Critical thumbprints in Arcadia: Renaissance pastoral and the process of critique

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Author: Michael Everton
Date: Spring 2001
From: Style(Vol. 35, Issue 1)
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,087 words

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Arguing that the pastoral is best understood via its critical and revisionary nature, "Critical Thumbprints in Arcadia: Renaissance Pastoral and the Process of Critique" builds on the work of Harry Berger, Louis Montrose, and Raymond Williams to shed new light on the shared mechanics of pastoralism and its literary criticism and theory. The essay dissects the appropriation of antipastoral discourse by revisionary pastorals and then indicates the ways in which this appropriation is further complicated by contemporary theories of pastoralism. In other words, the argument explores how contemporary critics of pastoralism participate in a "culture" of critique by productively mimicking the critical methodologies of Renaissance pastoralists and antipastoralists like Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Philip Sidney, and thus provides a fundamental illustration of the familiar post-structuralist mantra that the critic is almost incomprehensibly implicated in that which he/she critiques.

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It seems that all we can do is compose introductions to the pastoral, although recently these introductions have begun to grow longer and longer and their vocabulary larger and more disparate. We now require words like power to aid our compulsive need to prove that shepherds were poets and poets were courtiers-- and, indeed, many commentators have done an exquisite job of discovering what it meant to write in the fickle courts of the English royalty. (1) But in this short reintroduction to the Renaissance pastoral and theories thereof, I will largely ignore the presence of power and the court and indulge instead the fundamental means of pastoral allegory--critique. Because the pastoral has taught us to value the very idea of critique, it is important to remember that the critiques contemporary readers place into the context of prior critical apparatuses often tell us as much about the process of critique as about the subject itself. "Any collective critical project," Louis Montrose writes, "must be mindful t hat it, too, is a social practice that participates in the very interplay of interests and perspectives that it seeks to analyze" ("New" 415). In elucidating the place of critique in this genre, (2) I will first briefly outline "some versions of pastoral," to borrow William Empson's language, and trace how Raleigh's response to Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (3) and Sidney's Old Arcadia exemplify two rather confusing but quintessential processes of pastoralism and pastoral critique. Second, I will survey how notable contemporary theories of pastoralism often only imitate their subject. Thus, in the context of Montrose's still-vital desire to "draw attention to what seems [...] a vital though largely unremarked conjunction of form and function" ("Gentlemen" 432-33), I wish only to discuss the "function" of the pastoral "form": what it means to criticize, how pastoral writers and critics have gone about it, and how we continue to go about it today as we teach and write about the Renaissance pas toral.

Writing of the "intense preoccupation and experience" (3) revolving around critical employments of the country and city, Raymond Williams suggests that the "initial problem" we face "is one of perspective" (9). A few pages later in The Country and the City, he assigns the same problem--that of perspective--to the history shrouding the pastoral. What is the pastoral, Williams asks, how should we view it, and how did pastoral poets themselves see it? Do we look to the stated subject of the pastoral fiction or to the other fictions to which it alludes and upon which it feeds? Finally, even before attempting to determine perspective, Williams wonders, how do we discern the properties and boundaries of the pastoral itself; when, for example, does a pastoral become antipastoral, and when is it "simply" nature poetry or fiction? In the same vein, in What is Pastoral?, Paul Alpers laments that "it sometimes seems as if there are as many versions of pastoral as there are critics and scholars who write about it" (8). Yet even apart from this problem of a contemporary critical perspective--one fascinatingly implicated in the politics of post-structuralism--the genre of the pastoral poses numerous problems of definition and effect, and did so even to Renaissance writers themselves. (4)

One of the cruxes of these problems, both in form and perspective, lies in the idea of critique. The pastoral, antipastoral, and critical theory thereof denote a process of critical reflection and awareness that exploded in the Renaissance--the pre-modern-and has continued to develop to the present day--the post-modern. Moreover, recent critical theory of pastoral and antipastoral productively mimics the trenchant business of the antipastoral cited above. In this business of critique, the pastoral exists as the given text, the antipastoral as critique, and literary criticism as meta-critique. But this paradigm oversimplifies the relationships, for what initially sounds plain is unavoidably heterogeneous: the entire process surrounding pastoralism is critically charged. Because the definitions of pastoral and antipastoral are not clean ones, we can no longer satisfy our need to explore Renaissance pastoralism through what Robert Stillman calls "essentialist" paradigms "in which fixed meanings are given to gen res, spirits of the age to historical periods, and clear and distinct images to the mirror of the mind" ("Whitman" 23). Hence these contemporary arguments over pastoralism are revealing because the complications of these debates only impersonate the complexity of the polemical literary genre outlined below.

"Elizabethan practice confirms," Montrose writes, "that pastoral has an affinity for paradox" ("Gentlemen" 452). And, indeed, so does its criticism. Paradoxically, the best initial definitions of the pastoral are the shortest and the least definitive; they are also the most contradictory. William Empson asserts that the pastoral is the "process of putting the complex into the simple" (53). The pastoral poet couches multiple levels of meaning within what appear to be rather unaffected narratives of shepherds and their musings; the pastoral, in these terms, is the deceptively simple narration of a poet masked as a shepherd. Renato Poggioli, meanwhile, traces the pastoral impulse to a psychological "double longing after innocence and happiness," a longing carried out through a scripted "retreat" (1). (5) According to Laurence Lerner, this retreat becomes, then, a fundamentally simplifying poetic convention, where shepherds "wish to find in country life a relief from the problems of a sophisticated society" (19) . In Lerner's argument, for Renaissance writers the pastoral was ultimately "a poem about shepherds" (39) and nothing more. (6) But Poggioli holds that "the pastoral ideal shifts on the quicksands of moral thought" (2). "The bucolic dream," he writes, "has no other reality than that of imagination or art." Although for Poggioli the pastoral is more a psychological exercise than an express social or literary critique, we should not be too eager to discount his explanations as a more recent edition of Samuel Johnson's rejection of the pastoral endeavor as "easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting" (410). As long as we wish to even argue the existence of something so tenuous as a "pure" pastoral, in fact, Poggioli's conception may be among the most useful.

However critically adolescent, it will help first to view the genre in this kind of polar simplicity. Though when we think of the term "pastoral" we often conjure works such as Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," Marlowe's is actually a rather rare example. "The pure pastoral lyric," Thomas Rosenmeyer argues, "on the order of Marlowe's 'Passionate Shepherd to His Love,' is rarely found among the more significant products of the European pastoral tradition" (9). In this sense, the term "pure pastoral" might be used to denote the pastoral that is expressly escapist. While this definition does advocate an extra-narrative function for the pure pastoral--that is, a network of possible meanings obscured by a beguilingly innocent narrative--it does not endorse a critical one. The "conventional" pastoral is a reaction to modern social structures; it is, as Poggioli suggests, an entirely conscious disavowal of modernity in favor of simplicity:

The function of pastoral poetry is to translate to the plane of imagination man's sentimental reaction against compulsory labor, social obligations, and ethical bonds; yet, while doing so, it acts as the catharsis of its own inner pathos, and sublimates the instinctual impulses to which it gives outlet. It therefore performs with especial intensity the role that Freud assigns to art in general: that of acting as a vicarious compensation for the renunciations imposed by the social order on its individual members, and of reconciling men to the sacrifices they have made in civilization's behalf. (31)

The pure pastoral, that is to say, is more commentary than criticism, more passive than active in its literary environment. (7) In it, there is no double plot; apparently there is no allegory. When Marlowe's shepherd promises his nymph that he will lay her "beds of roses / And a thousand fragrant poesies" (9-10), he hopes for seduction and nothing more. The closest the shepherd comes to providing a critique is his underlying lament over young women's closely guarded virginity. Consequently, when Poggioli labels the pastoral "but the wishful dream of a happiness to be gained without effort, of an erotic bliss made absolute by its own irresponsibility" (14), we cannot help but see Marlowe's shepherd sitting "upon the rocks, / Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks" (5-6). This potential for innocent escape on the part of the reader, shepherd, and poet is short, though, for none of the three can long sidestep the congenital problems of this notion of a "pure," critically passive text.

Neither the pastoral nor Poggioli's thesis is quite so elementary as here suggested. Poggioli does not, for example, assert that these traditional pastorals, such as "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," include all pastoral mutations, nor, as Peter Lindenbaum claims, does he "oversimplify pastoral's main appeal" (6). Rather, we should see Poggioli's treatment of the pastoral through Rosenmeyer's qualification that it is a necessarily "teleological view" (17), a treatment suggesting that there is more said and left unsaid in the pastoral once it begins undergoing what Stillman calls "generic redefinition" (Sidney's 64) in the hands of writers such as Sidney, Shakespeare, and Spenser:

Generic [re]definition is the characteristic activity of Renaissance pastoralism. In the process of reformulating the boundaries of the genre, while engaging in shepherdly negotiations between the literary past and the cultural present, the poet promotes his own aesthetic, moral, political, and religious interests. [...] The pastoralist uses pretense even here: the humility of his pose as a shepherd is a disguise for his ambitions as a poet. This fact makes special demands on the critic, forcing him to examine not only what the pastoralist says, but what his fictions set out to accomplish. (54)

How far can we trust even Marlowe's apparently innocuous pastoral? If we subscribe to Stillman's explanation of "pretense," then we cannot trust its simplicity at all. The pastoral poet continually assumes, according to Stillman, a "calculated disingenuousness" (51)--that is, a pretense to otium--that allows him to pretend "to serve nature, while artfully constructing poetry in which the authority of nature is placed in the service of aesthetic, moral, and social ambitions." So when Marlowe's shepherd pleads to "Come and live with me and be my love,! And we will all the pleasures prove" (1-2), might he not in fact be setting forth a literary agenda? Is Marlowe, in other words, actually establishing the power of verse to discover the "delights" that move the reader's "mind" (23), and is his "Love," in consequence, rather more-or at least as much as-a reader than a young nymph? Marlowe does in fact include allegory in his pastoral, and in the process he may be deifying the poet and the poetic impulse: himself a nd his poetry. Empson insists that the further we fall into the lie of the base narrative, the more we empower the suggestiveness of the complex allegory within it. "[A]llegory itself," he writes, "is always liable to return to the deification from which it came, and the more you avoid this by taking a humble example of the quality as its type the more you deify the figure of the pastoral" (72). Marlowe, under the pretense of sexual seduction, poetically seduces the reader, his "Nymph," not only into deifying his own role as poet but also into endorsing the legitimacy of his pastoral as a literary endeavor. Our once-innocent genre is not so pure after all, for its apparent passivity camouflages a fundamentally critical assertion of the poet's role in society--both the poet and the poem become, quite self-consciously, cultural artifacts.

