The pastoral, (defined broadly) is a poetic genre that involves some treatment of rural life. We can get more specific, though when one does this one tends to exclude some poems that belong loosely to the genre, like Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” (which could as easily be called a sport poem, if such a genre existed [“Casey at the Bat” might be another candidate, but I can’t think of many others]. To wit, from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics:
The pastoral is a fictionalized imitation of rural life, usually the life of an imaginary Golden Age, in which the loves of shepherds and shepherdesses play a prominent part; its ends are sometimes sentimental and romantic, but sometimes satirical or political.
This definition is likely unsatisfactory to you, since we can probably all think of poems that deal with the various virtues of hard work and outdoorsiness, and therefore participate in the grand effort to represent the natural landscape within poetry, except perhaps without so many shepherds. Still, as I’ve said about genre before, any new revision of an ancient genre is still hearkening back to classical forms, and much of their effect is dependent on your deepening understanding of the genre as you read them.
The Pastoral is an ancient genre dating back to classical literature; the Roman poet Vergil popularized a few forms of pastoral (bucolics are the group term for classical pastorals, but Eclogues and Georgics are the two Vergilian subtypes that are important here: the eclogue seeks to use natural scenery to create a moral lesson or revelation, while the Georgic is a didactic poem that uses the rustic simplicity of country life [especially the virtue and dignity of honest toil] to exhort the reader to better living). And on a personal note I have to say, even the briefest encounter with American politics shows that the sorts of associations that Vergil wished to sponsor between farmers and virtuousness are still alive in our republic: any truck commercial on tv, for example, is basically selling male viewers the image of tough, rustic, uncomplicated toil in an attempt to get them to buy in, not just to the dodge ram as a tool to haul heavy things about, but to an image of masculine heternormativity. You and I may be able to acknowledge that not every farmer we meet is going to be a paragon of virtue and kindness: they’re actually just as likely to be bigots or zealots as the next person, and they may even have a higher probability to be closed-minded, provincial, or intolerant because of their isolation than the citified city-folk, who actually have to deal with other people rather than work with their hands in isolation.
But the power of the pastoral as a moral representation of certain character types derives from the proximity of the worker to the land. The land confides no virtue to the laborer who works it, but those of us who feel alienated from the landscape as a vital source of sustenance and meaning can’t help but look at natural representations with a sense of longing and indebtedness.
There is usually a locus amoenus (or happy place, a modular pastoral topos found in all genres, from the forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It to the Bower of Bliss in Spenser’s Faerie Queen to the city of El Dorado in Voltaire’s Candide to the bramble patch in Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. It arises, unheralded, seemingly out of nowhere, promises perfect safety to all who enter, but is a place one cannot stay in for long. Classical pastorals called this place Arcadia (the Latin version of the Greeks’ Elysian Fields); in the Christian era we call them Edenic.
Even so, there is an equally strong tradition dating back to antiquity to place a reminder of ephemerality and death within the locus amoenus: think of the creepy tree where Luke Skywalker fights a phantom Darth in the otherwise peaceful Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back.
We call this a memento mori (a reminder of death), and it’s a literalized move in several paintings from the 17th century. Several Renaissance and Mannerist paintings take the old skull-in-paradise chestnut and put them to memorable effect, usually with titles that resemble “Et in Arcadia ego.” The most often cited of these is a series of memento mori paintings by Nicholas Poussin in the early 1630s; but my favorite is this one by Guercino, circa the early 1600s:
Tastes in the pastoral have changed over time, as they should. The pastoral of Alexander Pope’s “Windsor Forest,” for example, delights not in the beauty of the landscape, but in the ways that human beings have brought order to the chaos of natural things:
Not Chaos like together crush’d and bruis’d,
But as the world, harmoniously confus’d:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, tho’ all things differ, all agree. (ll. 13-16)
If you’ve ever visited a mansion constructed during the eighteenth century, you will doubtless have just pictured a perfectly symmetrical garden, like those that can still be seen at James Madison’s house, Montpelier, or at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Montpelier has a deist temple in it, which is to say, there’s a marble, circular platform with an arched domed roof supported by Doric columns (there’s a reason they called eighteenth century architecture “classical”) where Madison could stand and survey his land in 360-degree relief. So it’s not as though they were disconnected from the environment; but since it was all his land, and he got to tell his gardener how to shape the landscape, it’s not as though he desired to find himself in the middle of a raw, untamed scene. He liked order in variety.
