1798
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

On Pastoral Poetry.

Literary Hours or Sketches Critical and Narrative, by Nathan Drake, M.D.

Dr. Nathan Drake


In Number XVI. of Literary Hours the Moderns approach to pastoral is taken to its logical conclusion, so that Edmund Spenser and Ambrose Philips are set aside in favor of "original" poets like Drayton, Browne, the Fletchers, Shenstone, Collins, and Beattie — and Robert Southey, whose recent "Botany Bay Eclogues" receive special praise. Spenser should not have "interwoven theology with his eclogues, nor chosen such a barbarous and vulgar jargon."

This essay, from a very popular collection, was reprinted in several magazines and suggests that the ground for Lyrical Ballads was not exactly unprepared.

Robert Pearse Gillies: "I became a poet after a fashion, and this revolution was effected by a book which my instructor kindly gave me to read from his own stores, a bright new book, fresh from the press in those days, on which I still reflect with pleasure, namely Drake's Literary Hours. It became my favourite companion for years afterwards.... The author, it is true, exhibits no great originality nor strength of mind, but in every chapter, be it critical or imaginative, he sets to work, and perseveres, cheerfully, sincerely, and lovingly. I believe every author of whom this can be said, will gain favour with an attentive reader. It was this work, more than all others, which at that early age fixed my affections on literary pursuits, also on quiet and retirement as being thereto indispensable" Memoirs of a Literary Veteran (1851) 1:167-68.

James Edmund Congleton: "seemingly the last critical document devoted exclusively to the pastoral" Theories of Pastoral Poetry (1952) 143.




I sat me down to watch upon a bank
With ivy canopied, and interwove
With flaunting honey-suckle; and began,
Wrapt in a pleasing fit of melancholy,
To meditate my rural minstrelsy,
Till fancy had her fill.
MILTON.

O may the muse that loves to grieve,
Her strains into my breast instill,
Melodious as the bird of eve,
In Maro's lays that murmur still!
LANGHORNE.

In no species of poetry has imitation been carried on with greater servility than, in what is termed the Eclogue; yet it might readily be supposed that he who was alive to the beauties of rural imagery; who possessed a just taste in selecting the more striking and picturesque features of the objects around him, would find in the inexhaustible stores of nature ample materials for decoration, while incidents of sufficient simplicity and interest, neither too coarse on the one hand, nor too refined on the other, adapted to the country and tinged with national manners and customs, might with no great difficulty be drawn from fact, or arranged by the fancy of the poet. Such combinations, however, under the epithet of "pastoral," have not frequently occurred, owing, I conceive, to the mistaken idea that one peculiar form, style and manner, a tissue of hackneyed scenery and sentiment, cannot with propriety be deviated from. Under such a preposterous conception genius must expire, a languid monotony pervade every effort, and the incongruity of the imagery and incident excite nothing but contempt. Theocritus, the father of pastoral poetry, has done little more than paint the rich and romantic landscape of Sicily, the language and occupations of its rustic inhabitants; a beautiful and original picture and drawn from the very bosom of simplicity and truth; and had succeeding poets copied him in this respect, and, instead of absurdly introducing the costume and scenery of Sicily, given a faithful representation of their own climate and rural character, our pastorals would not be the insipid things we are now, in general, obliged to consider them, but accurate imitations of nature herself, sketched with a free and liberal pencil, and glowing with appropriate charms.

