[This post is a series of more-or-less oblique notes-to-self, rather than a carefully laid-out argument with the general reader in mind. It may strike such a reader as baffling, or self-indulgent. I could apologise for that, but, really: nobody is forcing you invest any of your time in it, are they? Although I will just note that it ends with one of my favourite short poems of the 20th-century. So you could just skip to that?]
We put culture on one side, bracketing with it society, architecture, religion, art and so on; and we put nature waaaay over the other side, there. Nature doesn't make culture, we think. We make culture. Of course, nature makes us first (inevitably we are, in one sense, a product of nature). But once nature has made us we go on to make another thing, which I'm here calling culture. That two-step is essential to the form of distinction being made; and its doubleness is the structure of pastoral.
That's doubtless a little over-stark, as assertions go. Put it this way: does nature have culture? Nature may manifest society, or something close to it: the pack of dogs, the beehive. But does the beehive have culture? When the bees do their little dance, is that art? We're tempted to say no because the dance of bees is functional, and because we assume bees don't reflect upon the dance as dance. That self-reflection is needful for a performance to be art, presumably. But, really, how can we possibly know? What the bee-dance says to me is that our grasp of the natural world is defined, indeed is constituted, by a kind of existential paucity. It is what we cannot apprehend as culture that is the core of nature. In The Beast in the Nursery Adam Phillips says: 'we prefer the barbarity of culture to the barbarity of nature even though we usually can't tell them apart.' He adds a rather neat after-all: 'there is nothing more cultured than our fantasies about nature' . True, that.
Nature is always the resource that has always already been worked. The landscape is not 'nature'; it is what cultivation has made of the natural resource. Nature is worked, and therefore Pastoral is always reworked—practically speaking, an eclogue is always a reworking of Hughes as a reworking of Wordsworth as a reworking of Vergil as a reworking of Theocritus. Pastoral is a kind of blockchain, and in a more acute and formally self-reflexive sense than the standard 'intertextuality' argument, that insists all literature is a kind of blockchain.
Pastoral as escape, means: there is a benchmark existence from which escape looks both desirable and possible. This rather simplistic explanation, though, leads us into to some surprisingly complex and relevant places. At the risk of over-simplification, we might say: start from a position when life is hard, relentless—when life is work, and life is urban, is scarcity and frustration—then fantasy becomes: ease, unobstruction, leisure, rural, abundant and satisfaction. This is the pastoral of Theocritus and Vergil and Spenser, the classic understanding of the locus amoenus. But something happens to pastoral in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth centuries that rewires this, we can be honest, rather simplistic understanding. (What's facile about it is the way it contains its own contradiction: a life that is all holiday is no holiday at all, since there's no benchmark of tedium and stress from which to escape, and it is the release, not the merely sensual pleasure, that is the key thing). The modification of pastoral entailed a two-step: first Goldsmith's Deserted Village (1770) and Crabbe's The Village (1783) described rural life as hard, draining, frustrating and poor (as indeed it largely is) whilst insisting that once upon a time it had been golden, Arcadian. That is to say, they, and other poets from around this time doing similar things with the pastoral mode, such as John Struthers, Clare and Balfour, were engaged in relocated the nature of Arcadia from being a different place to being a different (past) time. Instead of being defined as a (good) place distinct from the (bad) city or court, it becomes a good (past) time distinct from the bad present. That in turn connects with a longer tradition of 'past Golden Age' mythology. The fit, there, is so precise that pastoral itself can become seen as an mode of nostalgia, or more precisely as the faux-nostalgia of yearning for a time you never yourself actually experienced.
That's not right, though; because, after Vergil, the most important intervention into the pastoral tradition is Wordsworth's poetic creation of 'Nature' as a ground of transcendental aesthetic and ontological value—and that flows directly from the eighteenth-century traditions of Goldsmithian or Crabbean 'anti-pastoral'. I could devote a long passage to establishing this, but this blog-post is long enough already, so I'm going to ask you to take it on trust. You might trust less my insistence that it is from this new thing—I mean, from Wordsworth's new version of 'Nature'—that much of the force and a surprising number of the specifics of modern-day environmentalism as ethos and aesthetic derive. It's true. I mean, I don't want to overstate the influence; although, actually, its hard to overstate the way the 19th-century's most influential English-language poet shaped a whole culture, and the ways in which the later 20th-century Green movements, in reacting against the machinism of early 20th-century Modernist and Popular cultures, inevitably reached back to something always-already Wordsworthian in their revalorisation of natural spaces.
