Writing

Poetry 101: What Is a Pastoral Poem? Learn About the Conventions and History of Pastoral Poems with Examples

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 5 min read

Pastoral poetry is known for exploring the relationship between humans and nature, and for romanticizing the ideals of a simple country life. The enduring popularity of the pastoral form of poetry suggests a wide resonance with these ideals.

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What Is a Pastoral Poem?

A pastoral poem explores the fantasy of withdrawing from modern life to live in an idyllic rural setting. All pastoral poetry draws on the tradition of the ancient Greek poet Theocritus, who wrote romanticized visions of shepherds living rich and fulfilled lives. No matter the form or structure the poetry takes, this focus on idyllic country life is what characterizes it as pastoral poetry.

What Are the Origins of Pastoral Poetry?

Pastoral poetry originated in the Greek Hellenistic period when the poet Theocritus wrote about rural life in the countryside. His poetry was later imitated in Latin by the Roman poet Virgil, who set his pastoral poems in a fictionalized version of Arcadia. Arcadia is a region in Greece but in literature, came to be known as a kind of bucolic utopia, where many pastoral poems are set. Virgil’s pastoral poems were famous for emphasizing the contrast between urban and rural life; he also was influential in the way he used the pastoral poem as a vehicle for political allegory.

Pastoral poetry was revived during the Renaissance, where it first made its way from Latin into Italian, and then into Spanish, French, and English. An early, and influential, pastoral work in the English language was Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579).

What Is the Purpose of a Pastoral Poem?

An overriding, defining theme of pastoral poems is the idea of an idealized vision of country life, in which humans live simply and in harmony with nature. Other common themes and motifs that characterize the pastoral mode include:

  • A beautiful, natural setting
  • Shepherds as central characters (who are often used as vehicles for political or religious allegory)
  • Religious allegory in pastoral poetry is aided by the common association between Christianity and shepherds/flocks of sheep
  • The trope of a return to an idealized Golden Age, when humans lived in complete harmony with nature
  • Focus on imagined life in the country, rather than reality
  • The working belief that country life is superior to urban life

What Are the Conventions of Pastoral Poetry?

There are four notable subgenres of the pastoral poem.

  • The country house poem. In the seventeenth century, Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst” exemplified the country house poem. In this style, a poet uses complementary and highly romanticized language to describe a wealthy landowner’s country house. The country estate traditionally belongs to a friend or patron of the poet; in this case, Penshurst belongs to the Sidney family. The poem is written in iambic pentameter and contains many references to ancient Greek gods, both of which details lend an air of sophistication and prestige to the characterization of the country house. Another important seventeenth-century country house poem is “A Country Life” by Katherine Phillips. Phillips writes about the joys pastoral life, and of letting go of concerns about the material world.
  • The pastoral elegy. In a pastoral elegy, the poet uses the themes and hallmarks of pastoral poetry to grieve someone’s death. John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1637) bereaves the death of a former fellow classmate of the poet. In this poem, Milton not only laments the death of his friend but also speaks out against religion.
  • Pastoral romance. The pastoral romance took inspiration from Greek pastoral novels. It developed when Italian writers combined pastoral poems with narrative prose fiction. This new genre spread throughout Europe, gaining writers and readers in several languages.
  • Pastoral drama. Pastoral dramas also developed in Renaissance Italy. The strongest examples of the form can be seen in sixteenth-century in Italy, such as Tasso’s “Aminta” (1573) and Isabella Andreini’s “Mirtilla” (1588). The form also spread to England, where Shakespeare used it in works like As You Like It, which contains pastoral elements and was based on an Italian pastoral romance. Shakespeare uses the forest to represent rustic life, in contrast with the town and urban life.

2 Examples of Pastoral Poems

Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” published in 1599, is an early example of the pastoral mode. It is often studied as a well-known love poem, and as an example of iambic tetrameter:

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.

The second example is “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” by Sir Walter Raleigh. This was published as a reply to “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Marlowe was, at the time, a very young and idealistic poet. Raleigh was an older, accomplished poet, and his reply seems to be implying that Marlowe’s ideas about romantic love, as well as his style of poetry, are naive.

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.

Learn more about poetry from former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.