The Pastoral Elegy

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. 

Dark Roses
Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

Do you have any examples of pastoral elegies that stand out for you? Feel free to share below.


Resources:

  1.  Poets.org: Elegy
  2.  Masterclass: Poetry 101-Elegy
  3.  Wikipedia: Pastoral Elegy
  4.  Iain Twiddy, Pastoral Elegy in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry
  5.  John Milton “Lycida”
  6.  Percy Bysshe Shelley “Adonaïs”
  7.  Andrew Marvel, “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn”
  8. Wendell Berry, This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979 – 2012.  

If you are interested in buying a book mentioned in this post, consider using the NaturalistWeekly’s Bookshop.org storefront. We are an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may receive a small commission if you buy a book from Bookshop.org.

14 thoughts on “The Pastoral Elegy

Add yours

  1. Awww that last poem really affected me 😢 I also like the Milton poem, but it reminded me of English class a little bit too much haha!

    1. Hi Lizi, I agree with that reaction to Berry’s poem. It is short and really paints a picture about what is happening. And agree with the Milton poem! I must have reread that one 10 times and I am still confused about parts. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      1. Reading older poetry makes us consider how much language evolves over the years. I wonder how Berry’s poem will appear to readers in 400 years, probably similar to how we see Milton’s poem today. 🙂

  2. Hi Mark. I’m not sure how much this poem – To A Mouse by Robert Burns – fits into the pastoral elegy theme, but I wanted to share it anyway. Rabbie Burns is one of Scotland’s most famous poets. He was also a farmer and is known as the Ploughman’s Bard. I like the themes of this poem and how Burns reflects, in the final verse, on his envy of the tiny mouse despite its troubles. This is the standard English translation – the original would seem like a foreign language! 😀

    To A Mouse

    Small, sleek, cowering, timorous beast,
    O, what a panic is in your breast!
    You need not start away so hasty
    With hurrying scamper!
    I would be loath to run and chase you,
    With murdering plough-staff.

    I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
    Has broken Nature’s social union,
    And justifies that ill opinion
    Which makes thee startle
    At me, thy poor, earth born companion
    And fellow mortal!

    I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
    What then? Poor beast, you must live!
    An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
    Is a small request;
    I will get a blessing with what is left,
    And never miss it.

    Your small house, too, in ruin!
    It’s feeble walls the winds are scattering!
    And nothing now, to build a new one,
    Of coarse grass green!
    And bleak December’s winds coming,
    Both bitter and keen!

    You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
    And weary winter coming fast,
    And cozy here, beneath the blast,
    You thought to dwell,
    Till crash! the cruel plough past
    Out through your cell.

    That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
    Has cost you many a weary nibble!
    Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
    Without house or holding,
    To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
    And hoar-frost cold.

    But Mouse, you are not alone,
    In proving foresight may be vain:
    The best laid schemes of mice and men
    Go often askew,
    And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,
    For promised joy!

    Still you are blest, compared with me!
    The present only touches you:
    But oh! I backward cast my eye,
    On prospects dreary!
    And forward, though I cannot see,
    I guess and fear!

    1. Hi Lesley, This is wonderful! I am right there with Burns! I like how he is describing that tension between the mouse and the man. The mouse is just trying to survive, seeking shelter and food. I also really like that last stanza where he almost shifts into a Buddhist view of mindfulness in the present moment. “The present only touches you”. Such a wonderful poem! Thanks for sharing.

      1. Burns seemed to have such an affinity with nature, but the way he expressed it was never romanticised or superficial . . . and I agree with you on what you said about the last stanza. By all accounts, our Rabbie was a down-to-earth person, but he had a sensitivity in his insight. He’s one of Scotland’s national treasures . . . along with Irn-Bru. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: