Edmund Burnaby Greene gives an elegant turn to the commonplaces of eighteenth-century discussions of pastoral, and then devotes several paragraphs to a surprisingly detailed and enthusiastic appreciation of the Shepheardes Calender: "Our author was too great to rise by imitation. Though he had both Theocritus and Virgil for his models, his Shepherd's Calendar is altogether original. The dialect of his times is as happily adapted to rustic life, as the Doric of the former, and the easy flow of his descriptions, with the natural variety of his landscapes, rivals the poetic excellence of the latter" p. liii.
The "masterly writer of our own days" who has censured Spenser is Samuel Johnson. Greene also contributed the life of Theocritus to the volume.
J. W. Croker: "Edward Burnaby, who took the name of Greene, published in 1756 an imitation of the 10th Ep. of the First Book of Horace. He died in 1768" Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. Croker (1831) 1:500n.
James Edmund Congleton: "Spenser in 'his Shepherd's Calendar is altogether original'; Philips, but for his 'exceptionable description, ... is at best to be regarded as a graceful copyist'; and Pope should have known that 'courtliness is not the whole that is expected in a writer of Eclogues'" Theories of Pastoral Poetry (1952) 128-29.
The precise time when the Pastoral muse made her appearance in the world, history seems to have left uncertain. Conjectures have been hazarded, and presumptions multiplied, yet her origin is still unravelled and the less inquisitive genius sits down contented with ascertaining her first perfection in the writings of Theocritus.
Indeed researches of this nature are rather curious, than interesting; for though we may perhaps meet with some plausible accounts, we can trace none that carry conviction. The very few writers, handed down to us from Greece and Rome in that species of composition, are but insufficient guides to the rise of the art itself.
As it is more entertaining, it is likewise more to the honour of Pastoral to observe, that it must necessarily have existed in the earlier ages of the world; existed, not indeed in the set form and elegance of numbers, but in the genuine sentiments of the heart, which nature alone inspired.
For the mind being on all sides surrounded with rural objects, those objects would not fail to make an impression; and whether the patriarchs of old with our parents in Milton piously broke out into the praise of their Creator, or reflected in silent admiration on the beauties of the earth, their hymns, or their meditations, must have been purely Pastoral.
It has been remarked by a laborious commentator on the Eclogues of Virgil, that the lives of our earliest forefathers were spent in husbandry, and the feeding of cattle. And indeed it could not have been otherwise. At a period, when the numbers of mankind were comparatively insignificant, and their thoughts engaged in procuring subsistence, while luxury and ambition were yet unknown, it is inconsistent to suppose, but that the sons of earth were all in a manner the sons of agriculture.
When the world however encreased, and its inhabitants dispersed into various regions, when societies were formed, and laws established, and when (the natural consequence of such expansion) the plagues of war and contention arose, different orders, and conditions were settled for the regulation of kingdoms; rustic aukwardness received the polish of civil life, and the plough-share was converted into instruments of destruction. Thus by degrees from an honourable situation husbandry became the employment of those alone, who had the least ambition and the greatest probity.
But in those climates, whither emigrations being less fashionable, the people retained their primitive simplicity, it is no wonder, if in process of time considerable advance was made, and regularity introduced into Pastoral reflections; that the dictates of unrefined nature were improved by the harmony of numbers.
We may accordingly observe, that in the countries which suffered the least variation from their original form, Pastoral was most esteemed; there the thoughts were still allured, and the imagination feasted with rural scenes unimproved, or more properly uncorrupted; for the cottage had not felt the infection of the court.
Arcadia, so usually painted the flowery kingdom of romance, is more ingeniously accounted the land of Pastoral. Its inland situation, and the plenty of its pasture, with the well-known characters of its inhabitants conspire to favour the title. That the ancient poets described this place as the seat of pastoral, is evident; a shepherd peculiarly skilled in singing, being familiarity termed an Arcadian. There appears however in many traditions of the country such a strong mixture of the fabulous, that we may well suspect them to be the product rather of fancy than of truth.
Nor less fantastic are the descriptions of the golden age, the ideal manners of which are esteemed, by the more refined critic, the genuine source of Pastoral.
To a taste so delicate, the least appearance of the rustic is disgusting. A becoming, indeed an elegant simplicity, and the purest innocence, must compose the character of the shepherd. No passions but of the softest and most engaging kind are to be introduced: in short, the swain is to be what no swain ever was.
