Pastoral Literature of the English Renaissance Essay - Critical Essays

Pastoral Literature of the English Renaissance


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 mixed-mode romance that intersperses pastoral lyrics in a tale of courtly love, as two princes set off to find love in Arcadia, fall in love with two princesses, and eventually marry them. Along the way, the major characters must spend much of their time disguised as shepherds. The major theme of the work is the life of action and responsibility versus the life of contemplation and love, a common pastoral motif. Another familiar trope is that of the mythic “Golden Age.” As with other Renaissance pastorals, Arcadia also presents sophisticated ideas in the words of common, rustic characters, thus simplifying difficult concepts and emphasizing the universality of human nature. The eclogue “Ye Goatherd Gods” contained in Arcadia is especially admired for its originality of meter and ornate amplification.

Most of the other figures writing on pastoral themes in the early Renaissance were lyric poets and dramatists. The most famous of the lyricists were Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, William Browne, Richard Barnfield, George Wither, and Michael Drayton, many of whom modeled their verses after Spenser's eclogues but treated less weighty themes.

Pastoral themes were also popular in Elizabethan drama, particularly in court masques. These comprised a distinctively courtly form of dramatic spectacle that was characterized by the use of masks and the mingling of actors and spectators, as well as an emphasis on music and dance. Sidney's Lady of May (1578), about a young woman who cannot choose between two men who want to marry her—a rich shepherd of “smale Desertes and no faultes” and a woodsman of “manie Desertes and manie faultes”—has the elements of gaiety and lightness that mark these types of dramas. Dramatists of the later Renaissance, including William Shakespeare, began to react against hackneyed pastoral conventions in their “antipastoral” pastorals. Shakespeare employed and yet overturned pastoral ideas and themes in in As You Like It (1598), The Winter's Tale (1609), and The Tempest (1611). The idea that the bucolic existence of the countryside offers an alternative to the corruption of the courtly life was simply not an economic reality by the end of the Renaissance, and in Ben Jonson's Sad Shepherd (1640) it becomes clear that the material realities of an age of commerce and exploration make it impossible to depict the court in simple terms or to hold up the countryside as a paradisaical world of innocence and harmony.

Many lyric poets of the later Renaissance moved away from the use of pastoral conventions in their verse, or they more self-consciously explored in their work the meaning of pastoral themes for a changing world. Some writers, such as Robert Herrick, with his realistically detailed descriptions of rural festivals and life, did present pastoral idealizations of the country. For other poets, the greater concern was to reflect in their poetry the transformation of the land and changing conditions of the countryside—in which increasingly landowners hired workers to tend their property and contented shepherds did not populate the hillsides. The two great pastoral poets of the later Renaissance, John Milton and Andrew Marvell, used many pastoral elements in their work, often to point to the passing of an age. While the English Renaissance pastoral had always contained an element of self-conscious exploration of its own conventions, Marvell's poetry is deeply self-reflexive and internalized, and in many of his posthumously published poems, such as “The Garden” and “The Mower Against Gardens” (1681), the idealized world he longs for seems to be a state of inner, individual harmony and not the outer, physical retreat of nature. Milton used pastoral elements in several of his works, including the poem “Lycidas” (1638) and Books IV and IX of Paradise Lost (1668). “Lycidas,” a moving pastoral elegy for Milton's acquaintance Edward King, is very close in structure to Virgilian eclogues, but in the poem Milton mingles classical and Christian myths and creates a sense of unrest atypical of pastoral poetry that is quelled only when Lycidas is raised to heaven. Many critics have viewed “Lycidas” as Milton's farewell not only to his friend but to his youth, to the ideas and ideals of a past age, and to pastoralism in general. In Paradise Lost, too, Milton is less concerned with pastoral landscapes and lost paradises than with a “paradise within.” Restoration writers clearly rejected and even ridiculed the pastoral impulse, and it would more than a century before the ideals of the pastoral, again transformed, would again respectibility in the works of Romantic writers.