Regardless of whether we assign Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd" an active or a passive (unallegorized) role, literary history, in the guise of Sir Walter Raleigh, has treated it as a passive and pure pastoral text. Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" does not attempt to cloak its intent: it is an active critique of "The Passionate Shepherd." With this response we arrive at the next critical production initiated by the pastoral and its implicit culture of critique. I use the word "culture" to connote the size and spiral of a literary industry grown up around creating pastoral texts and then revising them, either through further pastoral texts--usually referred to either as revisionist pastorals or antipastorals, though the terms are not necessarily synonymous--or through critical theory.

Williams calls Raleigh's response to Marlowe the "ordinary counter" (23) to the pastoral; Raleigh's text is the opposing factor in the critically naive pastoral binary equation that posits the antipastoral as a negation of the pastoral. Narrowly defined as such, the antipastoral "marks a commitment to talk about man as he is," according to Lindenbaum, "and not as he might be in some perfect moral state either in the past or in the future" (17). Thus, the antipastoral assumes that the pastoral is in fact little more than what Poggioli, taking for granted that the pastoral does not speak through a pretense of critical or poetic aspirations, calls "a breathing spell from the fever and anguish of being" (9). "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," in this argument, is the ideal revisionist pastoral, the "ordinary" response to the pastoral's bucolic fantasy. It is a poem that, like George Crabbe's antipastoral "The Village," contrasts "a tradition of poetry" with "an intention of realism" (13).

Seen then as a literal antipastoral, "The Nymph's Reply" is a thorough attack on the "The Passionate Shepherd." Raleigh's poem opens with a qualification of Marlowe's work, and its initial question sets the tone for the entire poem:

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd' tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee, and be thy love. (1-4)

The very assertion of the conditional "If" commits this poem to its critical stance. The world is not young, and there is little that might be called truth in any pastoral shepherd's song. Raleigh's nymph is all too wise for the inculcations of Marlowe's lustful shepherd, and the brutal intrusion of time, which "drives the flocks from field to fold" (5) and which insures the changing seasons when "winter reckoning yields" (10), calls this shepherd on his shallow lies. On its simplest critical level, therefore, this antipastoral deconstructs the golden escape route of the "passionate" shepherd and replaces it with a cold reality where Spring might bring the fulfillment of lust but will also be accompanied by the "sorrow" (12) of broken promises between lovers.

On a more fundamental level, however, the criticism leveled by the antipastoral hinges on a qualification of the concept of otium, and it is this concept that once again betrays the implicit critical function in the pastoral itself. In Changing Landscapes, Lindenbaum defines otium as an "ideal [that] seeks to eternalize a single moment" and conceptualizes "an indifference to, rather than a flight from life in the more complex and civilized world" (6). Rosenmeyer extends the definition into a metafictional plane wherein its operation can be better contrasted in the two forms of pastoral represented by Marlowe and Raleigh respectively. Here, otium is "also a function of the ethos of the poem, the idea which the poem is expected to communicate over and beyond the dramatic realities within it" (68). We are not necessarily to take Marlowe's petition to join the shepherd literally; rather, we should believe in the essential liberty of the shepherd's idealized retreat and, consequently, in the potential for respite even if that respite exists nowhere entirely. In this reading, the pastoral is conceivably analogous to a closet drama: the freedom encapsulated by the pastoral acts within our minds to open possibilities for rest closed by modern society. As a result, otium is not so much escapist as it is liberating. The "ethos" of the pastoral provides the reader with breathing room within the confines of tightening social obligations, and our apparently pure pastoral is again compromised by its own critical subtexts. (8)

Yet our awareness of this compromise is enabled only by our understanding of the antipastoral's treatment of the pastoral. How we label Raleigh's response--that is, whether we call the poem an antipastoral or revisionist pastoral-depends in large part on the final stanza:

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.       (21-24)

The nymph recognizes the implications of otium in Marlowe's shepherd's complaint; that is, Raleigh acknowledges the value of potentialities and the release they provide the contemplative mind. His nymph expresses this understanding through her reassertion of the conditional statements "But could youth last" and "Had joys no date." The equivalent becomes: "if only ... it would be so nice." The very thought insures at least a momentary lapse from the harsh realties of time so present in "The Nymph's Reply." The brief space of time represented by Raleigh's final stanza is itself a testament to the ethos engendered by the shepherd's plea; it causes Raleigh's nymph to ponder, if only for a moment, "a pause in the process of living" (Poggioli 9) Thus we may argue that this response is not necessarily an action against the pastoral ideal proposed in Marlowe's text, but rather a revisionary glance at the otium--Rosenmeyer's s proposed ethos-of the lonely shepherd. The critical stance of the antipastoral succeeds in d etecting the very critiques innate to a pastoral such as Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd." As a result, what initially seemed an easy distinction between text (pastoral) and critical text (antipastoral) has become a messy profusion of continuous critique.


