Draft of a chapter for Louise Westling (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Environment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014 (in press).
The story of the reception and transformations of pastoral in the relatively brief history of ecocriticism is a roller-coaster ride that in some ways echoes the critical history of pastoral before ecocriticism, when the countryside was not ‘environment’ and nature was not ‘ecology.’ Ecocriticism’s debates about the pastoral arise out of earlier scholarly traditions which tend to vary between US and UK scholars, sometimes to the point of outright contradiction, particularly in relation to the current usefulness of the pastoral as a concept. In part this is due to the desire for a distinctively American pastoral against the English and yet earlier European traditions of its origins. So an American concept of pastoral has
come to challenge the notion of pastoral as a genre. Indeed, the narrative of the reception of classical pastoral would need to account for its shift from a genre, to a mode, and to a contemporary concept. What this all comes down to in the present day is the question of whether, as the British ecocritic Greg Garrard in the ‘Pastoral’ chapter of his book Ecocriticism (2011) suggests, pastoral is ‘wedded to outmoded models of harmony and balance,’i or whether, as American ecocritic Lawrence Buell asserts, ‘pastoralism is a species of cultural equipment that western thought has for more than two millennia been unable to do without’ii such
that the current ecological crisis, in the words of the Americanist Leo Marx, ‘is bound to bring forth new versions of pastoral.’iii Indeed, these three usages of ‘pastoral’ represent ecocriticism’s confusion about the term that is rooted in its historical shifts in meaning. Garrard appears to be thinking of a genre with a canon of now ‘outmoded models’ for current notions of ecology that reject ‘harmony and balance.’ Buell’s ‘pastoralism’ seems to refer to a mode of writing that engages with human relationships with land in a recognizable ‘species of cultural equipment.’ If Marx can foresee completely ‘new versions of pastoral’ the genre must have transformed into a
concept, as I shall be arguing has become the case with, for example, the ecocritical usage of terms such as ‘post-pastoral’, ‘urban pastoral’, or ‘gay pastoral.’
Pastoral as a genre is really confined to two foundational texts which established the essential features of pastoral conventions and to which later writers refer back, either consciously or implicitly. In the third century BC the Greek scholar Theocritus (c.316-260 BC) wrote about the shepherds’ song competitions of his youth in Sicily for his patron, the general who colonized Egypt and resided in the court at Alexandria. Thus the Idylls of Theocritus, the first pastoral text, gave us the word ‘idyllic’ and established a sense of idealization, nostalgia and escapism in a poetry of the countryside written for a court audience – all qualities that have come to be associated with definitions of the pastoral. It
also created the defining pastoral momentum of retreat and return in the sense that the heightened language in which the herdsmen of Theocritus speak delivers to an urban readership insights into what Paul Alpers characterizes as common ‘plights and pleasures’iv (93) with an awareness of their limitations. There is a knowing artifice in the pastoral discourse which is accepted because these shepherds are also representatives of everyman to readers who recognize the conventions of the genre. Thus there is a mixture that is often in tension, between realism of close encounters with nature, a simplified life, real transferable learning about inner nature from dealing with
and observing outer nature, and the acceptance of a degree of artifice in this construction and its discourse. These are both real and representative shepherds who speak this poetry. So, imaginatively revisiting his youth, Theocritus returns to the Alexandrian court knowledge of human dilemmas played out in intimate contact with the rather harsh Sicilian landscape.