Representative Works

Richard Barnfield
The Affectionate Shepherd (poem) 1594

William Browne
Britannia's Pastorals (poem) 1613-16
The Shepheards Pipe (poem) 1614

Michael Drayton
Idea, the Shepherd's Garland (poem) 1593

Ben Jonson
The Sad Shepherd (play) 1640

Christopher Marlowe
“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (poem) 1599

Andrew Marvell
“Ametas and Thestylis Making Hay-Ropes” (poem) 1681
“Bermudas” (poem) 1681
“Damon the Mower” (poem) 1681
“The Garden” (poem) 1681
“The Mower against Gardens” (poem) 1681

John Milton
“Comus” (poem) 1634
“L'Allegro” (poem) 1634
“Lycidas” (poem) 1637
Paradise Lost (epic poem) 1667

Walter Raleigh
“The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd” (poem) 1600

William Shakespeare
As You Like It (play) 1598
The Winter's Tale (play) 1609
The Tempest (play) 1611

Philip Sidney
Lady of May (masque) 1578
Arcadia (epic poem) 1590
Astrophel and Stella (sonnet sequence) 1591

Edmund Spenser
The Shepheardes Calender (eclogues) 1579
The Faerie Queene (epic poem) 1595

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

William Empson (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: “Proletarian Literature,” in Some Versions of Pastoral, New Directions, 1968, pp. 11-15.

[In the following excerpt from a work first published in 1935, Empson contends that pastoral literature reflects an impulse to clarify difficult issues by restating them in terms spoken by common folk, thus emphasizing their universal nature.]

The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor. was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language (so that you wrote about the best subject in the best...

(The entire section is 1081 words.)

Frank Kermode (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Introduction to English Pastoral Poetry: From the Beginnings to Marvell, edited by Frank Kermode, George Harrap and Company, 1952, pp. 11-44.

[In the following excerpt, Kermode looks at the scope of the pastoral form, especially as it was used by English Renaissance poets; outlines its history and its critical and philosophical background; and discusses the general theory of Imitation as it relates to the pastoral.]

Jove, Jove! this shepherd's passion
Is much upon my fashion.

As You Like It, II, iv, 56-57.

Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?

Ibid., III, i, 21.

Pastoral is one of...

(The entire section is 10445 words.)

S. K. Heninger, Jr. (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “The Renaissance Perversion of Pastoral,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 1, No. 2, April-June 1961, pp. 254-61.

[In the following essay, Heninger claims that in the sixteenth century the classical pastoral was “perverted” to express moral, satirical, and sentimental themes, and that this adaptation was the result of a humanist desire to explore real life in a form that was originally developed to reflect the ideal.]

When the youthful Alexander Pope had finished his pastorals, he wrote a “Discourse” which offers both an encomium of the pastoral tradition and an apologia for his interpretation of it. He began with a characteristically...

(The entire section is 4008 words.)

Laurence Lerner (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “The Pastoral World: Arcadia and the Golden Age,” in The Pastoral Mode: A Casebook, edited by Bryan Loughrey, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1984, pp. 133-54.

[In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1972, Lerner argues that the pastoral, as a representation of the provincial mediated by courtly writers seeking relief from the problems of a sophisticated society, is poetry of illusion and thus of wish-fulfillment.]

Every culture has one or more centres of social, artistic and moral standards, a place where the educated people live, where the King's English, or its equivalent, is spoken, where the theatres perform and the political decisions...

(The entire section is 4114 words.)

John Barrell and John Bull (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Elizabethan Pastoral,” “The Pastoral Drama,” and “The Seventeenth-Century Pastoral,” in The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse, introduced and edited by John Barrell and John Bull, Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 13-20; 107-11; 141-48.

[In the following excerpts, Barrell and Bull trace the development of English pastoral poetry and its relation to the changing social conditions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The critics examine the relations between the conventions of the pastoral mode and the actuality of rural life as well as the evolving historical reality of gentlemen-poets' connection with the land.]


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Louis Adrian Montrose (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Of Gentlemen and Shepherds: The Politics of Elizabethan Pastoral Form,” in ELH, Vol. 50, No. 3, Autumn 1983, pp. 415-59.

[In the following excerpt, Montrose offers an historical prologue to reading the Elizabethan pastoral, and claims that the pastoral embodies the contradictory values of Elizabethan social life.]


Modern theories of pastoral have a way of turning into theories of literature. Perhaps the most influential of such theories have been those of William Empson and Renato Poggioli. The former isolates the pastoral “process” in verbal strategies for “putting the complex into the simple”; the...

(The entire section is 9380 words.)

Bryan Loughrey (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Pastoral Mode: A Casebook, edited by Bryan Loughrey, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1984, pp. 8-17.