Unfortunately, however, for those few authors who possess some originality in pastoral composition, the professed critics in this department, with the exception of one or two, have exclusively and perversely dwelt and commented upon mere copyists, to the utter neglect of poets who might justly aspire to contest the palm of excellence with the grecian. In most of our dissertations on pastoral poetry, after due encomium on the merits of the Sicilian bard, few authors save Virgil, Spenser, Pope, Gay and Phillips are noticed, all, except the second, translators, imitators or parodists rather than original writers in this branch of poetry. If rural life no longer present us with shepherds singing and piping for a bowl or a crook, why persist, in violation of all probability, to introduce such characters? If pastoral cannot exist without them, let us cease to compose it, for to Theocritus these personages were objects of hourly observation, and the peasants of Sicily a kind of Improvisatori. I am persuaded, however, that simplicity in diction and sentiment, a happy choice of rural imagery, such incidents and circumstances as may even now occur in the country, with interlocutors equally removed from vulgarity or considerable refinement, are all that are essential to success. Upon this plan the celebrated GESNER has written his Idyllia, compositions which have secured him immorality and pieced him on a level with the Grecian. By many indeed, and upon no trifling grounds, be is preferred, having with much felicity assumed a medium between the rusticity of Theocritus, and the too refined and luxuriant imagination of Bion and Moschus, preserving at the same time the natural painting of the Sicilian, with the pathetic touches and exquisite sensibility of the contemporary bards.

One of the most harmonious and beautifully plaintive passages perhaps in the whole compass of Grecian poetry may be drawn from the Epitaph on Bion by Moschus; the comparison between vegetative and human life, which, though in some measure foreign to the purport of this paper, I cannot avoid indulging myself and my readers in quoting, with the addition of a couple of versions and one or two of the most happy imitations, they cannot fail of being acceptable to feeling and to taste [Greek passage omitted].

Though fade crisp anise, and the parsley's green,
And vivid mallows from the garden scene,
The balmy breath of spring their life renews,
And bids them flourish in their former hues!
But we, the great, the valiant, and the wise,
When once the seal of death has clos'd our eyes,
Lost in the hollow tomb obscure and deep,
Slumber, to wake no more, one long unbroken sleep!
POLWHELE.

The meanest herb we trample in the field,
Or in the garden nurture, when its leaf
At winter's touch is blasted, and its place
Forgotten, soon its vernal buds renews,
And from short slumber wakes to life again,
Man wakes no more! Man, valiant, glorious, wise,
When death once chills him sinks in sleep profound,
A long, unconscious, never ending sleep.
GISBORNE.

The same sentiment may be found in Catullus, Horace, Albinovanus, Spenser, &c. but none have equalled Doctors Jortin and Beattie, in imitating, and even improving on this pensive idea.

Hei mihi! lege rata sol occidit atque resurgit,
Lunaque mutatae reparat dispendia formae:
Sidera, purpurei telis extincta diei,
Rursus nocte vigent: humiles telluris alumni,
Graminis herba virens, et florum picta propago.
Quos crudelis hyems lethali tabe peredit;
Cum Zephyri vox blanda vocat, rediitque sereni
Temperies anni, redivivo e cespite surgunt.
Nos, Domini rerum! nos, magna et pulchra minati!
Cum breve ver vitz robustaque transiit aestas,
Deficimus: neque nos ordo revolubilis auras
Reddit in aetherias, tumult nec claustra resolvit.
JORTIN.

Ah why thus abandon'd to darkness and woe,
Why thus, lonely Philomel, flows thy sad strain
For spring shall return, and a lover bestow.
And thy bosom no trace of misfortune retain.
Yet, if pity inspire thee, ah cease not thy lay,
Mourn, sweetest Complainer, Man calls thee to mourn:
O sooth him, whose pleasures like thine pass away—
Full quickly they pass — but they never return.

Now gliding remote, on the verge of the sky,
The Moon half extinguish'd her crescent displays;
But lately I mark'd, when majestic on high
She shone, and the planets were lost in her blaze,
Roll on thou fair orb, and with gladness pursue
The path that conducts thee to splendor again.—
But Man's faded glory no change shall renew.
Ah fool! to exult in a glory so vain!

'Tis night, and the landscape is lovely no more;
I mourn, but, ye woodlands, I mourn not for you;
For morn is approaching, your charms to restore,
Perfum'd with fresh fragrance and glittering with dew.
Nor yet for the ravage of winter I mourn;
Kind Nature the embryo blossom will save.—
But when shall spring visit the mouldering urn!
O when shall it dawn on the night of the grave!
BEATTIE.

The beginning of the quotation from Jortin, and the two first stanzas from Dr. Beattie, are beautiful additions to the original idea. The lines of Beattie indeed flow with the most melancholy and musical expression, steal into the heart itself, and excite a train of pleasing though gloomy association.

