Exploring Pastoral Poetry

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.

Cows in the field

What are your thoughts about pastoral poetry? Feel free to share below. 


Resources

  1. Poets.org: Pastoral
  2. The Society of Classic Poets: Pastoral Poetry: Arcadia Through the Ages
  3. Britannica: Work and Days
  4. Poetry Foundation: Pastoral
  5. Book Riot: A Guide to Pastoral Poetry
  6. Thomas, Dylan, “Fern Hill”
  7. This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979 – 2012
  8. Berry, Wendell, “The Peace of Wild Things” quoted on OnBeing.org

22 thoughts on “Exploring Pastoral Poetry

Add yours

    1. Thanks for the comment and I am glad that you found this interesting. The more I am learning about the historical aspect of some poetic forms, the more I realize that I don’t know.

  1. Thanks for clearly summarizing & presenting this important literary tradition. I have long thought that “The Peace of Wild Things” ranks among the very best of modern pastoral poetry.

    1. Hi Walt, thanks for the comment! Writing these pieces really provides me a great opportunity to dive into the different types of poetry and try to figure out where they connect. Thanks for reading.

  2. A really wonderful post reminding us again of how we are a part of nature! I love the Marlowe poem because I am still a romantic even at my age but Berry’s poem is not only beautiful but deeply spiritual. “For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” And that’s just great nature poetry! Happy autumn equinox!

    1. Hi Ashley, thanks for the comment! Agreed with the your comment about Berry’s piece. So great and no wonder it is quoted frequently. Thanks for the continued support!

    1. Hi Tracy, I am glad that you enjoyed this. In one piece I read they author said that Raleigh was something like an grumpy old man and didn’t share the enthusiasm for life that Marlowe did.
      I also really like Berry’s work. He is really interesting to listen to in interviews. The interviews are hard to find but worth it. Hmm, sounds like an upcoming post.

  3. Sounds like my kind of poetry! I tend not to dwell on the critiques and theories of certain things like poetry or art. I go with my gut. I look or read something and find that it either resonates with me or not. After awhile when I keep running into the same style enough times, it finally clicks with me that, “Oh, this is surrealism and these two or three people are most famous for it.” So now I have been introduced to Pastoral Poetry and I like it. Thank you, Mark!

    1. Hi Melanie, my process of discovery is similar, except I might end up on a tangent with a interesting phrase or comment. This is how I ended up diving into pastoral poetry. It was part of another article and I thought that I needed to know more. The challenge is there are so many tangents.

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