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Alpers, What is Pastoral?
by Sukanta Chaudhuri

Alpers, Paul. What Is Pastoral?  London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. 444 pp. ISBN: 9780226015170. $23 paper. 

Exstinctus Daphnis: Paul Alpers and the Pastoral 

Pastoral is the most quixotic of art forms.  It tilts at gigantic issues like war, politics, faith and language with nothing better than a crook and tarbox, feeble trappings of an artificial shepherd life, making Corydon and Amyntas do duty for Aeneas and Turnus.  Virgil is commonly held, not without cause, to have started this inept development, but he very sensibly proceeded to write epics about what he took to be actual rulers and warriors under their own names.  In pastoral, unsurprisingly, the giants often prove to be windmills.  Any serious pastoralist must come to terms with the trivializing tendency endemic to the mode.

In this ambience, Paul J. Alpers might be judged the most romantic-minded hero of all.  He engages head on with the pastoral mode, taking the radical question What Is Pastoral? for his very title.  Even William Empson, that doughty but wily sniper, had cautiously claimed to consider only “some versions” of pastoral.  But so determined and well-versed is Alpers that he justifies his cause. We accept not only that there are giants lurking behind windmills in the pastoral scene, but that they may be directly addressed in some cases.  In other words, pastoral is not trivial.  It is a serious mode, its very lightness and conventionality part of that serious agenda. 

Yet it is light, conventional, and repetitive. One is tempted to entertain the paradox that a limitation might actually serve as a creative resource. Alpers virtually says as much, but he redefines the terms so that they cease to be limitations per se.  His chapter on pastoral convention is perhaps the most brilliant in the book.  Alpers traces the word “convention” to its root convenire, to gather or come together.  “A convention is a usage that brings human beings together; a pastoral convention brings them together under the figure of shepherds” (93).  It is not a mechanical practice but a “coming together in imaginative endeavor” (108), an active pattern of behavior chosen and shared with one’s fellows.  This view of convention enables Alpers to reverse Dr. Johnson’s notorious dismissal of  “Lycidas.”

Moreover, conventions are observed by the followers or adherents of an ethos, not its leader or initiator—not Daphnis, but the common shepherds who invoke his name, sing his songs and lament his death.  Alpers is not the first nor the last commentator to have noted the communal nature of pastoral—how its shepherds, brought into being by many poets over the centuries, seem to belong to a single world and draw on one another’s experiences.  Pastoral can thus be seen as a focused presentation of the poetic impulse itself, the impulse to articulate and aestheticize human experience and the human response to experience.

I do not know of any book to compare with Alpers in placing pastoral against the broad perspective of all poetry.  What Is Pastoral? is not Alpers’s first inquiry into the mode. Seventeen years earlier, he had published The Singer of the Eclogues. A Study of Virgilian Pastoral.[1]  Had he not progressed to the later book, The Singer of the Eclogues would still have marked him as a major commentator on the pastoral:  starting with Virgil but building up to some basic theoretical points about the mode, rather as Thomas Rosenmeyer does with Theocritus in The Green Cabinet.[2]  The Singer starts with translations of all the Eclogues.  There follows an elaborate analysis of Eclogue I, leading up to a core chapter on “The Pastoralism of the Eclogues” and a concluding one on “Virgil’s Higher Mood.”

The chapter on “Pastoralism” anticipates many of the insights of What Is Pastoral?  It introduces, though briefly, the idea of the “representative shepherd” who is a persona of the poet himself.  Most importantly, it develops the idea of “suspension” as the key intellectual register of pastoral: “a poised and secure contemplation of things disparate or ironically related, and yet at the same time [not implying] that disparities or conflicts are fully resolved” (Singer 103).  The term “suspension” is not important in What Is Pastoral?, but the idea is taken up and elaborated:  it lies at the heart of many ideas developed in the later book.