In these elevated notions of humble Pastoral reality is sacrificed to the phantoms of the imagination; the more characteristic strokes in the picture of rural life being utterly erased; the bright colours of unspotted integrity are indeed more pleasing to the eye, but in a piece where nature should predominate, are more properly blended with the shade of frailty. For if mankind are to be represented entirely free from faults, we cannot look for their existence later than the fall.
On this fastidious principle it is esteemed necessary, that rural happiness should be described perfect, and uninterrupted. The life of the shepherd is to be one perpetual spring, without a cloud to disturb its calmness. The vicissitudes indeed of love, which gives birth to more than half our modern Pastorals, are admitted into the piece: for it seems to be with some as essential for a shepherd to be in love, as to have been born.
Yet even here the representation is confined; the swain after whining and crying (as Achilles did to his good mother Thetis) calls on the trees and bushes, and every thing in nature, to be witnesses of his unhappiness; but after all, the performance, like our novels and romances, those standards of propriety, must have a fortunate conclusion.
But whatever fond and amusing prospects the country naturally opens to the mind, experience teaches us, that even there vexations will arise: the seasons of quiet and uneasiness succeed as familiarly as summer and winter: groves and lawns, and purling streams, sound very prettily in description, chiefly when flowing through the numbers of some under-aged amorato; but reason cannot set her seal to the luxuriancy of this Mahometan paradise.
From sentiments so extravagantly refined, let us turn to those of a more sordid complexion. As the former satiate the judicious reader with beds of roses, the latter disgust him with the filthiness of a dunghill. With critics of this cast, the manners of the meer peasant are the sole foundation of Pastoral; even less rustic and homely appellations are banished from the characters, and the Meliboeus, or Neaera of Virgil are so much too courtly, that in their place are to be substituted the [Greek characters], and [Greek characters] of Theocritus, and the Colin-clout or Hobbinol of Spenser.
The Doric dialect, which transfuses such a natural gracefulness over the Idylliums of the Grecian, has been a stumbling-block to these lovers of inelegance. There is a rustic propriety in the language of this dialect, which was familiar to the cottager in the age of Theocritus, but it must be remembered, that his Pastorals contain likewise a delicacy of sentiment which may well be presumed to have attracted the attention of Ptolemy, whose polished court was the asylum of genius.
But though it should be allowed, that Pastoral ought strictly to be limited to the actions of the peasant, it is not solely intended for his perusal. The critic, as he cannot on the one hand permit nature to be excluded, cannot relish on the other her being exposed in disgraceful colours.
There are in almost every situation some circumstances, over which we should draw the veil, for all is not to be painted with a close exactness. Coarseness of sentiment, and indelicacy of expression are an offence to decorum, and give modesty the blush. Writings of such illiberal tendency counteract the best and principal end of composition; they hold up the mirror to vice and immorality, and sacrifice virtue to contempt.
To those, who live in our meridian of more refined simplicity, Pastoral appears most properly in the dress of rural elegance. Something is indulged to the character of the shepherd, and something to the genius of the writer. They, who should place the former on the toilette, would betray an absurdity which would no less extend to the latter, whose thoughts flowed in the rude channel of uninformed rusticity.
The country is the scene, in which Pastoral is naturally laid; but various may be the subjects of this little drama. The spirit of the poet would be wretchedly cramped, if never permitted to step aside. An insipid sameness runs through the pieces, founded on the impropriety of this indulgence, and most of our later Pastorals are in this respect but unmeaning paraphrases of earlier authors.
Were we to attempt an historical epitome of pastoral composition, we might place Theocritus in its dawn; in that earlier age when rural simplicity was cultivated and revered. Though we are sometimes struck with the rays of his genius, breaking out into more exalted descriptions, Pastoral appears to be his favourite province.
Considering him as a writer, who drew his sentiments from the principles of nature, we may rather admire, that his Idylliums are so engaging, than cavil at his blemishes; we may reflect upon Theocritus, as the hive, whence the most established writers of Eclogues have derived their sweets, or as a diamond, whose intrinsic worth has received a lustre from the refinement of succeeding times.
