Pastoral Poetry

One of the many upheavals in the cultural world over my lifetime has been a reappraisal of pastoral poetry. In my youth pastoral poetry was regarded as an artificial and rather sentimental construct – all these highly cultivated (and presumably rich) people pretending to live the simple life and envying the happy peasant his careless poverty. The Romantics, of course were regarded as different, seeing engagement with nature as a spiritual or intellectual adventure, with no sense of wish-fulfilment or nostalgia. It was all a bit macho then, and we went in for the hidden violence in Ted Hughes’ animal poetry (that thrush, for instance, a mechanical murderer, like something out of Terminator – what were we thinking?)

Well, we weren’t entirely fair to the pastoral as a genre – though there’s something to hang onto in there; it’s awfully easy to slip into something that sounds as if it belongs in Country Living – pastoral poetry has a serious job to do, and we are in just the situation where we need it. Pastoral isn’t really about playing Marie Antoinette – a bucolic holiday for spoilt or disappointed urban readers. It is almost always written in response to a time of social and political upheaval. It is almost always about renegotiating what’s really important about human life, our place in the universe as individulas and as a species. And there is no doubt that this is what is driving so much of our writing and thinking. From geopoetics, eco-poetry, permaculture and transition, the revival of interest in crafts and slow food, to the upsurge in nature writing and deep ecology and earth-based spiritualities, we are really open to questions that pastoral poetry invites us to consider.

I’ve written before about this in Wilderness Poetry, but I’ve just started working on a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues. It will take me ages. I’ve forgotten so much vocabulary, and I was always a bit slip-shod in my translations even when I was doing it all the time,but it’s fascinating to take so much time to concentrate on the weight of each word.

Take ‘lentus’ in the fourth line of Eclogue 1, for instance. If you look it up quickly, you get ‘slow’ like in music, or ‘tough’ which are both a little bit weird in the context. If you go on (I got an enormous dictionary very cheap in a booksale at the Scottish Poetry Library) you get words like ‘fixed’, ‘inactive’, ‘lingering’. Are we insulting our rustic shepherd – slow-witted, inert, a bit thick? No, not really. Although Meliboeus is comparing his hasty flight into exile with Tityrus’ contented stay-at-home idyll, he is also talking about resilience, roots, belonging. To Virgil, as to many of us these days, stability comes with engagement with the earth; it is the foundation of a proper human life. Whether it is pleasant or peaceful or happy is not the point. There aren’t any guarantees or illusions about it. But as we get into the Eclogues we realise that in more than one way, we are ‘grounded’.

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