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As we quickly emerge from spring and summer, our collective muses can’t help but admire the blossoming flowers, the swaying green trees, the hum and chirp of cicadas and birds. This cycle repeats each year, and each year the artists are swept away by the wonders of nature that come to life. As I sit down like I do every year to write pastoral poetry, I thought I would share a guide to this revered school of poetry.
What is pastoral poetry?
Pastoral poetry (or pastoral, as they are often called in poetry circles) focuses on nature as an idyllic setting. Cities were and are dirty, bustling places filled with noise and smells and busy schedules. For as long as humanity has had cities, we have wanted to escape occasionally, idealizing a simpler time when we were one with nature. Pastoral poetry is an expression of this need to escape the city and reconnect with nature.
This effort to reconnect with nature often has religious connotations. As the poet longs to reconnect with nature, they aspire to reconnect spiritually with themselves. These poems often feature the poet as an orator, exploring both their connection to nature and to God. Figures like shepherds and farms are frequently featured and idealized as much as nature itself.
The beginnings of pastoral poetry
The Greek poet Hesiod is widely credited with writing the first pastorals between 650 and 750 BCE. The most famous of them was Work and days, which detailed a golden age of humanity.
When they died, it was like they were overcome by sleep, and they had all the good things; for the fruitful earth bore them fruit in abundance and without difficulty. They dwelled in ease and peace on their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.
11, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White
Pastoral poetry then passed to Theocritus (Idylls), Virgil (the eclogues), Horace (Odes) and Ovid (Metamorphosis). While Horace did not strictly aim to create pastoral care with his Odes, many of these second-hand poems (each have their own purpose like friendship or love) involve this pastoral focus on nature.
The snows have fled, the new grassy fields,
and the trees are filled with the rebirth of the leaves.
The streams, diminishing, flow quietly,
and in turn the earth is changed.
In flagrant nudity the Graces play,
and with the Nymphs sing in chorus:
remember, as the hour and the year suppress the day,
over time everything passes.
Carmen Four. 7, translated by Colin John Holcombe
Then came Christianity, and with it, a sudden explosion in popularity and production of pastoral poems. William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Andrew Marvell all produced pastoral poetry (as well as prose and plays; just watch A Dream of a summer night). The most famous of all the pastorals of this period was that of John Milton lost paradise, an epic poem about the fall of Lucifer, the temptation of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Although not all lost paradise works in the pastoral tradition, the sections of the Garden of Eden highlight the pastoral powers of Milton:
But no morning breath when she goes up
With the charm of the first birds; no rising sun
On this delicious land, no grass, no fruit, no flower,
Sparkling with dew; no perfume after showers;
Neither grateful Evening sweetness; no silent night
With this his solemn bird; nor walk by the moon,
Or the twinkling light of the stars without you is sweet.
What followed was a long line of white men writing about nature and God, although there were certainly women writing like Aphra Behn, Anne Finc, and Elizabeth Singer Rowe. However, men like John Keats, Thomas Gray, Ben Jonson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jorge Manrique, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Alphonse de Lamartine, WH Auden and, of course, Walt Whitman got all the attention. The Whitman Collection Blades of grass was a lifelong project. He spent decades adding and editing poems until his death. The final version includes over 400 poems, most of which are pastoral. This includes his elegy for assassinated President Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” “
When the lilacs must have bloomed in the courtyard of the gate,
And the great star fell early in the western sky in the night,
I cried, and I will cry again with the spring that always returns.
The spring that always returns, the trinity is sure that you bring me,
Perennial plant with lilac flowers and a drooping star in the west,
And thought about him that I love.
Now that you know what pastoral poetry is and a brief summary of its history, how about some recommended reading?
Classic Pastoral Poetry
“Adonais“by Percy Bysshe Shelley
In Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, he invoked the “elegy of Adonis” of Bion and “the elegy for Bion” of Moschus, both of whom were pastoral poets of the first century BCE.
“Elegy written in a country cemeteryBy Thomas Gray
Elegant more by name than by form or content, Gray’s classic poem mourns the human condition. The setting is what makes it pastoral, as Gray invoked images he saw around him in this country graveyard.
“Fern Hill»By Dylan Thomas
Drawing heavily on pastoral imagery, Thomas’ most famous poem looks at the natural world through the innocent and wonderful eyes of a child, but with an adult’s interpretation of that subtly layered innocence.
Blades of grass by Walt Whitman
Whitman has spent 40 years writing and editing this enormous collection of poetry, much of which revolves around his own thinking in the midst of nature.
“This Lime Tree Bower My PrisonBy Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge is the author and speaker of this poem, lamenting that while his friends are visiting him, he cannot join them in the wonders of nature due to an accident. The moody and frustrated speaker creates tension with the beautiful descriptions of nature throughout.
“Ode to Psyche“by John Keats
Keats used this poem to examine Psyche as an ignored, un-worshiped goddess relegated to her relationship with Cupid. It invokes pastoral imagery in both the real and dream world of the speaker.
lost paradise by John Milton
The fall of Lucifer, the morning star, and his subsequent corruption of Adam and Eve, lost paradise is a big part of the western canon. Poetry is fantastic even today, and its influences on modern literature and cinema are evident. Bonus: if you’re a fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, then this is a must read. Pullman set out to do a YA account of Milton’s epic.
“The shepherd passionate about his love“by Christopher Marlowe
This is a direct love poem from a shepherd who promises his love and all the wonders of nature. The ending leaves readers wondering if his sweetheart accepts his offers or walks away from him.
Modern Pastoral Poetry
“The guest of the gardenBy Lorna Davis
Davis describes a garden party with a wonderful, but unsurprising guest: Gaia, the goddess of nature. The party is a fun device for this worship of all that is natural.
Horse in the dark by Vievee Francis
Centered on the Texas enclave and the deep south of America, Francis’s book is a modern pastoral with a few poems plunging into anti-pastoral. His poetry is dark and alive, showing just how far pastoral poetry has come since Hesiod’s time.
“Corn meadows»By Satyananda Sarangi
Sarangi openly acknowledges that a corn meadow may seem bland, but like so many poets, he finds beauty in blandness. Particularly in the juxtaposition of the modern world, this poem breathes new life into something that many of us go by without noticing.
“The nigger talks about the riversBy Langston Hughes
The Harlem Renaissance was filled with black poets claiming traditionally white poetic forms like pastoral, and this is a prime example. Short and punchy, Hughes traces the chain journey from Africa to post-slavery America through its rivers.
“PastoralBy William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams plays with the very form and meaning of the word pastoral with this poem. He starts with the sparrows, and how we may not know what their chirps mean, but quickly turns his gaze to humans like an even more indecipherable animal.
“The colored shroud“by Earl Cullen
In another Harlem Renaissance example, Cullen’s words are brutal and eviscerating, recounting the life of a slave among the fields. This pastoral care makes the natural world a brutal and ruthless place, but ends with the speaker passionately clinging to hope.
Work and days by Tess Taylor
Taking its name from Hesiod’s original pastoral poem, Taylor moved to a cottage in the Berkshires to complete his first book. Instead, she found herself alone and interning on a farm. From this effort was born this book, collection of pastoral poetry in all senses.
Even if you are not a poet, it is easy to appreciate pastoral poetry. Pick up one of these great books, head to your nearest park or farm, or just find a nice spot outside of town. Crack this spine and lose yourself in the beauty of nature captured by your own senses and those of these great poets.