Pastoral Ode: Definition & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 Defining Pastoral Odes
  • 1:35 Pastoral History
  • 2:32 Sample Pastoral Ode
  • 3:54 Modern Interpretations
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Pastoral odes have been around for over 2000 years. In this lesson you'll learn the characteristics of these poems and how our thinking about pastoral poetry has changed in recent years.

Defining Pastoral Odes

Ah, the lonely goatherd, watching his flock from the hilltop, not a care in the world, other than the welfare of some goats. No cell phone, no cable bill, no social media - pretty idyllic, right? With so many hassles in our hectic modern lives, it's easy to see why literature about shepherds and the countryside would be popular, but would it surprise you to know that writing like this has been a thing for over 2000 years? Writers have been idealizing the countryside since the time when there was hardly anything but countryside. In this lesson, you'll learn about this type of writing, how it has evolved, and what it looks like now.

An ode is a type of poetry focused on a single theme, with a single purpose. While there are distinct types of odes, one thing that sets an ode apart from other poetic forms is its elevated approach. The ode has weight. It's stately, dignified. Maybe you once wrote 'Ode to School Lunch' as part of a class assignment, but it probably wasn't truly an ode. Odes are serious business.

The word pastoral refers to shepherds and rustic country life. When you combine those terms, a pastoral ode would be a dignified, serious poem about the simple country life. And it probably contains a shepherd or two.

Pastoral History

Pastoral poems got their start in the third century B.C. with some rustic written poetic sketches of the countryside by Theocritus. Back then there were certain distinct types of pastorals. First you had poetic singing contests between shepherds - sort of like an ancient Greek battle of the bands, only by shepherds - in poetry. The second type was long poetic speeches from a single character, telling the world about how special a certain someone was, and the third kind of pastoral was elegies for the dead. All three types had a few things in common that still hold true. They were written in an elevated language, and they made the countryside look like the place to be. Even the shepherds spoke like intellectual poets from the city more than illiterate rural workers.

A Sample Pastoral Ode

Jump ahead to 1579, and we get that classic The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spencer. This pastoral starts from the voice of a poor shepherd boy, Colin, who loves a young woman, Rosalind. He tries to woo her by rocking out on his sweet pan pipes, but she turns him down and in a fit of emo rage he smashes his instrument.

I loue thilke lasse, (alas why doe I loue?)

And am forlorne, (alas why am I lorne?)

Shee deignes not my good will, but doth reproue,

And of my rurall musick holdeth scorne.

Shepheards deuise she hateth as the snake,

And laughes the songes, that Colin Clout doth make.

The reader is left to wonder why would anyone 'holdeth scorne' and laugh when hearing such beautiful 'rurall musick.' Set that aside and note the characteristics of the pastoral ode. It's written in an elevated style using a formal set of rules for rhyme and rhythm, and it's about that sweet country life including one sad shepherd tooting on his flute. Poor Colin.

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