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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIII. Masque and Pastoral

§ 12. Pastoral Poetry: its history and development

But, in 1634, Comus was produced at Ludlow castle. We have pointed out that Milton took suggestions from Peele’s Araygnement of Paris and from Jonson’s Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, but his main inspiration came from Fletcher’s Faithfull Shepheardesse. Comus must not be classed as a masque because there is no disguising and no dancing. It is a species of outdoor entertainment, and, therefore, akin to pastoral. There is a natural tendency for the outdoor entertainment, if it be lengthy, to approximate to the pastoral; and pastoral resembles the masque, because, by its conventions, it is undramatic.

It may, therefore, not seem inappropriate to consider the pastoral drama along with the masque. The one is an offshoot of the legitimate drama for indoor use, the other for outdoor. Both, in the main, may be described as efforts made by amateurs to bring the theatre into their own halls or parks. But it is not until the professed poet and dramatist come to the help of the amateur that any great art results. Jonson and Milton, so far, have been examples of this fact, which becomes even more apparent when we turn to pastoral drama in its fullest manifestation.

Pastoral poetry is without a place among the greater forms of literary art, because it is essentially a reaction. Its two motives are a longing for simplicity of thought and feeling and a longing for country as opposed to town. This latter longing is innate in man, because his original home was the field or the forest, and is the soundest and best part of pastoral art. The desire for simplicity, on the other hand, has in it an element of weakness and disillusionment. The pastoral poet is not strong enough to confront and master his own age and find in it the materials for his poem; his own age is too complicated and sophisticated. He, therefore, takes refuge in Arcadia—in an Arcadia of feeling and thought, which has the defect of being visionary and unreal. It is not the life the poet knows, but his refuge from that life. The Elizabethan drama was so firmly rooted in present realities of passion and thought that it swept pastoral poetry, for a time, out of sight. The prose of Sidney and the verse of Spenser, noble as they were, were superseded by the new art of drama, and it was only after the dramatic impulse had spent itself that the exhausted dramatists accepted pastoral as a sufficient exercise for their energies.

Theocritus and Vergil are the two fathers of pastoral poetry. Of the two, Theocritus is commonly preferred as less artificial than Vergil. The clear, bright naturalism of Theocritus, which, in fact, is the perfection of art, makes Vergil’s Eclogues seem artificial; but these must not be considered apart from his Georgics. The Italian farmer was very real in Vergil. He was less of an artist but more of a man than the Greek, and, spiritually, he is far above Theocritus. All his work is touched and glorified by his natural piety, the wistful sincerity of his religious feeling and his contemplative intensity. On its dramatic and realistic side, pastoral poetry owes most to Theocritus; on its contemplative and visionary, to Vergil. Usually, both influences co-operated.

When the renascence begins in the fourteenth century, pastoral composition follows three main lines of development. First, there is the eclogue proper, beginning with the Latin eclogues of Petrarch and the Italian eclogues of Boccaccio and producing, in 1498, the extraordinarily popular twelve eclogues of Mantuan. In English literature, this type is represented by The Shepheards Calender of Spenser. Secondly, there is the mixture of prose pastoral story and poetical interlude of which Boccaccio’s Admeto is the prototype. Boccaccio developed from it his own Decameron, and Sannazaro’s less potent genius, regularising the prose and verse sections, produced, in 1481, his Arcadia, which, in Spain, prompted the Diana of George of Montemayor, printed about 1560. The Spanish romance added to the pastoral and classical elements of the Italian writers a new chivalrous element. In English literature, these works inspired Sidney’s Arcadia. The third type is the pastoral play, of which two famous examples were published in Italy about the same time—Tasso’s Aminta, in 1581, and Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido in 1590. Aminta is distinguished by its sensuous charm, its poetic grace and its emotional sweetness: Il Pastor Fido by its intricate and ingenious plot. Both works were printed in London in 1591, in which year Fraunce translated Aminta into English verse.