As we hurry out of spring and into summer, our collective muses can’t help but take in the blooming flowers, waving green trees, and buzz and warble of cicadas and birds. This cycle repeats every year, and every year artists are swept up in the wonders of nature come alive. As I sit down like I do every year to write some pastoral poetry, I thought I’d share a guide to this venerated school of poetry.
What is Pastoral Poetry?
Pastoral poetry (or pastorals, as they’re often referred to in poetry circles) focuses on nature as an idyllic setting. Cities were and are dirty, bustling places filled with noise and smells and hectic schedules. For as long as humanity has had cities, we’ve longed to escape on occasion, idealizing a simpler time when we were one with nature. Pastoral poetry is one expression of this need to escape the city and reconnect with the natural world.
This effort to reconnect with nature often carries religious overtones. As the poet longs to reconnect with nature, they long to reconnect with themselves spiritually. These poems often feature the poet as speaker, exploring their connection with nature and God at the same time. Figures like shepherds and farms are frequently featured and idealized as much as nature itself.
The Beginnings of Pastoral Poetry
The Greek poet Hesiod is largely credited with writing the first pastorals between 650 and 750 BCE. The most famous of these was Work and Days, which detailed a golden age of humankind.
When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.
11, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White
Pastoral poetry then passed on to Theocritus (Idylls), Virgil (Eclogues), Horace (Odes), and Ovid (Metamorphoses). While Horace wasn’t strictly aiming to create pastorals with his Odes, many of these occasion poems (each one has its own focus like friendship or love) involve this pastoral focus on nature.
The snows are fled away, the fields new grassed,
and trees are filled with leaves’ rebirth.
The streams, diminishing, flow quietly past,
and in its turn is changed the earth.
In blatant nakedness the Graces play,
and with the Nymphs are chorusing:
recall, as hour and year remove the day,
in time there passes everything.
Carmen Four.7, translated by Colin John Holcombe
Then along came Christianity, and along with it, a sudden burst in popularity and production of pastoral poems. William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Andrew Marvell all produced pastoral poetry (and prose and plays; just look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Most famous of all the pastorals of this time was John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic poem about the fall of Lucifer, the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the ejection from the Garden of Eden. While not all of Paradise Lost works in the pastoral tradition, the sections in the Garden of Eden put Milton’s pastoral powers on full display:
But neither breath of Morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds; nor rising sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flower,
Glistering with dew; nor fragrance after showers;
Nor grateful Evening mild; nor silent Night
With this her solemn bird; nor walk by moon,
Or glittering star-light without thee is sweet.
What followed was a long line of white men writing about nature and God, though there were certainly women writing such as Aphra Behn, Anne Finc, and Elizabeth Singer Rowe. However, men like John Keats, Thomas Gray, Ben Jonson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jorge Manrique, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Alphonse de Lamartine, W.H. Auden, and, of course, Walt Whitman got all the attention. Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass was a lifelong project. He spent decades adding and editing poems until his death. The final version includes over 400 poems, most of which are pastoral. This includes his elegy for the assassinated president Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Now that you know what pastoral poetry is and a brief summary of its history, how about some recommended reading?
Classical Pastoral Poetry
“Adonais” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
In Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, he invoked “Elegy of Adonis” by Bion and “Elegy for Bion” by Moschus, both of which were first century BCE pastoral poets.
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray
An elegy more in name than form or content, Gray’s classic poem mourns the human condition. The setting is what makes this a pastoral, as Gray invoked images he saw around him in this country churchyard.
“Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas
Relying heavily on pastoral imagery, Thomas’s most famous poem looks at the natural world through the innocent and wondrous eyes of a child, but with an adult’s interpretation of that innocence subtly overlaid.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Whitman spent 40 years writing and revising this massive collection of poetry, much of it revolving around his own self-reflection in the midst of nature.
“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge is the writer and speaker of this poem, lamenting that while his friends are visiting, he is unable to join them in the wonders of nature due to an accident. The moody and frustrated speaker create tension with the beautiful nature descriptions throughout.
“Ode to Psyche” by John Keats
Keats used this poem to examine Psyche as an ignored goddess, unworshipped and relegated to her relationship to Cupid. He invokes pastoral imagery throughout both in the real and dream worlds of the speaker.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The fall of Lucifer, the Morning Star, and his subsequent corruption of Adam and Eve, Paradise Lost is a huge part of the western canon. The poetry is fantastic even today, and its influences on modern literature and film are readily apparent. Bonus: If you’re a fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, then this is a must-read. Pullman set out to make a YA retelling of Milton’s epic.
“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe
This is a straight-up love poem from a shepherd as he promises her love and all the wonders of nature. The ending leaves readers wondering if his love accepts his offerings or walks away from him.
Modern Pastoral Poetry
“The Garden Guest” by Lorna Davis
Davis describes a garden party with a wondrous, though unsurprising guest: Gaia, the goddess of nature. The party is a fun device for this adoration of all things natural.
Horse in the Dark by Vievee Francis
Focused on the panhandle of Texas and the deep American South, Francis’s book is a modern pastoral with some poems dipping into the anti-pastoral. Her poetry is dark and vivid, showing how far pastoral poetry has come since the time of Hesiod.
“Meadows of Corn” by Satyananda Sarangi
Sarangi openly acknowledges that a meadow of corn can seem bland, but then like so many poets, finds the beauty in the bland. Particularly in the juxtaposition of the modern world, this poem brings new life to something so many of us drive past without noticing.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
The Harlem Renaissance was filled with Black poets claiming traditionally white poetic forms like the pastoral, and this is one great example. Short and punchy, Hughes traces the shackled journey from Africa to post-slavery America by its rivers.
“Pastoral” by William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams plays with the form and the very meaning of the word pastoral with this poem. He begins with sparrows, and how we cannot know what their chirps mean, but quickly turns his eye to humans as an even more indecipherable animal.
“The Shroud of Color” by Countee Cullen
In another Harlem Renaissance example, Cullen’s words are brutal and eviscerating, recounting the life of a slave amongst the fields. This pastoral makes the natural world seem a brutal, unforgiving place, but ends with the speaker passionately clinging to hope.
Work & Days by Tess Taylor
Taking its name from the original pastoral poem by Hesiod, Taylor moved to a cottage in the Berkshires to finish her first book. Instead, she found herself alone and interning on a farm. From this effort was born this book, a collection of pastoral poetry in every sense.
Even if you’re not a poet, it’s easy to appreciate pastoral poetry. Grab one of these great books, head for your nearest park or farm or just find a pretty spot outside the city. Crack that spine and get lost in the beauty of nature captured by your own senses and those of these great poets.