1717
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Discourse on Pastoral Poetry.

The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope.

Alexander Pope


Alexander Pope wrote a version this essay in 1704, when he was at work on his Pastorals. It circulated with the poems in manuscript, though it was not originally published with them. William Walsh wrote to William Wycherley, 20 April 1705: "I return you the papers [Pope's Pastorals] you favoured me with, and had sent them to you yesterday morning, but that I thought to have them to you last night myself. I have read them several times with great satisfaction. The Preface is very judicious and very learned; and the verses very tender and easy" in Works of Pope, ed. Warton (1797) 7:53-54.

Pope criticizes Spenser's prolixity, prosody, and diction, though he has obviously considers the design of the Shepheardes Calender worthy of emulation even as he has striven for refinement: "the scrupulous division of his Pastorals into Months, has obliged him either to repeat the same description, in other words, for three months together; or, when it was exhausted before, entirely to omit it: whence it comes to pass that some of his Eclogues (as the sixth, eighth, and tenth, for example) have nothing but their Titles to distinguish them. The reason is evident, because the year has not that variety in it to furnish every month with a particular description, as it may every season."

Compare John Dryden's dedication to Pastorals in Works of Virgil (1697); for contrasting views see Thomas Tickell's Guardian essays on pastoral (1713) and Thomas Purney's A Full Enquiry into the True Nature of Pastoral (1717).

William Oldys (?): "Some faults in this [Shepheardes] Calendar were shewn by Mr. Pope in his Discourse of Pastoral Poetry, which was written at sixteen years of age. That excellent Bard, however unparalleled as he is in some other species of Poetry, it is certain did not excel in this. It is true, he aimed, after Virgil, at the more elevated kind of Pastoral, which would exhibit the charming scenes of rural simplicity and innocence, without sinking into the rustic. But in the attempt he carried it to excess: he was made sensible of his mistake, and conscious, as it should seem, that the bent of his nature and genius did not lead him to stretch with equal wings after Spenser in the rustical way, he gave a proof at once, both of his good sense and discernment, in putting upon that task his friend Gay, who thereby became Spenser's second; 'et Primo vix, aut ne vix quidem, Impur'" in Biographia Britannica (1763) 6:3805n.

Joseph Warton: "This sensible and judicious discourse, written at so early an age, is a more extraordinary production, than the pastorals that follow it: in which, I hope, it will not be deemed an injurious criticism to say, there is scarcely a single rural image to be found that is new. The ideas of Theocritus, Virgil, and Spencer, are indeed here exhibited in language equally mellifluous and pure; but the descriptions and sentiments are trite and common. To this assertion, formerly made, Dr. Johnson answered; 'That no invention was intended:' he therefore allows the fact, and the charge. Our author has chiefly drawn his observations from Rapin, Fontenelle, and the preface to Dryden's Virgil. A translation of Rapin's Discourse had been for some years before prefixed to Creech's Translation of Theocritus, and is no extraordinary piece of criticism. And though Hume highly praises the Discourse of Fontenelle, yet Dr. Hurd thinks it only, rather more tolerable than his Pastorals. I much wonder our author did not allude to the elegant lines on Pastoral Poetry at the beginning of the second canto of Boileau's Art of Poetry. The best dissertations on this subject, seem to be those in the IId and Vth volumes of the Memoirs of the French Academy, that which is prefixed to Heyne's excellent edition of Virgil's Eclogues, and that which is prefixed to the Oxford edition of Theocritus, in two volumes 4to. 1776; in which the reader will find a particular account of the three distinct characters and personages introduced by Theocritus, namely, the Keepers of Oxen, the Keepers of Sheep, and of Goats; to which distinction even Virgil did not attend: and in which he also will find such reasons for preferring the pastorals of Theocritus to those of Virgil, as will serve for a complete confutation of Dr. Johnson's opinion on this subject, in the Life of that great man, vol. ii. p. 329. The truly learned Heyne goes so far as to say, that if Virgil had written only his Bucolics, vix eum in censum principum poetarum venturum fuisse arbitror. So competent and able a judge as the sweet and pathetic Racine, assured M. de Longepierre, that he thought the second Idyllium of Theocritus was one of the most exquisite pieces that antiquity had left us, and that it contained the most striking and forcible descriptions of the passion of love he had ever seen" Works of Pope (1797) 1:45-46n.