[In the following excerpt, Loughrey discusses the classical European origins of the pastoral form and surveys its embodiment in works by writers of the English Renaissance.]

Pastoral is a contested term which modern critics have applied to an almost bewildering variety of works. In earlier critical discourse, however, it had a fairly limited and stable sense, describing literature which portrayed, often in an idealised manner, ‘the life of shepherds, or of the country’.1 The genre originated with the Greek poet Theocritus (c....

(The entire section is 3920 words.)

Criticism: Principal Figures Of The Elizabethan Period

E. K. (essay date 1579)

SOURCE: “E. K.,” in The Pastoral Mode: A Casebook, edited by Bryan Loughrey, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1984, pp. 29-33.

[In the following dedicatory epistle to Gabriel Harvey, which was originally prefixed to the 1579 edition of Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender, the writer “E. K.” (probably Edward Kirke) praises Spenser for dignifying the language with the use of archaisms and for giving his eclogues a particularly English hue.]

Uncouthe unkiste, Sayde the olde famous Poete Chaucer: whom for his excellencie and wonderfull skil in making, his scholler Lidgate, a worthy scholler of so excellent a maister, calleth the Loade-starre of our Language: and whom...

(The entire section is 2221 words.)

A. C. Hamilton (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: “The Argument of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender,” in ELH, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 1956, pp. 171-82.

[In the following essay, Hamilton explores the larger meaning of Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender—which he claims is the rejection of the pastoral life for the truly dedicated life in the world—by examining not what the poem has in common with other pastoral poetry, as has been the strategy of other critics, but by looking at what is unique in Spenser's re-creation of the pastoral form.]

The critical attention given Spenser's Shepheardes Calender, apart from praise of the work as a brilliant poetical exercise, has mainly been...

(The entire section is 4207 words.)

Elizabeth Dipple (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “Harmony and Pastoral in the Old Arcadia,” in ELH, Vol. 35, No. 3, September 1968, pp. 309-28.

[In the following essay, Dipple examines Philip Sidney's use of pastoral setting and conventions in the Old Arcadia, and argues that Sidney ironically exploits pastoral connotations to dramatize the fall from harmony to disharmony and to illustrate the ultimate impracticability of the idealized pastoral world.]


Arcadia amonge all the Provinces of Grece was ever had in singuler reputation, partly for the sweetnes of the Aire and other naturall benefittes: But, principally, for the moderate &...

(The entire section is 8181 words.)

James Sambrook (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Some Spenserians,” in English Pastoral Poetry, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 48-58.

[In the following excerpt, Sambrook surveys the eclogues of courtly writers such as Michael Drayton, Richard Barnfield, George Wither, and William Browne, who took Edmund Spenser as their model, and contends that the work of these later poets lacks the symbolic richness and formal complexity of that of their master.]

Allegory became a less potent lure as Elizabethan and Jacobean poets moved further away from Italian models. A late Jacobean critic, Michael Drayton, in the address to the reader of his Pastorals (1619), admits allegory as a possibility rather than a...

(The entire section is 3923 words.)

Criticism: Principal Figures Of The Later Renaissance

Samuel Johnson (essay date 1780)

SOURCE: “On Milton's Lycidas,” in The Pastoral Mode: A Casebook, edited by Bryan Loughrey, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1984, pp. 71-3.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in his Lives of the English Poets in 1780, Johnson critcizes what he thinks are the faults of John Milton's poem Lycidas, whose pastoral form he finds vulgar and disgusting.]

… One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is Lycidas; of which the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. What beauty there is, we must therefore seek in the sentiments and images. It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Northrop Frye (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: “Literature as Context: Milton's Lycidas,” in The Pastoral Mode: A Casebook, edited by Bryan Loughrey, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1984, pp. 205-15.

[In the following excerpt, originally delivered as a lecture in 1958 and published in 20th Century Literary Criticism in 1972, Frye discusses John Milton's Lycidas as a pastoral elegy, noting the four creative principles of convention, genre, archetype, and autonomous form that Milton uses in its composition. The critic also elucidates the poem's classical and Christian mythic dimensions.]

Lycidas … is an elegy in the pastoral convention, written to commemorate a young man named...

(The entire section is 4554 words.)