This continuous revisionary critique is most evident in Sidney's Old Arcadia. Wrestling with both the pastoral and revisionist sides of the elementary binary employed above, Sidney's pastoral is its own worst critic, because it suffers its own intrusion of cold reality countless times throughout the text, but most pointedly in the Fourth Eclogues. The shepherd Geron laments that foreign armies-who do not know what it means to preside over the "sweet pastures" of Arcadia and who "cannot speak the Arcadian language"--will "lord" over the shepherds (284). That Geron sings his complaint from one of the last havens of repose in a land now overrun by a "clamorous multitude" acknowledges the presence of antipastoral elements in Arcadia (which was itself, of course, never really pastoral to begin with). With the death of Basilius, the shepherds can no longer be indifferent to "life in the more complex and civilized world" (Lindenbaum 6), and in one of the few serious moments in the narrative, otium is suppressed enti rely: the ethos of the Old Arcadia will no longer sanction respite from the suffocating reality invited by a foolish duke and two careless and horny princes. In short, even the caretakers of pastoral repose in a supposedly pastoral land are stripped of escape. "Shepherds bewail your uttermost confusion," Agelastus sings; "And see by this picture to you presented, / Death is our home, life is but a delusion" (302). If the life of the shepherd in Arcadia is only a "delusion," was there ever pastoral to begin with? This question seems the logical end of a pastoral that uses its own revisionary devices to negate itself. (9) Sidney employs continuous critique to the point of disposing of the subject itself, and his shepherds become "orphans left" (303).

So given this mass "delusion," where then does Sidney stand on the pastoral and its function? Pastorals, to function as criticism of the status-quo, should exercise either nostalgia or hope for a golden age, one either in the past or in the future, respectively. The conclusion of the Fourth Eclogue, as well as of the Old Arcadia in general, would seem to suggest neither. It is here that the sudden absence of otium becomes critical. The shepherds, so soon after closing their laments in the Fourth Eclogue, meet a group of horsemen, presumably soldiers, on the road home. While the intrusion of reality was only spoken of even as recently as the middle of this eclogue, now it is present in its final lines. An exchange on the level of Marlowe and Raleigh is no longer acceptable in light of Sidney's convoluted pastoral, because the passionate shepherd can no longer even reach a place where he may ignore time and age, and the nymph can no longer even grant the shepherd a whimsical "Wouldn't it be nice!" as she does i n the final stanza of "The Nymph's Reply." As the boundaries that are forever necessary to mark the separation of the pastoral landscape from corrupted civilization and its cities are compromised, so is the critical function of the text itself. There are no more havens from which to launch disguised critiques of courts or of the corrupted reason of man. In the happy, farcical ending of the Old Arcadia, we do not hear again from the shepherds we last saw "orphaned" by the "delusion" of their bucolic fantasy. (10) As Judith Haber suggests, Sidney thus "presents us with an especially clear picture of the difficulties" (53) implicit in Renaissance pastoralism.

Predictably, this on-going critique is only deepened by Sidney's own criticism. When Williams writes in The Country and the City that there "had of course already been counter pastoral, of a kind" (23), he might as well be referencing Sidney. The significance of this binarism lies in Sidney's own famous assertion of "the right use" of the "special kinds" of poetry in the Defense (229). His brief tour of one of these kinds, the pastoral, raises the issue of critique--of forcing readers to read subtexts into texts that initially seem only the musings of a shepherd whose "poor pipe [...] sometimes [...] can show the misery of people under hard lords and ravening soldiers.(11) Stillman believes that Sidney "knows more than he tells" (65). The reader, critic, and, most of all perhaps, the poet, according to Sidney, must be capable of acknowledging the critical imperative of a pastoral that accommodates the antipastoral function into its own critical purpose. (12) Sidney argues in this short passage that the "'rig ht' use of pastoral," as paraphrased by Stillman, "employs the shepherd as moral critic" (64). Theory of the pastoral therefore perhaps begins with Sidney. But the real significance of the repetition of "kind" lies in what it potentially suggests about Williams's own reading of Sidney. The word play with which he treats Sidney propounds that Sidney's description of pastoral as a "kind" could actually be, for Williams, a description of a "kind" of antipastoral. For Williams and most other contemporary theory, Sidney's rendition of the pastoral is actually a hybrid of pastoral and antipastoral; it is a literary hermaphrodite that is fundamentally critical. What Montrose calls "primary" pastorals--"simple and spontaneous poetry produced in a pastoral society" ("Gentlemen" 435)--do not exist.