There is a very considerable gap in the history of Pastoral, between the age of Theocritus and Virgil, who was reserved for the noon of its perfection. It would scarcely at first sight appear, that the period when civil war desolated the provinces, and spread all its horrors over the neighbourhood of Rome, should tend to the improvement of the pastoral muse, whose spirit it was likely to have totally destroyed. Yet to this seemingly unfavourable situation we owe the most pleasing and interesting bucolics of Virgil, who has made the history of his country subservient to the efforts of his genius.
In those several pieces, to which the distresses of his times, or other political considerations gave rise, he seems more elaborately to have exercised the faculty of invention. But where genuine nature was to be represented, he borrowed largely from Theocritus, many of his similies, sentiments and descriptions, being literal translations from his Grecian master.
Even in this less original task the merits of the Roman are conspicuous; he has separated the ore from the dross, and transplanted those flowers alone, which could add a fragrance to his work.
On the whole, the Pastorals of Virgil are most agreeably conducted; they are not set forth in jewels, or arrayed in silks, nor sordidly dressed in rags. In the "paulo majora," of his muse, the poet rarely loses sight of the Shepherd, and we may stile him the refined Theocritus of an Augustan age.
From this elegant aera, when the language of the country and the court was purity itself, let us pass over to the days of our excellent Spenser, when the conversation of the latter had just emerged from rusticity.
The genius of Spenser was formed for poetry. The rich luxuriance of fancy which shines through the Fairy Queen surpasses the sublime of antiquity. Such bold conceptions little speak a writer qualified for Pastoral. The fire of imagination, which strikes us in more elevated compositions, must in this be suspended; for nature is most advantageously shown, when she seems to borrow the least from art.
Our author was too great to rise by imitation. Though he had both Theocritus and Virgil for his models, his Shepherd's Calendar is altogether original. The dialect of his times is as happily adapted to rustic life, as the Doric of the former, and the easy flow of his descriptions, with the natural variety of his landscapes, rivals the poetic excellence of the latter.
Proverbial sayings, not too closely crowded, add to the simplicity of Pastoral; Spenser is fortunate in such applications; but I own myself most peculiarly attracted with his short lessons of morality; they add a pleasing innocence to the character of the shepherd, and reflect a lustre on the poet.
Yet amidst this superior merit it must be observed, that a masterly writer of our own days has censured the dialogue as affectedly barbarous, and the reflections of his peasants as too exalted.
It is necessary however to premise, that the criticism of this author is confined to the September of the Shepherd's Calendar; an Eclogue which is indeed conveyed in a dialect singularly rustic; and the subject being the depravity of ecclesiastical manners in popish countries, the sordid language, under which the satire is couched, gives the greater offence to the critic; who concludes with this exclamation: "Surely at the same time that a shepherd learns theology, he may gain some acquaintance with his native language!"
The more ancient dialect seems here to have been selected, as a disguise to the real purport or characters of the piece. The reign of Mary, when England was under the bondage of an arbitrary religion, and oppressed by foreign counsels, may be esteemed the period of the Pastoral. The violence, which had been so barbarously exerted throughout the country, as that baleful season, was too recent to have been forgotten; and the Shepherd is very naturally described as having fled from a persecution, the censure of which was a compliment to the principles of Elizabeth.
A rural metaphor is manifestly sustained through the performance, as if to obviate the inconsistency, which is alleged. So far from discussing knotty points of theological learning, the province of the peasant is closely preserved; unless it should be insisted, that nothing relative to religion ought to concern a shepherd.
To descend from the writings of Spenser to the succeeding age, would be to point out the decline of the pastoral Muse. Indeed she has scarcely existed, but in the productions of Philips and of Pope. Philips is so often on the whine, that we are apt to over-look his less exceptionable descriptions; he has injudiciously blended the polish of Virgil's language with the simplicity of Spenser's; and so great is his want of original matter, that he is at best to be regarded as a graceful copyist.
Pope has been so assiduous to refine his periods, that his spirit is greatly evaporated; and his Pastorals, excepting the Messiah, only merit our attention as the marks of early genius. Sweetness of versification, and purity of expression, may constitute the character of a poet; but courtliness is not the whole that is expected in a writer of Eclogues.
That love of the country, which is inherent in the bosom of Reflection, has occasionally produced many later attempts on Pastoral, but the most successful ones are fainter traces of rural life; the Muse has at last varied her form, and united the charms of elegance and nature in the Ballads of Shenstone.