Wordsworth is the second footprint in the 'two-step' I mentioned above. From pastoral as a pleasant Arcadian other place we stride, first, to pastoral as a pleasant Arcadian past-time, to which the anti-pastoral of contemporary rural suffering is contrasted; and second, we move to pastoral as a mode of transcendence grounded in contemporary rural suffering. Wordsworth's Michael (the hero of what the 1815 printing calls 'A Pastoral Poem') has grown very old in a life of ceaseless labour, physical restriction and hardship. But because it has always been a life in Nature, it has been an authentic existential experience of the kind unavailable equally to those to live in the town or the past:
So lived he till his eightieth year was past.His son Luke goes into the town, and is instantly lost. Only by staying in the country can Michael stay strong, even to his death in his late 80s. Something similar is true of all of Wordsworth's rural poor: the Leech Gatherer, Cumberland beggar, even the mad woman in 'The Thorn'. Nature homes them, in a profound ur-Heideggerian sense, and that fact reconfigures the force of pastoral itself. To cut what could become an over-lengthy excursion short, I'll sketch a line straight from Wordsworth's natural world to the late-20th-century pastoral of Hughes's superb Moortown poems (1979).
And grossly that man errs, who should suppose
That the green Valleys, and the Streams and Rocks
Were things indifferent to the Shepherd's thoughts.
Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed
The common air; the hills, which he so oft
Had climbed with vigorous steps; which had impressed
So many incidents upon his mind
Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
Which like a book preserved the memory
Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,
Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts,
So grateful in themselves, the certainty
Of honorable gains; these fields, these hills,
Which were his living Being, even more
Than his own blood—what could they less? had laid
Strong hold on his affections, were to him
A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure which there is in life itself. [Wordsworth, 'Michael', 61-77]
Not, as I say, wanting to labour the point, I'll point only to Moortown's 'Tractor' (it's one of my favourites amongst the whole capacious oeuvre of Hughes, actually) as one place where the pleasant sunny Arcadian wish-fulfillment of pastoral has come all the cold, hard way around to bite its own tail.
The tractor stands frozen—an agonyWhat's particularly nice about this is the way Hughes's uses a machine as a means of focusing the existential authenticity of post-Wordwsorthian pastoral. It's the right machine, of course; since modern farming could hardly happen without tractors. But still, there's a near-miraculous metamorphosis in the poem, in which an artefact of culture becomes, without slipping into any foolish pathetic fallacy, nature itself. Becomes, we might say, the objective correlative of Michael's persistence, strength and labour. Out of hardship is generated beauty (for surely we can agree this is a very beautiful poem).
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails. Now a head-pincering gale,
A spill of molten ice, smoking snow,
Pours into its steel.
At white heat of numbness it stands
In the aimed hosing of ground-level fieriness.
It defied flesh and won't start.
Hands are like wounds already
Inside armour gloves, and feet are unbelievable
As if the toe-nails were all just torn off.
I stare at it in hatred. Beyond it
The copse hisses—capitulates miserably
In the fleeing, failing light. Starlings,
A dirtier sleetier snow, blow smokily, unendingly, over
Towards plantations Eastward.
All the time the tractor is sinking
Through the degrees, deepening
Into its hell of ice.
The starting lever
Cracks its action, like a snapping knuckle.
The battery is alive—but like a lamb
Trying to nudge its solid-frozen mother—
While the seat claims my buttock-bones, bites
With the space-cold of earth, which it has joined
In one solid lump.
I squirt commercial sure-fire
Down the black throat—it just coughs.
It ridicules me—a trap of iron stupidity
I've stepped into. I drive the battery
As if I were hammering and hammering
The frozen arrangement to pieces with a hammer
And it jabbers laughing pain-crying mockingly
Into happy life.
Shuddering itself full of heat, seeming to enlarge slowly
Like a demon demonstrating
A more-than-usually-complete materialization—
Suddenly it jerks from its solidarity
With the concrete, and lurches towards a stanchion
Bursting with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?
Worse iron is waiting. Power-lift kneels
Levers awake imprisoned deadweight,
Shackle-pins bedded in cast-iron cow-shit.
The blind and vibrating condemned obedience
Of iron to the cruelty of iron,
Wheels screeched out of their night-locks—
Among the tormented
Tonnage and burning of iron
Weeping in the wind of chloroform
And the tractor, streaming with sweat,
Raging and trembling and rejoicing. [16 February 1975]
I don't know if there's a larger context here, which tracks the increasing pleasantness of general human existence (the case that Pinker makes, and which I suppose persuades me) against an increasing valorisation of hardship as such. If one's life is actually hard, one is less likely to enjoy the artistic re-presentation of that hardship back upon yourself. The starving human finds no pleasure in contemplating going on a diet. If your life is basically comfortable, and your sufferings inward rather than outward, then hardship acquires greater appeal. I don't know: there may be a parallel with politics. When real life is living with an empty belly four days out of every seven, is being cold day after day and dying in your thirties, you'll follow the leader who promises to make your life easy. When seven days are defined by fourteen square meals, and your home is heated and you're staring down the barrel of 70-years-plus, the apparent perversity of valorising hardship makes more sense, and you follow the leader who says he has nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. I don't know.