In fact, given the debasement of the grounds for pastoral critique in the Old Arcadia, we should wonder if what Montrose calls "secondary" or "artificial" pastorals even exist. The text easily fits Montrose's qualifications: it is "a complex form": "rustic in its imagery and personae [...] ; amorous in its subject matter; allegorical in its means; [and] political in its ends" (440). If, however, the very shepherds of the story are exposed as fakes or are discarded as "orphans," and if the pastoral landscape itself is invaded, with the incompetence and infected will of its rulers exposed and debated, is the text still pastoral, or has it succeeded in exposing its own counterfeit existence? Or if the primary pastoral--similar to "The Passionate Shepherd"--is not a "right use" of literature for Sidney, and if the secondary pastoral is so complex and riddled with inconsistencies that it cannot critique properly and merit its pastoral label, is the pastoral even a profitable "kind" of literature for the serious w riter in late Renaissance England? Certainly it is important for its jealous mimesis, its copying of classical forms in order to endorse the rightful place of the nation's literature in history. But, given the Defense and the Old Arcadia, the pastoral poet may not be capable of being the kind of "maker" (Defense 215) that Sidney needs him to be, because the pastoralist does not seem capable of producing a text clear enough to be architectonic in its effect. At worst, the pastoralist, even Sidney, cannot rise above his infected will. And at the very best, as Harry Berger suggests of Spenser's Shephearde's Calender, the Old Arcadia as a pastoral narrative is self-consciously critical of "its own commitment to the genre" (320). (13)

Berger finds in this muddled process of genre-reflexive critique "the enduring element of the mode" (282). Indeed, even before contemporary criticism--a lens with its own fluctuating boundaries--began (de)constructing it, the Renaissance pastoral was an unstable genre fully cognizant of its own critical processes. The pastoralist is a critic, and one of the reasons the pastoral tradition is so complex and referential is that the pastoral tradition is a radically critical one at least as much as it is a poetic. "Renaissance pastoralism's growth in popularity coincided with the development of postclassical literary criticism" (Sidney's 64), Stillman writes. "The self-consciousness of the one helped to stimulate and in turn must have been stimulated by the other." Sidney's assertion of the "right use" of poetry allows contemporary readers access to the mind of a pastoral poet, one who, as T.S. Eliot might have suggested, is aware "that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past" (5). When each pa storal enters into what Eliot calls the "existing order," this whole structure "must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new." The pastoral poet and the pastoral poem are both intertextually--that is, critically--obsessed with the tradition. Not surprisingly, this culture of critique around the Renaissance pastoral continues today, but now definition, redefinition, and criticism thereof occur exclusively within the realm of critical theory. (14) Just as the pastoralists turned from the bucolic shepherds in order to critique the poet's handling of those golden-world voyeurs, contemporary critics have turned from the poetry itself in order to critique other critics' views of these pastoral narratives.


Put simply, this whole critical suite is reenacted in contemporary theory by writers such as Williams, writers who approach literary texts in much the same way as antipastoralist poets like Raleigh approached the pastoral. "The literary reference, for a presumed social fact, is the really significant structure" (14), Williams notes in an important statement. "It is symptomatic of the confusion which surrounds the whole question of 'pastoral."' To what, Williams asks, does the pastoral, and for that matter the antipastoral, refer? Do they refer back to other pastorals or to the original conditions the pastoral genre sought to critique or express? Williams carries his argument forward into the realms of critical and cultural theory and their ultimate reliance on their own productions and paradigms. Like the pastoral and antipastoral, we as critics betray our own beliefs and agendas in what we choose to critique, and too often we choose to critique the critiques themselves rather than the original subjects of t hose analyses:

All traditions are selective: the pastoral tradition quite as much as any other. Where poets run, scholars follow, and questions about the "pastoral" poetry or the poetry of "rural retreat" of our own sixteenth to eighteenth centuries are again and again turned aside by the confident glossing and glazing of the reference back. We must not look, with Crabbe and others, at what the country was really like: that is a utilitarian or materialist, perhaps even a peasant response. Let us remember, instead, that this poem is based on Horace, Epode II or Virgil, Eclogue IV; that among the high far names are Theocritus and Hesiod: the Golden Age in another sense. (18)

Williams is angry, and he directs this anger at the critical establishment itself as a body that spends more time complicating and deepening its own structures of critique than in recalling the initial reasons for those critiques. He proclaims that it "is time that this bluff was called. Academic gloss has made such a habit of tracing influences that it needs [...] constant correction"(15)(19). But in doing so, we should note that critical theory essentially and ironically keeps pace with the agenda of its subject, the pastoral. "Generic redefinition" is at least as much a symptom of critical theory as of the Renaissance pastoral: we imitate the very process we originally set out to critique. (15)

Though Williams's aggression is certainly understandable, some of his reasons for charging the "confident glossing" of critics are too ideological to ignore. His position is that critical theory of the pastoral (studies such as this essay) over-indulge in fictions rather than in realities. Of course, we must keep in mind that the reality to which Williams refers is one of agrarian capitalism and cultural materialism (21), which is to say that Williams' own cultural ideologies--Marxist assumptions about the nature of society--shine through even despite (or especially because of) his own call to arms. The result of this unmasking is the discovery of pretense in the very guise of Williams's commitment to disrobe critical pretense: Williams, like the pastoral and antipastoral writers before him, cannot escape the pretext that inevitably accompanies the critical project. (17) Throughout The Country and the City, he relies on fictional portrayals--pastorals and counter pastorals--to prove and substantiate the inev itable evolution of agrarian capitalism. Williams argues that we should look back to the original sources of the poetry rather than to the somehow corrupted lyric interpretations of those sources. But his main purpose is, paradoxically, only to arrive at conclusions about these sources by examining the literary tradition. He hopes to break through literary pretense by employing it against itself:

