Pastoral Poetry Form: Reconnect With Nature

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Here’s what the Pastoral poetry form is:

Pastoral poems are known for romanticizing idyllic country life and exploring man’s relationship with nature.

A pastoral poem expresses one’s desire or fantasy to enjoy a more peaceful life in the countryside.

So if you want to learn all about the Pastoral poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s get started!

Pastoral Poem Type: Simply Explained

Types of Poetry: The Pastoral

Young woman holding wild flowers, enjoying the farm life.

Pastorals are a bit unique amidst poetry terms.

They’re not quite a genre and they certainly don’t have a predefined form.

As such, we can’t plant this term firmly among our haikus and villanelles, nor can we equate it to classifications like Gothic or Post-Modern.

It would be more accurate to call pastorals a type or a mode of writing, though subgenre might also be a fair way to think of them.

The first feature of a pastoral that stands out is its commitment to specific themes, notably rural life and man’s relationship with nature.

The tone, mood, and theme all intermingle to create something reminiscent of a form that is really its own entity entirely.

Basic Properties of Pastoral

Cup of coffee with flower and blank notebook on wooden table
Rhyme StructureVaries
OriginAncient Greece
PopularityRemains to be common even today
ThemeRural life and relationship with nature

What Are the Key Features of a Pastoral?

A pastoral typically examines life in the countryside, usually through an idealized lens.

If the poem feels like it’s looking at the life of a shepherd or farmer through rose-tinted glasses, then you could safely call it pastoral.

Notably, pastorals have traditionally looked specifically at the life of shepherds.

The term has broadened as more poets tackle the topics, so it’s more accurate now to think of pastorals as literature’s answer to songs like “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The tone is typically humble and relaxed, perhaps even to the point of reverence.

A defining point of pastorals is that they tend to examine man as belonging to nature and they typically glorify rural life as the ‘natural’ or ‘ideal’ way for a person to live.

Pastorals do not have a specific form or structure associated with them.

In fact, the term itself isn’t exclusive to poetry.

A short story, a play, or even a movie could be considered a pastoral work if it presents the tone and theme that is generally expected of these bodies of work.

You could think of this as similar, in some respects, to subgenres like ‘cowboy movies’ or ‘seafaring adventures.’

While pastorals are too specific and too much of niche interest to be considered a full genre in their own right, the topic is common enough that it is ingrained in human culture at this point.

A common subtheme of pastorals is the idea that humanity should go back to nature, shunning the crowded and stressful aspects of urban life.

This idea that country life is better and more natural than city life has been around at least as far back as ancient Greece.

History of Pastorals

It’s hard to nail the exact moment that a poet first put to words the feelings he or she had for living an honest rural life.

It certainly goes at least as far back as ancient Greece, with poets like Hesiod and Ovid, and likely debuted not long after civilizations started building cities.

The Greek pastorals idealized shepherding, specifically.

This was a position synonymous with humility and nature, so it’s only natural that it would come to mind.

In Rome, Virgil introduced the fictional land of Arcadia.

This utopia continues to feature as a popular reference in pastoral literature to the present day and even in other works of literature where it’s simply used to name fantastical lands.

The pastoral enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the late Middle Ages and the beginnings of the Early Modern Era.

From the Italian Petrarch to the French Marot to the English Sir Walter Raleigh, the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries featured many poets who relished their chance at the popular theme.

One of the most important works from this era of pastorals is certainly Paradise Lost, by John Milton, published in 1667.

This particular work is noteworthy in that it is both a pastoral and an epic poem, an incredibly rare form that has all but died out in the modern era.

Pastorals continue to experience some mild fluctuations in popularity to this day and their influence remains relevant to various art forms ranging from music to theater.

While they’ve moved away from their roots as poetry about shepherds, the general idealization of rural living and polite distaste for city life remains at the root of the subgenre.

Example of a Pastoral Poem

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

The above example showcases a fusion of the pastoral poem and a broader genre, romance.

This was chosen on purpose to exemplify what you can potentially do by combining pastorals, which are more of a subgenre, with other genres (in this case a love poem).

While pastorals do not have any hard rules, this one does hit all the notes you would expect.

The shepherd makes for a fitting protagonist and his love for nature permeates the entirety of the poem.

You could easily argue that this is as much a proposal to the countryside itself as it is to his beloved.

Much of the poem is spent fantasizing about all the things he can do for her using bits of nature.

The “cap of flowers” and “gown made of the finest wool” are both examples of the speaker idealizing all the little joys that a natural life can provide for them.

Notably, the rural setting is established immediately in the opening stanza.

The poet’s decision to introduce the “groves, hills, and fields” in the opening lines of the poem is no coincidence.

This establishes in the reader’s mind that the countryside is a point of priority, something worth mentioning right away.

Tips for Writing a Pastoral

The first thing to realize is that you have no obligation to any form or structure when producing a pastoral.

It doesn’t even have to be a poem if you find yourself leaning toward a screenplay or a short story instead.

Instead, simply focus on the details.

Remember that pastoral lives and dies by how well you breathe life into the setting.

The clean country air, beautiful colors of an open sky, and a connection to the lands and nature are all great places to start.

A pastoral lives not in the phonetic techniques or the rhyme scheme, but in the details and the imagery.

Focus on producing the most beautiful countryside vista your words can muster, painting it in a haze of golds and browns and pastel hues.

Embrace what it means to live with nature, depending upon it for sustenance and responding with gratitude.

Pastoral work is a chance to commune with your love of rural living through your art.

They’re certainly not for everybody and you should always stick to the topics that feel best to you but writing a pastoral can be a pleasant self-affirming experience for a poet.

Most importantly: Relax.

Pastorals do not typically try to be accusative and they do not stand proudly on a soapbox to renounce all other ways of living with animosity.

The tradition is to approach the topic with a sense of humility and loving care, just the same way a shepherd would tend to his flock.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

So if pastorals are routinely about shepherds, what are we supposed to call poems about pastors? Shepherdals?

Pastoral and pastor actually do come from the same Latin root word, though, so at least there’s a logical explanation for this one.

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