Elements of the Pastoral




The pastoral ideal has been celebrated and explored in literature since Virgil and Ovid in the first century BC. Ostensibly it describes a rural paradise where man is completely at one with nature, lives on the land and is innocent, pure and all in order. However, as the genre developed over the centuries, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became a way for writers to critique the industrialisation and mechanisation of Britain and the sprawl of overcrowded, dirty cities.

This genre included supernatural elements such as nymphs, which were minor, female deities, beautiful and related to nature and the earth. The pastoral was linked to Christianity as well as classical religion because it harks back to Eden: the original paradise where man lived in innocence before they fell. In Paradise Lost Milton combines Christian and classical imagery when he describes Eve as being like a nymph as she gardens in Eden.

As well as Eden as a basis for the idyll, ancient British myths and legends influenced writers’ portrayals of rural life. Robin Hood, for example, epitomised lawlessness, chivalry and anti establishment values and was a forest dweller, at one with nature and clad in green. Many later writers saw nature as superior to man-made establishment; in ‘The Tables Turned’ Wordsworth calls children to ‘let nature be your teacher’ rather than school books. This poem is a part of the Lyrical Ballads which was a collection written by Wordsworth and Coleridge to celebrate and describe the simple and rustic lifestyle of normal people and the natural world.

Typical settings for pastoral writing are forests, dales, fields, villages and farms. Very often these are contrasted with the city. In J.R.R Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the ‘Hobbiton’ is an idyll harking back to a time of hand made crafts, farming and village life. ‘Mordor’ is an industrial hellish place full of smoke, fire and darkness and mechanical technology that builds weapons and breeds evil. His use of this contrast can be seen as a political allegory which compares England to the industrialised East; or ‘Mordor’ could be seen as a depiction of what war brings as England changed in wartime. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest also portrays the differences between town and country through satirical comedy where the characters have alter egos that they use when they move from one to the other with confusing and amusing consequences.

The Arts and Crafts movement in 19th century England is a reflection of the same fear that is expressed about cities and industrialisation in some pastoral literature. The movement gave precedence to hand made crafts, art and construction. The movement was in opposition to new machines that left many traditional methods of production obsolete. The movement came out of the writing of John Ruskin who believed that many of the social problems in Britain were caused by factory work and a devaluation of traditional creative skills. Some of these late Victorian ideas are explored in literature of the period

Some writers have also used it to question whether a rural, pastoral life would actually be as idyllic as one might think. In As You Like It Shakespeare’s characters are banished from the complexities of court life and live a peaceful life farming instead; yet after a very short while the majority of them return to the more exciting life at court. Shakespeare’s use of the pastoral was interesting for his time as it challenged the traditional view of the pastoral by suggesting that, perhaps, courtly life might be a bit more interesting. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations does depict the city as a dirty, crime-ridden place. However the hero Pip does make many friends and has an exciting social life compared with the depressed, backward ways of his home in the country.