Pastoral Poetry: Arcadia Through the Ages

This Blog post was originally written as an article for The Society of Classical Poets, which can be found here:

“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.” Christopher Marlowe

These fervent lines are some of Marlowe’s most famous, and serve as an encapsulation of the Pastoral concept. Pastoral literature has enjoyed a profound longevity; born in Ancient Greece, the Pastoral form was still thriving in the 18th Century. In this article, I aim to explore the central features of Pastoral poetry, outline briefly the mode’s history, and analyse some seminal English examples.

What Is Pastoral Poetry?

In essence, Pastoral poetry is the simplistic presentation of complex human issues, within the setting of a rural locus amoenus (‘beautiful place’ in Latin). The exact location of said locus amoenus is not incredibly important, what matters is the idealism of man’s relationship with nature. That is to say that Pastoral poetry seeks to present a bucolic backdrop as not only preferable to urban life, but the ideal place for humans to exist. Andrew Marvell, a 17th Century advocate of the Pastoral ideal, described this comparison aptly: “Society is all but rude / To this delicious solitude” (The Garden, 1681). This locus amoenus, however, has been attached to culturally significant places, namely Arcadia and the Garden of Eden. Arcadia is a district of Ancient Greece, but it is telling that the name itself is recognised more for what it represents than its geographical location. Attached to the presentation of Pastoral paradise is a strong sense of nostalgia; poets seem to regard the so-called ‘Golden Age’ as being a sublime period of human history that was gradually deconstructed. Alongside this, there is a seemingly optimistic suggestion that we might one day return to such an idyllic simplicity of life and habitat.

In Latin, pastor means ‘shepherd’. It is no wonder then, that Pastoral poetry concerns itself almost exclusively with the lives of shepherds. The archetypal shepherd is a vehicle for Pastoral poetry’s unique aspect, political criticism. Many critics see the presentation of shepherds in Pastoral poetry as a presentation of the ideal political leader, tending to his flock. In fact, the political dimension to Pastoral poetry (initially introduced by Virgil), together with its preference for the ideal rather than the real, is what sets it apart from ‘rural’ poetry – i.e. poetry concerning nature in a more realistic sense. The Pastoral universe is one entirely separate to that in which we live, akin to the Green World described by Northrop Frye. Frye’s theory suggested literature’s function is “visualizing the world of desire, not as an escape from ‘reality,’ but as the genuine form of the world that human life tries to imitate.”; Pastoral poetry, in its fixation with the ‘world of desire’, concurs with this theory exactly.

The History of Pastoral Poetry

Pastoral literature can be traced back to Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days’ (circa 8th-7th Centuries BC), a work of Ancient Greek that gives us the concept of a ‘Golden Age’, the ideal period in man’s history. Below is the passage which details this Golden Age.

“First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.” (Works and Days, translated by H. G. Evelyn-White)

The baton of Pastoral innovation was passed from Hesiod to Theocritus with his ‘Idylls’ (circa 3rd Century BC), the first of which is a lament for a shepherd dying of unrequited love. The Pastoral mode really began to thrive, though, when the great Latin poets begin to mimic the Greek bucolic poems, Virgil’s ‘Eclogues‘ and Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ being the most prominent works of this rejuvenation. Virgil’s ‘Eclogues’ deal comprehensively with the concepts of Pastoral poetry that would go on to be central. For example, Virgil’s fifth eclogue is a lament for Daphnis; it presents nature as being directly affected by his death, with a reduction in crop yield and weeds replacing beautiful flowers.

“The Nymphs wept for Daphnis, taken by cruel death(hazels and streams bear witness to the Nymphs),
when sadly clasping the body of her son
his mother cried out the cruelty of stars and gods.
Daphnis, on those days, no one drove the grazing cattle
to the cool river: no four-footed creature drank
from the streams, or touched a blade of grass.
Daphnis, the wild woods and the mountains say,
that even African lions roared for your death.” (Eclogue 5, translated by A. S. Kline)

As a Pastoral elegy, the fifth eclogue would go on to be a seminal work of Pastoral literature, and the poem which introduced a very Pastoral concept: the fear that shepherds will not be remembered after their death. Virgil thoroughly establishes the concept of Arcadia, and gives us characters such as Lycidas, who was the eponymous subject of a 1637 John Milton Pastoral elegy.

