The UVic Writer's Guide


Also known as "the idyll," "the eclogue," and "bucolic poetry," the pastoral is a poem which idealizes the peaceful and simple lifestyle of shepherds or people of the countryside who live close to nature. The form was originated by Theocritus in the third century B.C. Classical poets often speak of the pastoral life in terms of a golden age (as in Hesiod and Ovid), in which humans lived contentedly on the plentiful fruits of the earth without the labour of cultivation; the present state of humanity was seen as an iron age in which humans have become degenerate. The pastoral typically looks to nature and the simple life as a retreat from the complications of society.

The pastoral mode has been used in romance (Sidney's Arcadia [1581-84]), lyric, and drama (as in Shakespeare's As You Like It); and in the eighteenth century the form began to be used also for realistic portrayals of rural life (as in George Crabbe's "The Village" [1783] and Wordsworth's "Michael: A Pastoral Poem" [1800]). Here are the opening lines of Christopher Marlowe's pastoral lyric, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (1599):

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 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 . . .

Not surprisingly perhaps, the pastoral has long been a subject of parody. Only a few years after its appearance, Marlowe's poem was parodied by Sir Walter Raleigh in "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" (1612):

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. . . .
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.

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated April 11, 1995