Saturday, 24 September 2011

Some thoughts on pastoral

1. The odd thing is that although one cannot have 'nature' until one has the not-nature of the city (before that, nature is just the world), yet -- oddly -- pastoral poetry develops in the complete absence of anyh 'urban' poetry. Indeed, it's hard to think what 'urban' poetry might mean (before, you know: 'The City Of Dreadful Night' or 'The Waste Land'), unless it is Roman satirist's knowing insistence that a man keep only an appartment in the corrupt city, and spends what time he can at his spacious villa in the country.

2. The history, or critical narrative, of pastoral itself reproduces the dynamic of the poetry itself. Bucolic poetry is written by Hesiod, but he is a working farmer, and embedded (as the phrase goes) in nature, and the poetry is all muscular and practical and gets dirt under its fingernails. Then pastoral poetry is written by Theocritus and Vergil, and both are court poets (Theocritus at the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus at Alexandria; Vergil at the court of Augustus in Rome) and their realtionship to the bucolic is cultural rather than natural: idealised, sentimentalised, the natural world a site for singing, love-affairs, modish melancholia and so on. Spenser's Shepheard's Calender is neatly poignarded by Robert Graves (this in his Collected Writings on Poetry, 67):
In the Shepheard's Calender Spenser tried to escape from this rhetorical paralysis and to make the pastoral a more serious -- or at least superificially a more serious -- poetic mode. Improving on Sidney's classicism, he engrafted the classical pastoral, in all its impure variety, upon native English rusticism, thus inventing a looser and yet more immediate pastoral technique. His Colin Clout, borrowed from Skelton, and his Piers, borrowed from Langland, graze their flocks in fields where Kentish and Arcadian trees and flowers and deities are mixed up together.
He goes on to talk about Spenser's 'creation of thsi self-sufficient lunatic world' won him the title 'the poeple's poet'. But its precisely in this synthesis of familiar and foreign, cutting creatively across the diagonals of nature and culture, that generate the affect of post-Renaissance pastoral. It's almost always informed by a stated desire to 'get back to nature' (Crabbe; Wordsworth; Clare) and may even be written by actual farmers (Ted Hughes, say). But it is always a melange of natural and cultural, a blend of the classical and the actual.

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