1786
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

On The Pastoral Idyllia.

The Idyllia, Epigrams, and Fragments, of Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, with the Elegies of Tyrtaeus; translated from the Greek Into English Verse. To which are added, Dissertations and Notes. In Two Volumes.... A new Edition, corrected. By... Richard Polwhele.

Rev. Richard Polwhele


Richard Polwhele argues an updated version of the Moderns position with respect to pastoral composition; it originates not in some remote Arcadia, but under the particular historical circumstances of Theocritus's time, when poetry was sophisticated and yet poets had not lost contact with the country, nor the country with rural simplicity. The essay appears as part of an entire volume devoted to commentary. Polwhele begins with a discussion of the origins of pastoral, then gives a critical survey of what Theocritus has left in the pastoral vein, and concludes with a discussion of his ancient and modern imitators.

Pastoral, Polwhele argues, is valuable insofar as it delineates the universal passions as they appear in the "living manners" and sentiments of real rural personages, it is less valuable to the extent that it derives not from nature but from the imitation of earlier poetry: "All the subsequent poets, in this line, are mere copyists, from VIRGIL to PHILLIPS. In these secondary pictures, the tints of nature lose their warmth and truth; and her figures are frequently mutilated, or indistinctly grouped. In proportion as we imitate copies, we recede from the prototype; and tracing its characteristic lines with less precision, produce fainter resemblances of its original peculiarity" 2:24.

He distinguishes two pastoral strains derived from Theocritus, one rustic and one refined, and condemns both. While Polwhele was a romantic Spenserian, no more than most of his contemporaries, did he admire the Shepheardes Calender: "In the school of rustic imitation, SPENSER AND GAY are said to hold the most conspicuous places. But neither the Shepherd's Calendar, nor the Shepherd's Week, presents us with just copies of nature or THEOCRITUS. The one exhibits mean and despicable characters that never existed, whose barbarity of language is often incongruously connected with elevated sentiment, and theological learning. The pastorals of the other (if we may judge from his proemium) are designed as pieces of burlesque" p. 25.

Since "the foundations of European pastoral are no more" modern poets might emulate William Collins in writing Arabian eclogues; Sir William Jones has pointed the way in his recent volume of oriental poetry.

The Theocritus translations were several times reprinted.




The subject of Pastoral seems to have been long exhausted by the labors of criticism. Though it was never professedly discussed by the ancients, the later critics have entered deeply into its nature and origin. The more modern effusions indeed on this topic are scarcely to be enumerated: and we might imagine it to be of the first literary importance, whilst surrounded by the elaborate disquisitions of a SCALIGER, the flippant essays of a FONTENELLE, the voluminous investigations of a RAPIN, the hypotheses of a POPE, or the decisions of a JOHNSON. But controversy however extensive, and conjecture however ingenious, evince not the value of their object; though they may invest it with an ideal dignity, such as it does not intrinsically possess.

The origin of this composition hath called forth a profusion of learning. While one writer hath traced it from the times of ORPHEUS, LINUS, or EUMOLPUS, another hath made it coeval with the world itself; and a third might as well, if the humour led him, go back eleven thousand years, and place his pastoral poet on PLATO'S Atlantis! The romantic vales of Tempe may still live in the colors of AELIAN; the luxuriance of Arcadia may still flourish in song; and the golden age present its Paradise to fancy: Yet the Critic who would seriously investigate his subject, with a view to ascertain realities, should connect with the learning that is to guide him through the gloom of antiquity, a power to disenchant the wilds of error, and a resolution to dismiss fiction, though more agreeable than truth.

We know, from the concurrent testimonies of sacred and profane history, that the first Princes and Patriarchs fed their flocks; and that the shepherd maintained, after the lapse of ages, the primitive honours of the chieftain. Yet must the conclusion be deemed inconsequent, that the regular pastoral was the invention of the period, when

DAN ABRAHAM left the Chaldee land,
And pastur'd on from verdant stage to stage.

