Victorian Literature Pastoral in Victorian Literature
Mark Frost
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0214


Victorian pastoral literature and culture represents a significant period of a long-standing tradition. In its many forms, it did not simply replicate existing pastoral tropes and conventions, but instead found new ways to use, adapt, and complicate them in order to reflect the complexities of a period of rapid, unprecedented change in the British countryside and in the United Kingdom as a whole. To understand the particularities of Victorian pastoral, it is necessary to firstly consider the tradition as a whole. Because there is no critical consensus about what pastoral is, it has been conceived in a range of ways that reflect its diversity, endurance, and significance within literature and wider culture. It has existed throughout literary history; is strongly evident across European, Middle Eastern, and modern Western cultures; and has gained a global footprint. While some conceive of pastoral narrowly as a poetic genre (originally centered on imagined singing contests and conversations within herding communities), others regard it as a broad cultural mode present in many forms and media. Narrowly conceived as genre, pastoral is an ancient, widespread poetic form, rivalling the epic in importance. Framed more broadly, it is at least as significant, consisting of an enduring but evolving suite of conceptual and representational tools; a set of attitudes and perspectives; and a means to articulate anxieties and aspirations about (1) human relationships with/attitudes to environment, (2) our place within modernity, and (3) human societies and social relations. Defined most broadly, pastoral encompasses all attempts to represent peopled environments, thus distinguishing it from the wilderness mode (which represents environments allegedly absent of humanity) and the apocalyptic mode (which represents the destruction of environments, societies, and worlds—and, in postapocalyptic forms, their aftermaths). Whatever approach pastoral scholars have taken, they repeatedly draw attention to two key structural oppositions: rural versus urban, and past versus present. Traditional, conservative forms of pastoral generally valorize the rural and/or the past, but these oppositions were complicated, challenged, or even overturned in more radical forms from the later eighteenth century. Other oppositions sometimes used to codify pastoral include nature versus art and the simple versus the complex. Pastoral’s earliest iterations created idealized versions of the countryside and/or charted the loss of idyllic environments: both impulses indicate pastoral’s urban roots. Ironically, pastoral, the form par excellence of country writing, became conceivable and necessary only because of the rise of city cultures. The pastoral is related to Georgic and Bucolic traditions (which can be seen as distinct from, or part of, a broader pastoral category), and is also divided into a number of subgeneric forms (idylls, elegies, Utopias, and anti-pastorals). Subsequent sections reflect these divisions. Pastoral has been reevaluated to reflect the socio-environmental contexts of every period, more recently becoming an important preoccupation within the environmental humanities, reflecting its ongoing relevance, and leading to attempts to create or classify new pastoral forms. In this article, Victorians engaged widely and productively with an inheritance of pastoral literature, drawing on older traditions in ways that often involved developing, challenging, and complicating them.

General Critical Overviews

Victorian pastoral can be more thoroughly appreciated, and its distinctiveness better situated, by considering its broader generic and modal forms and its historical antecedents. This section offers examples of key introductory works on pastoral. They represent some of the most significant and/or influential critical interventions, indicating the long-standing scholarly preoccupation with this significant field of literature and culture. Early-20th-century criticism is represented in Greg 1906 and Empson 1995, and a productive period of work in the 1970s is represented in Marinelli 1971, Squires 1975, and Williams 1985. Alpers 1996, Garber 1988, and James and Tew 2009 represent a growing resistance to defining pastoral in purely generic terms that began to gain ground in the 1980s, while more recent works, such as Garrard 2023, Gifford 1999, and James and Tew 2009, build on these insights while also illustrating the ways in which ecocriticism has turned to pastoral to inform its wider engagements with literature and environment.

  • Alpers, Paul. What Is Pastoral? Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226015231.001.0001

    Rejecting a narrow classification of pastoral as idyllic Classical and Renaissance poetry, Alpers argues that it is not simply an idyllic form or a nostalgic vehicle, but a complex mode enabling engagement with the problems of human communities. Chapter 7 traces Wordsworth’s influence on Victorian poetry. Chapter 9 turns to pastoral novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Alfred Lord Tennyson feature prominently.

  • Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. Edited by Lisa A. Rodensky. London: Penguin, 1995.

    Originally published in 1935, Empson’s original account resists situating pastoral as a purely poetic genre. He rejects the notion that pastoral ceased in the 1700s, tracing reinventions in various modern forms. Empson defines pastoral’s subject as representations of (but not by) ordinary people and its practice as “putting the complex into the simple” (p. 25). The former observation opens up radical social critiques of pastoral subsequently pursued by others, but the latter claim obscures the perhaps more fundamental grounding of pastoral in contrasts between urban/rural and present/past.

  • Garber, Frederick. “Pastoral Spaces.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30 (1988): 431–460.

    Foregrounding pastoral’s complexity and the diversity of its forms and styles, Garber suggests that it cannot be defined as form or genre, and painstakingly argues for reading pastoral as an evolving mode. He reviews prior pastoral criticism to argue that spaces are key to the genre: the “space” of pastoral composition involves an idyllic surface and a “subtext” that undermines it, drawing attention to “deprivation and irremediable loss” (p. 440).

  • Garrard, Greg. “Pastoral.” In Ecocriticism. 3d ed. By Greg Garrard, 40–64. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2023.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781003174011-3

    This is among the most eloquent and useful overviews, emphasizing the range of forms; the importance of key pastoral contrasts; and the enduring, evolving nature of pastoral modes throughout literary history. Garrard highlights Anthropocene, global, and postcolonial contexts, and argues for pastoral’s usefulness as an ecocritical tool that can be applied to literature of all periods.

  • Gifford, Terry. Pastoral. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1999.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203003961

    Reflecting the rise of first- and second-wave ecocriticism, Gifford’s valuable book-length study offers persuasive definitions of the genre; explorations of its long history; a strong focus on pastoral retreat, anti-pastoral, and post-pastoral; and a series of insightful readings of pastoral literature across a range of genres.

  • Greg, Walter W. Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama: A Literary Inquiry with Special Reference to the Pre-Restoration Stage in England. Oxford: Horace Hart, 1906.

    An early example of modern pastoral criticism arguing that there is no agreed definition of pastoral and rejecting its classification as a purely poetic genre. Instead, pastoral “plays a distinct and distinctive part in the history of human thought, and . . . artistic expression” because of its ability to express “instincts and impulses deep-rooted in the nature of humanity” (p. 78). Greg’s pastoral is a dynamic urban form that responds to socioeconomic contexts.

  • James, David, and Philip Tew. “Introduction: Reenvisioning Pastoral.” In New Versions of Pastoral: Post-Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary Responses to the Tradition. Edited by David James and Philip Tew, 13–28. Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009.

    This introduction to a volume, itself worthy of examination by those keen to better understand pastoral, offers an insightful overview and seeks a broad definition of pastoral as an evolving, complex form that radiates far beyond poetry, that continues to be meaningful, and that cannot be confined to its more conservative and nostalgic iterations.

  • Marinelli, Peter V. Pastoral. London: Methuen, 1971.

    Marinelli denies pastoral’s status as a genre defined by classical poetry, arguing that it can “move out of its old haunts in the Arcadian pastures and to inhabit the ordinary countryside landscapes of the modern world, daily contracted by the encroachments of civilization,” surveying “any literature which deals with the complexities of human life against a background of simplicity” (p. 3).

  • Squires, Michael. The Pastoral Novel: Studies in George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1975.

    Seeking to define the pastoral novel as a subgenre, Squires analyzes fictions by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence, arguing that each, in period-specific ways, creates circumscribed rural realms in response to the social and cultural tensions arising from industrialization.

  • Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Hogarth, 1985.

    First published in 1973, Williams’s seminal survey of pastoral history argues that pastoral is intimately connected to the socioeconomic particularities of particular periods, and that its idyllic and elegiac modes are commonly (but not exclusively) conservative. Addressing complex city-country contrasts, and the role of elegy as a nostalgic reflection on the present, the book includes substantial, insightful analyses of Victorian (Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, Richard Jefferies).

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