Retreat and return is the essential pastoral momentum – one of the defining features of this form of ‘cultural equipment’ and the focus of the earliest ecocritical writing which in the US discussed journeys of retreat into wilderness (Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams) or the wild (Henry David Thoreau’s Walden). In the first British ecocriticism, on the other hand, the journeys were less important than the returns delivered from close contact with nature in the novels of Thomas Hardy, for example, or in contemporary nature poetry. Readers will notice that ‘return’ is being used here in two ways: literal and metaphorical. This is one of the ways in which pastoral is useful to environmental criticism. Theocritus
retreated in his memory to the environment of his childhood in rural Sicily and his poetry is returned to the court readership, but it also, hopefully, offers returns in the form of insights into human qualities – ideals of behavior even - that might be useful to the urban readers of the Idylls. Thus pastoral literature should deliver more than a narrative of a journey into the natural world. The link between pastoralists as shepherds and pastoral concerns for wellbeing, as in the term ‘pastor’, is not accidental. Pastoral concern might be for human life or the life of the environment of retreat, or both.
Two centuries after the Greek Idylls of Theocritus, the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) added to our cultural discourse the notion of Arcadia as a literary construct of the location of pastoral retreat. Although based upon a real region of Greece, this literary Arcadia is a space in which the pastoral pretence can be acted out in its allegorical drama of interactions and dialogues between shepherds or their equivalents. In the Eclogues (42-37 BC) Virgil evokes a Golden Age of the past that is set against the instability and alienation of the present. Later readers would rediscover Arcadia in Eden, the Forest of Arden, Marvell’s gardens, John Muir’s Yosemite, and the Georgian poets’ English countryside during
the First World War. The recognition of Arcadia invokes the knowing paradoxes of classical pastoral – nature and place as a literary construct, the poetic rhetoric of herdsmen, retreat in order to return, the apparent idealization that might reveal truths, fictions that examine realism, the guise of simplicity that is a vehicle for complexity. The delights of the human being embedded in nature are thus celebrated whilst their limitations are simultaneously examined. Much of this subtlety can be obscured by the later development of a succession of pastoral modes that varied in quality within each period and can easily be dismissed or parodied. But significantly for latter-day environmental literary criticism, a postmodern usage of pastoral
is possible precisely because of the instabilities, tensions and paradoxes embedded from the beginning in the simultaneous realism and artifice of the discourses of Arcadia – real place and cultural construct.
The diversity of pastoral modes that appeared in English literature following the European Renaissance’s rediscovery of classical pastoral did not necessarily conform to all the conventions of their classical inspirations. Indeed, the term ‘pastoral’ came to refer to any literature that described the countryside in contrast to the court or the city. Theme rather than form came to define the pastoral mode. Much contemporary ecocritical practice adopts this position, although, sadly, long continuities are not a feature of that practice. How often is discussion of a fiction of climate change compared to notions of the seasons in the work of Edmund Spenser? Edmund Spenser modeled his twelve eclogues of The Shepheardes
Calender (1579) on Virgil’s work, but they were longer, monthly, and incorporated more realism of the English seasons that derived from Chaucer. Their allegorical dexterity excited a Renaissance neoclassical interest in pastoral that led to Andrew Marvell’s complex garden poems which could ask metaphysical questions about what a human ‘green thought’ might be, for example – still a question that preoccupies ecocritics from Timothy Mortonv to Catriona Sandilands,vi although regrettably they do not consider Marvell’s take on it.