The Ode and Hymn were manifestly the production of wild and unimproved genius. But the Pastoral could little consist with the transitory establishments of the patriarchal times, or the restless spirit of nations delighting in war. The simplicity and innocence of the shepherd are too peaceable, unobtrusive, and placid, to attract the attentive observation of an unrefined poet, in such manner as to supply him when imagination loses its wildness, and the passions are softened and meliorated, amidst the ease and leisure of luxurious retirement, that the poet looks around him with interest on the pastoral landscape. It is at the period when the manners of the court and the cottage are obviously contradistinguished, that he, who hath mixed, perhaps, in the hurry and dissipation of the one, retreating to the stillness and serenity of the other, is forcibly affected by the contrast; and calls forth his poetic powers to paint what hath subdued arrogance, and soothed ambition! It is then that he delineates, with transport, the actions, the passions, and the scenes of rural life. These, though before perhaps strongly, yet partially, represented, in the heat of a transitory enthusiasm, are now extensively held up to view, in all their parts: and become the subjects of a new species of writing. In the earlier ages, the very prevalence of the pastoral occupation might have prevented its becoming the subject of poetic description. For hence, its familiarity must have precluded emotion. And he, who does not feel, will not attempt to describe.

We have already seen, that the people of Sicily, in the times of THEOCRITUS, were arrived at the point of elegant civilization. We have also viewed the singular advantages our poet possessed, in subservience to his muse. And since, on examining the literary history of Greece, we find that she produced no writer, in this line of composition, at her most refined periods, we may reasonably fix the date of Grecian pastoral with THEOCRITUS [Author's note: Mr. WARTON is decidedly of the opinion, that the origin of the Bucolic is to be discovered in the ancient Comedy; while the latter was in its rude unpolished state. On this idea he has formed an hypothesis, which he hath supported with great ingenuity, in his curious Dissertation on the Bucolic Poetry. If this were really the origin of Pastoral, the ancients did not think it worthy their attention, under its scenic form. They have not given us the slightest account of the exhibition or acting of pastorals; which, in truth, did not deserve the name of Composition, till THEOCRITUS]. Its nature does not agree with the ruder aeras. It hath been the opinion of some respectable writers, that our pastoral derives its origin from the East. But this does not seem supported by any probable conjecture. The shepherds of Arabia were characters very dissimilar from the shepherds of Sicily. The Song of SOLOMON will furnish us with a truer idea of the oriental eclogue; which widely differs, both in matter and form, from the pastorals of THEOCRITUS. Marked with all the peculiarities of Asiatic eloquence, its parts are unconnected, and its expressions bold and highly figurative. But let us examine the Pastoral Idyllia.

The first nine, and the eleventh, have been commonly considered by the critics as legitimate Bucolics. But surely there are others, which, from the general cast of the sentiment, ought to be admitted into the same rank. The twentieth and twenty-seventh have doubtless that claim. And there seems to be no very good reason for excluding "THE REAPERS' or "THE FISHERMEN" from the number. The critical definitions, on this subject, have been peculiarly absurd and indeterminate; and, amidst volumes of contradictory opinion, the nature of the Bucolic still remains (like its origin) in suspense!

The first Idyllium hath been ever esteemed a beautiful poem, from the time of its Roman translator [Author's note: See VIRGIL'S 3d and 10th Eclogues.] to the present day. Its characters seem to hold a superior rank, in point of civility. The DAMAETAS and DAPHNIS of the sixth Idyllium appear marked by no distant traits of resemblance; whether we consider their mutual talents, or their mutual complacence, and inclination to compliment each other. There is a delicacy of sentiment in the piece before us, with scarcely any mixture of vulgarity. The situations of the scene are pleasingly shifted; and we no sooner commence an acquaintance with our poet, than we are presented with a delightful specimen of his talents in still-life painting. The Goatherd's description of his cup is minute, though not tedious: nothing can be more pictoresque than its embellishments. The Woman and her two Lovers, the figure of the Fisherman labouring to throw his net, the Rock, the Vineyard, the Foxes, and the Careless Boy framing his locust-traps, are all so distinctly delineated, that instead of being struck with the idea of crouded imagery, or an unnatural length of description, we see a deep and capacious vessel before our eyes, even without the assistance of critical illustration. We readily acknowledge, however, our obligations to the very learned and ingenious Commentator, who hath clearly proved the size of this ornamental [Greek characters]. The Ode (which is the second part of this piece) deserves not, perhaps, equal commendation. The commencement of it is charmingly elegiac; and, what is a proof of its attractive beauty, it hath been imitated by VIRGIL and POPE, and much improved upon by MILTON and LYTTELTON. But the introduction of lions and wolves, cows, heifers, bulls, and steers, drooping in sympathetic sorrow at the feet of the expiring swain, is surely not accordant with nature or simplicity. The beasts of the forest assembled round their sick lion, may be a good subject for an Aesopian fable. Yet such images throw an air of burlesque over the sorrows of elegiac verse; and thus laughter is often excited, amidst the stings of sensibility.