The next significant development in the history of Pastoral poetry was the advent of Christianity (fittingly, many hail Virgil’s Eclogue 4 as a prophesy of the birth of Jesus Christ). The eventual existence of a Christian Roman empire meant that the mythology of Arcadia and Eden became irreversibly intertwined. Indeed, Pastoral literature married incredibly well with many features of Biblical scripture. Not only was the relationship between shepherds and flocks so ingrained in the Bible (one has only to think of “the Lord is my shepherd” and the countless figures in the Bible who are shepherds), but the similarities between Eden and Arcadia were innumerable. John Milton went on to consummate this link with his Pastoral epic ‘Paradise Lost’, an incredibly influential work in the Western canon which describes the fall of man. The following is a passage from said epic, wherein Eve addresses Adam.

“With thee conversing I forget all time;
All seasons, and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of Morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds: pleasant the sun,
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful Evening mild; then silent Night
With this her solemn bird and this fair moon,
And these the gems of Heaven, her starry train:
But neither breath of Morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds; nor rising sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flower,
Glistering with dew; nor fragrance after showers;
Nor grateful Evening mild; nor silent Night
With this her solemn bird; nor walk by moon,
Or glittering star-light without thee is sweet.” (Paradise Lost, IV:639-656)

Since then, the Pastoral form has continued to evolve, and has given us some of the most visceral poetry in the English language. The following are but three examples…


The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

(Read the Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd, and more here)

Here, the narrator compels the object of his adoration to “come live” with him, and enjoy the pleasures of the countryside. He goes on to justify his commands by delineating the material wealth of the countryside, including “A gown made of the finest wool / Which from our pretty Lambs we pull”. Here, Marlowe presents man as being in perfect harmony with the “Valleys, groves, hills, and fields”. Not only is man presented as having innate ownership of the herd by the use of the possessive pronoun “our”, but it is by man’s relationship with the herd that such material wealth can be accessed. In other words, Marlowe presents man as enjoying a unique harmony with nature, whereby “delights” might be harvested and crafted.

The nuance of this depiction cannot be overlooked. Marlowe begins the poem by describing the intrinsic beauty of a bucolic setting, with the idyllic “Melodious birds” singing their songs around the “shallow Rivers”. However, when Marlowe moves to describing the material, more immediate benefits of a pastoral life, he highlights a more complex aspect of such a life. That is to say, such a wealth of “fragrant posies” cannot be accessed without the input of man. Thus, Marlowe’s poem is more than a romantic plea from a Shepherd to the lover with whom he plans to elope. ’The Passionate Shepherd’ is a poem which praises man’s relationship with nature succinctly, with a perceptive sense of beauty.


The Mower Against Gardens by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce,
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air,
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupified them while it fed.
The pink grew then as double as his mind;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the roses taint,
And flowers themselves were taught to paint.
The tulip, white, did for complexion seek,
And learned to interline its cheek:
Its onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a meadow sold.
Another world was searched, through oceans new,
To find the Marvel of Peru.
And yet these rarities might be allowed
To man, that sovereign thing and proud,
Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No plant now knew the stock from which it came;
He grafts upon the wild the tame:
That th’ uncertain and adulterate fruit
Might put the palate in dispute.
His green seraglio has its eunuchs too,
Lest any tyrant him outdo.
And in the cherry he does nature vex,
To procreate without a sex.
’Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot:
Where willing nature does to all dispense
A wild and fragrant innocence:
And fauns and fairies do the meadows till,
More by their presence than their skill.
Their statues, polished by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the gardens stand:
But howsoe’er the figures do excel,
The gods themselves with us do dwell.