Part of this literary movement included pastoral dramas and Shakespeare was not to be left out. His wit in placing courtiers in a bucolic realism traced a journey of retreat to a return with insights gained, reconciliations (including marriages) now possible, between people, if not between the country and the city. The range of these transformations is remarkable if one thinks of the different qualities of experience of nature in Arden in As You Like It, in Bohemia in A Winter’s Tale, on the blasted heath of King Lear, or on the island of The Tempest, a play which takes seriously the self-deceptions possible in working the pastoral magic at the play’s devastating conclusion. As period
ecocritics now turn their specialist attention to Early Modern and Renaissance pastoral literature, the rich and influential work of Shakespeare is gaining sustained study.vii What has been regarded in the past as symbolic or allegorical references to nature in the plays is now being understood as actually also referencing real environmental concerns for forest resources, urban pollution or issues about food sources and ethics. Indeed, Ken Hiltner has recently written a study of the period that is titled What Else is Pastoral? (2011) in which he cleverly argues that Renaissance texts, by gesturing away from the countryside to focus apparently upon the urban or
the architectural, implicitly invoke that which is absent, thereby performing a pastoral function, such texts thus having ‘an environmental component.’viii
The explosion of interest in pastoral in the eighteenth century, partly driven by an Augustan valuing of supposed order and stability in Roman literature, resulted in a mixing of pastoral with georgic poetry, influenced by Virgil’s Georgics (36-29 BC) which gave emphasis to the practices of a human relationship with nature through the detail of husbandry. The georgic could hint at hubris in that relationship (learning from nature was necessary) just as much as it endorsed dominion over nature (the Biblical command to bring forth goodness from the earth). Alexander Pope’s Windsor-Forest (1713) exemplifies the shifts between its idealized, opening evoking Eden in England, to the work of the herbalist who
‘attends the duties [...] to follow nature, and regard his end,’ to the final self-recognition of his pastoral discourse in this poem as having ‘sung the sylvan strains.’ It has to be said that the potential of the georgic for contemporary environmental literary criticism (which I shall hint at from time to time below) has been largely neglected thus far, although neo-agrarian writers such as Wendell Berry are clearly working in this literary tradition that is closely aligned with – some might say is a subset of - the pastoral.
Less self-reflexive is the Romantic pastoral which resisted the burgeoning industrial revolution (represented for Wordsworth by the railway line penetrating the Lake District at Kendal) by offering images of a rural commonwealth of pastoralists. The work of Wordsworth, often easily dismissed as idealizing nature, demonstrates the need for careful reading of pastoral, which for him in Home at Grasmere, for example, included both anti-pastoral disappointment at drunkenness and pastoral neighborly support in his little commonwealth. It is in this pastoral work that Wordsworth made the discovery that is still being explored by current ecocritics that the human mind is ‘exquisitely fitted’ to external nature, enabling
the possibility of an imaginative sustainability in that relationship, or indeed, the erasure of a need for a separate category of nature.
When, for the Victorians, the crisis of the diminished countryside was overlaid by a crisis of religious faith, the pastoral failed to offer much escape. Tennyson in In Memorium (1850) was forced to recognize that rapacious industrialism and competitive commerce might actually have been endorsed by a ‘creed’ of nature all along, needed to feed a hunger that was ‘red in tooth and claw.’ For the Georgians poets who followed, the attempt to seek escape in the English countryside from the horrors of the First World War was doomed to be read by later critics as pastoral idealization at its most desperate.
Yet the honest enquiries of Edward Thomas and the self-challenging recognitions of natural energy of D. H. Lawrence, who both contributed poems to the Georgian anthologies that appeared between 1912 and 1922, indicate the exceptions to Georgian escapism. Nevertheless, John Barrell and John Bull, the editors of The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse declared that the pastoral was dead in English poetry after the Georgians because the country could no longer be distinguished from the urban in the twentieth century.ix The first nail in the coffin of pastoral in British literary criticism had been F. R. Leavis’s attack on the Georgians in his
1932 book New Bearings in English Poetry,x but it was hammered home by Raymond Williams in his influential book The Country and the City (1973).xi Williams was a Marxist in the English faculty of Cambridge University required to teach the English country house literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His pre-ecocritical book was a critique of the cultural and agricultural falsifications of the English pastoral tradition of that period which sought out alternatives such as John Clare and Thomas Hardy, but also the radical literature of the city such as that of Dickens.