The Commentators have all concurred in placing the second Idyllium among the Bucolic pieces. But it seems to breathe a spirit above the pastoral strain. And SIMAETHA rather resembles the MEDEA or HECATE whom she invokes, than a character on a level with the rustics of THEOCRITUS. However this may be, there is a wonderful animation runs through the whole; which was doubtless pronounced with the most violent emotions of passion, and the strongest energy of correspondent action. And the affections of a slighted lover are here expressed in all their variety.

Among the sources of the sublime, there are none more powerful than those of magic. But the ancients have been surpassed by the moderns, in the horror of their incantations. The Pharmaceutria before us (the beauties of which are well translated into VIRGIL'S Eclogue of the same title) supplies us with the principal Heathen ceremonies, amidst the scenes of enchantment. The Canidia of HORACE, for character, situation, and circumstances, must be necessarily more striking and dreadful. But even this, uniting its sorceries with the magic of APOLLONIUS RHODIUS [Author's note: THEOCRITUS hath borrowed much of his imagery from APOLLONIUS, in the Idyllium before us.] and LUCAN, must yield, in terror and sublimity, to the blasted heath of SHAKSPEARE, or the tremendous forest of TASSO. In these ages of necromancy, there was a wildness in the popular belief, which particularly tinctured the fictions of the poet; even Kings believed the power of the sorceress, and gave a sanction to her poetic machinery. The phantoms have not long vanished from this country: the Demonologie was the work of our first JAMES; and SHAKSPEARE is supposed to have written his Macbeth in compliment to the monarch's taste.

If we pass on to the third Idyllium, we shall find it similar to the last we have reviewed, so far as it represents distracted love, in many abrupt and beautiful transitions of passion. The attention of the reader is also confined, in both, to the action and speech of a single personage. This is said to be a species of the [Greek characters], or plaintive song, which the excluded lover was accustomed to sing before the door of his mistress. We have an instance of such sort of gallantry in HORACE [Author's note: Ode X. book 3]:

Me tamen asperas
Porrectum ante fores objicere, &c.

an ode, which, DACIER thinks, was actually sung before LYCE'S door; and which he values as the only serenading song now extant in the Latin language. But as it seems to possess an air of humour, it was probably composed with a view of ridiculing this species of extravagant ballad. The Comastes (the Idyllium before us) was performed whilst the person was standing; and its title (according to HESYCHIUS) imports a shepherd singing and dancing at the same point of time. We are not unacquainted with the custom of serenading among the modern Italians. After all, it may admit of a doubt, whether this piece was attended or not with artificial gesticulation. The comment "smells of the lamp." There is more pleasure in perusing it, as the unassisted effusion of a lover, distracted by various passions; and in considering its accompaniment of external expression, as no other than the action of simple nature independent on custom. The goatherd's first appeal to his mistress, is tender and affecting; and his resolution to drown himself (as well as the concluding lines) is expressed in such a strain as to move our pity. But his allusions to mythology (together with that unpastoral, indeed unnatural, sentiment, of Love suckled by a lioness) distract from the pathos of the piece.

In the fourth and fifth Idyllia, there is indeed a vulgarity, a homeliness, which might well be afraid of appearing in the forum, or any part of the city. We have less rusticity, however, in the Swains than the Travellers. And BATTUS'S apostrophe to his deceased AMARYLLIS, on CORYDON'S mention of her name, is so strikingly introduced, that it makes amends, perhaps, for the absurd and desultory conclusion of the pastoral in question; which (to use the language of criticism) hath neither beginning, middle, nor end. The Travellers, though full of abusive language and coarse raillery, should yet be received with hospitality, as good honest characters in low life. COMATES and LACON are doubtless the exact copies of nature. Any one, who may have casually overheard the jarrings of clowns, must instantly recognize them in this Idyllium. Yet we could not have indulged our Sicilian, in the repetition of such ribaldry. Even here passages occur, the grossness of which not HEINSIUS, or all the commentators, are able to palliate.

