- The Virgilian Pastoral Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Modern Era
Nancy Lindheim's new book on Virgilian pastoral and the distinguished tradition that descends from it joins a host of famous and sophisticated studies of the pastoral genre, which has received much attention over the years, from ancient commentaries to Renaissance critics to some of the greatest scholars of modern times. I recommend Lindheim's book as among the best on the subject since Paul Alper's splendid What Is Pastoral? appeared in 1996. Alpers suggested that we draw back from the long history of pastoral commentary and examine the genre from a social perspective. Basically, pastoral is about shepherds and what that occupation or station in life represents. Likewise, Lindheim draws back to look anew at what Virgilian pastoral actually does. Her book does not represent a return to the practices of the New Criticism, because her approach is not so much formalist as cultural and historical. But she does return to one of the chief virtues of the New Criticism: close reading of the text, to inquire what it actually has to say for itself. As a result, her book genuinely illuminates the primary sources, making no attempt to deconstruct, diminish, disparage, or build a career on them, as has too often been the case in the criticism of the past several decades.
The weakness of New Historicism, postmodernism, and various current theoretical approaches – trends that have dominated or entirely displaced literary criticism for the past several decade – is that they too often fail to respect the text or to read it in the light of its own cultural, historical, and authorial assumptions. Lindheim's book marks a welcome return to the fundamental principles of literary criticism, the close reading and unfolding of texts in their own terms, and by doing so manages to find a great deal that is new and original to say about a very old subject, commented on for millennia. As she writes in her opening sentence, 'This book is engaged in examining pastoral practice rather than in distilling pastoral theory.' The promise of that approach, truly realized, is Lindheim's great strength. [End Page 387]
Another strength is her style. Readers will find that her book is as well written as it is thoughtfully considered. It is proper that a book about pastoral should partake of some of the graces of its subject. Potential readers should include those interested in classical, Renaissance, seventeenth-century, and Romantic literature, those interested in genre theory, but especially those who have fallen in love with the timeless pains and pleasures of Virgilian pastoral, or who would like to know why the Eclogues have held such an honoured place among gifted writers for two thousand years. Unlike so many recent scholarly monographs, it is pleasantly written, avoiding fashionable jargon and postmodernist academic pretensions. As critics once recommended, the style fits the subject, and thus helps Lindheim to reveal pastoral for the major genre that it is, against those who would diminish it as weak and trivial, romantic and outdated, as well as those who have more recently deplored it as primarily a means used by effete or power-drunk kings and aristocrats to exert control over their subjects by political mystification. Lindheim's book deserves a wide audience. It is recommended to amateurs (that is, lovers) of literature, who enjoy the pleasures of reading good books, as well as those who are committed to working in the field.
After some preliminary discussion of Virgilian pastoral, especially in the light of the First Eclogue, Lindheim begins with a chapter on Spenser's Shepheardes Calender. Among other issues, she discusses the relation of Spenser's ecclesiastical satire to Virgil's consideration of political injustice, his incorporation of georgic themes and attitudes, and the persistent presence of winter, death, and loss in Spenser's cycle of the seasons. Two chapters examine Milton's Masque and Lycidas. She finds the Masque a rich mixture of allegorical Neoplatonism and pastoral sensuousness. Paradoxically, it celebrates both chastity and...