Closing, however, this long digression, let us return to our subject, and here we may observe, that some time before the age of Spenser, a model of pastoral simplicity was given us in a beautiful poem entitled Harpalus, and which is introduced by Dr. Percy into his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Had Spenser attended more to the unaffected ease and natural expression of this fine old pastoral, he would not, I presume, have interwoven theology with his eclogues, nor chosen such a barbarous and vulgar jargon to convey the sentiments of his shepherds in. Few poets exceed Spenser in the brilliancy of his imagination, and there is a tender melancholy in his compositions which endears him to the reader, but elegant simplicity, so necessary in Bucolic poetry, was no characteristic of the author of the Fairy Queen. In every requisite for this province of his divine art, he has been much excelled by DRAYTON, whose Nymphidia, may be considered as one of the best specimens we have of the pastoral eclogue. The present age seems to have forgotten this once popular poet; an edition indeed has been published of his Heroical Epistles, but various other portions of his works, and more especially his Nymphidia, merit republication.

After the example of Tasso and Guarini, whose Aminta and Pastor Fido were highly distinguished in the literary world, FLETCHER wrote his Faithful Shepherdess, a piece that rivals, and, perhaps, excels the boasted productions of the Italian muse. Equally possessing the elegant simplicity which characterises the Aminta, it was at the same time a richer vein of wild and romantic imagery, and disdain those affected prettinesses which deform the drama of Guarini. This Arcadian Comedy of Fletcher's was held in high estimation by Milton; its frequent allusion, and with the finest effect, to the popular superstitions, caught the congenial spirit of our enthusiastic bard. The Sad Shepherd of Jonson likewise, Browne's Britannia's Pastorals and WARNER'S Albion's England may be mentioned as containing much pastoral description of the most genuine kind. Of the singular production of Warner, there is, I believe, no modern edition, yet few among our elder poets more deserve the attention of the lover of nature and rural simplicity. Some well-chosen extracts from this work are to be found in the collections of Percy and Headley, and his Argentile and Curan has been the mean of enriching our language with an admirable drama from the pen of Mason. Scott too, in describing his favorite village of Amwell, "where sleeps our bard by Fame forgotten" has offered a due tribute to his memory. Numerous passages estimable for their simple and pathetic beauty might be quoted from his volume; the following will convince the reader, that harmony of versification also, and a terseness and felicity of diction are among his excellences.

She casting down her bashful eyes
Stood senseless then a space,
Yet what her tongueless love adjourn'd
Was extant in her face.

With that she dasht her on the lips,
So dyed double red:
Hard was the heart that gave the blow
Soft were those lips that bled.

When in the holy land I pray'd
Even at the holy grave,
Forgive me God! a sigh for sin,
And three for love I gave.

Each spear that shall but cross thy helme,
Hath force to erase my heart:
But if thou bleed of that thy blood
My fainting soul hath part,
With thee I live with thee I die,
With thee I lose or gain.

Methinks I see how churlish loots
Estrange thy cheerful face,
Methinks thy gestures, talk and gait,
Have chang'd their wonted grace:
Methinks thy sometimes nimble limbs
With armour now are lame;
Methinks I see how scars deform
Where swords before did maim:
I see thee faint with summer's beat.
And droop with winter's cold.
Albion's England.

That pleasing little poem, The Fishermen of Theocritus, probably first suggested to Sannazarius the idea of writing piscatory eclogues who has been followed with much success by Phineas Fletcher and Brown. Whatever may be thought of the employment, as suited to the eclogue, of those who live on the sea-shore and subsist by catching the produce of the deep, it will readily be allowed that our rivers at least, fertilise the most rich and romantic parts of our island, and that they display to the fisher lingering upon their banks the most lovely scenery, such as mingling with the circumstances of his amusement, and the detail of appropriate incident, would furnish very delightful pictures, and in the genuine style of Bucolic poetry. Fletcher and Brown have in this manner rendered their eclogues truly interesting, and even Isaac Walton, though no poet, has in his Complete Angler introduced some inimitably drawn pastoral scenes; what can be more exquisite than the following description.

