Guardian 28 [On Pastoral Poetry.]

The Guardian No. 28 (13 April 1713).

Thomas Tickell

The third essay presents a genealogy of pastoral poetry that discriminates between naturalistic and idealizing forms, the preference being given to Theocritus over Virgil and the Italians over the French among the moderns. Implicit in this distinction, of course, is a preference for the pastorals of Ambrose Philips over the Virgilian essays of Alexander Pope. The "celebrated author" is Joseph Addison; his quotation ridiculing the French effeminacy is from Spectator No. 29.

Theocritus, Bion and Moschus are the most famous amongst the Greek Writers of Pastorals. The two latter of these are judged to be far short of Theocritus, whom I shall speak of more largely, because he rivals the greatest of all Poets, Virgil himself. He hath the Advantage confessedly of the Latin, in coming before him, and writing in a Tongue more proper for Pastoral. The Softness of the Dorick Dialect, which this Poet is said to have improved beyond any who came before him, is what the Ancient Roman Writers owned their Language could not approach. But besides this Beauty, he seems to me to have had a Soul more softly and tenderly inclined to this way of Writing than Virgil; whose Genius led him naturally to Sublimity. It is true that the great Roman, by the Niceness of his Judgment, and great Command of himself, hath acquitted himself dexterously this way. But a penetrating Judge will find there the Seeds of that Fire which burned afterwards so bright in the Georgicks, and blazed out in the Aeneid. I must not, however, dissemble that these bold Strokes appear chiefly in those Eclogues of Virgil, which ought not to be numbered amongst his Pastorals, which are indeed generally thought to be all of the Pastoral kind; but by the best Judges are only called his Select Poems, as the Word Eclogue originally means.

Those who will take the Pains to consult Scaliger's Comparison of these two Poets, will find that Theocritus hath out-done him in those very Passages which the Critick hath produced in honour of Virgil. There is, in short, more Innocence, Simplicity, and whatever else hath been laid down as the distinguishing Marks of Pastoral, in the Greek than the Roman; and all Arguments from the Exactness, Propriety, Conciseness and Nobleness of Virgil may very well be turned against him. There is indeed sometimes a Grossness anti Clownishness in Theocritus, which Virgil, who borrowed his greatest Beauties from him, hath avoided. I will however add, that Virgil, out of the Excellence of Genius only, hath come short of Theocritus; and had possibly excelled him, if in greater Subjects he had not been born to excel all Mankind.

The Italians were the first, amongst the Moderns, that fell into Pastoral Writing. It is observed, that the People of that Nation are very profound and abstruse in their Poetry as well as Politicks; fond of surprising Conceits and far-fetched Imaginations, and labour chiefly to say what was never said before. From Persons of this Character, how can we expect that Air of Simplicity and Truth which hath been proved so essential to Shepherds? There are two Pastoral Plays in this Language, which they boast of as the most elegant Performances in Poetry that the latter Ages have produced; the Aminta of Tasso, and Guarini's Pastor Fido. In these the Names of the Persons are indeed Pastoral, and the Sylvan Gods, the Dryads, and the Satyrs appointed with the Equipage of Antiquity; but neither their Language, Sentiments, Passions or Designs like those of the Pretty Triflers in Virgil and Theocritus. I shall produce an Example out of each, which are commonly taken notice of, as Patterns of the Italian way of Thinking in Pastoral. Sylvia in Tasso's Poem enters adorned with a Garland of Flowers, and views herself in a Fountain with such Self-admiration, that she breaks out into a Speech to the Flowers on her Head, and tells them, she doth not wear them to adorn her self but to make them ashamed. In the Pastor Fido, a Shepherdess reasons after an abstruse Philosophical manner about the Violence of Love, and expostulates with the Gods, for making Laws so rigorous to restrain us, and at the same time giving us invincible Desires. Whoever can bear these, may be assured he hath no Taste for Pastoral.

When I am speaking of the Italians, it would be unpardonable to pass by Sannazarius. He hath changed the Scene in this kind of Poetry from Woods and Lawns, to the barren Beach and boundless Ocean; introduces Sea-Calves in the room of Kids and Lambs, Sea-mews for the Lark and the Linnet, and presents his Mistress with Oysters instead of Fruits and Flowers. How good soever his Stile and Thoughts may be; yet who can pardon him for his Arbitrary Change of the sweet Manners and pleasing Objects of the Country, for what in their own Nature are uncomfortable and dreadful? I think he hath few or no Followers, or if any, such as knew little of his Beauties, and only copied his Faults, and so are lost and forgotten.

The French are so far from thinking abstrusely, that they often seem not to think at all. It is all a Run of Numbers, Common-place Descriptions of Woods, Floods, Gloves, Loves, &c. Those who write the most accurately fall into the Manner of their Country, which is Gallantry. I cannot better illustrate what I would say of the French, than by the Dress in which they make their Shepherds appear in their Pastoral Interludes upon the Stage, as I find it described by a celebrated Author. "The Shepherds, saith he, are all embroidered, and acquit themselves in a Ball better than our English Dancing-Masters. I have seen a Couple of Rivers appear in Red Stockings; and Alpheus, instead of having his Head covered with Sedges and Bull-rushes, making Love in a fair full-bottomed Perriwig and a Plume of Feathers; but with a Voice so full of Shakes and Quavers, that I should have thought the Murmurs of a Country Brook the much more agreeable Musick."