William Lisle Bowles: "The Discourse on Pastoral Poetry is certainly, as Dr. Warton observes, a sensible and judicious performance. But Pope's definition of Pastoral is too confined. In fact, his Pastoral Discourse seems made to fit (if I may say so) his Pastorals. For the same reason he would not class as a true Pastoral [author's note: See his account of Pastoral in the Guardian], the most interesting of all Virgil's Eclogues: — I mean the first; which is founded on fact, which has the most tender and touching strokes of nature, and the plot of which is entirely pastoral, being the complaint of a Shepherd obliged to leave the fields of his infancy, and yield the possession of to soldiers and strangers. The characters, and every image, are taken from rural life, the landscape part is picturesque, and the story interesting and affecting. Pope says, because it relates to soldiers, it is not pastoral: but how little of a military cast is seen in it: — the soldier is mentioned, but only as far as was absolutely necessary, and always in connection with the rural imagery, from whence the most exquisite touches are derived.... Pope's pastoral ideas, however, with the exception of the Messiah, seem to have been taken from the least interesting and poetic scenes of the ancient Eclogue: the Wager, the Contest, the Riddle, the alternate praises of Daphne or Delia, the common-place complaint of the lover, &c. The more interesting and picturesque subjects, therefore, were excluded, as not being properly pastoral according to his confined definition" Works of Pope (1806) 1:57-58n.

John Wilson: "Pope says, 'notwithstanding all the care he has taken, he is certainly inferior in his dialect. In the manners, thoughts, and characters, he comes near to Theocritus himself.' Pope was a better judge of dialect, than of the manners thoughts, and characters of Shepherds. He knew — how could he? — little or nothing of rural or rustic life — we mean by experience" in Blackwood's Magazine 34 (1833) 810.

William Minto: "This artificial species of poetry has been almost universally ridiculed as tedious and insipid from the time of Pope to the present day. It is not worth while to waste much time over it; but as it is often condemned hastily, and in ignorance of what it proposed to attempt, it is only justice to Pope, and it may be of some interest, to consider the aims of the pastoral poet as conceived by Pope and Walsh. They did not pretend to imitate any incidents in the life of actual shepherds. Theocritus did this, and Allan Ramsay. But the shepherds of Pope and Walsh were avowedly the shepherds of the golden age, when the best of men were employed in shepherding, — men, as Walsh says, 'of learning and good breeding.' These shepherds were assumed to be men of the most delicate and gentle feelings, living a life of simplicity and calm tranquility, never agitated by harsh and violent passions. And tender feeling that ruffled their lives was softened and subdued by the steady repose and placid beauty of their surroundings, and the mute sympathy of nature with their woes. Realise the still and tranquil beauty of this ancient pastoral world, and you will admit that it was a fine conception. The poets of this world did not trouble themselves to argue that such a world ever really existed; they admitted that it never existed except as a beautiful fiction" Literature of the Georgian Era (1894) 25.

Herbert E. Cory: "This is partially borrowed from Dryden's preface to his translation of Virgil's eclogues but contains the fullest and best consideration of The Shepheards Calender that had yet appeared. The tendency to reconcile Spenser with the 'Ancients' in true Augustan fashion is again apparent. 'Among the moderns, their success has been greatest who have most endeavoured to make these ancients [viz Theocritus and Virgil] their pattern. The most considerable genius appears in the famous Tasso and our Spenser ... Spenser's Calendar, in Mr. Dryden's opinion, is the most complete work of this kind which any nation has produced ever since the time of Vergil.' He criticises Spenser justly for his imitation of Mantuan's satirical eclogues and crassly for one of his chief merits, the introduction of varied stanza-forms in the poem. Spenser should have used the everlasting couplet, of course. Pope criticises Spenser for imitating the Doric of Theocritus by the use of 'old English and country phrases.' In this he may have followed Dryden who, as we have seen, once condemned and once praised. Yet Pope writes with discernment when he adds: 'As there is a difference betwixt simplicity and rusticity, so the expression of simple thoughts should be plain, but not clownish.' He is the first to give Spenscr credit for inventing the device of a 'calendar:' 'The addition he has made of a calendar to his eclogues is very beautiful; since by this, besides the general moral of innocence and simplicity, which is common to other authors of Pastoral, he has one peculiar to himself; he compares human life to the several seasons, and at once exposes to his readers a view of the great and little worlds, in their various changes and aspects.' Yet Pope, whose name is almost always connected with decorous lawns, was the first to point out that Spenser 's nature descriptions are not always appropriate to the month, that: 'Some of his eclogues (as the sixth, eighth, and tenth for example) have nothing but their titles to distinguish them.' Beginning with Dryden's criticism, then, Pope developed the first detailed study of the Shepheards Calender. His contributions are brilliant when we examine all that was written before. Never had the Shepheards Calender been at once admired and judged so discerningly" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 132-33.

