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What Is Pastoral Poetry?

By Lisa Mooney
Updated May 23, 2024
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Pastoral poetry is an ancient form of art that concentrates on the idealistic vision of rural life. The history of this type of verse is extensive, with beginnings in the works of Theocritus, a Greek poet, and Virgil, a great Roman writer. Pastoral verses continued to be popular in the Romantic and Victorian eras of British literature. The most common themes of pastoral poetry include the virtues of country life, seductive romance, grief, death and the corruption of politics. Among the most popular poets to create this type of writing were Christopher Marlowe and John Milton.

It is commonly believed that pastoral poetry arose from the songs of shepherds in ancient times. Although this is generally accepted, the earliest verses probably had little in common with the later creations. In the third century B.C., Theocritus wrote rhymes entitled Idylls about the country life of Sicily, and they were used to inform the city dwellers of Alexandria. In the first century B.C., Virgil began writing verse that depicted his sophisticated friends and himself as simple shepherds enjoying the pastoral lifestyle that was actually foreign to them.

The Romantic and Victorian ages in British writings embraced pastoral poetry and began producing much literature in this vein. The British poets enjoyed praising the natural life that was exhibited in pastoral verse while they compared its beauty and simplicity with the corruption in the politics of city life. Among the most important and popular works of these eras was Matthew Arnold's Thyrsis, in which the poet wrote of one of Virgil's shepherds while commemorating the death of his friend, 19th century poet Arthur Hugh Clough. The Romantic poet Percy Shelley also published an important pastoral work entitled Adonais, which was written concerning the passing of the young genius poet John Keats.

Perhaps some of the most read and highly regarded works in pastoral poetry were created by Marlowe and Milton. Marlowe wrote the poem The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, which involves a shepherd's seductive plea to the girl of his dreams to live with him and share his love. Milton's Lycidas was in the tradition of using pastoral poetry to memorialize someone deceased, in this particular case, one of Milton's classmates who had drowned at sea.

The language of pastoral poetry is one that celebrates the lovely and uncomplicated nature of country life. Its roots are ancient, and its popularity has been long lasting. It is an art form still studied by modern students, and its impact has reverberated throughout the generations.

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Discussion Comments
By orangey03 — On Aug 02, 2012

“Thyrsis” is an incredibly long poem! It has some beautiful language in it, but it takes quite some time to read.

I am used to more modern poems that are only about a page long. This one just goes on and on, but it is beautifully worded.

The author talks about the “loved hillside” and all the different types of flowers and trees that live there. In reference to the dearly departed, he says, “The bloom is gone, and with the bloom I go.”

I think that is the best line in the whole poem. It makes it sound like the man is so attached to the flowers there that he would depart life with them.

By giddion — On Aug 01, 2012

@OeKc05 – Some pastoral poetry is beautifully simple, but some of it is downright hard to understand, in my opinion. I can easily read “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and understand it perfectly. However, “Lycidas” is full of old language that is pretty foreign to me.

It reminds me of some of Shakespeare's works. It is littered with words that no one has used in centuries, and I can't understand their meaning without a book of translations nearby.

I like reading the simple kind of pastoral poetry that you are referring to, but I can do without the other. “Lycidas” just reminds me of all the old poems I had to read in college but never fully grasped.

By OeKc05 — On Jul 31, 2012

The purity of pastoral poetry is what makes it so beautiful. The poets are not concerned with using complicated words, and since they are trying to convey earnest emotions, they choose heart-piercing words to show that.

I love poetry from this era. Reading it makes me long for the time when things were simpler, even though I never lived during that time. I probably would have been a poet if I had, though.

I am glad that pastoral poetry will always have a place in student textbooks. I think that we should always remember something so lovely and introduce it to each new generation.

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