The earliest pastoral poetry of which there is record was written by the Greek poet Theocritus in the 3d cent. B.C. It is in his idyls, which celebrate the beauty and simplicity of rustic life in Sicily, that the well-known pastoral characters Daphnis, Lycidas, Corydon, and Amaryllis are first encountered. Theocritus was followed by Bion and Moschus in the 2d cent. B.C. and by Vergil, whose Bucolics appeared in 37 B.C. In these polished and literary verses, which were later called eclogues, Vergil describes an imaginary Arcadia in which the pastoral scenes are allegorical: they celebrate the greatness of Rome, express thanks to the emperor, and prophesy a golden age. In the 3d cent. A.D. a Greek poet, probably Longus, wrote Daphnis and Chloë, a pastoral romance that also influenced later European literature.
The pastoral eclogue enjoyed a revival during the Renaissance. Vergil's Bucolics was translated in the 15th cent. in Italy, and pastoral eclogues were written by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. The most elaborate pastoral romance was the Arcadia by Jacopo Sannazaro, written partly in prose and partly in verse. Poliziano's Orfeo (c.1471) is one of the earliest pastoral dramas. In France the pastourelle—a short poem in dialogue in which a minstrel courts a shepherdess—appeared as early as the 14th cent. and is exemplified in Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion, a play by Adam de La Halle.
In English literature the pastoral is a familiar feature of Renaissance poetry. Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590) is an epic story in pastoral dress, and in The Shepheardes Calender (1579) Edmund Spenser used the pastoral as a vehicle for political and religious discussion. Many of the love lyrics of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Michael Drayton have a pastoral setting. Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is one of the most famous pastoral lyrics, and Milton's philosophical and deeply felt "Lycidas" is a great pastoral elegy. In drama well-known examples of the pastoral are Shakespeare's As You Like It, the shearers' feast in A Winter's Tale, and Milton's masque Comus.
Although poets, novelists, and dramatists of the 19th and 20th cent. have used pastoral settings to contrast simplicity and innocence with the artificiality of the city, they have seldom employed the pastoral conventions of Theocritus and Vergil. Outstanding exceptions are Shelley's Adonais and Matthew Arnold's Thyrsis, both splendid pastoral elegies. Poets such as Wordsworth and Robert Frost, because of their rural subject matter, have also been referred to as "pastoral" poets. In 1935 the English poet and critic William Empson published Some Versions of Pastoral, in which he defined the pastoral as the putting of the complex into the simple, treating the conventionalized bucolic setting as superficial; he then designated various literary works, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the proletarian novel, as offshoots of the pastoral.
See the anthology ed. by T. P. Harrison (1939, repr. 1968); studies by H. E. Toliver (1971), and L. Lerner (1972); L. Metzger (1986); C. M. Schenck (1989).
Pastoral, as an adjective, refers to the lifestyle of shepherds and pastoralists, moving livestock around larger areas of land according to seasons and availability of water and feed. "Pastoral" also describes literature, art and music which depicts the life of shepherds, often in a highly idealised manner. It may also be used as a noun (a pastoral) to describe a single work of pastoral poetry, music or drama. An alternative name for the literary "pastoral" (both as an adjective and a noun) is bucolic, from the Greek βουκóλος, meaning a "cowherd". This reflects the Greek origin of the pastoral tradition.
Pastoral shepherds and maidens usually have Greek names like Corydon or Philomela, reflecting the origin of the pastoral genre. Pastoral poems are set in beautiful rural landscapes, the literary term for which is "locus amoenus" (Latin for "beautiful place"), such as Arcadia, a rural region of Greece, mythological home of the god Pan, which was portrayed as a sort of Eden by the poets. The tasks of their employment with sheep and other rustic chores is held in the fantasy to be almost wholly undemanding and is left in the background, abandoning the shepherdesses and their swains in a state of almost perfect leisure. This makes them available for embodying perpetual erotic fantasies. The shepherds spend their time chasing pretty girls — or, at least in the Greek and Roman versions, pretty lads as well. The eroticism of Virgil's second eclogue, Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexin ("The shepherd Corydon burned with passion for pretty Alexis") is entirely homosexual.
