In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pastoral

  • Introduction
  • General Critical Overviews
  • Anthologies of Pastoral Literature and/or Criticism

British and Irish Literature Pastoral
Mark Frost
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0200


Because there is no critical consensus about what pastoral is, it has been conceived in a number of ways that reflect its diversity, complexity, endurance, and significance within literature and wider culture. It has arguably existed throughout literary history, is strongly evident across European, Middle Eastern, and modern Western cultures, and has gained a global footprint during the twentieth century. While some conceive of pastoral narrowly as a specific poetic genre (originally centered on the singing contests and conversations of shepherds/goatherds), others regard it as a broad cultural mode present in many forms across a range of media. In its narrower conceptualization, pastoral is an ancient, widespread poetic form, sitting alongside the epic in importance. In its wider framing, 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 i) our relationship with environment; ii) our place within modernity; and iii) human societies and social relations. In the broadest possible definition, pastoral encompasses any attempts to represent peopled environments, thus distinguishing it from the wilderness mode (which seeks to represent environments allegedly absent of humanity) and the apocalyptic mode (which seeks to represent the destruction of environments, societies, civilizations, and worlds—and, in post-apocalyptic forms, their aftermaths). Attempts to define pastoral repeatedly draw attention to two key structural oppositions: rural versus urban, and past versus present. Traditional and conservative forms of pastoral generally valorize the rural and/or the past, but these oppositions can be complicated, challenged, or even overturned in more radical forms. Other oppositions sometimes used in attempts to codify pastoral include nature versus art and the simple versus the complex. Pastoral’s earliest iterations sought to imagine idealized versions of the countryside, and/or chart the loss of idyllic environments: both impulses indicate the original urban roots of pastoral. Ironically, pastoral, the form par excellence of country writing, became conceivable and necessary only as a result 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). The pastoral can also be divided into a number of sub-generic forms (the idyll, elegy, Utopian, and anti-pastoral), each of which may be further subdivided into specific sub-genres within poetry. Pastoral has been re-evaluated to reflect the specific socio-environmental contexts of every period. More recently, it has become an important preoccupation within the environmental humanities, reflecting its ongoing relevance and usefulness, and leading to attempts to create or classify new forms of pastoral.

General Critical Overviews

Although pastoral criticism began in the Early Modern period, the sources cited here are from 1900 onwards. Earlier works on pastoral are cited in two later sections (Pastoral Criticism 1579–1700 and Pastoral Criticism 1700–1900). The works in this section represent some of the most significant and/or influential critical interventions on pastoral, indicating the long-standing scholarly preoccupation with pastoral and its continuation in recent decades. Greg 1906 and Empson 1995 represent early-20th-century criticism, and a productive period of work in the 1970s is represented by Lerner 1972, Marinelli 1971, and Williams 1985. Alpers 1996 and Garber 1988 represent part of a growing resistance to defining pastoral in purely generic terms, while more recent works—Garrard 2023 and Gifford 1999—illustrate the ways in which ecocriticism has turned to pastoral to inform its wider engagements with literature and environment. Ruff 2015 offers another historical survey, but with the welcome addition of art and design to its coverage of poetry.

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

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226015231.001.0001

    A useful revision of pastoral that rejects its narrow classification as idyllic poetry of the classical and Renaissance periods, and argues that it is not simply an idyllic form or a nostalgic vehicle, but rather a complex mode enabling engagement with the problems of human communities in the world.

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

    Empson’s highly original account resists situating pastoral as a purely poetic genre. He rejects the notion that pastoral died in the 1700s, tracing its reinventions in modern forms (including and beyond poetry). Empson defines pastoral’s subject as representations of (but not by) ordinary people, and its practice as “putting the complex into the simple.” 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. Originally published 1935.

  • 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. 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

    Amongst 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. Highlights Anthropocene, global, and postcolonial contexts, and argues for pastoral’s usefulness as an ecocritical tool.

  • 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, W. 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, Greg argues, it “plays a distinct and distinctive part in the history of human thought, and the history of 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 and cultural contexts while maintaining a core identity.

  • Lerner, Laurence. The Uses of Nostalgia. London: Chatto & Windus, 1972.

    Lerner is a key modern exponent of a tradition of pastoral criticism that seeks to limit its scope to drama and poetry, and to see the idyll as the defining feature of what is thus constituted as a distinctive genre, rather than a wider cultural mode. Despite its deliberate limits, the work offers valuable studies of pastoral verse from classical to Victorian periods, and offers keen insights into pastoral retreat.

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

    In an impressive historical survey, Marinelli denies pastoral’s status as a genre defined by classical poetry. Instead, 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.” As a “very broad and general term,” this somewhat Empsonian pastoral includes “any literature which deals with the complexities of human life against a background of simplicity” (p. 3).

  • Ruff, Allan. Arcadian Visions: Pastoral Influences on Poetry, Painting, and the Design of Landscape. Havertown, PA: Windgather Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt19704rw

    This work’s broad coverage of pastoral from ancient times to the twentieth century demonstrates the adaptability of pastoral as both a specific poetic form and a wider cultural genre, arguing that its roots in Arcadian visions are reworked and re-evaluated by every generation. Its coverage of art and design in addition to literature speaks to the reach of pastoral modes of thinking.

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

    A seminal survey of pastoral forms from ancient times to the twentieth century, Williams’s work is also an argument that pastoral is always intimately connected to the socioeconomic particularities of particular periods, and that its idyllic and elegiac modes are commonly (but not exclusively) in the service of conservative ideologies. Effectively addresses contrasts between town and country and the role of elegy as a nostalgic reflection on the present. Originally published 1973.

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