The bountiful natural area is filled with harmonious relationships. Arcadia is also sometimes described as “The Garden.” There, shepherds sometimes live and work, and readers may find themselves reminded of the Biblical Garden of Eden. Anyone who lives there is virtuous and uncorrupted by the contemporary world the reader lives in. The term applies to literature as well as to art and philosophy.
Arcadia pronunciation: Arr-kay-dee-uh
Definition of Arcadia
Arcadia is a bountiful, natural utopia in which all beings exist harmoniously and uncorrupted by industry or society. In Arcadia, which features heavily in Greek mythology, there are dryads and other spirits like nymphs. It’s also the home of Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds, rustic nature, and more. The term “Arcadia” comes from a Greek province of the same name. It was chosen due to how sparsely populated the province was and its beautiful topography.
Examples of Arcadia in Literature
The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia’ by Sir Philip Sidney is a very famous example of a literary work that deals with the concept of Arcadia. It is, in fact, often referred to as ‘Arcadia’ itself. It was written towards the end of the 1500s and revised a few times. Furthermore, it is considered to be Sidney’s most ambitious literary workday by many scholars. ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia’ is a prose romance that is usually described as pastoral. The newer version of the text is longer and takes the original elements and expands them. Sidney describes an idealized version of a shepherd’s life, with numerous stories combined within one another. Here are a few lines from Book I:
Twas in the time that the earth begins to put on her new apparel against the approach of her louer, and that the Sun ru[n]ning a most eue[n] course becums an indifferent arbiter betweene the night and the day; when the hopelesse shepheard Strephon was come to the sandes, which lie against the Island of Cithera;
In the first chapter, the shepherd complains about his lovers, Strephon and Claius, and describes a shipwreck.
Explore Sir Philip Sidney’s poetry.
Arcadia by Jacopo Sannazaro
‘Arcadia’ is a pastoral poem and one of the best representatives of the realm of Arcadia. The poem was written around 1480 by Jacopo Sannazaro. It wasn’t published until 1504 in Italy. The poem was heavily influential on authors who followed, including John Milton, William Shakespeare, and Sir Philip Sidney. The poem is often described as a prosimetrum. That is, a piece of writing that’s composed of alternating lines or sections of prose and verse. Some of the former are descriptive, while others are more narrative. Within the verse sections, readers can find examples of canzona, madrigal, and more.
In addition to these reasons, the poem was also made famous due to the poet’s use of Italian rather than a regional dialect. This was uncommon during the time and of interest to readers. Today, modern readers often have a hard time with the text and find its use of language frustrating.
While not dealing explicitly with a place called Arcadia, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ describes a world that feels similar to that which one would find in Arcadia. This piece is a six-stanza poem that is made up of sets of four lines or quatrains. It describes the life that a shepherd wishes to create for his lover if she agrees to come and live with him. The poem begins with the speaker asking his lover to come and be with him forever. If she does this simple thing, they will be able to experience all the joy that the world has to offer. They will have all the best in life. He uses whatever he can to try to convince her that her best life is going to be lived alongside him. Here is the first stanza:
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields
Woods or steepy mountain yields
The second stanza is another good example of the pastoral landscape Arcadia evokes:
And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.
The use of words like “Melodious” and the description of shepherds and animals coexisting together is at the heart of the concept of Arcadia.
Read more of Christopher Marlowe’s poetry.
Tied to ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,’ is ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.’ This poem was written in response to the former. The speaker is a young, beautiful female nymph. A “nymph” is a creature from Greek mythology who is considered to be a personification of nature. The poem is filled with pastoral images that contain a negative response to the shepherd’s plea. Throughout this poem, the nymph describes how time, pleasure, and all possessions, are fleeting. These joys won’t last forever, nor will impetuous choices and sweet words. All of these things are like “spring” to “fall.” They might be beautiful now, but when it comes time for the season to change, they are going to fade like everything else. Here is the first stanza:
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Discover more Sir Walter Raleigh poems.
The concept of Arcadia is used in every genre of literature, from poetry to short stories and plays. The pastoral image of Arcadia is a popular topic within poetry, especially that originating in the Romantic period. It can also be found in contemporary literature and even fantasy films and games.
Arcadia was originally based on a real place, a province in Greece that was particularly idyllic. There, the land was sparsely populated by simple shepherds living their lives in peace. The landscape was beautiful as well.
Arcadia is intrinsically a good place. It describes a utopia, one that allows all beings to live in peace and among beautiful sights and sounds. But, when Arcadia is used, it should also be analyzed in depth. Whose version of Arcadia is it, and who does it exclude?
In Greek mythology, Arcadia was the domain of Pan. It was an untouched wilderness in which he lived along with his nymphs, dryads, and other spirits. The natural world was the most important part of their lives.
The word translates to “idyllically pastoral” or “innocent.” It’s also related to the words “simple” and “untroubled.” If a place is called Arcadia, then one can expect to find untouched wilderness and joy in simple pleasures.
Related Literary Terms
- Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
- Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
- Pastoral: a genre or mode of poetry that refers to works that idealize country life and the landscape they take place in.
- Transcendentalism: movement with a focus on nature and opposition to the destruction of the individual that came with industrialism.
- Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.