What Does Pastoral Mean? – Literary Terms 101

Pastoral: “A poem having to do with shepherds and rural life; from pastor, the Latin word for shepherd…The three forms are (1) the singing match between two shepherds, sometimes called the eclogue, (2) the monologue of a single lovesick shepherd lamenting his mistress’s aloofness; and (3) the elegy, or dirge, for a dead friend,” (Morner and Rausch, 1991) – The NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms.

My Take on Pastoral Work/Poetry

I see rural or rustic life as having a mixture of peaceful simplicity and complex melancholy. As a southern Colorado person, I find the wide open space and absence of urban life to have a calm to it, but my mind has transformed that calm into a type of sadness. I really relate to pastoral works, especially elegies. If you think about rural life, small farm towns where everybody knows everybody, the passing of someone or the breaking off of a relationship is often devastating. You have very few activities to distract you and even more responsibilities to attend to if you don’t have some of the conveniences city life can offer. But no matter where you live, loss happens. John Milton’s Lycidas is a well-known example of a pastoral elegy. Milton had so much anxiety about his life accomplishments and his mortality. Milton wrote many elegies, so existence and death must’ve been at the forefront of his brain. Through Lycidas, I want to argue that he did a kind of self-talk to face his grief over his college friend, Edward King; Apollo, St. Peter, and the Muses appear and seem to help him confront the shepherding lifestyle that reminded Milton of his friend, but guided him from a place of despair to hope and inner peace.

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, 
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, 
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor; 
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed, 
And yet anon repairs his drooping head, 
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore 
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky: 
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high

Lycidas Lines 165-172

It’s kind of interesting that Milton, who grew up in a bourgeois family and lifestyle, wanted to use pastoral themes to honor Edward. I know it was the 17th century so what they considered “urban” or city life isn’t how we see it today and I’m probably overthinking it (lol). Some analyses of Lycidas consider Milton using pastoral poetry to metaphorically call out the Church of England clergymen, which is more likely. So am I taking pastoral works too literally? Even Virgil’s pastoral work is described as, “…a poetic genre in which the author could use humble characters to talk about public figures and current affairs. Because shepherds are the poet-musicians of the countryside,” (Poetry Foundation) but his pastoral poetry is also “…not just a literary construct, inasmuch as there are striking touches of realism in the descriptions of country life,” (Poetry Foundation). So there is something about the countryside that encourages deep contemplation! But Virgil became a rich boy too with humble beginnings. I guess I find it interesting as to how the wide open spaces of the countryside can inspire so much existentialism.

Anyway, there are many other good pastoral works out there (Shelley’s Adonais is recommended as well). I think the most important quality of this genre is the act of contemplating life whether that leads to existential dread or a kind of revelation. I wonder if pastorals influenced Westerns and other storytelling mediums about country life. I also want to add that even though I chose an example that focused on death and grief, not all pastorals are so morbid. There’s a beauty and charm in pastoral simplicity as well, such as finding love and simply loving. The point is that the pastoral piece itself addresses elements of rural life emphasizing its influence or symbolic meaning on life events, similar to an idyll.

Let me know what you thought of this. Have you tried writing pastoral poems before? How would you write one if you’re a city slicker or have you ventured the countryside before? I’d love to hear from you.

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