Pastoral poems usually make use of an idyllic setting, one that is completely, or almost entirely, removed from society. Usually, there is a single narrator who is engaging with the natural landscape in a meaningful way. Farm settings are widely popular within the genre, as is the promotion of a simpler, more natural life.
Some of the most common features of this kind of poetry are central characters who are integral to the setting, such as farmers or shepherds. Often, the landscape is used as part of a religious allegory, suggesting peace/God can be found within nature.
Let’s take a look at the first lines from ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost as an example of a pastoral poem:
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
It is obvious in these lines that Frost’s speaker is exploring a natural environment as well as questioning and digging deeper into what he’s seeing. Additionally, there is a larger message conveyed by the speaker and emphasized by the landscape. The poem speaks on labour, personal solitude, and in the end, peace.
History of the Pastoral
The tradition comes from the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, who was active sometime between 750 and 650 BCE. He is known today for his writings on human labour. The tradition continued through the works of writers such as Theocritus, Virgil, and Horace.
Later, in the 14th century, the genre gained popularity in Italy, with writers such as Petrarch. Alexander Barclay is considered to be the author of the first English pastorals in his work Eclogues. Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, published in 1579, is one of the most important pieces of English pastoral poetry. Contemporary readers might be more familiar with the pastoral works of Dylan Thomas, such as ‘Fern Hill’ or William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.
Take a look at this list of other pastoral poems:
- ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ by Christopher Marlowe
- ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- ‘Ode to Psyche’ by John Keats