‘The Mower Against Gardens’ is one of Marvell’s four ‘Mower’ poems, which examine the relationship between a mower and his love, Julianna. More broadly, though, the poems assess man’s relationship with nature itself.
The Mower Against Gardens’ details the mower’s frustration that man has mutilated nature with his arbitrary boundaries and selective breeding. Marvell writes that man “first enclosed within the gardens square / A dead and standing pool of air”. The shape of a square is representative of man’s definitive influence on nature, and seems to be in diametric opposition to the natural world, “most plain and pure”. Man’s influence is also presented within a semantic field of death: he introduces a “dead” pool of air which does not move with the dynamism of natural forces, but rather “stands”. Marvell continues: “With strange perfumes he did the roses taint, / And flowers themselves were taught to paint.” Man’s mutilation is presented as having pervaded the very mechanics of nature, as the flowers learn to “paint”. Marvell’s criticism of man’s intervention in nature goes on to describe the very fall of man itself, and to draw parallels between Eve’s consumption of the “adulterate fruit” and humanity’s manipulation of natural processes. The poem concludes with the assertion that despite man’s obsessive mutilation, nature “does to all dispense / A wild and fragrant innocence” in the “sweet fields” that “lie forgot”. That is to say, in the frantic competition for a more beautiful flower, man has lost sight of the natural, undisturbed beauty which nature continues to present. Arcadia, then, is a place with which man should not interfere.


Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

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

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

(Find the rest of the elegy here:


A Pastoral elegy, taking after, for example ‘Eclogue 5’ and ‘Lycidas’, Gray’s most famous poem has become one of the most widely read to come out of the 18th Century. A Pastoral elegy has been described as a ‘sub-group’ of Pastoral poetry, which seems to me a fitting label. The Pastoral elegy seeks to present all of the same Pastoral ideals but within the context of death. That is to say, Gray’s poem must balance the concepts of death and of idyllic rural life.

Gray’s elegy is one which essentially presents a tension between urban society and the Pastoral idyll, which is resolved by the universality of death. Gentrified society boasts of “heraldry, the pomp of pow’r” and a scientific education, whereas the life of the hamlet’s “rude forefathers” is one without such pleasures. Gray laments that without societal structure and more institutionalisation “Some mute inglorious Milton may here rest, / Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.” In fact, the concept of being remembered after death is one which Virgil’s fifth eclogue deals with specifically, and has become a central aspect of Pastoral thought.

What the elegy presents is a question – a moral issue on which the reader is left meditating. Namely, even if a “youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown” enjoyed the “homely joys” of a bucolic life, is it a problem that they die forgotten? Gray argues that since the “paths of glory lead but to the grave”, there is no inherent benefit to living a life surrounded by art and science, compared to the “artless tales” of those who rest in the graves about which he writes. In other words, although “Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen”, those flowers still enjoyed the intrinsic beauty of life as opposed to the somewhat perishable beauty of art. Art itself is presented as lacking the capability to overcome death: “Can storied urn or animated bust / Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?” Since life is thus equally valuable howsoever it was lived, the highbrow critics that Gray imagines ridiculing the gravestones in his elegy are clearly misguided in their sense of superiority. The Pastoral life is, overall, presented within Gray’s poem as preferable to that of an urban citizen on a moral basis; Gray champions the “cool sequester’d vale of life” and suggests that we too should keep the “noiseless tenor” of our way.


Shakespeare once wrote: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme:”, and such musings on the immortality of literature are particularly applicable to the Pastoral mode. Pastoral literature has well and truly stood the test of time, and its endurance speaks volumes about the human condition. It is a natural conclusion from the success of Pastoral literature that man is born with an indomitable affinity with nature, and that there exists a human need for simplicity. Despite these characteristics being less obvious in the age of technological advance and material wealth, I believe that we all still have a part to play in the search for Arcadia.

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