"Turn out of the way a little, good scholar, towards yonder high honey-suckle hedge; there we'll sit and sing, whilst this shower falls so gently upon the teeming earth, and gives yet sweeter smell to the lovely flowers that adorn these verdant meadows. Look, under the broad beech tree, I sat down, when I was last this way a fishing, and the birds in the adjoining grove seemed to have a friendly contention with an echo, whose dead voice seemed to live in a hollow tree, near to the brow of that primrose hill; there I sat viewing the silver streams glide silently towards their center, the tempestuous sea; yet sometimes opposed by rugged roots and pebble stones, which broke their waves and turned them into foam: and sometimes I beguiled time by viewing the harmless lambs, some leaping securely in the cool shade, whilst others sported themselves in the chearful sun; and saw others craving, comfort from the swollen udders of their bleating dams. As I thus sat, these and other sights had so fully possest my soul with content, that I thought, as the poet has happily express it,

I was for that time lifted above earth;

As I left this place and entered into the next field, a second pleasure entertained me; 'twas a handsome milk-maid, that had not yet attained so much age and wisdom as to load her mind with any fears of many things that will never be as too many men too often do; but she cast away all care and sang like a nightingale."

In the pastoral song and ballad the moderns, and particularly the Scotch and English, have greatly excelled; Rowe's despairing shepherd is the sweetest poem of the kind we have in England, and Shenstone's ballad in four parts, though not equal in merit to the former, has yet long and deservedly been a favorite with the public. In artless expression of passion, however, in truth of colouring, and navite of diction, nothing can rival the Scotch pastoral songs; they originated in a country abounding in a rich assemblage of rural images; "smooth and lofty hills," says Dr. Beattie, speaking of the southern provinces of Scotland, "covered with verdure; clear streams winding through long and beautiful vallies; trees produced without culture, here straggling or single, and there crowding into little groves and bowers; — with other circumstances peculiar to the districts I allude to, render them fit for pasturage, and favorable to romantic leisure and tender passions. Several of the old Scotch songs take their names from the rivulets, villages, and hills, adjoining to the Tweed near Melrose; a region distinguished by many charming varieties of rural scenery, and which, whether we consider the face of the country, or the genius of the people, may properly enough be termed the Arcadia of Scotland. And all these songs are sweetly and powerfully expressive of love and tenderness, and other emotions suited to the tranquility of pastoral life." Robene and Makyn, Ettric Banks, Eubuchts Marion, and several other scotch pieces, are striking proofs of the Doctor's assertion.

To rouse the imagination by the charms of novelty, several of our poets have transferred the eclogue to the vallies of Persia and the deserts of Arabia, to breathe the odors of Yemen, or revel mid the groves of Circassia. The life of the wandering Arab abounds with events which strike the fancy, and when clothed in the metaphorical and exuberant language of the east cannot fail to interest our curiosity and excite our feelings. Their independence, hospitality and love of poetry are beautiful features of their character, and form a strong contrast with the more luxurious and servile existence of the Persian. In Arabia itself nothing can be more opposed than the two districts which are known by the epithets of petrea and felix; a dreary and boundless waste of sand, without shade, shelter or water, scorched by the burning rays of the sun, and intersected by sharp and naked mountains, while, instead of refreshing breezes, breathe she most deadly vapours and whirlwinds and which rasing the sandy ocean threaten to overwhelm the affrighted caravan, are descriptive or the one part, while shady groves, green pastures, streams of pure water, fruits of the most delicious flavour, and air of the most balmy fragrance characterise the other. From the banks of the Tigris, from the deserts of Arabia, from the shaded plains of Georgia and Circassia has our inimitable COLLINS drawn his scenery and characters, and no eclogues of ancient or modern times, in pathetic beauty, in richness and wildness of description, in simplicity of sentiment and manners can justly be esteemed superior. His Hassan, or the Camel-Driver, is, I verily believe, one of the most tenderly sublime, most sweetly-descriptive poems in the cabinet of the Muses. The Solyman of Sir William Jones, and the Oriental Eclogues of Scott of Amwell, have also considerable merit; the former is an exquisite specimen of the Arabian eclogue, and the Serim and Li-Po of the latter have many picturesque touches, and much pleasing moral.