For the pastoral of the courts and of the aristocratic houses was not, as it came through, the really significant development. Isolated in time and in status, its modes and its realities are quite easily understood. What is much more significant is the internal transformation of just this artificial mode in the direction and in the interest of a new kind of society: that of a developing agrarian capitalism. Neo-pastoral as a court entertainment is one thing; neo-pastoral in its new location, the country-house and its estate, is quite another. We must follow the development of the artificial eclogue and idyll, but shall only arrive at the decisive transition when these have been relocated, in a new ideology, in the country-house. (21-22)

Williams is involved, however, in precisely the same process that so obsessed the Renaissance pastoralists: reviewing and revising the poetic tradition in order to make a point about its parent society. In so doing, Montrose argues, Williams "effectively and honestly demonstrates that the politics of literature are inseparable from the politics of criticism" ("Gentlemen" 419). (18)

This awareness of a living and breathing legacy of critique resonates tellingly with post structuralism. Asserting the culture of critique constituting Renaissance pastoralism and the criticism thereof is simply another recognition of the perpetuation of a subject in new-historical lenses. Montrose writes:

to speak today of an historical criticism must be to recognize that not only the poet but also the critic exists in history; that each of the texts are inscriptions of history; and that our comprehension, representation, interpretation of the texts of the past always proceeds by a mixture of estrangement and appropriation, as a reciprocal conditioning of the Renaissance text and our text of the Renaissance.

("Renaissance" 8; see also Montrose "New Historicisms," 412-17)

It is this presentation of "our text of the Renaissance" that especially interests me, because in pastoral criticism--and, indeed, in much contemporary theory of any historical period--we have not only written our own texts of that period but, in addition, we have also written texts about those texts. We truly are "as fully implicated," as Montrose claims, "as are the texts under study" (7). The critiques of and by pastoral and antipastoral texts are seminal examples of New Historical apparatuses at work. (19) In admitting this perspective and, in turn, by exercising our polemics about our own critical projects accommodating pastoral narratives, we cannot help but substantiate the nature of critique or, in Montrose's new-historical terminology, the "politics of reading" ("New Historicisms" 416)--"the regime of power and knowledge," to twist his language somewhat, "that at once sustains and constrains us" ("Renaissance" 12). While this is not new news, it is news that theories of pastoralism seem to continual ly rebroadcast in different shapes and sizes.

And, finally, what about Montrose' s own reading of pastoral and our critiques of them? When I referred above to his statement that today "the study of pastoral may have become a metapastoral version of pastoral," I did so as if Montrose were endorsing my basic thesis about a critical function that underlies the genre of pastoral and its criticism. But Montrose's version of the "pastoral impulse" ("Gentlemen" 415) differs from that offered here. "[T]o write about pastoral," he argues, "may be a way of displacing and simplifying the discontents of the latter-day humanist in an increasingly technocratic academy and society." Montrose goes beyond simply asserting, as he does outright in other places, that we as critics stamp our own ideologies on the texts we study. (20) Here he argues that we actually use pastoral and our critiques of them to promote our own convictions of what our culture needs or desires. We utilize the basic pastoral function of critique in nearly exactly the same way as had Raleigh and Sid ney, Spenser and Puttenham. As a result, pastoral theory is less metapastoral than it is yet another rendition of pastoral, for delineating and exploding "ambiguous social boundar[ies]" (433)--one of the purposes of pastoral, according to Montrose--and forcing moral and ethical convictions is what contemporary critical theory does best. His theory is yet another product of the pastoral tradition; his essays, as Haber writes, can themselves be read as "versions of pastoral" themselves (3; see Haber, 2-4). (21)

"Nostalgia," Williams notes, "is universal and persistent; only other men's nostalgias offend" (12). In critical theory, all we have are others' nostalgias and, given our love for critiquing not only the nostalgias of the Renaissance but others' opinions of those sentiments, we thrive on these ever-deepening versions of what was or what will be "golden"--and of what it all means. Little has changed, then, with regard to the culture of critique enveloping the genre: the pastoral argues with society, the anti- or revisionist pastoral argues with the pastoral, the pastoral mutates to appropriate this critique in its own narrative, and finally critical theory recognizes and mimics the whole confusing process. (23) It is thus no surprise when Stillman writes that the "pastoral writer and the literary critic frequently have a shared vocabulary" (64), for we have seen the intertextuality of Williams and Sidney, Raleigh and Marlowe, Poggioli and Montrose, and its durability suggests that, more than just vocabulary, p astoralists, antipastoralists, and critics share the very means and ends of critique.


(1.) In Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry, David Halperin writes that "because pastoral, despite its tendency to invade the province of other well-established literary categories, had traditionally been assigned a discrete place in the literary taxonomies of the past, its status has been left in considerable uncertainty by the current flux of critical theory" (30). See 2772, where Halperin provides a detailed survey of the legacy of pastoral criticism. Paul Alpers, like most critics, acknowledges the critical metropolis surrounding all aspects of the pastoral, though he also proclaims in What Is Pastoral? the utter need to draw some essential parameters: "Apart from the happy confusion of definitions, it is clear to no one, experts or novices, what works count as pastoral or (perhaps a form of the same question) whether pastoral is a historically delimited or permanent literary type. It does seem that we should know what we are talking about, the more so as 'pastoral' can still be a word to conjure with" (8). See 8-43.