Richard Foster Jones: "Though Walsh is really the founder of the conventional eclogue in England, it was his pupil in the pastoral, Pope, who first brought it into prominence. In his "Discourse on Pastoral Poetry" the latter gives us the theory underlying his eclogues, which was entirely taken from Rapin, Fontenelle, and Walsh, especially the latter, with the exception that Pope lays greater stress upon smoothness of versification. Insisting on the happy medium between manners too polite and too coarse, he makes a good deal of the distinction between rusticity and simplicity, a distinction really between reality and conventionality. Most of the criticisms that have been directed against Pope's poems are entirely beside the point, because the poems cannot be blamed for not being what they were not intended to be" "Eclogue Types in English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century" JEGP 24 (1925) 38.

Austin Warren: "In a passage in the manuscript, omitted in the published version, Pope speaks of having taken the design of his Pastorals from Spenser: 'For, looking upon Spenser as the father of English pastoral, I thought myself unworthy to be esteemed even the meanest of his sons, unless I bore some resemblance to him" Alexander Pope as Critic and Humanist (1929) 235.

James Edmund Congleton: "Pope, in theory and practice, brings the English neoclassic pastoral to its full development. He and Walsh, feeling (in common with Rapin and Chetwood) that the Ancients had perfected the genre and had made use of all possible subjects, openly approve literary imitation provided it is masterfully done" Theories of Pastoral Poetry (1952) 84.




There are not, I believe, a greater number of any sort of verses than of those which are called Pastorals; nor a smaller, than of those which are truly so. It is therefore necessary to give some account of this kind of Poem, and it is my design to comprize in this short paper the substance of those numerous dissertations that Criticks have made on the subject, without omitting any of their rules in my own favour. You will also find some points reconciled, about which they seem to differ, and a few remarks which I think have escaped their observation.

The original of Poetry is ascribed to that age which succeeded the creation of the world: And as the keeping of flocks seems to have been the first employment of mankind, the most ancient sort of poetry was probably pastoral. It is natural to imagine, that the leisure of those ancient shepherds requiring some diversion, none was so proper to that solitary life as singing; and that in their songs they took occasion to celebrate their own felicity. From hence a Poem was invented, and afterwards improv'd to a perfect image of that happy time; which by giving us an esteem for the virtues of a former age, might recommend them to the present. And since the life of shepherds was attended with more tranquillity than any other rural employment, the Poets chose to introduce their Persons, from whom it received the name of Pastoral.

A Pastoral is an imitation of the action of a shepherd; the form of this imitation is dramatic, or narrative, or mixed of both; the fable simple, the manners not too polite nor too rustic: The thoughts are plain, yet admit a little quickness and passion, but that short and flowing: The expression humble, yet as pure as the language will afford; neat, but not florid; easy, and yet lively. In short, the fable, manners, thoughts, and expressions are full of the greatest simplicity in nature.

The complete character of this poem consists in simplicity, brevity, and delicacy; the two first of which render an eclogue natural, and the last delightful.

If we would copy Nature, it may be useful to take this Idea along with us, that pastoral is an image of what they call the Golden age. So that we are not to describe our shepherds as shepherds at this day really are, but as they may be conceiv'd then to have been; when a notion of quality was annex'd to that name, and the best of men follow'd the employment. To carry this resemblance yet further, that Air of piety to the Gods should shine thro' the Poem, which so visibly appears in all the works of antiquity: And it ought to preserve some relish of the old way of writing; the connection should be loose, the narrations and descriptions short, and the periods concise. Yet it is not sufficient, that the sentences only be brief, the whole Eclogue should be so too. For we cannot suppose Poetry in those days to have been the business of the ancient shepherds, but their recreation at vacant hours.

But with a respect to the present age, nothing more conduces to make these composures natural, than when some Knowledge in rural affairs is discover'd. This may be made to appear rather done by chance than on design, and sometimes is best shewn by inference; lest by too much study to seem natural, we destroy the delight. For what is inviting in this sort of poetry (as Fontenelle observes) proceeds not so much from the Idea of a country life itself, as from that of is Tranquillity. We must therefore use some illusion to render a Pastoral delightful; and this consists in exposing the best side only of a shepherd's life, and in concealing its miseries. Nor is it enough to induce shepherds discoursing together, but a regard must be had to the subject, that it contan some particular beauty in itself, and that it be different in every Eclogue. Besides, in each of them a design'd scene or prospect is to be presented to our view, which should likewise have its variety. This Variety is obtained in a great degree by frequent comparisons, drawn from the most agreeable objects of the country; by interrogations to things inanimate; by beautiful digressions, but those short; sometimes by insisting a little on circumstances; and lastly by elegant turns on the words, which render the numbers extremely sweet and pleasing. As for the numbers themselves, tho' they are properly of the heroic measure, they should be the smoothest, the most easy, and flowing imaginable.

