“Pastoral: any work which represents a withdrawal from ordinary life to a place apart, close to the elemental rhythms of nature, where a person achieves a new perspective on life in the complex social world.” [Abrams, 1988] By careful examination of ‘Ode to Evening’ by William Collins and two other poems of your choice, consider how appropriate you find this definition of poetry written before 1770.
Abrams’ definition of pastoral is a relatively modern one, and moves away from the classical interpretation of pastoral. In ancient times, pastoral poetry, as prominently practised by Virgil, was about shepherds in a utopian idyll known as Arcadia. Some of these conventions can still be found in modern poetry, as well as those written before 1770, but not all poetry has been influenced in this way. Ballads, for example, depict rural life, but it is more realistic than the traditional pastorals, and do not show the new perspective on the world that Abrams demands. Metaphysicals, such as Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’, are very much metropolitan, urban poetry, and satires, whilst they critique the complex social world around them, the poets are very much a part of that world and have no desire to withdraw from it.
William Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’ does not follow the pastoral conventions to the same extent ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’ by Christopher Marlowe does, but the genre’s influence on the poem is such that it could possibly be described as a pastoral.
Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’ has a very rural setting, one apparent from the very first line:
If aught of oaten stop, or pastoral song
Collins carefully and elaborately describes a calm, beautiful landscape, which is unthreatening and unrealistic. Even in bad weather, Collins still only sees the beauty in the landscape, but no dangers:
But when chill blustering winds, or driving rain,
Forbid my willing feet, be mine the hut
That from the mountain’s side
Views wild, and swelling floods,
It is a romantic wildness, and it poses no danger to the poet; it is a hopelessly sentimental view of the countryside. Collins uses highly decorative language, which can sometimes hinder the clarity of his main message. He embroiders his main clauses with florid apostrophes, such as “chaste Eve” and “maid composed”. The poem is full of subordinate clauses which, in the eyes of some critics, is overly and unnecessarily complex. His language is so elaborate that it could be said that it makes it difficult to understand the poem easily, but it could also be that Collins is simply musing on the wondrous sight before him, and the structure and language of the poem reflects these vague thoughts.
The poet also uses long, drawn-out vowels to reflect the languidness of the poem, such as “small but sullen horn” and “musing slow”. He uses much classical imagery, in keeping with the classical pastoral convention which influences the poem:
And many a nymph who wreaths her brows with sedge
And sheds the freshening dew, and, lovelier still,
The pensive Pleasures sweet,
Prepare thy shadowy car.
His classical allusions sit alongside traditional English “elves”, emphasising the presence of the supernatural. Writing as he did the ‘Age of Sensibility’, Collins was following the fashion for the picturesque. There was a return to pastoral ideals; the city was ugly and busy, the countryside peaceful and simple, and something to be admired. The poem does represent a “withdrawal from ordinary life to a place apart, close to the elemental rhythms of nature”, but it does not fulfil the second aspect of Abrams’ criteria, in that it doesn’t really show a new perspective on the “complex social world”. Collins has ‘gone back to nature’, but he does not even think about the world he has left behind, let alone find a new perspective. ‘Ode to Evening’ is, in this respect, closer to traditional interpretations pastoral, with the urban poet’s idealistic view of a rural landscape, than Abrams’ more modern, general view.
Similarly, Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’ is an example of an urban poet’s nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of the countryside. It is elaborately conventional, using many of the practices of traditional pastorals. It too has an idealised and unrealistic setting:
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
The poem, especially the last line of the stanza just quoted, has a very euphonious sound, emphasised by the use of the relatively short, musical iambic tetrameters. However, as Sir Walter Raleigh points out in his mocking answer to Marlowe, ‘The Nymph’s Reply’, this perfect world, and even if it did exist, could not last for ever. There is no sense of time; no-one ages, seasons do not change, everything stays pure and flawless. Marlowe promises eternal bliss, but it is all artificial, shown by his extravagant promises to his love:
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linï¿½d slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.
There is no mention of work – the shepherds can simply “pull” the wool from their “pretty lambs” – and he, a ‘humble’ shepherd, claims to be able to offer his love precious stones and metals, like gold, coral and amber. The artificiality of the poem’s subject matter is reinforced by its form of stylised, carefully crafted rhyming couplets. ‘The Passionate Shepherd’, like ‘Ode to Evening’, does represent a withdrawal from the poet’s contemporary society (Marlowe, like John Donne, was an urban writer) and a closeness to nature, but again there is no new perspective to the complex urban world.
In John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’, we have the complete opposite to the pastoral genre. Donne too is an urban poet, but he shows utter contempt for the countryside, imperiously ordering the sun to:
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Donne’s rude, rough language is a stark contrast to the neat, stylised language of Collins and Marlowe:
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus
Through windows and curtains call on us?
Donne gleefully, and arrogantly, subverts the Petrarchan conceit of a lover’s eyes being as bright as the sun by claiming that his mistress’s eyes are even brighter:
If her eyes have not blinded thine
This is in a similar vein to Shakespeare in Sonnet 130, which opens with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, and is the antithesis to the elaborately conventional pastorals. The pastorals all show a desire to return to nature, to ‘be at one’ with it, whereas Donne claims to be above such basic things:
She’s all states, and all princes I;
Nothing else is.
Donne shows no desire to be close to “the elemental rhythms of nature”. He is withdrawing from ‘ordinary’ life, but only because he considers himself and his lover to be above it, not because he wants to go back to nature. ‘The Sun Rising’ is not a pastoral, not by Abrams’ definition or by any older, more traditionalist interpretation.
John Donne’s metaphysical ‘The Sun Rising’ is the very antithesis of a pastoral by anyone’s definition, but the other two poems, ‘The Passionate Shepherd’ and ‘Ode to Evening’ could both be categorised under this heading. ‘The Passionate Shepherd’ is the more traditionally pastoral, with its description of shepherds, its artificial setting and the fact that, in this world, this Arcadia, nothing changes. Collins doesn’t follow this path, but the landscape he describes, if not quite Arcadia, is still idealistic and unrealistic.
It is “a place apart, close to the elemental rhythms of nature”, and in this respect fits Abrams’ description of ‘pastoral’. However, this is definition, as shown by ‘The Sun Rising’, cannot apply to all poetry written before 1770. There are too many genres, too many different styles, too many poets for them all to satisfy any definition of pastoral. Like other forms and styles, the pastoral has passed in and out of fashion; the traditional form was popular in the 16th century, when “The Passionate Shepherd” was written, and was common again in the 18th, when Collins was writing. Abrams’ definition is therefore appropriate to some poems written before 1770, including Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, but not all.