(2.) How we classify the pastoral--that is, the various differences and consequences of calling the pastoral a kind, mode, or genre--is an extensive debate in itself. See, for instance, Halperin, 33-35; Alpers, What Is Pastoral?, 44-78; Rend Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, 235-47; and Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes.

(3.) Most Renaissance spellings have been standardized.

(4.) For an excellent recent discussion of the self-conscious conundrums of pastoral and pastoralists, see Haber, Pastoral and the Politics of Self-Contradiction.

(5.) Hallet Smith writes that this opinion is probably the most prevalent: "that the pastoral is merely escapist literature" intended to circumvent the rigors of society by exploiting the myth of the innocent country life. The "central meaning" of the pastoral is, as a result, "the rejection of the aspiring mind" (10). Likewise, Montrose writes that in "pastoral forms, ambitions might be advanced in a kind consecrated to the rejection of ambition" ("Gentlemen" 452).

(6.) Lerner's treatment of the pastoral as a psychological narrative retreat is explicit in its rejection of a pastoral critically charged, either inherently or theoretically: "The sixteenth century found no difficulty in knowing what a pastoral was: it was a poem about shepherds. For us to set what pastoral reality is against what it was thought to be is to tamper with history; and since without literary history we would not have the concept of pastoral in the first place, we could be said to be knocking away the scaffold we are standing on" (39). It is precisely this myth of the critically naive Renaissance pastoralist and the overzealous contemporary critic with which I take issue, supporting Peter Marinelli's claim that we cannot "fail to realize that a note of criticism is inherent in all pastoral from the beginning of its existence" (12).

(7.) Or, as Harold Toliver argues, the pure pastoral does not exploit "the potential contrasts between a golden age and the normative world" and therefore it cannot claim "the dialectical, tensive structure characteristic of all worthwhile pastoral" (5).

(8.) In "An Apologie for Elizabethan Poetry," Smith restates his original suppositions about otium by clarifying that "Elizabethan pastoral is not an escape from life but a criticism of life" (37).

(9.) Haber insightfully details how Sidney "makes the contradictions he perceives an integral part of his subject" (53). See her chapter on the Old Arcadia, 53-91.

(10.) Harry Berger suggests that the speakers in pastoral narratives are but critical mediums, "the embedded representatives of the cultural discourses or language games-including the game of poetry-conspicuously reduced in the pastoral form of life" (320). Such an account fits nicely Sidney's absentee shepherds, who have fulfilled their reflexive rhetorical function. See his discussion of The Shephearde's Calender in Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics (1988), especially 320-21, for another example of this genre-critique in Renaissance pastoral.

(11.) For a discussion of the impetus for sub-text in Renaissance literature and criticism see, for example, Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England, 24-43. Also see Patterson's Pastoral and Ideology. Virgil to Valery, 127-31.

(12.) In George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie, we find another Renaissance acknowledgment of a pastoral theory that positions criticism at the heart of the pastoral function. Puttenham writes that "the Poet devised the Eclogue [...] not of purpose to counterfeit or represent the rustic manner of loves and communication: but under the veil of homely persons, and in rude speeches to insinuate and glance at greater matters, and such as perchance had not been safe to have been disclosed in any other form" (38). For a discussion of the place of Puttenham's work in pastoral theory, see Montrose ("Gentlemen" 433-52).

(13.) This "reflexive critique of its own commitment to the genre" is actually the third attribute Berger uses to characterize the metapastoral, the first two being "the motivational critique of the system of values embedded in the psychology of withdrawal or escape" and "the intertextual critique of the way pastoral conventions idealize their literariness along with the psychological experience they represent" (320).

(14.) Toliver maintains that while "images of idyllic places, dialectical contrasts, and levels of pastoral ideality remain constant ingredients in the texts to be considered, each period does what it needs to with them, and it is part of our critical task to gauge the interplay between established conventions and the special social and intellectual topics of given periods" (14-15). Pastoral, he continues a few pages later, "provides a convenient way of talking about some aspects of literary history and theory" (18).

(15.) Montrose further notes this critical ignorance, especially with regard to pastoral theory: "Pastoral literature is usually studied in the context of literary history or thematics, that is, within an apparently autonomous system of literary discourse that has largely been constructed by the criticism that studies it. But if there appear to be no connections between the material and the textual domains of Elizabethan life, it is because they have been ruptured or occluded" ("Gentlemen" 422).

(16.) In other words, the theory has become a participant in the pastoral enterprise. "One of the tasks of a theory of pastoral is to explain the interaction of these levels [of narrative complexity] and to use them to gauge the influence of the social and intellectual context on variations of pastoral form" (5), Toliver writes. "Obviously lyrics, odes, elegies, romances, and novels and epics with pastoral elements handle that tension quite differently, and every period interprets and reconstitutes them in its own ways." In our "period," we have elected to "interpret" and "reconstitute" the pastoral at least as much through theory as through literary production itself.

(17.) As Halperin reminds us, "it is necessary to be aware of the implications of any chosen critical method and to acknowledge that the use of the pastoral category to classify works of ancient literature imports alien values and literary associations into the cultural contexts of these works" (71). The same may be said, of course, about studies of Renaissance pastoral and antipastoral.