Williams’ student, Roger Sales, later summed up this critique of pastoral by suggesting, in a book significantly subtitled Pastoral and Politics (1983), that Williams’ critique of pastoral could be represented by the five Rs: ‘refuge, reflection, rescue, requiem, and reconstruction.’xii ‘Refuge’ refers to the element of pastoral escape and ‘reflection’ to the backward-looking tendency for pastoral to seek settled values in the past that require a ‘rescue’ in a nostalgic ‘requiem’ that is also a politically conservative ‘reconstruction’ of history. The deception of pastoral’s tendency to idealization of nature, its historical unreliability in its representation
of landscape, and its view of the English countryside in a cultural class function in Williams’ analysis in his influential book, predisposed English ecocritics to assume that pastoral sought to rescue a simple ecological harmony and balance that Greg Garrard could easily dismiss as an ‘outmoded model.’
But Williams also identified a strain of anti-pastoral literature that offered a corrective to such deceptions, often directly addressing the perpetrators. So the Wiltshire farm laborer Stephen Duck responds to Pope’s image of the ‘joyful reaper’ and James Thomson’s idealization of ‘happy labor’ in The Seasons (1727) with The Thresher’s Labour (1736) in which Augustan poetic conventions are used to counter such notions: ‘In briny Streams our Sweat descends apace, / Drops from our Locks, or trickles down our Face.’xiii But Duck’s sole representation of male agricultural workers was, in turn, countered by Mary Collier’s The Woman’s
Labour: An Epistle to Mr Stephen Duck (1739). Quoting Duck, Collier pointed out that it was women who raked and turned the hay. The milkmaid poet Ann Yearsley leaves no doubt about the nature of actually harvesting Pope’s lofty lines about ‘Ceres’ gifts’ that ‘nodding tempt the joyful reaper’s hand’: ‘No vallies blow, no waving grain uprears / Its tender stalk to cheer my coming hour.’xiv
Obviously the anti-pastoral here makes its correctives through the actual detail of the georgic mode. But, in fact, the anti-pastoral was embedded within the most complex pastorals from the Idylls onwards (which might caution easy rejections of outmoded representations of harmony that betray a lack of familiarity with the founding texts). There is a wonderful moment in the herdsmen’s dialogue when Theocritus reminds his readers of the nature of a Sicilian ecology, literally grounding his idyll in unidealized fact: ‘You shouldn’t go barefoot on the hillside, Battus. / Wherever you tread, the ground’s one thorny ambush’ (71).xv One might argue
that learning how to walk the ground, in its localized and, indeed, its globalised conditions, remains as much a function of the tensions between contemporary pastoral and anti-pastoral as it was in the third century BC. But some anti-pastoral poetry attacks the very idealizing role inherent in poetry about the English countryside. George Crabbe, in The Village (1783), for example, asks of the laboring poor (Pope’s ‘joyful reapers’), ‘Can poets sooth you, when you pine for bread, / By winding myrtles round your ruin’d shed?’xvi That Mediterranean import into Augustan neo-classical poetry, the myrtle tree, persists from its classical roots at the very moment,
Crabbe points out, when rural poverty is being exacerbated by the enclosures that are the inspiration for Oliver Goldsmith’s paradoxical nostalgically idealizing anti-pastoral The Deserted Village (1770). It is John Clare who points the poetic political finger most knowingly and most poignantly in his poem ‘The Mores’:
Against this English rural reality, the colonies offered a rich source of pastoral escape, but with it came the recurring tensions of dominion and what might be called ‘pastoral responsibility’ or stewardship. Of course, the background to the Idylls, written in Alexandria about Sicily, had been Greek colonial expansion into the locations of both the countryside and the court, of the retreat and the return. In The Tempest Shakespeare had raised awkward questions for his audience about the nature of pastoral responsibility on his enchanted isle, concluding with Prospero drowning his books of manipulative magic and asking the audience to forgive his hubris. It was James Thomson in The Seasons (1727-44)
who took pastoral poetry directly into the georgic challenges of the new found lands of the exotic Americas and the East, although postcolonial ecocriticism, as yet, rarely turns its attention to this colonial legacy. For Thomson, as for the later novelist W. H. Hudson whose Green Mansions (1904) provides the narrative of the film Avatar, the untamed fertility of nature in the tropics was almost frightening in its untamable relentlessness. Here ‘the rugged savage’ lived out his days as
The georgic ‘art’ of directing both the slave and nature seems to be at work here where dominion dominates pastoral care.