Italian poets revived the pastoral from the 14th century onwards, first in Latin (examples include works by Petrarch, Pontano and Mantuan) then in the Italian vernacular (Boiardo). The fashion for pastoral spread throughout Renaissance Europe. In Spain, Garcilaso de la Vega was an important pioneer and his motifs find themselves renewed in the 20th Century Spanish language poet Giannina Braschi. Leading French pastoral poets include Marot and Ronsard.
The first pastorals in English were the Eclogues (c.1515) of Alexander Barclay, which were heavily influenced by Mantuan. A landmark in English pastoral poetry was Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender, first published in 1579. Spenser's work consists of twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year, and is written in dialect. It contains elegies, fables and a discussion of the role of poetry in contemporary England. Spenser and his friends appear under various pseudonyms (Spenser himself is "Colin Clout"). Spenser's example was imitated by such poets as Michael Drayton (Idea, The Shepherd's Garland) and William Browne (Britannia's Pastorals). The most famous pastoral elegy in English is John Milton's Lycidas (1637), written on the death of Edward King, a fellow student at Cambridge University. Milton used the form both to explore his vocation as a writer and to attack what he saw as the abuses of the Church. The formal pastoral in English died out in the 18th century, one of the last notable examples being Alexander Pope's Pastorals (1709). The form was parodied by writers such as John Gay (in his Shepherd's Week), criticised for its artificiality by Doctor Johnson and attacked for its lack of realism by George Crabbe, who attempted to give a true picture of rural life in his poem The Village (1783). Pastoral nevertheless survived as a mood rather than a genre, as can be seen from such works as Matthew Arnold's Thyrsis (1867), a lament on the death of his fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough.
The pastoral genre was a significant influence in the development of opera. After settings of pastoral poetry in the pastourelle genre by the troubadours, Italian poets and composers became increasingly drawn to the pastoral. Musical settings of pastoral poetry became increasingly common in first polyphonic and then monodic madrigals: these later led to the cantata and the serenata, in which pastoral themes remained on a consistent basis. Partial musical settings of Giovanni Battista Guarini's Il pastor fido were highly popular: the texts of over 500 madrigals were taken from this one play alone. Tasso's Aminta was also a favourite. As opera developed, the dramatic pastoral came to the fore with such works as Jacopo Peri's Dafne and, most notably, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Pastoral opera remained popular throughout the 17th-century, and not just in Italy, as is shown by the French genre of pastorale héroïque, Englishman Henry Lawes's music for Milton's Comus (not to mention John Blow's Venus and Adonis), and Spanish zarzuela. At the same time, Italian and German composers developed a genre of vocal and instrumental pastorals, distinguished by certain stylistic features, associated with Christmas Eve.
The pastoral, and parodies of the pastoral, continued to play an important role in musical history throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. John Gay may have satirized the pastoral in The Beggar's Opera, but also wrote an entirely sincere libretto for Handel's Acis and Galatea. Rousseau's Le Devin du village draws on pastoral roots, and Metastasio's libretto Il re pastore was set over 30 times, most famously by Mozart. Rameau was an outstanding exponent of French pastoral opera. Beethoven also wrote his famous Pastoral Symphony, avoiding his usual musical dynamism in favour of relatively slow rhythms. More concerned with psychology than description, he labelled the work "more the expression of feeling than [realistic] painting". The pastoral also appeared as a feature of grand opera, most particularly in Meyerbeer's operas: often composers would develop a pastoral-themed "oasis", usually in the centre of their work. Notable examples include the shepherd's "alte Weise" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, or the pastoral ballet occupying the middle of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. The 20th-century continued to bring new pastoral interpretations, particularly in ballet, such as Ravel's Daphis and Cloe, Nijinsky's use of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps and Les Noces.