(18.) Compare to Halperin, who writes that "alterations of nomenclature and taxonomic schemes, however drastic and long-standing, merely reflect the changing expectations which successive generations of readers have brought to their encounter with the ancient texts" (35). Yet whether discussing ancient texts or Renaissance texts, I would propose that while our expectations may indeed be inappropriate, the criticism and theory that these expectations and subsequent revisions produce represent our own employment of the pastoral and antipastoral process.

(19.) For an example of this replication in Montrose's own criticism, see "'Eliza, Queene of Shepheardes,' and the Pastoral of Power."

(20.) Compare to Montrose, "Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History," where he posits that "to speak today of an historical criticism must be to recognize that not only the poet but also the critic exists in history; that each of the texts are inscriptions of history; and that our comprehension, representation, interpretation of the texts of the past always proceeds by a mixture of estrangement and appropriation, as a reciprocal conditioning of the Renaissance the Renaissance" (8). See also Montrose, "New Historicisms," 412-17.

(21.) Compare to Alpers, "'Lycidas' and Modern Criticism," 468-96 (also reprinted in revised form in chapter 3 of What is Pastoral?). Alpers addresses the legacy of critique surrounding Milton's pastoral elegy and the history of debates about its success. In particular, raising the issue of convention so berated by M. H. Abrams and Stanley Fish, Alpers argues that it is Milton's very emphasis on convention in "Lycidas" that guarantees the poem's critical function, and therefore that the elegy "ends not simply with a vision of a moral, but with a consciousness of poetic practice" (492). How we interpret and define this self-consciousness forfeits any critical pretense we might attempt to shelter--hence the problems, according to Alpers, with most modern critiques (including Johnson's) of this work, a work that effects "less than good essays by very good critics" (469). Alpers, in short, provides a critique of critiques, and in so doing challenges a critical mechanism bent on epistemological and ontological vi ews. Where, Alpers asks, is the social? "Perhaps the most difficult theoretical problem facing criticism today is to give a just account of the validity of socially derived meanings and usages," he writes, "to do justice to their stability, effect, and accessibility, on the one hand, and to their historical, social, and anthropological determinations, on the other" (492). Much like Williams in his call to arms, Alpers purports to critique the pastoral criticism that seems to have forgotten that the pastoral is not only self-aware through literary critique but socially cognizant through social critique as well.

Works Cited

Alpers, Paul. "Lycidas and Modern Criticism." ELH 49 (1982): 468-96.

_____. What is Pastoral? Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Berger, Harry Jr. Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, 1950. 3-11.

Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. New York: New Directions, 1947.

Fowler, Alastair. Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Haber, Judith. Pastoral and the Poetics of Self-Contradiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Halperin, David. Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition on Bucolic Poetry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Johnson, Samuel. "Life of Milton." Lives of the English Poets. Selected Writings. Ed. Patrick Crutwell. New York: Penguin, 1986. 403-80.

Kinney, Arthur, et. al. "New Directions in Sidney Studies: From Here to Where?" Sidney Newsletter 9.2 (1988-89): 19-54.

Lerner, Laurence. The Uses of Nostalgia. New York: Shocken Books, 1972.

Lindenbaum, Peter. Changing Landscapes. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1986.

Marinelli, Peter. Pastoral. London: Methuen, 1971.

Marlowe, Christopher. "The Passionate Sheepheard to His Love." The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh. Ed. Agnes Latham. London: Constable, 1929. 39.

Montrose, Louis Adrian. "'Eliza, Queene of Shepheardes,' and the Pastoral of Power." ELR 10 (1980): 153-82.

_____. "New Historicisms." Redrawing the Boundaries. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York: MLA, 1992. 392-418.

_____. "Of Gentlemen and Shepherds: The Politics of Elizabethan Pastoral Form." ELH 50 (1983): 415-59.

_____. "Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History." ELR 16 (1986): 5-12.

Patterson, Annabel. Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984.

_____. Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Valery. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Poggioli, Renato. The Oaten Flute. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. Ed. Gladys Doidge Wilcock and Alice Walker. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1936.

Raleigh, Sir Walter. "The Nimphs Reply to the Sheepheard." The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh. Ed. Agnes Latham. London: Constable, 1929. 40.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas. The Green Cabinet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Sidney, Sir Philip. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia). Ed. Catherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.

_____. The Defense of Poesy. Sir Philip Sidney. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. 212-50.

Smith, Hallet. "An Apologie for Elizabethan Poetry." New Literary History 1 (1969): 35-43.

_____. Elizabethan Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964.

Stillman, Robert. Sidney's Poetic Justice. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1986.

_____. "A Whitman Sampler-Sidney Studies, Essentialism, and Lindheim: Critical Debate at the Crossroads." Sidney Newsletter 9.1 (1988): 22-32.

Toliver, Harold. Pastoral Forms and Attitudes. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971.

Wellek, Rene and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1949.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

Michael Everton ( is a doctoral candidate in 19th-century American literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He continues to be interested in pastoralism, particularly as a colonial discourse and as a metaphorical depiction of the artist/observer in a diseased or therapeutic social or natural environment.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A97074168