The Romantics, the name for the group of nature poets of the early nineteenth century, like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and Shelley, reacted against Pope and the classicists in preferring that raw scene: they wanted direct communication between themselves and nature, if that’s even possible, and for some of them the apex of experience would be to find a vista that had never been seen before and to revel in the delight such a sight would render up to the viewer. This was, in other words, a preference for the unplanned, the fortuitous, the new, and the wild. The Romantics turned to the pastoral not to remind themselves of religious and moral lessons, but to experience unadulterated Nature, with a capital “N.” By the way, the American version of Romanticism is called transcendentalism, and some of you may have read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” which also advises everyone to go out and experience nature on nature’s terms, rather than to go out and garden. I admit I’m pretty sympathetic to this view of nature (which ceases to ask how we can best exploit natural resources, and instead spends more energy on respecting what the universe has to show us). But there should be a few qualifications, which the Moderns (and we are moderns) had to bring to the table: that the experience of nature needs to be tempered with humility, or else you risk enjoying nature not for nature’s sake, but out of egotism. You’ll remember Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” in which the speaker unexpectedly stumbles onto a field full of daffodils (Great!); but the daffodils don’t really get much description or play on their own terms: the poem is really more about how awesome it was to find the daffodils, and therefore how great Wordsworth’s speaker is, than it is about the awesomeness of daffodils. We could easily have replaced daffodils with another type of flower (maybe even “flour”) and Wordsworth might still have been as tickled with himself. This is the critique of Romantic egomania I see Frost depicting in “The Most of It,” for example.
Modern pastorals do not flinch from portraying modern landscapes, fraught though they may be with vulnerability and decay thanks to the onrush of technology and modernity. But even so, one cannot speak within a poetic genre without also sounding all of one’s forebears at the same time, and even by distinguishing a poetic setting like that of Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” from classical landscapes, such poems still evoke loci amoenus and mementos mori. The urge to read them as though they are bucolic is simply too strong. But consider: modern poets like Rosenberg, Robert Frost, and A. E. Housman know that you have that urge, and are probably playing around with it.
One last thing: strict pastorals have entered a decline after the early nineteenth century; Wordsworth’s “Michael” is probably the last major representative of the genre in English, although that doesn’t mean poets weren’t still experimenting with it (Yeats’s first two published poems, in 1889, were “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” who is indeed very happy, and “The Sad Shepherd,” who is too depressed to sing anything). Partly this is due to the success with which the treatment of pastoral subjects had been modernized (no longer requiring rustic shepherds) and the thoroughness with which the urban landscape had become the dominant setting for poetic audiences. Another influence was the growing abhorrence of what the Victorian art critic John Ruskin called the “pathetic fallacy”: the idea that it was fallacious to project one’s emotional or psychological state onto the landscape, thereby attempting to externalize and somehow universalize that state.
The difference between modern pastorals and the Pastorals of the Romantic period and its predecessors is that, although readers of all examples of the genre might expect the poem to arrive at some moral or universal truth as illustrated in a natural setting, the modern examples do so through an individually depicted consciousness that may or may not be correct about the didactic lesson he or she draws from an adventure with nature. The attempt is to depict the mind making sense of things, not to state baldly that this is what Nature, in fact, means. Modern pastorals make their didactic tropes ironic, in other words; they also tend to make the locus amoenus particularly ephemeral, or perhaps no great shakes to begin with (we can debate this with “Break of Day in the Trenches,” but there it is). They tend to take death seriously, however: modern warfare is particularly horrific.