A poet of fine imagination, and great pathetic powers, has lately presented us with Botany-Bay Eclogues, a subject fruitful in novelty both of scenery and character; nor has he failed strongly to interest our feelings. In Elinor, the first of his four eclogues, he has more particularly availed himself of the peculiar features of the country; the following passage vividly paints the state of this yet savage land.

Welcome ye marshy heaths! ye pathless woods,
Where the rude native rests his wearied frame
Beneath the sheltering shade; where, when the storm,
As rough and bleak it rolls along the sky,
Benumbs his naked limbs, he flies to seer;
The dripping shelter. Welcome ye wild plains
Unbroken by the plough, undelv'd by hand
Of patient rustic; where for loving herds,
And for the music of the bleating flocks,
Alone is beard the kangaroo's sad note
Deepening in distance.
SOUTHEY.

Mrs. West too, in imitation of the pastoral ballad of Rowe and Shenstone, has given us some elegant productions; one, in which the superstition and imagery of the Scotish Highlands are introduced, has the merit of originality.

If what has been now observed, should induce the unprejudiced reader to reperuse the authors alluded to, he will probably be inclined to admit that, in pastoral poetry, Virgil, Spenser, Pope, Gay and Phillips must yield the palm to Tasso, Warner, Drayton and the two Fletchers, to Rowe, Ramsay, Shenstone, Gesner and Collins; yet most of our critics in this department have considered the former as the only genuine disciples of Theocritus, and have scarce deigned to mention any of the latter. Some indeed have noticed the Italians and the courtly Fontenelle, but none, except Blair, though treating professedly upon this subject, have applauded Gesner, and as to Warner and Drayton, save a few observations with regard to the latter from the elegant pen of Dr. Aikin, they have almost suffered oblivion. Virgil, excluding his first Bucolic, is a mere, though a very pleasing imitator, and whatever may be thought of Spenser, Pope has certainly nothing but his musical versification to recommend him. The purport of Gay seems to have been parody and burlesque, and Phillips, and I may here also add Lyttleton, though superior perhaps to Pope, have little or no originality. It is no wonder, therefore, that modern pastoral poetry should appear so despicable contrasted with the ancient, when our best and most original writers are unappealed to; when to quote Pope, Gay and Phillips, Warner, Drayton, Collins and Gesner are neglected. These four authors assuredly rescue modern pastoral and eclogue from the charge of insipidity. Not servilely treading in the footsteps of Theocritus and Virgil, they have chalked out and embellished with the most beautiful simplicity, paths of their own; their flowers are congenial to the soil, and display their tints with a brilliancy and fragrance which no sickly exotic can ever hope to emulate. To this remark the oriental eclogue may be opposed, but let it be observed that the manners still exist, and have all the freshness of living nature; the shepherds of Arabia are what they were a thousand years ago, and a well-drawn picture of their pastoral customs and country must be highly relished by the lovers of simple and independent life. In Warner and Drayton our own country manners, without exaggeration or much embellishment are naturally and correctly given, and in Gesner, the domestic affections, flowing from the bosom of more refined sensibility, and very picturesque description, are clothed in language of the utmost simplicity.

In pursuit of the idea started in the commencement of this sketch, that simplicity in diction and sentiment, a proper choice of rural imagery, such incidents and circumstances as may even now occur in the country, together with interlocutors equally removed from vulgarity, or considerable refinement, are, in the present state of society in Europe, all that can be requisite for the composition of the pastoral, I have ventured to append to these strictures a small poem [omitted], which though it may fall short of the precepts inculcated in the preceding essay, will yet, I trust, be tolerated by the reader, more especially when he shall recollect, that to lay down just critical rules, and to carry those rules into execution frequently require very different powers, and that the latter is incomparably the most difficult task.


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