This leads me to think again about Empson, the critic who has probably done the most to shape my attitudes towards pastoral. Some Empsonian ideas, for example that the mere representation of rural pleasure is boring, elaborated at length in Some Versions of Pastoral are actually already present in Seven Types of Amibguity:
It is this (in some sense conscious) clash between different modes of feeling which is the normal source of pleasure in pastoral; or, at any rate, in so far as pastorals fail to produce it, one may agree with Johnson and call them a bore.This formal relation between 'simple' and 'complex' ('putting the complex in the simple', the closest thing in Some Types of Pastoral to a nutshell-definition of pastoral itself, is actually a slogan for all art, as Empson himself knows) stitches form to social relations. Pastoral not only represents but also embodies and therefore enables, a coming-together of poor-simples and rich-sophisticateds.
Thou shalt eat crudded creamThe delicacy of versification here (alliteration, balance of rhythm, and so forth) suggests both the scholar's trained apprehension and the courtier's experience of luxury; but it is of the brambleberry that he is an epicure; the subject forces into contact with these the direct gusto of a "swain." That all these good qualities should be brought together is a normal part of a good poem; indeed, it is a main part of the value of a poem, because they are so hard to bring together in life. But such a case as this is peculiar, because one is made to think of the different people separately; one cannot pretend to oneself that the author is the rustic he is impersonating; there is an element of wit in the first conception of the style. (Seven Types, 114-15)
All the year lasting,
And drink the crystal stream
Pleasant in tasting;
Whig and whey whilst thou lust
Pie-lids and pastry-crust,
Pears, plums, and cherries. (ANON., Oxford Book.)
The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language .... The effect was in some degree to combine in the reader or author the merits of the two sorts; he was made to mirror in himself more completely the effective elements of the society he lived in. This was not a process that you could explain in the course of writing pastoral; it was already shown by the clash between style and theme, and to make the clash work in the right way (not become funny) the writer must keep up a firm pretense that he was unconscious of it. [Some Versions, 11-12]According to George Watson [The Literary Critics (Hogarth 1986), 184] 'Empson later insisted that his Marxism in the thirties and after—at least until the Communist revolution in China in 1949, which he witnessed—was more serious than his writings reveal, and Some Versions assumed the class analysis of society and the ideal status of the "proletariat".' This is not untrue, although the point for Empson, at least in this book, is always to bring the potential for social harmony back into the orientations of individual subjectivity. René Wellek [A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950: V English Criticism 1900-1950 (Yale 1986), 280] puts forward a slightly more reductive reading.
[The book's] subject is the collapse of the pastoral relation between the swain-hero and the sheep people. It is again the theme of the loss of community, of the presumed original unity which underlies Eliot's concept of history. Pastoral is used in a very wide sense: thus the first chapter discusses proletarian literature which Empson considers a covert pastoral. But even proletarian literature is used in a much wider sense than the usual one ... Proletarian art is pastoral. The old pastoral implied "a beautiful relation between rich and poor"  but this relation has broken down, and the old pastoral had been replaced by the mock pastoral, the comic variety at first. Both versions, straight and comic, are based on a double attitude of the artist to the worker ("I am in one way better, in another not so good"), and this may well recognize a permanent truth about the aesthetic situation. "To produce pure proletarian art the artist must be one with the worker; this is impossible, not for political reasons, but because the artist never is at one with any public." Wellek might have added, though he doesn't, that this is a peculiarly Romantic version of 'the artist', which itself problematises the case being made (something of which Empson himself was aware: 'Mob thought may kill us all before our time, but the scientist's view of it should not be warped by horror, and the writer who isolates himself from all feeling for his audience acquires the faults of romanticism without its virtues.'). Actually, the implied individualism of all this is central to what Empson is arguing: not that the poet is alienated from society, but precisely that the (simple) poet holds within him/herself the (complex) of society. Here's Paul Alpers:
Marvell and Milton represent for Empson a withdrawal-to quote the verses that prompt the essay on "The Garden"-of the mind into its own happiness. The strengths of the "old pastoral" are most fully manifest in Elizabethan works, particularly the dramas, which are discussed in the chapter on "Double Plots." The Elizabethan double plot is a version of pastoral, because it is a convention-the strongest and most capacious, it would seem, in all our literature-for the stable presentation of conflicts and contradictions and for putting the complexities of life into the "simple" effects of art. To quote the man himself: 'in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power' [Some Versions of Pastoral, 114]. The element that's missing here is the way that paucity, and poverty, can become precisely the focus for strength in this reading of Nature. After all, Nature is so much bigger than we are. The really Arcadian thing in the natural world is that we have survived this far, at all. To switch back to Hughes it's the superbly insouciant potency of Crow's 'Me, evidently', from the close of 'Examination at the Womb-Door', another key late 20th-century pastoral work:
Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death.It probably speaks to a continuing adolescence in my aesthetic sense, but by thunder I love that poem.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
All this messy blood? Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.
This wicked little tongue? Death.
This occasional wakefulness? Death.
Given, stolen, or held pending trial?
Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death.
Who owns all of space? Death.
Who is stronger than hope? Death.
Who is stronger than the will? Death.
Stronger than love? Death.
Stronger than life? Death.
But who is stronger than Death?