- Arcadian RhythmsThe New Pastoralism in Contemporary Poetry
Midwest Eclogue? Bucolics? Field Knowledge? Goat Funeral? Is this 2010—or 210 B.C.? It may surprise the reader to discover that these are all titles of collections of poetry appearing in the past few years that in their separate ways examine the enduring tradition of the pastoral. The first question that comes to mind is why now? Why, at a time when the way of life from which the pastoral mode derives its meaning seems most imperiled, should the form appear to be undergoing a kind of renaissance? Why hasn't the form become moribund? Moreover, what's left to be said in a poetic mode that's now more than two thousand years old?
Pastoral poetry has always contained the contradictions that would prepare the ground for such questions: one of the earliest pastoral poets, Theocritus, born around 300 B.C., wrote his Idylls, or Bucolics, not for the shepherds of his native Sicily who inhabited the poems but rather for an educated, even citified, audience in Alexandria who derived a kind of smug pleasure from hearing about the simpler lives and quaint habits of the rural [End Page 189] herders. The form was always already about an idealized way of life and a landscape that never really existed. This idealization of a simpler life and landscape explains why metaphors of a Golden Age—Arcadia, Eden or the locus amoenus ("pleasant place")—are such a pervasive and enduring part of the pastoral tradition. Such sites, Anne Townsend writes, invite us "into a world out of time, meant for leisure, contemplation, for free play and rapture without consequence," the epitome of this idea being found in a poem such as Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love": "Come live with me and be my Love,/And we will all the pleasures prove/That hills and valleys, dale and field,/And all the craggy mountains yield."
From its beginning, then, pastoral poetry is a nostalgic mode. Viewed in this light, it's not at all surprising to find the strongest interest in the simplified life the pastoral represents at precisely this moment when our lives are most complicated by technology—and the pastoral retreats the natural world provides most threatened by that technology. In the age of Facebook, where we text, Twitter and blog ourselves into a permanent state of attention-deficit disorder, all while the real dis-order of global environmental collapse looms, the imagined purity and simplicity of rural life seem now more than ever the perfect antidotes to distraction and disaster.
Another contradictory feature of the pastoral mode that contributes to its continued relevance is the presence of an ecological perspective. This is due in part to the subject matter of the distinct types of poetry that fall under the umbrella of the pastoral, particularly the type known as the georgic. While in its most basic form pastoral poetry denotes the bucolic, songs by or about the lives of herders, whether of sheep, goats or—as the Greek word ("bukolos") implies—cows, it also includes the eclogue—typically a conversation between shepherds or cowherds about the nature of rustic life or the fickleness of love—and, finally, the georgic, which moves from animal husbandry to include farming and stewardship of the land. The Latin poet Virgil, writing about two centuries after Theocritus, provides the most famous example of both the eclogue and the georgic (though his georgics have a predecessor in the Greek poet Hesiod's Works and Days). Virgil's Georgics deal with all aspects of "farming"—the meaning of the Greek word georgic—focusing, over the course of four books, on field crops and the proper planting and harvesting times, the tending of trees and vines, the husbanding of livestock of various varieties and, finally, apiculture. The takeaway message of the...