“Small pleasures must correct great tragedies”
V. Sackville-West, The Garden, 1946
It has not been long since I first decided to devote (at least) three years of my life to the study of pastoral poetry. I remember that I was reading The Land (1926), the delightful – and often disregarded – poem by Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962) when I started pondering what was so intriguing about the rural world, which she described so elegantly through her verses.
In my hand was a 1928 reprint of the original, a yellow stained booklet that smelled like a mixture of camphor and tobacco. The perfect condition for a book of pastoral poems, I thought, considering the démodé aura that often accompanies this subject in and out of academia. Barrell and Bull have put it quite clearly in the preface of their seminal pastoral poetry anthology: the pastoral primarily works “to decorate the shelves of tasteful cottages [and] to furnish nostalgia” (Barrell & Bull 1974, 432).
Often referred to as bucolic and idealized, the pastoral has also usually been associated with the idea of enhancing pleasant feelings, inspiring quietness and ensuring tranquility in its readers. This conviction is so rooted in Western culture that the notion of the pastoral locus amoenus, the pleasant place par excellence, has made the concept of the ‘environment’ overlap with the visual legacy of a golden (c)age pastoral idyll. The result is evident in the fact that thinking of ‘nature’ as a pristine, virgin natural landscape still dominates the contemporary ‘environmental imagination’, as Lawrence Buell would say. Alan Ruff has effectively expressed the sense of innate familiarity of the Western world with the pastoral traditional landscape by saying that it seems as if “we have all dwelt in Arcadia” (Ruff 2015, 1). This awareness not only contributes to highlighting the extent of this idea in our culture, but it should also become, I suggest, a warning about the necessity of approaching such a perpetuating narrative in a more critical way, especially when we live in a time called the Anthropocene.
Since I delved into the reading phase of my PhD, I soon realized that the pastoral was much more than sheep and shepherds. Likewise, my escapist perspectives towards a peaceful, Edenic universe inhabited by herds grazing in boundless meadows abruptly shifted when I understood how early ecocritics had tackled this topic. By sweeping away the widespread idea of the pastoral as a (mere) nostalgic retreat to an idealized natural setting, the “mature environmental aesthetics” (Buell 1995, 32) that appeared in the 90s promoted a revisionist stance (Clark 2011, xiii) which, hand-in-hand with a critical reconceptualization of ‘nature’ as a complex, intricate net of human and nonhuman entities, has led the pastoral to be regarded along a similar trajectory. Taking a famous line from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I would say that that was the very moment when “everything began to change” (1964, 9) in pastoral theory. Not only have notions such as the human-nonhuman continuum (Massumi 2002), intra-action (Barad 2007), and mesh (Morton 2010) led the pastoral to become a fertile terrain from which to dig up valuable considerations about the human-nonhuman relationship; but the hermeneutical complexity advocated by the Environmental Humanities has also contributed to eroding the equation of the pastoral with “any literature that describes the country with an implicit or explicit contrast to the urban” (Gifford 1999, 2).
The shift in my perspective about the pastoral naturally allowed for an evolution in the way I approached Sackville-West’s poem. Suddenly, from the seductive verses that had titillated my escapist impulses, an array of surprising narratives started exploding from the text, which transferred my attention from the fashion of pastoral clichés, to the issues of human and nonhuman relationality that they entail. The overlooked classical poem, which caused the writer to be remembered primarily as a traditionalist, conservative author, suddenly became visible as the intersection of multiple discourses populating current ecocritical scholarship: in her verses, there are not only flocks and shepherds, but also the features of their entanglement; not only the sentimental celebration of plants and flowers, but also references to how these entities interact with the human, among many other ‘but also(s)’ that offer to this poem fresh flavor. In alignment with what Gifford described when he introduced the notion of “post-pastoral”, my perspective had departed “beyond the closed circuit of pastoral and antipastoral to achieve a vision of an integrated natural world that includes the human” (1999, 148).
