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I have been favoured, by an ingenious correspondent, with the following observations on Pastoral Poetry.
No species of poetry has given occasion to more observation and criticism than what is called pastoral; though I am still inclined to suspect that the nature of this composition has not, after all, been properly ascertained. The critics have prescribed a great number of rules upon that subject, but without attempting to point out any principle in nature upon which they are founded; expecting, perhaps, that, like receipts, they should be implicitly followed upon the mere authority of the persons by whom they are delivered. Thus, we are informed that an eclogue, or pastoral, is an imitation of the action of a shepherd, or of one considered under that character; and that those who have introduced reapers, or fishermen, into this sort of composition, have acted improperly. Although an eclogue, however, ought to represent the manners of a shepherd, we are told that those manners should be painted, not as they are found in nature, but according to an ideal standard of perfection in what is called the golden age, where mankind live a life of simplicity untainted by vice, and maintain a serenity and tranquillity of mind undisturbed by avarice or ambition. In short, the actions of a shepherd, exhibited in this sort of writing, ought to have little resemblance to such as exist at present among that class of people, or probably ever did exist in any period of the world.
Is there not something mighty whimsical and arbitrary in these critical tenets? May we not be permitted to ask why a species of poetry should be appropriated to one particular profession or occupation, in contradistinction to all others? What is
there in the life of a shepherd to distinguish it from that of the other inhabitants of a country, and to mark the peculiar style and character of those verses which are employed in describing it?
A pastoral ought, in my opinion, to be distinguished from any other poem, not so much by the class of people whom it proposes to exhibit, as by the kind of sentiments which it is designed to express. Love and friendship give rise to sentiments which are apt to engross the whole imagination, and to have an extensive influence upon the disposition and temper. The sensibility and delicacy produced in a mind where these affections are prevalent, is liable to be disgusted with the ordinary commerce of society, to feel an aversion to the cares and bustle of an active life, and a high relish for the ease and indolent enjoyments connected with rural retirement.
- And Wisdom's self
Were all too ruffled, and sometimes impair'd. As these dispositions and sentiments have a peculiar tone and character, that poetry in which they are expressed is, with propriety, considered as distinct from every other; being obviously different from that which is employed in describing great and heroic actions, or from that which is intended to call forth sympathy by scenes of distress, or from that which is calculated to excite laughter by exhibiting objects of folly and ridicule.
In a poem expressive of tender sentiments, it seems necessary that the scene should be laid at a distance from places of business and public resort, and should be filled with a description of rural ob
jects and amusements. Shepherds, therefore, being the earliest inhabitants of the country, enjoying ease and happiness, were naturally pitched upon as the only persons who could, with probability, be represented in compositions of this nature. Hence it seems to have arisen, that the readers of such poems, and even critics, attending more to the sensible objects that were exhibited, than to the end which the poet had in view, have considered that as primary which was merely an accidental circumstance; and have regarded the employment of tending flocks as essential in the persons represented. It is in consequence of this that the name of pastoral is now commonly appropriated to that sort of composition, which has been substituted in place of Eclogues, Idyllia, Sylvæ, and several others used by ancient authors. No reason, however, occurs for adhering to those early ideas in the present state of the world, where the situation of things is totally changed. Many people at present may, with probability, be supposed to live in the country, whose situation in life has no connection with that of shepherds, and yet whose character is equally suitable to the sentiments which ought to prevail in that species of writing
It may even be doubted whether the representation of sentiments belonging to the real inhabitants of the country, who are strangers to all refinement, or those entertained by a person of an elegant and cultivated mind, who, from choice, retires into the country, with a view of enjoying those pleasures which it affords, is calculated to produce a more interesting picture. If the former is recommended by its naïveté and simplicity, it may be expected that the latter should have the preference in point of beauty and variety.
Two of the greatest poets of antiquity have described the pleasures of a country life in these two different aspects. The former view is exhibited, with great propriety and elegance, in one of the most beautiful poems of Horace:
Quòd si pudica mulier in partem juvans
Domum, atque dulces liberos ;
Pernicis uzor Appuli;
Lassi sub adventum viri :
Distenta siccet ubera ;
EPOD. 2. 39.
But if a chaste and virtuous wife
Of sunburnt charms, but honest fame,
Fatigued when homeward he returns,
Or if she milk her swelling kine,
While unbought dainties crown the feast,
The more elevated Virgil has given a picture of the latter kind no less delightful, in that passage at the end of the second book of the Georgics, beginning :
o fortunatos nimium, sua si bona nôrint,
O happy! if he knew his happy state
The enlargement of the field of pastoral poetry, which is here suggested, would surely be of advan
tage, considering how much the common topics of that species of writing are already exhausted. We are become weary of the ordinary sentiments of shepherds, which have been so often repeated, and which have usually nothing but the variety of expression to recommend them. The greater part of the productions which have appeared under the name of pastorals are, accordingly, so insipid, as to have excited little attention; which is the more remarkable because the subjects which they treat of naturally interest the affections, and are easily painted in such delusive colours as tend to soothe the imagination by romantic dreams of happiness.
M. de Fontenelle has attempted to write pastorals, upon the extensive plan above mentioned; but, though this author writes with great elegance in prose, his poetical talents seem rather below mediocrity; so that it is not likely he will be regarded, by succeeding poets, as a model for imitation.
No. 80. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 1780.
- Ex fumo dare lucem Cogitat, ut speciosa dehinc miracula promat.
HOR. ARS POET. 143,
AUTHORS have been divided into two classes, the instructive and the entertaining, to which has been added a third, who mix, according to Horace, the utile dulci, and are, in his opinion, entitled to the highest degree of applause.