The sixth and eleventh Idyllia contain the loves of POLYPHEMUS and GALLATEA. In the one, DAMAETAS represents the character of the Cyclops; in the other, POLYPHEME is introduced in his own person; in the former, GALATEA is wanton, and POLYPHEMUS obdurate; but, in the latter, the nymph grows shy, and slights her lover, who almost loses his reason in despair. The charms of poetry, however, restore him to his senses; and we cannot but feel the sweetness of the soothing song, which is not only musical but elegant. Though the sentiment of these pieces is natural and well imagined, our preconceptions seem to revolt from the melting sighs of our monster shepherd. VIRGIL, it is true, and OVID, have industriously copied the picture. But these representations of POLYPHEME, with whose immense size, deformity, and cruelty, we have been forcibly struck, in the descriptions of HOMER, do not immediately interest us, or excite our sympathy; since we cannot at once reconcile his habits with the general character of pastoral life. The idea of his ferocity repels our pity. No one sympathizes in the sorrows of savage love. If such monsters indeed really existed on the coast of Sicily, we might imagine them employed in rural occupations, like the Patagonians of America. But POLYPHEME and his sea-nymph have not the attractions of AMARYLLIS and her goatherd. In the proemia of these two poems, THEOCRITUS appears in his own person, inscribing the first to ARATUS, the author of the Phaenomina; and the second to NICIAS, a Milesian physician, to whom the thirteenth Idyllium is also addressed. This mode of dedication hath been pleasingly imitated by some of our modern poets.

We can scarcely help admiring, as we proceed, the various forms, under which THEOCRITUS has couched his descriptions of the country.

In the Thalysia, or Vernal Voyage, there is a novelty of form — an originality of combination, in every part delightful. We at first regret the interruption of LYCIDAS, since we had promised ourselves exquisite pleasure at the harvest-feast: but eager as we are to see our poet and his friends at the end of their journey, we are soon reconciled to the Cretan goatherd, and thank him for his charming musick. At the feast of CERES, however, the interest of the piece is wonderfully heightened, and our enthusiasm called forth, amidst the most variegated landscape — the most elegant assemblage of rural imagery to be met with in THEOCRITUS.

The eighth and ninth are, critically speaking, the only legitimate Pastoral Idyllia that remain to be considered. In the latter, there is no striking feature of discrimination, though the herdsman DAPHNIS and the shepherd MENALCAS are not unpleasingly characterized, as rude in their manners, and boastful in their competitions of abilities and fortune. The Bucolic Singers (like the fifth Idyllium) presents us with an imitation of the contentions of shepherds, in verses extemporaneously recited. The personages are represented speaking alternately, and in the same number of lines; which the critics calls the Amoebea. It appears extremely probable that the ancient shepherds actually contended in this manner; and, like the modern improvisatori of Italy, were educated in the habit of returning speech for speech; the effect of instantaneous conception, and a corresponding adroitness of expression. Above one hundred years before the time of THEOCRITUS, there were extempore performers of this sort, at Rome, originally Tuscans. The Roman historian [Author's note: See Livy, lib. 7. An. Xt. 401.] informs us, "Imitari deinde eos Juventus simul inconditis inter se jocularia fundentes versibus, caepere." And he adds, "Incompositum temere ac rudem alternis jaciebant." It is a curious and singular circumstance, that the present people of Tuscany are remarkable for the same improvisation, the same readiness in metrical responses, as its ancient inhabitants. If we apply this to the swains of Sicily, (and we have every reason to suppose that they partook of the Tuscan genius) is it not evident that THEOCRITUS copied the characters and customs passing before him — that he caught, in short, the living manners? His ruder Idyllia, therefore, are to be admitted and valued as the genuine portraitures of life; even though we reject, as unnatural and inconsistent, the whole fungous growth of mimic pastorals — some of them affectedly polished; while others are replete with barbarous and antiquated phraseology, holding forth a mingled dialect, "which in present times is not uttered, was never uttered in times past, and will never be uttered in time future."

Though The Reapers and The Fishermen have all the simplicity of rural personages, in language, sentiment, and character, they are not, perhaps, (strictly speaking) to be admitted within the pale of pastoral. But whatever rank may be allotted to them, they are confessedly such as one might expect from the genius of THEOCRITUS, considered in the light of a pastoral writer. The Fishermen is a singular performance. Critics are agreed in allowing the piscatory eclogues of SANNAZARIUS a considerable degree of merit, as original pieces. The hint was not improbably suggested to the Italian author by this beautiful little poem, which no one could possibly peruse without a high degree of satisfaction, were not its mutilations or at least its numerous corrupted passages, too offensive to admit of an uninterrupted attention to the characters, or the general tenor of the piece.

Eunica, or the Neatherd, and Daphnis and the Shepherdess, have been attributed by the commentators, in general, to MOSCHUS. Sprightliness is the predominant feature of the first, which bears some resemblance to the third Idyllium, in the adduction of mythological example. With submission to the critics, we may venture to pronounce them true Bucolics.

