chapter  3
29 Pages

Pastoral

Since the Romantic movement’s poetic responses to the Industrial Revolution, pastoral has decisively shaped our constructions of nature. Even the science of ecology may have been shaped by pastoral in its early stages of development and we have seen that the founding text of ecocriticism, Silent Spring, drew on the pastoral tradition. No other trope is so deeply entrenched in Western culture, or so deeply problematic for environmentalism. With its roots in the classical period, pastoral has shown itself to be infinitely malleable for differing political ends, and potentially harmful in its tensions and evasions. However, its long history and cultural ubiquity mean that the pastoral trope must and will remain a key concern for ecocritics. What then is this ‘pastoral’ tradition, and what is its significance

for environmentalism? Terry Gifford distinguishes three kinds of pastoral: the specifically literary tradition, involving a retreat from the city to the countryside, that originates in ancient Alexandria and becomes a key poetic form in Europe during the Renaissance; more generally, ‘any literature that describes the country with an implicit or explicit contrast to the urban’ (1999: 2); and the pejorative sense in which ‘pastoral’ implies an idealisation of rural

life that obscures the realities of labour and hardship. This chapter will explore these three manifestations of the trope. The first of Gifford’s ‘kinds’ I will call ‘classical pastoral’, which

I take to include all pastoral literature up until the eighteenth century. Classical pastoral precedes the perception of a general crisis in human ecology by thousands of years, but it provides the pre-existing set of literary conventions and cultural assumptions that have been crucially transformed to provide a way for Europeans and Euro-Americans to construct their landscapes. Gifford’s contrast of country and city comes to the fore in Romantic pastoral, at a time when mass urbanisation made these contrasts relevant to many more people than ever before. The later popularisation of Romantic poetry has provided the language, imagery and even locations for the subsequent generalisation of pastoral in such diverse cultural forms as the novel, TV or promotional materials for conservation organisations. Modern advertisements for wholewheat bread featuring idyllic, rolling fields of grain in the sunshine, populated by ruddy farmers and backed by classical music, would offer one example. Gifford’s third, pejorative sense of the word emerges especially in Marxist critiques of Romanticism, which provide a useful ground for contrast of this tradition in cultural criticism with ecocriticism. Some ecocritics claim, for instance, that the emergent environmental sensibility of Romantic pastoral suggests a kind of radicalism not recognised by anthropocentric political critics. Derivations from the Romantic model of course depend on the contexts in which they have developed, and American pastoral has followed its own distinct trajectory as a response to an environmental and social history very different from that of Britain. At the end of the chapter I discuss how ‘pastoral ecology’ promoted notions of nature’s essential harmony that are still prevalent in environmental discourse today.