Pastoral poetry is a genre of poetry that focuses on rural life. Donna L. Potts explains in the introduction to Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition that pastoral poetry emphasizes “the harmony between nature and human nature, the contrast between city and country and the underlying tension between civilization and nature”. Pastoral poetry often idealizes the countryside and creates a vision of the shepherd, or farmer, as someone who lives a simple and fulfilled life.
Origins of Pastoral Poetry
Pastoral poetry has its origins in ancient Greece when the poet Hesiod wrote Works and Days. This poem is part farmer’s almanac and part exploration into “the nature of human labor”(1) In Work and Days, Hesiod writes about the life of the shepherd as one where “They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.”(2) Hesiod also uses this poem to promote the idea that only through hard work can someone find prosperity and distinction.(3)
Following Hesiod’s poem, the pastoral tradition continues through the years with other poets such as Virgil and Dante writing about the rural lifestyle(1). During the 1500s, one of the most recognized examples of English pastoral poetry, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love“, was written by Christopher Marlowe. In this poem, Marlowe uses the virtues of the natural landscape as a way to entice his future lover.
And I will make thee beds of roses And a thousand fragrant posies, A cap of flowers, and a kirtle Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle; A gown made of the finest wool Which from our pretty lambs we pull; Fair lined slippers for the cold, With buckles of the purest gold; A belt of straw and ivy buds, With coral clasps and amber studs: And if these pleasures may thee move, Come live with me, and be my love. (Excerpt for “The Passionate Shepherd to His Lover”)
It should be noted that Sir Walter Raleigh who wrote “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” in 1600 as a rebuttal to Marlowe’s poem.
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields To wayward winter reckoning yields; A honey tongue, a heart of gall, Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall. Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses, Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten-- In folly ripe, in reason rotten. Thy belt of straw and ivy buds, Thy coral clasps and amber studs, All these in me no means can move To come to thee and be thy love. (Excerpt from "The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”)
Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem is a less idealistic than Marlowe’s poem and has even been called an example of “anti-pastoral” poetry.(1)
Other well-known poets throughout history have also written pastoral poetry. William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Walt Whitman are all recognized as creating works that fall within the pastoral style.(5)
Pastoral Poetry in the 1900s to 2000s
Although there is a general decline in family farms, and the traditional work of the shepherd is disappearing, pastoral poetry continues to be find a place. Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” is often identified as an example of a more recent version of pastoral poetry.(4) Below is an excerpt from that poem.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long, In the sun born over and over, I ran my heedless ways, My wishes raced through the house high hay And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs Before the children green and golden Follow him out of grace, (Read the Full Poem Here)
Wendell Berry is another poet whose work is often considered part of the pastoral tradition. Berry’s book This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979 – 2012, provides some other great examples of this style.
The first poem under the chapter “1979” opens with following verse that highlights Berry’s connections to the land.
I go among the trees and sit still. All my stirring becomes quiet Around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places Where I left them, asleep like cattle.
This poem then closes with a celebration of the natural world.
After a days of labor, Mute in my consternations I hear my song at last, And I sing it. As we sing, The day turns, the trees move.
But perhaps the most famous poem by Berry that might fit into this genre is “The Peace of Wild Things”. In this poem, Berry praises the natural world as a place of refuge and gain spiritual connection.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The line between pastoral poetry and nature poetry can sometimes be a little unclear. Both genres promote the human-nature connection. However, a distinguishing characteristic may be that underlying spiritual nature of the pastoral poems. Traditional pastoral poems often drew the symbolic connection between the shepherd and Christianity. The shepherd as the main character may have taken a step back in contemporary versions of pastoral poetry, but the spiritual refuge of the rural landscape remains.
What are your thoughts about pastoral poetry? Feel free to share below.
- Poets.org: Pastoral
- The Society of Classic Poets: Pastoral Poetry: Arcadia Through the Ages
- Britannica: Work and Days
- Poetry Foundation: Pastoral
- Book Riot: A Guide to Pastoral Poetry
- Thomas, Dylan, “Fern Hill”
- This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979 – 2012
- Berry, Wendell, “The Peace of Wild Things” quoted on OnBeing.org