On Daphnis and the Shepherdess much learning hath been exhibited by SCALIGER, CAUSABON, and HEINSIUS. But we are not always to judge of the merit or importance of a piece, by the quantity of erudition it hath been the means of expanding. We do not recommend the little effusion before us, for innocence or purity. To translate its sentiment in its full force, or to give its situations their original aspect, would be no decorous task; but it was a task that perfectly accorded with the licentiousness of DRYDEN'S muse, who hath heightened every feature with such glaring colors as must repel the eye of modesty.

We must not omit to observe that The Despairing Lover hath nothing in it repugnant to the nature of pastoral. Its language and imagery are evidently rural. And the catastrophe is such as not unfrequently happens in the country.

Thus have we cursorily surveyed the only Original Pastorals which the European world of letters can boast! In this light they are surely to be regarded as an invaluable treasure. All the subsequent poets, in this line, are mere copyists, from VIRGIL to PHILLIPS. In these secondary pictures, the tints of nature lose their warmth and truth; and her figures are frequently mutilated, or indistinctly grouped. In proportion as we imitate copies, we recede from the prototype; and tracing its characteristic lines with less precision, produce fainter resemblances of its original peculiarity. Let us transiently review the imitators of THEOCRITUS. We must have observed, that elegance and rusticity (or rather, an elegant and a coarse simplicity) are the two general contradistinctions of the Bucolic Idyllia. Hence there seem to have arisen two schools of bucolic imitation — the refined and the rustic.

The first imitator of THEOCRITUS was attracted by his more polished beauties. These have, doubtless, acquired a brilliancy in the transfusion. Yet have they lost their mellowness and warmth. It was at an elegant aera, that the graces of THEOCRITUS shone forth in a Roman dress. But had his more predominating qualities been exhibited, and his original discriminations of character been faithfully preserved, it is probable that such simplicity and precision would have received their due tribute of applause at the court of AUGUSTUS. It was not till the Augustan age of our own country, that there appeared another imitator of the polished pastoral. But he has lost sight of Sicily and her piping train! He was unacquainted with shepherds or shepherdesses! He could string the silver lyre, but disdained to frame the oaten reed! In his general uncharacteristic pieces—

Pure description holds the place of sense.

In the school of rustic imitation, SPENSER AND GAY are said to hold the most conspicuous places. But neither the Shepherd's Calendar, nor the Shepherd's Week, presents us with just copies of nature or THEOCRITUS. The one exhibits mean and despicable characters that never existed, whose barbarity of language is often incongruously connected with elevated sentiment, and theological learning. The pastorals of the other (if we may judge from his proemium) are designed as pieces of burlesque.

In the mean time, the barbarisms of TITUS CALPHURNIUS, the corrupted taste of AURELIUS NEMESIANUS, the ridiculous allegories of MANTUAN, the unclassical ornaments and prettinesses of TASSO, and those fanciful affectations and puerilities which glitter through the pieces of GUARINI, BONARELLI, and MARINO, together with the courtly shepherds of FONTENELLE, and the constrained unnatural air of CAMOENS, LOPE DE VEGA, and GARCILESSO; all these, announcing the general attention of the European nations to pastoral composition, through a series of ages, proclaim, in yet stronger language, that to exhibit a genuine portraiture of nature, whilst she is hidden from our eyes, is a weak and impossible attempt! The foundations of European pastoral are no more. Real life no longer presents us with shepherds piping for a conch or a crook.

If any source remain, to which the lover of simplicity may resort for interesting character and scenery, that source perhaps may be discovered in the East. The plains of Arabia and Persia may furnish him with elegant and striking imagery. Though the coloring of the Oriental Eclogues [Author's note: COLLINS'S] is evidently European, yet are they truly pathetic and beautiful. A genuine draught of the affections hath its archetype in every heart. To hold up therefore the pursuits and the passions of an Arabian shepherd to the view, amidst his spicy groves, or his camels, might be no unaffecting display. But here possibly an European imagination must repose in the indolence of translating images from books; must content itself with reflected likenesses, with unoriginal productions. Yet the remoteness of the scene, and the general ignorance of the manners that are delineated, would diffuse over such composition the delusion of novelty.

There is one writer (perhaps the most elegant and variously-learned this country hath ever produced) whose uncommon industry hath opened an ample field for the display of oriental genius.

Among his poetical performances, his Solyman is a charming specimen of the Arabian eclogue; and his Arcadia as delightful a painting of THEOCRITUS and his Pastoral progeny.


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