It is by rules like these that we ought to judge of Pastoral. And since the instructions given for any art are to be deliver'd as that art is in perfection, they must of necessity be deriv'd from those in whom it is acknowledged so to be. 'Tis therefore from the practice of Theocritus and Virgil (the only undisputed authors of Pastoral) that the Criticks have drawn the foregoing notions concerning it.

Theocritus excels all others in nature and simplicity. The subjects of his Idyllia are purely pastoral; but he is not so exact in his persons, having introduced Reapers and fishermen as well as shepherds. He is apt to be too long in his descriptions, of which that of the Cup in the first pastoral is a remarkable instance. In the manners he seems a little defective, for his swains are sometimes abusive and immodest, and perhaps too much inclining to rusticity; for instance, in his fourth and fifth Idyllia. But 'tis enough that all others learn'd their excellencies from him, and that his Dialect alone has a secret charm in it which no other could ever attain.

Virgil, who copies Theocritus, refines upon his original: and in all points, where Judgment has the principal part, he is much superior to his master. Tho' some of his subjects are not pastoral in themselves, but only seem to be such; they have a wonderful variety in them, which the Greek was a stranger to. He exceeds him in regularity and brevity, and falls short of him in nothing but simplicity and propriety of style; the first of which perhaps was the fault of his age, and the last of his language.

Among the moderns, their success has been greatest who have most endeavoured to make these ancients their pattern. The most considerable Genius appears in the famous Tasso, and our Spenser. Tasso in his Aminta has as far excelled all the Pastoral writers, as in his Gierusalemme he has outdone the Epic Poets of his country. But as this piece seems to have been the original of a new sort of poem, the Pastoral Comedy, in Italy, it cannot so well be considered as a copy of the ancients. Spenser's Calender, in Mr. Dryden's opinion, is the most complete work of this kind which any Nation has produc'd ever since the time of Virgil. Not but that he may be thought imperfect in some few points. His Eclogues are somewhat too long, if we compare them with the ancients. He is sometimes too allegorical, and treats of matters of religion in a pastoral style as the Mantuan had done before him. He has employ'd the Lyric measure, which is contrary to the practice of the old Poets. His Stanza is not still the same, nor always well chosen. This last may be the reason his expression is sometimes not concise enough: for the Tetrastic has obliged him to extend his sense to the length of four lines, which would have been more closely confin'd in the Couplet.

In the manners, thoughts, and characters, he comes near to Theocritus himself; tho' notwithstanding all the care he has taken, he is certainly inferior in his Dialect: For the Doric had its beauty and propriety in the time of Theocritus; it was used in part of Greece, and frequent in the mouths of many of the greatest persons; whereas the old English and country phrases of Spenser were either entirely obsolete, or spoken only by people of the lowest condition. As there is a difference betwixt simplicity and rusticity, so the expression of simple thoughts should be plain, but not clownish. The addition he has made of a Calendar to his Eclogues is very beautiful; since by this, besides the general moral of innocence and simplicity, which is common to other authors of pastoral, he has one peculiar to himself; he compares human Life to the several Seasons, and at once exposes to his readers a view of the great and little worlds, in their various changes and aspects. Yet the scrupulous division of his Pastorals into Months, has oblig'd him either to repeat the same description, in other words, for three months together; or when it was exhausted before, entirely to omit it: whence it comes to pass that some of his Eclogues (as the sixth, eighth, and tenth for example) have nothing but their Titles to distinguish them. The reason is evident, beeause the year has not that variety in it to furnish every month with a particular description, as it may every season.

Of the following Eclogues I shall only say, that these four comprehend all the subjects which the Critics upon Theocritus and Virgil will allow to be fit for pastoral: That they have as much variety of description, in respect of the several seasons, as Spenser's: That in order to add to this variety, the several times of the day are observ'd, the rural employments in each season or time of day, and the rural scenes or places proper to such employments; not without some regard to the several ages of man, and the different passions proper to each age.

But after all, if they have any merit, it is to be attributed to some good old Authors, whose works as I had leisure to study, so I hope I have not wanted care to imitate.

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