In texts such as Thomson’s the masking and displacing of environmental pillage and political conquest by nostalgic valuations of the very spaces and biosystems that are being destroyed, these literary tropes nevertheless express a yearning for ecological wholeness. Of course, this is the period of popular island narratives following the success of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and in an essay titled ‘Problems Concerning Islands’ Greg Garrard develops a postcolonial critique of five modern texts about five islands that chart the ecological effects of centuries of ‘the directing hand / Of Art’ in a book edited by Campbell and Somerville subtitled Ecocritical Responses to the Caribbean (2007). Huggan and
Tiffin’s Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (2010), dealing almost entirely with contemporary literature, indicates the direction that postcolonial ecocritical studies have taken in relation to works in the pastoral tradition concerned with other human and non-human communities.xix
Meanwhile, America was developing its own strain of pastoral which the Americanist Leo Marx, in his seminal and influential book The Machine in the Garden (1964) which began by claiming The Tempest as Shakespeare’s ‘American fable’ of colonialism. Marx saw an American pastoral as originating in the georgics and advertisements of Beverley (1705), Crèvecoeur (1782) and Jefferson (1785), to be extended by the prose of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Thoreau and Fitzgerald.The poetry of Frost and Whitman completed a distinctively American kind of pastoral which Marx characterized as a concept that came to deal with the tensions of ‘technology and the pastoral ideal.’ At the heart of this Americanist
tradition was Thoreau, whose Walden (1854) engaged with the possibility of a backwoods, pioneering, idealistic, retreat, whilst accepting the presence of the railway at the far end of Walden Pond that made retreat possible for a nation inhabiting, uneasily, a wilderness (that was actually already inhabited). Marx, in effect, claimed the individualism of the American colonizing process of its varied landscapes as a pastoral based upon a rural (one might suggest bucolic) Jeffersonion idealism that over-rode idealization. Marx regarded the transcendentalists as uniquely American in their form of retreat into and beyond nature, to return again to the material world somewhat changed. For Emerson, who explicitly sought a New World,
non-European philosophy, the return from transcendental experience, via intimate reconnection with nature, might be ‘the chant’ – the artwork that conveys the insights gained. The moral obligation of the chant upon return from intense contact with nature produces the pastoral song that gives us Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) and Rick Bass’s Year of the Yaak (1996), for example. Individual epiphanies of retreat into the wilderness, wherever it is to be found, and return to deliver ‘the chant’, are the core of American nature writing following the model of Walden. One can see why the earliest American ecocritics wanted to address these as texts of environmental
Marx’s success in his argument for an American pastoral has been as remarkable as it has been enduring. His book has never been out of print and it is the American pre-ecocriticism equivalent of Williams’ The Country and the City. (It is a little-known fact that the two became friends when Marx was in Nottingham on a Fulbright and that Marx invited Williams to lecture at MIT in 1973.)xx What is more remarkable is the fact that his offering a means of distinguishing between what he called ‘sentimental pastoral’ from ‘complex pastoral’xxi has not only been less than enduring,
but that it has been a critical tool completely ignored by American critics since 1964, including latter-day ecocritics, until the Early Modern scholar Todd Borlik revived it in his 2011 book Ecocriticism and Early Modern Literature: Green Pastures. For Marx ‘sentimental pastoral’ referred to the popular ‘illusion of peace and harmony in the green pasture’ associated with ‘the simple, affirmative attitude we adopt toward pleasing rural scenery.’xxii The similarity of terms here with Greg Garrard’s notion of pastoral is striking, although sadly Garrard also ignores Marx’s recognition of a more sophisticated ‘complex pastoral.’ It is also notable that Marx does
not identify an anti-pastoral line in American pastoral literature as Williams does for English literature. If the machine is already in the garden – technology is already threatening the very nature to which is gives access for celebration – the anti-pastoral is, in a sense, built-in to the American pastoral. Rather than Williams’ identification of a separate counter-pastoral in English literature, Marx argues that in complex American pastoral ‘the pastoral design, as always, circumscribes the pastoral ideal’ with a ‘counterforce’ that undermines the idyll, as in The Tempest and in Walden. Furthermore, Marx has a sense of the limitations of the American pastoral fable:
