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Pastoral Literature: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Ever feel the urge to get 'back to nature?' You're certainly not alone, and there's a wealth of literature to prove it. Come and explore the world of pastoral literature, using examples from Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and William Shakespeare.

Definition: What Is Pastoral Literature?

If you've ever lived in a city, you've probably found yourself fantasizing about wide open spaces without crowded trains, traffic noises, and the other trappings of urban life. In other words, you've experienced a strong desire to get 'back to nature.' Of course, those who don't live in cities know that country life isn't always a cakewalk, especially if your livelihood depends on the land. Changes in the weather and the season make all the difference when you live off the land, and we all know that nature isn't always kind.

The tension between an idealized view of nature and a more realistic one is a major theme in English literature. In fact, this theme gave rise to its own branch of literature. Pastoral literature is, to put it simply, literature that deals with people living off the land, dealing with all of the challenges and blessing of nature. In many cases, pastoral literature tends to show a more optimistic view of this lifestyle, as works in this branch of literature are often intended for urban audiences. To get a better sense of how pastoral literature works, let's examine a few examples from its rich history.

Pastoral Poetry: 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love'

One of the most well-known (and most parodied) pieces of pastoral literature is Christopher Marlowe's 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.' Published in 1599 (six years after Marlowe was murdered), the poem is an extremely idealized vision of rural life. This poem also introduces us to two stock characters (shallow, stereotypical characters) that appear throughout pastoral literature: the romantic, virtuous shepherd and the naïve country girl.

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.

If you ever wanted to create a checklist for what makes a pastoral poem, you could use this poem as inspiration. We're given a generous list of 'all the pleasures' of country life, from the beauty of the landscape to the delightful behavior of the people who inhabit it. The shepherd's daily labor is also idealized, and it seems to mostly involve sitting around and occasionally making crafts. This view of country life, however sugarcoated, is a defining aspect of all pastoral literature.

Pastoral Poetry Parodied: 'The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd'

As I mentioned in passing before, 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love' has been parodied and riffed on for centuries. The most famous of these parodies is explorer and poet Sir Walter Raleigh's 'The Nymph's Reply to Shepherd,' which gives us a view of country life that's more grounded in reality:

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every Shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move,
To live with thee, and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb,
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and Ivy buds,
The Coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee, and be thy love.

Whereas Marlowe's poem was overly optimistic, Raleigh's 'reply' errs on the side of pessimism. Yet, this poem rings true when naming the hardships of rural life: the unpredictable force of the natural world, the harsh changes that come with each season, and the fact that everything eventually decays. Raleigh even evokes the Greek myth of Philomel, who became a nightingale after being raped and tortured by her sister's husband. With this in mind, it would be improper to dismiss this poem as just a parody. Rather, it is a harrowing reminder of the difficulties of getting 'back to nature.'

Pastoral Play: As You Like It

Finally, let's take a look at a piece of pastoral literature that works on larger scale. Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It hinges on the differences between urban and rural life. In one of the play's many plots, a character named Duke Senior is banished by his brother. Duke Senior and his court take up residence in the Forest of Arden, where they attempt to live in the 'pastoral' way. In the following speech, Duke Senior acknowledges the challenges that await him, describing the 'uses of adversity':

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