1806
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[Note on Pope's Discourse on Pastoral Poetry.]

The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. In Prose and Verse, containing the principal Notes of Drs. Warburton and Warton. 10 Vols [William Lisle Bowles, ed.]

Rev. William Lisle Bowles


William Lisle Bowles's note faults Pope's Discourse on Pastoral (1717) on two counts. First, it is narrowly tailored to conform to his own practice, and therefore excludes Virgil's first eclogue on the grounds that it introduced a soldier, a character inappropriate to the golden age. In this Bowles had eighteenth-century practice on his side, since this was the most frequently imitated of all pastorals. Secondly, Pope and other critics are faulted for failing to appreciate what in ancient pastoral is most worthy of imitation: "We cannot help making an observation here, that in defining pastoral, critics in general should not have taken notice of one I think the most essential adjunct to this species of poetry; that is, the PICTURESQUE. Pastoral scenery is indeed required by all; we have a shepherd, a grove, and a river; but what is more strikingly picturesque is scarcely ever considered as essential." This observation also accords with eighteenth-century practice; since the 1750s description, which had formed a decidedly subordinate part of ancient pastoral, had begun to assume a primary role, so that descriptions in pastoral and georgic poems had become largely indistinguishable. Bowles's preference for Theocritus over Virgil is typical of the Warton school.

Edinburgh Review: "We have certainly been disappointed in Mr. Bowles's edition of Pope, which exhibits neither the industry of a commentator, nor the elegance of a poetical critic. There may be a few good remarks, but we sincerely think they are very few: if we were to select one for praise, it should be his general criticism on the Rape of the Lock. Upon the whole, we recommend to this gentleman to abstain from prose, and to think rhyme quite as indispensable to his appearance in publlic, as a bag and sword are at court 11 (January 1808) 411.




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.

En quis consevimus agros?
Barbarus haec tam CULTA NOVALIA miles habebit?
Barbarus HAS SEGETUS?

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.

We cannot help making an observation here, that in defining pastoral, critics in general should not have taken notice of one I think the most essential adjunct to this species of poetry; that is, the PICTURESQUE. Pastoral scenery is indeed required by all; we have a shepherd, a grove, and a river; but what is more strikingly picturesque is scarcely ever considered as essential.

Let us look at the great Father of the Pastoral: in what does he excel all others? "In simplicity and nature," I admit with Pope; but more particularly in one circumstance, which seems to have escaped general attention, and that circumstance is the PICTURESQUE.

Pope says, he is too long in his descriptions, particularly of the Pastoral Cup, Idyl I. Was not Pope a professed admirer of painting, aware that the description of that Cup touches of the most delightful and highly finished landscape? The old fisherman, and the broken rock, in one scene; in another, the beautiful contrast of the little boy weaving his rush-work, and so intent on it, that he forgets the vineyard he was set to guard; we see him in the fore-ground of the piece: then there is his scrip and the fox eyeing it askance; the ripe and purple vineyard, and the other fox treading down the grapes, whilst he continues at his work: and, as is beautifully express'd [Greek characters] Idyll. I. line 54.

Add to these circumstances the wild and beautiful Sicilian scenery; and where can there be found more perfect landscapes in Gainsborough? Considered in this view, how rich, and wild, and various, are the landscapes of the old Sicilian! and we cannot but wonder that so many striking and original traits should be passed over by a "youthful bard," who professed to select from, and to copy, the ancients.


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