Jay A. Gertzman (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Robert Herrick's Recreative Pastoral,” in Genre, Vol. VII, No. 2, June 1974, pp. 183-95.

[In the following essay, Gertzman illustrates Robert Herrick's “recreative” (as opposed to didactic) pastoral in several poems in his Hesperides, noting that the “cleanly wanton” poems are marked by playful humor, fancy, naive enthusiasm, and genial humility.]

The pastoral poetry of the Renaissance has received a great deal of critical attention in recent years. Of special interest have been the uses to which great poets such as Spenser, Milton and Marvell have put the genre. The moral and spiritual depths beneath the physically delightful surface have...

(The entire section is 5010 words.)

Barry Weller (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Epic as Pastoral: Milton, Marvell, and the Plurality of Genre,” in New Literary History, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1999, pp. 143-57.

[In the following essay, Weller maintains that Andrew Marvell's poetry rehearses the pastoral motifs that inform John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, and he examines how the lyric mode is used in the expansive form of the epic.]

When Milton begins Paradise Regained by defining himself as “I who erewhile the happy garden sung,”1 he is echoing the lines—possibly discarded by Virgil, possibly even non-Virgilian—which prefaced Renaissance editions of The Aeneid:

Ille ego, qui...

(The entire section is 5947 words.)

Criticism: Pastoral Drama

Ashley H. Thorndike (essay date 1899)

SOURCE: “The Pastoral Element in the English Drama Before 1605,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 14,No. 4, April 1899, pp. 114-23.

[In the following essay, Thorndike examines the development of the English pastoral drama, noting the introduction of particularly English elements—such as the appearance of comic characters and the satyr type—into the literary form.]

Most accounts of the English pastoral drama have begun with Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess or Daniel's Queen's Arcadia. There have been references, of course, to some of Lyly's plays, Peele's Arraignment of Paris and Sidney's May Lady, but there has been no recognition of a...

(The entire section is 6416 words.)

Walter W. Greg (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: “The Three Masterpieces,” in Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama, A. H. Bullen, 1906, pp. 264-316.

[In the following excerpt, Greg examines what he judges the two greatest English dramatic pastoral romances, John Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess and Ben Jonson's Sad Shepherd. He notes Fletcher's greater indebtedness to Italian pastoral dramas than to English courtly-chivalric pieces and finds Jonson's work—the first truly English pastoral—to be a fine achievement despite its several weaknesses. Greg compares these two pieces to Thomas Randolph's Amyntas, a work that, despite its “inferior” merit, shares with the other dramas certain characteristics of...

(The entire section is 12225 words.)

Carol Gesner (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: “The Tempest as Pastoral Romance,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1959, pp. 531-39.

[In the following essay, Gesner argues that William Shakespeare's The Tempest is primarily a pastoral play, and that in composing the work Shakespeare used the Greek pastoralist Longus's Daphnis and Chloe as an immediate source.]

The problem of the source of The Tempest has long intrigued scholars, because a single entirely satisfactory work has never been uncovered to account for its origin. Many significant contributions to the solution of the problem have, however, been offered. In 1817 Ludwig Tieck pointed to Die schöne...

(The entire section is 4311 words.)

Jerry H. Bryant (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “The Winter's Tale and the Pastoral Tradition,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4, Autumn 1963, pp. 537-98.

[In the following essay, Bryant notes the indebtedness of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Taleto the classical European and English pastoral traditions and argues that with this subtle dramatized commentary on appearance and reality Shakespeare brought freshness to the pastoral mode and transformed its hackneyed conventions.]

It is curious that no appraiser or appreciator seems to have puzzled over the kinship of The Winter's Tale with the pastoral tradition. Most commentators tacitly assume the connection, then abandon it to...

(The entire section is 6460 words.)

Further Reading


Alpers, Paul. “Pastoral and the Domain of Lyric in Spenser's Shepheardes Calender.Representations 12 (Autumn 1985): 83-100.

Discusses the influence of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender on English poetry, arguing that in composing the first set of English pastorals in the European tradition Spenser helped himself—and English poetry in general—to overcome the difficulties of writing lyric verse.

Bernard, John D. “Spenserian Pastoral and the Amoretti.ELH 47, No. 3 (Autumn 1980): 419-32.

Argues that the pastoral is a major factor that shapes Edmund Spenser's conception of his...

(The entire section is 974 words.)