chapter  2
Pages 40

The ancient city, by which I mean the cities of Greece and the Roman empire, provides English with whole series of value-laden terms, normally carrying positive connotations: ‘politic’, ‘politics’, ‘urbane’, ‘civil’, ‘civilization’ and ‘citizen’. Obviously, there is something of the medieval and the modern city within these words; they are not completely divorced from their more recent associations, but their Latin and Greek etymologies carry with them a hint of the Classical and the prioritization of the urban in that culture. The link between civilization and Classical or other urbanisms is deeply rooted within Western culture and so pervasive that many writers have been encouraged to subvert contemporary political and urban cultures by comparison with alternative rural worlds. Pastoral, resting on an evaluation of an often fictionalized, mythologized, past ruralism, habitually expresses a disquiet about contemporary life, a disquiet which normally centres on the city (Williams 1973). Cities can provide examples of all human virtues and vices and this behavioural richness makes cities both attractive and dangerous, generating in the literature of many periods an ambivalent view of urbanism, so that the city is often depicted as dysfunctional or terroristic or authoritarian, representing in different ways concerns about the uncontrollability of urban masses and the criminality of putative underworlds. In English literature, the pastoral tradition can be pushed back with reasonable confidence to the seventeenth century, though there are echoes of the distinctive themes of pastoral even earlier. Yet it was the industrial revolution, the economic backbone of modernism, which produced an urban civilization and those showing disquiet about this process almost inevitably turned to pastoral. Pastoral is, however, a modern reinvention of a Classical tradition stretching back at least to Theocritus in the third century BC. The pastoral of antiquity is no more of an unvarnished portrait of contemporary rural life than modern pastoral. It is the poetic equivalent of the monkish flight to the desert to escape the concerns of the world; the sophisticated writers of Greece and Rome, like their modern counterparts, found their sanctuary in imagined rural landscapes.