical. English Renaissance pastoral has classical roots, but contains distinctly contemporary English elements, including humanism, sentimentality, depictions of courtly reality, a concern with real life, and the use of satire and comedy.

Pastoralism figured prominently in English poetry, prose, and drama from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century. English pastorals of this period were modeled after classical Italian and Spanish works, which in turn looked back to the ancients, whose pastoral poetry stemmed from the folk songs and ceremonies that honored the pastoral gods. The earliest extant pastoral poetry, the Idylls, was written by Theocritus in the third century b.c. Theocritus's works contain all the elements that were later conventionalized into the pastoral form or style: his rustic characters discuss the pleasures of country life, engage in impromptu singing contests, recount folktales, lament the loss of loved ones, and offer elegies on the deceased. His characters Daphnis and Amaryllis became fixtures of pastoral works. The Roman poet Virgil adopted the pastoral mode in his first-century b.c. Eclogues, adding mythical and political dimensions to his poetry and introducing the self-conscious questioning of the pastoral convention itself, with its tension between the real and the mythical. Few pastorals were written during the Middle Ages, but the form became popular with Italian Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch, Mantuan, and Boccaccio, who experimented with Latin forms. One of the earliest dramatic pastorals is Orfeo, by Politian, performed at the court of Mantua about 1471. Others include Aminta (1573) by Torquato Tasso and Pastor Fido (1590) by Giovanni Guarini. Nondramatic pastorals of sixteenth-century Italy include the romance Arcadia (1504) by Jacopo Sannazzaro. The pastoral also flourished at this time in the poems of the Portuguese writer Gil Vicente and the Spanish writers Juan del Encina, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, and others.

English poets such as Alexander Barclay and Barnabe Googe, who wrote in the first decades of the sixteenth century, were, like the Continental poets, influenced by the Latin eclogues. The first true pastoral work from the pen of an English writer, however, was The Shepheardes Calender (1579) by Edmund Spenser. Spenser used many of the conventions established by Theocritus, Virgil, Mantuan, and Sannazzaro in his twelve eclogues (one for each month of the year) that subtly satirize the political and religious figures of his day and draw attention to the artificiality of the courtly world. The poem has very little real action or narrative progression, but sustains interest as Spenser's shepherds contemplate a number of subjects and use a variety of poetic forms, such as amorous complaints, fables, singing matches and debates, an encomium, a funeral elegy, and a hymn to the god Pan. Spenser also added important innovations to the traditional pastoral form in The Shepheardes Calender, as his eclogues use a wide range of different meters and experiments in prosody and use allegory to discuss political themes. Spenser's other pastoral works include Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), an allegory dealing with a journey to London and the vices of court life, and his unfinished masterpiece The Faerie Queene (1596).

The other great pastoral poet of the Elizabethan period was Philip Sidney, the man to whom Spenser dedicated The Shepheardes Calender. Sidney's Arcadia is a...

(The entire section is 1,352 words.)