The outcome of Walden, Moby-Dick, and Hucklebery Finn is repeated in the typical modern version of the fable; in the end the American hero is either dead or totally alienated from society, alone and powerless, like the evicted shepherd of Virgil’s eclogue. And if, at the same time, he pays tribute to the image of a green landscape, it is likely to be ironic and bitter. The resolutions of our pastoral fables are unsatisfactory because the old symbol of reconciliation is obsolete.xxiii
Nevertheless, in a later essay on the American pastoral, Marx considered that this conclusion to The Machine in the Garden was too negative, expressing ‘an underestimation of the universality and adaptability of pastoralism’ (1986: 54). Writing now as a proto-ecocritic, Marx saw that ‘as a result of the heightened ecological awareness of recent years, the archetypal nineteenth century image of the machine invading the landscape has been invested with a new, more literal meaning and credibility.’xxiv Lawrence Buell argued that ‘American pastoral has simultaneously been counterinstitutional and institutionally sponsored.’xxvWalden,
for example, having been written from a counterinstitutional impulse was to become the most taught text in the American educational system. Echoing Marx and Buell, Borlik ends his 2011 book with the words, ‘The pastoral’s “staying power”, its adaptability, is precisely what we need.’xxvi And it was twenty years earlier that Marx, in his essay ‘Does Pastoral Have a future?’ (1992), had written that our modern environmental concerns were certain to produce ‘new versions of pastoral.’xxvii
In this he was gesturing towards William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) which was revolutionary in turning the mode into a concept which could include ‘proletarian pastoral’, for example, and also a consideration of Alice Through the Looking-Glass as a version of pastoral. The point is that if pastoral can be regarded as a cultural function rather than a genre of canonical texts, or a mode of discourse about nature, it is possible to conceptualize a ‘post-pastoral’ literature that includes Marx’s ‘complex pastoral’, but also bypasses the British critical dead-end for pastoral by identifying a version of continuity that is itself aware of the dangers of idealized escapism whilst seeking some
form of accommodation between humans and nature. As a result of the critiques of Leavis and Williams ‘pastoral’ has become a pejorative term in English literary criticism, best characterized by the negative implication of its verb form ‘to pastoralize’. But anyone aware that much contemporary British literature engaged with nature, the countryside and the rural environment in a manner that escaped the closed circuit of idealized pastoral and its anti-pastoral corrective could see that the pastoral tradition was not dead, but vigorous in its transformation of the tradition in V. S. Naipaul’s novel The Enigma of Arrival (1988),xxviii for example, or in Seamus
Heaney’s collection North (1975).xxix Perhaps the most radical, varied and complex new versions of pastoral were being written by the poet Ted Hughes. In 1994 I published an essay titled ‘Gods of Mud: Ted Hughes and the Post-Pastoral’ in which I first identified what were to become the six questions that I observed to be raised for the reader by post-pastoral texts, to be elaborated in relation to poetry in the final chapter of Green Voices (2nd edn 2011) and more generally expanded upon in the ‘Post-Pastoral’ chapter of Pastoral (1999).xxx
The ‘post-pastoral’ is unlike terms like ‘postmodernism,’ ‘postcolonial,’ or ‘posthuman.’ ‘Post-’ here does not mean ‘after’, but ‘reaching beyond’ the limitations of pastoral whilst being recognizably in the pastoral tradition. It is not temporal but conceptual and therefore can refer to a work in any time period. This is often misunderstood by ecocritics taking up the notion for new applications in their own work, resulting in some reduction of post-pastoral’s more nuanced critical potential. It is not ‘intended to show how the reading and writing of rural retreat must now be tempered with an awareness of ecological threat.’.xxxi Obviously only
contemporary work can be post-pastoral in this way. Nor does it only ‘describe works in which the retreat serves to prompt the reader to the urgent need for responsibility and action on behalf of the environment,’ although this may be the case when applied to some contemporary Irish poetry.xxxii The post-pastoral is really best used to describe works that successfully suggest a collapse of the human/nature divide whilst being aware of the problematics involved. It is more about connection than the disconnections essential to the pastoral. In illustration of the six questions typically raised for readers to some degree by post-pastoral texts each question below is followed
by an example from a single poem by the English post-pastoral ecopoet Ted Hughes.
