Pastoral Literature of the English Renaissance

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352

Pastoral Literature of the English Renaissance

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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.

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Representative Works