Pastoral Elegy in English Literature

suyam By suyam, 26th Jun 2016 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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Pastoral poetry refers to a literary work, dealing with shepherds and their rustic life. It is highly stylized and presents an idealized rather than realistic view of rustic life. It draws a contrast between the innocence and serenity of a simple life and the misery and corruption of city, especially court life. The characters in pastoral poetry are often used as a vehicle for the expression of the poets` moral, social and literary views

Pastoral Elegy in English Literature

Pastoral Elegy in English Literature

01. It has been observed by commentators in English Literature that their earliest forefathers in European countries have eked out their living in husbandry and feeding of cattle. At a period, when the numbers of mankind were comparatively insignificant and their thoughts were comparatively engaged in procuring subsistence, while luxury and ambition were unknown, it is inconsistent to conclude otherwise than that “‘they were the sons of agriculture”.

However, with the increase in population, coupled with dispersion of the inhabitants in to various regions; societies were formed, laws were enacted followed by regulatory measures that were implemented for the kingdoms/governments therein. This has resulted in the rustic life getting a polish of civil life and their ploughshare was converted to instruments of destruction. It means that peaceful civilian applications of the village people were converted in to military weapons.

In such a climate, having concluded that withering immigrants, were less fashionable or not possible, a section of people retained their primitive simplicity. In countries, where such people suffered the least variation from their original form, pastoral was most esteemed and their imagination feasted with rural scenes, remaining unpolluted or more properly uncorrupted; for their cottages had not felt the infection of court. The resultant of such situations is pastoral poems, essays and other literatures in pastoral mode.

Pastoral poetry refers to a literary work, dealing with shepherds and their rustic life. It is highly stylized and presents an idealized rather than realistic view of rustic life. It draws a contrast between the innocence and serenity of a simple life and the misery and corruption of city, especially court life. The characters in pastoral poetry are often used as a vehicle for the expression of the poets` moral, social and literary views. Sometimes, such poems are used as a device of “Singing matches” between two or more shepherds and such themes often include love and death.

02. The pastoral poems present an idealistic, almost utopian, view of rural life. In fact, such poems were largely established by Greek authors like Theocritus. The tradition was passed on from Greece to Rome, where Virgil used it in his “Eclogues” Later, the authors who have used the pastoral convention with striking success are the English poets such as Edmund Spencer, Robert Herrick, John Milton, Shelley, Mathew Arnold and a few others. The appearance of Edmund Spencer`s “Shepherdess Calendar”, in English poetry, brought out a trend towards the pastoral mode.

03. Pastoral Elegy is an offshoot of pastoral poems. It features both death and idyllic rural life of Shepherds. The genre is actually a subgroup of pastoral poetry, as the elegy takes the pastoral elements and relates them to the expression of poet`s grief at a loss. In fact, Elegy is a mournful poem, usually written in remembrance of a lost one for a funeral or as a lament. Normally, it tells the traffic story of an individual or an individual`s loss, rather than the collective story of people. An Elegy generally combines three stages of loss: first, there is a grief, then, praise of the dead one and finally consolation. This type of poems were originated in ancient Greece and Rome and was recognized by its “alternating lines of hexameter and pentameter”. In modern times, an elegy can be written in any metrical form but the content of the poem must reflect on death or sorrow. Some of the famous elegies are “John Milton`s Lycidas”, Thomas Gray`s “Elegy written in Country Churchyard”, W.H.Auden`s “In Memory of W.B Yeats” etc.

04. Pastoral poetry is a genre, where the rural life is glorified as “pure” from all problems of life and very often, relates to the lives of the Shepherds; whereas a pastoral elegy can be an elegy which takes up the pastoral poetic style in narration, with contents relating to both death and idyllic rural life of shepherds. Thomas Gray`s “Elegy written in a country churchyard” begins with the following few lines and this poem is written after the death of his friend “Richard West”

"The curfew tolls the knell of the parting day
The lowing herd wind slowly o`er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me"

It is a meditation on the death that opens in a solemn church yard. The above few lines sets the scene for the grief and loss of the poet`s close friend.

05. The most famous example of pastoral elegy is Lycidas, by the English poet John Milton. This pastoral elegy is characterized by many conventional features. The occasion for Milton`s pastoral elegy Lycidas was the death of Edward King, one of Milton`s younger colleagues at Cambridge, who had drowned on his way to his native place in Ireland. King was also a poet-student like Milton at Cambridge. In its very form, it is pastoral, as we can see excellent images of nature and village life. Edward King has been sterilized as a shepherd in its idyllic setting.

John Milton has taken the name Lycidas from Theocritus` Idylls in which Lycidas is a shepherd and poet. By giving the very name to King, Milton fulfills the first requirement of a pastoral poetry. In this genre, we can also see the praises for the shepherd.
06. The above elegy begins with a pastoral image with the description of nature. “Symbols of poetic fame; as their berries are not yet ripe”. Then the author compares Cambridge to pasture; latter on, he tries to portray the heavy damages suffered by nature because of the death of King. He further adds that “Willows, hazel groves, woods and caves” lament Lycidas`s death. At the end of the poem, Lycidas appears as a rejuvenated figure, “burnished by the sun`s rays at dawn, King resplendently ascends heavenward to his eternal reward”.

07. Now, let us have a glimpse of Edmund Spencer`s “Shepherdess Calendar”, which has brought about a trend towards pastoral mode in English poetry. Spencer’s above work is a collection of pastoral poems, deliberately written with archaic vocabulary to recall the English of Chaucer`s poetry. Spencer`s poems are formally called “eclogues”. Eclogues are pastoral poems usually in the form of dialogue between shepherds. The hero of the Spencer`s poem is Colin Clout. His dialogue is primarily, not exclusively, with Rosalind, a shepherdess and the subject matter of his dialogue is the love towards her. Another character is Piers, a rival character, with whom Colin had vocal music contests.

08. In The Scholar Gypsy, Mathew Arnold engages the pastoral mode by romanticizing the Oxford countryside. The subject matter of this poem is a legendary Oxford Scholar who gives up his academic life to roam the world with a band of Gypsies, absorbing their customs and seeking the source of their wisdom. The poem is filled with vivid descriptions of the countryside around Oxford. Arnold, in the guise of the speaker, highlights the scent of lindens with their “perfumed showers” and the bower, created by foliage, which offers solace and refuge. The speaker continues to describe the Oxford countryside as the place where he had spent his happiest days.

09.. Pastoral landscape is a view of the countryside from the urban perspective of the town or court. Pastoral is often a nostalgic form, produced by those who are conscious of having lost something; it looks backwards in time. Simplicity is located in the countryside and complexity is located in a sophisticated and decadent city. One common criticism is that pastoral poems are utopian; still, such poems are interesting that readers can derive some solace from reading the stanzas, as they could feel they are taken to an imaginary world, where happiness and contentment alone are there..
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Court Life, Elegy, Lycidas, Milton, Pastoralism, Spencer, Theocritus Idylls, Utopian

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author avatar suyam
Retired executive of Canara Bank,with 31 years experience-Good exposure in Finance,Banking,Foreign Exchange,Credit Management and Risk Management-Interested in English Literature,writing articles.

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