Can awe in the face of natural phenomena, such as landscapes, lead to humility in our species?
In his early poem ‘Crow Hill’xxxiii Hughes describes a landscape through the dynamics of processes at work in it in on a macro and a micro scale. Lost in all this, ‘between the weather and the rock / Farmers make a little heat.’ Climate, geology, bird and animal survival are such strong forces that human achievement is diminished to ‘a little heat.’
What are the implications of recognising that we are part of that creative-destructive process?
In ‘Crow Hill’ between ‘humbled hills’ and the vitality of the orange fox, the wind disturbs the dreams of farmers in their sleep, caught, too, in the cycles of destruction and creation in this place.
If the processes of our inner nature echo those in outer nature in the ebbs and flows of growth and decay, how can we learn to understand the inner by being closer to the outer?
Human dreams of sustainable vitality here, will suffer their setbacks as naturally as the impulse to make a life here represented by the bright fox and its vulnerabilities.
If nature is culture, is culture nature?
Nature is made culture by the discourse of this poem. But is the impulse to write the poem also nature thinking through us? If the mind, and its imagination, is our material nature, isn’t the culture it produces also nature?
5. How, then, can our distinctively human consciousness, which gives us a conscience, be used as a tool to heal our troubled relationship with our natural home?
Readers will be prompted into considering to what extent this poem, and its implicit exploration of our relationship with the land here, might give us insights that are positive for our way of being in nature, or not.
How should we address the ecofeminist insight that the exploitation of our planet emerges from the same mind-set as our exploitation of each other, the less powerful?
There is no evident exploitation in this poem until urban readers, say, reflect upon their cultural treatment of small farmers and those farmers’ treatment of the cows and pigs in the poem. Is there a cultural connection between the two in our economic and animal welfare practices? If the poem took the reader down some of these lines of thinking we might say that it is a post-pastoral poem that has extended the tradition of a pastoral landscape poem.
The post-pastoral does not so much transcend the problematics of the pastoral but explore them, seeking not a stable, complacent form of harmony in the human relationship with nature – our species’ relationship with its home planet in its macro and its micro ecologies – but seeks a dynamic, self-adjusting accommodation to ‘discordant harmonies’. To the extent that the positions taken in post-pastoral texts are provisional and open to revision, even at their most provocative and strategically didactic, they might be characterized as postmodern. But the deferral of judgments of the postmodern is not an option for ecocritics in that judgments are being acted upon daily in relation to the environment by our current ‘best
guesses’ for courses of action. At its best post-pastoral literature enacts this dynamic relationship and explores its problematics.
