The pastoral elegy poem is a subcategory of the larger pastoral poetry genre.
Pastoral poems are those that idealizes the rural lifestyle and create a vision of the shepherd as someone who lives a simple and fulfilled existence. These poems often contrast country living to city life. They also focus on a life lived in harmony with nature.
An elegy poem is one where the poet speaks of grief, sadness, and loss. Elegies usually follow a structure that starts with an opening expression of grief, moves into a period of praise of those that have been lost, and then ends in a place of solace about the situation.(1) The tradition of the elegy began in ancient Greece, was revitalized during the Renaissance period, and continues to be written today.(2,3)
The pastoral elegy poem is one where the poet both focuses on the idyllic countryside and the experience of loss and death. Iain Twiddy explains in his book, Pastoral Elegy in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, “The pastoral elegy’s standard progression is that the poet accepts death as natural, and achieves a renewal of the life-instinct, in line with the seasonal pattern of death and rebirth”. He also states that the pastoral elegy’s “purpose is mediation, to negotiate between the inside and the outside, past and future, and between loss and consolation. . . Pastoral looks to nature in order to understand more about human nature, our place within the world and thus reclaims the distance between pastoral and reality, between human concerns and natural existence.” Finally, Twiddy wants us to know that pastoral elegies don’t have to be just written about the death of a person, they can be written about environmental loss and other situations that bring up feelings of grief and sadness.
“Lycidas” by John Milton
John Milton wrote one of the most famous pastoral elegies, “Lycidas”, for his friend Edward King. The opening lines of this poem demonstrate the pastoral themes in this elegy.
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more, Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere, I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude, And with forced fingers rude Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year. Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear Compels me to disturb your season due; For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Milton continues this poem by expressing the despair that he is feeling about his loss. He then transitions to praise for the life of King (Lycidas), before moving into acceptance.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more; Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore, In thy large recompense, and shalt be good To all that wander in that perilous flood. Thus sang the uncouth swain to the oaks and rills, While the still morn went out with sandals grey: He touched the tender stops of various quills, With eager thought warbling his Doric lay: And now the sun had stretched out all the hills, And now was dropt into the western bay. At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue: Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
Other classic pastoral elegies include “Adonaïs” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which is about the death of John Keats, and “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn” by Andrew Marvell. Marvell’s poem is a great example of the pastoral elegy written about something other than the passing of a person. In this poem, Marvell writes in the voice of nature expressing sadness over the death of a deer.
A more contemporary version of the pastoral elegy could be found in the work of Wendell Berry. I came across this poem while I was ready This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979 – 2012.
“V” by Wendell Berry
Nell’s small grace, opening at the garden’s edge to receive her out of this worlds sight forever, reopens many graves. Digging, the old man's grieves for his old dog with all the grief he knows, which seems again to be approaching enough, though he knows there is more. (Poem “V” written in chapter 2005.)
Although this poem may not have all the flourishes of the elegies written by Milton and Shelley, I think it takes us through the stages of grief and acceptance as outlined by Twiddy. Because of this, I would feel comfortable calling Berry’s poem an contemporary example of a pastoral elegy.
Do you have any examples of pastoral elegies that stand out for you? Feel free to share below.
- Poets.org: Elegy
- Masterclass: Poetry 101-Elegy
- Wikipedia: Pastoral Elegy
- Iain Twiddy, Pastoral Elegy in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry
- John Milton “Lycida”
- Percy Bysshe Shelley “Adonaïs”
- Andrew Marvel, “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn”
- Wendell Berry, This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979 – 2012.
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