Pastoral Poems: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Pastoral Poems
  • 0:32 Topics & Examples of…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Pastoral poetry has to do with shepherds and the simplicity of life in the country, where life is free from the corruption of the city. In this lesson, we will take a look at the genre of pastoral poetry, and take a look at a few pastoral poems, as well.

Definition of Pastoral Poems

Pastoral poetry is much like it sounds: poetry that has to do with pastures! And in some pastures, there are sheep tended by shepherds. The pastoral poem elevates the life of the shepherd or shepherdess, versus the evils of the city. Poets as early as Theocritus, Hesiod, and Virgil wrote pastoral poems, as did writers like Shakespeare. It is interesting to note that most poets who wrote pastoral poems were not really from the country. Their point of view was more idealistic than realistic.

Topics of Pastoral Poetry

The pastoral poem presents an idealistic, almost Utopian, view of rural life. In these poems, shepherds and shepherdesses are innocent, pure, and free from corruption of the city or even the court. Some common topics of these poems were death, love, the mockery of politics, and the ideal life of the country. Shepherds and shepherdesses would sing love songs to each other. Sometimes pastoral poetry is elegiac, mourning the deceased shepherd, for instance.

Examples of Pastoral Poetry

One famous example of pastoral poetry is Christopher Marlowe's poem, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. Here are the first three stanzas:

'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.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.'

The shepherd woos his love and lets her know the virtues of the pastoral life, such as sitting by shallow rivers, and hearing birds sing. Then he tells her he will make her a bed of roses and give her flowers. The poem continues on for four more stanzas, and the shepherd certainly paints an ideal picture for this young woman. A year later, Sir Walter Raleigh refuted the poem with A Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd. Here are the first four stanzas:

'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.'

In a humorous voice of a shepherdess, Sir Walter Raleigh ruefully refutes this ideal of the loving pastoral shepherd. Raleigh points out that life has hardships. People complain. Rivers rage. Flowers fade, and hearts grow bitter. Soon gifts like beds of roses wither and flowers rot. Here, Raleigh portrays a different viewpoint of pastoral life.

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