And then came that moment, a mix of epiphany and frustration, when young scholars realize that their brilliant ideas are, in fact, not that brilliant – or original – considering that an array of critics have already developed similar considerations in the field of pastoral theory. In the last three decades, a number of publications on the pastoral have sealed a point of no return in this scholarship. Neologisms including ‘toxic pastoral’ (Farrier 2014), ‘necropastoral’ (McSweeney 2015), and ‘dark pastoral’ (Sullivan 2017) have transformed the subject into an effective navigation tool for exploring human-nonhuman entanglement in the many pastoral manifestations that Western culture presents. Instead of conceiving widespread interest as a negative aspect, one should reflect on how it represents further proof of the relevance of the topic in today’s world: the time has come to pull our pastoral poetry books off the shelves of our cottages, dust off their covers, and read – and re-read – them again, while shedding light on how they can contribute to tackling the challenges of our epoch. That, I think, is what it is (also) like to study pastoral today.
The idea that the pastoral represents “a species of cultural equipment that western thought has for more than two millennia been unable to do without” (Buell 1995, 32) helps us understand the extent of this subject over time, as well as the importance of regarding the pastoral as an ongoing cultural narrative in need of ever-renewing critical perspectives. And while its gradual resurfacing in critical theory during the last years has gone hand in hand with its reappearing on the shelves of our stores (Corey and Waldrep 2012), many other new versions of pastoral are visible in a variety of cultural contexts, including advertisements, movies, videogames, and even blogs, as the title Arcadiana reveals.
Hence, one can conclude that not only “have [we] all dwelt in Arcadia” (Ruff 2015, 1), but also that Arcadia is still here, and together with us it has entered the Anthropocene. Here we go again, after more than two millennia, relying on such ancestral imagery to reflect on our relationship with the environment. Perhaps Vita Sackville-West was aware of this when, during WWII, she first drafted the opening of her celebrated poems in The Garden (1946): “Small pleasures must correct great tragedies”, a line that, in 2020, reveals some unexpected ecocritical, modern vibes that resonate with the urgencies of current ecological – among many others – crises.
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Barrell, John and John Bull. The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse. Middlesex, England; New York: Penguin Books, 1982 .
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham. Duke University Press Books, 2009.
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University PressHarvard University Press, 1995.
—. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring, Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1964.
Clark, Timothy. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Corey, Joshua, and G. C. Waldrep. The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. Boise, Idaho: Ahsahta Press, 2012.
Farrier, David. “Toxic Pastoral: Comic Failure and Ironic Nostalgia in Contemporary British Environmental Theater.” Journal of Ecocriticism, 6.2, 2014, pp. 1-15.
Gifford, Terry. Pastoral, London: Routledge, 1999.
Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movenment, Affect, Sensation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
McSweeney, Joyelle. The Necropastoral. Poetry, Media, Occults, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015.
Ruff, Allan R. Arcadian Visions: Pastoral Influences on Poetry, Painting and the Design of Landscape, Oxford: Windgather Press, 2015.
Sackville-West, Vita. The Land. London: W. Heinemann, 1926.
—., The Garden. London: Michael Joseph, 1946.
Sullivan, Heather I. (2014). “Dirty traffic and the dark pastoral in the Anthropocene: Narrating refugees, deforestation, radiation, and melting ice”. Literatur für Leser, 14, 83-97. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang.
Author: Stefano Rozzoni is a PhD Candidate in “Transcultural Studies in Humanities” at the University of Bergamo, Italy, in cotutelle with Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, Germany, where he is a member of the International PhD Programme “Literary and Cultural Studies”, and an affiliate member of the European doctoral program PhdNet. He is also a member of the Research Group “Oikos. Ecology and the Study of Culture” at the Graduate Center for the Study of Culture (GCSC) in Gießen. His research interests focus on Ecocriticism, Posthuman Studies, English Modernism, Virginia Woolf, and pastoral poetry. His dissertation project proposes an ecocritical reading of English Georgian pastoral poetry (1911-1926) for a critical reevaluation of this trend.