There is a danger that the six questions raised by post-pastoral might be used as a kind of check-list for approved texts, but it is important to realize that a single writer, or indeed a single text, might shift between all three modes of pastoral, anti-pastoral and post-pastoral. John Muir, for example, could idealize Yosemite’s ‘temples’, speak of butterflies as wonderful ‘mechanical inventions’, and improvize a post-pastoral insight of connectedness: ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’xxxiv Indeed, might all three modes be present in Andrew Marvell’s famous poem ‘The Garden’? Could
a reader reasonably conclude that the poem’s opening stanza is an anti-pastoral reminder of men’s ‘incessant Labours’? But is the fifth stanza is a classic pastoral of the absence of labor as ‘The Luscious Clusters of the Vine / Upon my Mouth do crush their Wine’? And isn’t the conceptual challenge of the following stanza - ‘Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green Shade’ - actually a post-pastoral notion? Here is the imagination (‘The Mind’) creating a connection with, not just the material reality of each creature (‘each kind’) but its very ‘otherness’ in the sense of ‘far other Worlds’ as a single vision of unified ‘green Thought.’
Muir’s and Marvell’s post-pastoral conceptions each question and extend the possibilities for human reintegration with a natural universe from which much literature has assumed us to be separated. Such questions are, of course, crucial in recent apocalyptic novels of survival such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009) or Maggie Gee’s The Ice People (1999). Post-pastoral dystopias, utopias, and pre- or post-apocalyptic texts all raise questions of ethics, sustenance and sustainability that might exemplify Marx’s vision of the pastoral needing to find new forms in the face of new conditions. Marx will not have been surprised to witness the explosion
of what might be called ‘the prefix-pastoral’ which would have to include the post-pastoral. William Empson might be said to have begun this redefinition of the pastoral with his ‘proletarian pastoral,’ but urban pastoral soon followed, together with radical pastoral (from Gerrard himself in 1996),xxxv postmodern pastoral, gay pastoral, hard pastoral, soft pastoral, Buell’s revolutionary lesbian feminist pastoral, black pastoral, ghetto pastoral, frontier pastoral, militarized pastoral, domestic pastoral and, most recently, a specifically ‘Irish pastoral’ in Donna Potts’ Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition (2011). Much of this represents the
contemporary need of environmental criticism to both draw from and redefine the pastoral as, in Buell’s words quoted earlier, ‘a species of cultural equipment that western thought has for more than two millennia been unable to do without.’xxxvi
i Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), p. 65.
ii Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 32.
iii Leo Marx, ‘Does Pastoral Have a Future?’ in John Dixon Hunt (ed.), The Pastoral Landscape (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1992), p. 222.
iv Paul Alpers, What is Pastoral? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 93.
v See Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
vi See Catriona Sandilands, ‘Landscape, Memory and Forgetting: Thinking Through (My Mother’s) Bodies and Places’ in Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (eds), Material Feminisms (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) pp. 344-373.
vii See Simon Estok’s Ecocriticism and Shakespeare: Reading Ecophobia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). For Early Modern pastoral see Todd Borlik, Ecocriticism and Early Modern Literature: Green Pastures (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011) and for Renaissance pastoral ecocriticism see Ken Hiltner, What Else is Pastoral? Renaissance Literature and the Environment (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2011).
xix See especially their discussion of pastoral in V. S. Niapaul’s The Enigma of Arrival: Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010) pp. 112-116.
xxix See my discussion of North in Green Voices, 2nd edn, pp. 115-6.
xxx Gifford, ‘Gods of Mud: Ted Hughes and the Post-Pastoral’ in Keith Sagar (ed.), The Challenge of Ted Hughes (London: Macmillan, 1994), pp. 129-141; Gifford, Green Voices, 2nd edn, (Nottingham: CCC Press), p. 191; Gifford, Pastoral, (London: Rouledge), pp. 146-174.
xxxi Sasha Matthewman, Teaching Secondary English as if the Planet Matters (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011) p. 31.
xxxiiDonna L. Potts, Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011) p. x.
xxxiii Ted Hughes, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), p. 62.
xxxivTerry Gifford (ed.), John Muir: The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1992) pp. 248-9.
xxxv Greg Garrard, ‘Radical Pastoral’, Studies in Romanticism, 35:3, 1996, pp. 33-58.
xxxvi Buell, The Environmental Imagination, p. 32.