What is Pastoral?

Note:  This post is based on a free-form article that I wrote previously for another class I was teaching.  I’ve adapted it a little to fit our discussion of the National Parks.


Nicolas Poussin – Et in Arcadia Ego (1647)

In addition to wilderness, wonder, and picturesque, one of the tropes we’ll talk about in class next week that shapes the way we think about the national parks is the literary pastoral.  What is pastoral and why should people study it or have discussions about it?  The simple answer to this question is that pastoral has a great deal to do with how Europeans and later Americans formed ideas about living in the world.

In Ecocriticism, Greg Garrad writes of pastoral that “No other trope is so deeply entrenched in Western culture, or so deeply problematic for environmentalism.”  Pastoral influences many aspects of our culture, so in this class on the National Parks and the American imagination, we will try to understand the flexibility and purposes of pastoral representations in literature and art as thoroughly as possible.

On the most fundamental level, pastoral is a literary convention.  It is a highly stylized poetic form about shepherds, otium (restful contemplation as opposed to hard work), the simplicity of bucolic life, and retreat from the complexity of urban life.  For poets following in the wake of Virgil and other classical precursors, pastoral is the first step in a poetic career that was to culminate with the completion of an epic.  In this sense, it’s a low, humble poetic form that prefaces a move toward the “middle” stage of georgic and eventually the advanced stage of epic.

Pastoral:  An Attitude Toward Life

Pastoral is also  a mood, or an attitude toward life, that extends beyond poems about sheep and shepherds.   Pastoral describes in many ways an attachment to nature (one that, yet again, stands in contrast to urban life).  It can be the base assumption that the natural world is refreshing, or at least better than the strife and confinement of the civilized world.  It can be the desire to recoil from adult responsibilities and light out for the territory on an adventure quest.  Or it can be a basic thought mechanism that puts the complex into the simple (as William Empson phrases it).

green worksPastoral is a fundamental element of the human experience, for it is the expression of a deep attachment to nature that all humans share.  Yet, the pastoral ideal is not uniform or simple, and it can even be co-opted in ways that are not necessarily “eco friendly.”   For instance, Clorox markets a line of “Green Works” natural all-purpose cleaning products.  When I first saw an advertisement in an issue of Yoga Journal, the bottle blended in with a verdant, Edenic backdrop, as if the product itself were an outgrowth of nature.  We can safely say that Clorox is exploiting the pastoral impulse held by consumers to arrive at a paradoxical reconciliation:  that consuming yet another product somehow brings us back to nature.

Another good example is the recent obsession over “clean coal technology” that has enamored politicians and constituents alike.  The desire for energy companies and other industries that benefit from cheap electricity is that we continue to extract and burn coal without further worsening the greenhouse gas emission problem.  There’s an uncritical faith that we will be able to produce enough coal that burns cleanly and allows us to continue living as if coal extraction affects no one.

There’s a wealth of pastoral ideology in the above 30 second promotional spot by America’s Energy.  “Throughout history, new ideas have often been met with skepticism,” the ad tells us.  “But technology borne from American ingenuity can achieve amazing things,” the ad continues.  We see brief flashes of scientists peering over a computer, and a small patch of green sod rests next to the monitor.  The ad anticipates a future in which “our most abundant energy, coal” will be burned “with even lower emissions.”  The pastoral desire displayed here inscribes a lot of emotions.  We feel sorry that we’ve released excessive greenhouse gas emissions, yet we also hope that we can engineer our way out of the mess we’re in by finding cleaner, more natural, ways of reaping nature’s abundance.  Herein lies the pastoral dynamic:  it is a thought process that evades, or appears to evade, contradictions and takes complex problems and reduces them to simple solutions.

The reality is that many people associate these complex cultural desires with the National Parks, or getting “away” into nature in general.  Consider this video from the Discovery Channel’s “How Stuff Works.” It depicts a group of men out on a fishing trip.  One confesses that the point of fishing is not to catch fish, but rather to “get away from the hustle and bustle and the work.”  The video proceeds to describe the advances that will make clean coal technology possible, yet neither this piece, sponsored by Hitachi, nor the America’s Energy spot, grapples with the very unnatural effects of mountain top removal and mass coal extraction that drives the American coal industry.  We would like to believe that clean coal technology is possible, even a natural fuel alternative, but it’s just not possible.

Et in Arcadia Ego

Et in Arcadia Ego is an old Latin phrase that has been translated many different ways.  It is the title of Poussin’s painting (see above).  Most likely, it means something like, “even here in the garden there is death.”  This ambivalence that is associated with pastoral and how that applies to the national parks will be one of the main points of focus this semester.  Pastoral imagery crops up over and over in the paintings we’ll look at, and it inflects many attitudes that people espouse when they think about the national parks in general.  Like wilderness, pastoral is neither a “good” or a “bad” trope in terms of the environment.  It’s just complex.


4 thoughts on “What is Pastoral?

    • Very interesting! Many people like to market Montevallo as a beautiful, scenic campus that is on par with our great, elite institutions of higher learning in the Northeast. And colleges have long been depicted as “green pastures” in the pastoral tradition. I’m thinking of Milton’s “Lycidas,” who describes his friend Edward King, whom he studied with at Cambridge, as a lamb who was “nurst from that self-same hill.”

      But what if we think about pastoral as a worldview or a lived experience that tries to reduce the complex into the simple. Shouldn’t college be a space and a time to expand the complexities of the world and think about things are stretch us (and maybe are troubling?) This is one of the many instances where the internal contradictions of the pastoral are inscribed by the ideal of peace and serenity itself. I know that when I think back to my college days, I want to think about sitting out by the pond at night, reading Wordsworth and taking in the beauty of nature.

  1. Well, since it’s an Admissions webpage, perhaps they are using these pastoral images as marketing ploys to calm and soothe nervous high schoolers and parents. College can’t be that scarey- look at the beatific pictures.

  2. thinking about the “green works” cleaners, i don’t think i ever made the connection between the natural all-purpose cleaning products and national parks, even if i did understand that the products were appealing to an eco-friendly environment. but that makes sense. why else would we be developing these natural cleaning products and creating the type of advertisement that advocates the conservation of the earth (other than the fact that it has become somewhat of a “trend” per se)? the idea could totally be geared towards the preservation of national parks, and yet, somehow the thought just passed me by.

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