What Is Pastoral? ends up as a book of general poetic theory, not simply pastoral theory.  This is best exemplified in the chapter on convention, but there are other outstanding sections too.  The twin chapters on “Representative Shepherds” and “Pastoral Speakers” deserve special mention, as presenting familiar notions of pastoral in a radically new light.  We are accustomed to thinking of shepherds in pastoral as metaphors or allegories of various human functions and conditions—most prominently, perhaps, those of king, priest and poet.  One occupation, that of shepherd, is seen as standing for another.  If I understand Alpers correctly, he sees the shepherd instead as sharing the same basic state with the king, priest or poet:  they are participants in a common human condition.  In other words, the shepherd’s function is not metaphoric but metonymic.  Pastoral practice validates him as a specially apposite representative of all such states and persons.  Above all, the poet represents himself in and through the shepherd.  “The fictional representations and the self-representation are implicit in each other, and together they constitute the representative anecdote of pastoral” (161) 

Alpers introduces Kenneth Burke’s concept of the “representative anecdote” at the start of the book.  An anecdote, in Burke’s sense, is not necessarily (or even usually) narrative. It is a selective projection of reality, even perhaps a “deflection of reality,” affording the vocabulary for a “faithful reflection of reality” (Burke’s terms).[3]  Pastoral, in this sense, provides representative anecdotes of many facets of the human condition; its shepherds are characters featuring in these anecdotes.  (I repeat that we are not talking of anecdotal narrative.)  As said above, this view of pastoral is anticipated in Alpers’s earlier book The Singer of the Eclogues, and a sentence there might best sum up the idea:

What is so extraordinary about the poetic self-consciousness of the Eclogues is that it is like self-consciousness as Virgil depicts it in his shepherds—not self-enclosed, but prompted by and responsive to relationships.  Hence the verse, as one reads it, seems open and generous… .

(Singer 221) 

Obviously, such a view of the pastoral fiction places it in much closer and more direct contact with the world:  makes it, in the much-abused term, more “relevant” to our understanding of reality.  No less important, though more inwardly oriented to the framework of the fiction, is the notion of “pastoral speakers.”  Here Alpers moves away from representation to, shall we say, “designation.”  The “pastoral speaker” is not a truly representative figure in Burke’s or Alpers’s sense, above all in not being the poet’s self-representation.  Rather, such figures represent the original pastoral ethos in a new frame of conception and narrative that has basically eschewed that ethos:  at least they are not central to the thematic structure of the work.  Alpers cites David Halperin’s contention that Theocritus himself does not admit any category of the pastoral but only of the “bucolic,” placing shepherdly and non-shepherdly figures and situations side by side in a general treatment of ordinary or lowly people (145).  This is clearly taking us in the direction of Empson’s “simple man” vis-à-vis the “complex”:  a viable association in terms of modern pastoral theory, not so obviously viable with regard to ancient practice. 

Alpers does not accept Halperin’s reading of Theocritus; but he borrows Halperin’s concept to offer readings of Melibee in The Faerie Queene VI, Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Gravediggers in Hamlet and the shepherds in The Winter’s Tale.  In other words, he brings together formally pastoral and non-pastoral works.  In the process, he raises anew the tricky question of the precise pastoral status of The Winter’s Tale.

Clearly, in this chapter Alpers is leading us away from the full-fledged formal pastoral towards works which contain an element of the pastoral, presenting it through certain characters, settings or happenings as one component of a complex and varied structure, perhaps with a very different outcome.  There follows a chapter on the formal pastoral lyric, another on “Modern Pastoral Lyricism,” and two on pastoral narrative (the second focusing on novels with an explicit, though usually modified, pastoral element).

In one direction, needless to say, this final section addresses the development that most ensured the formal enrichment of pastoral:  its incorporation in drama and romance, largely in the sixteenth century though anticipated in that late classical work, Daphnis and Chloe.  In fact, Alpers places Daphnis and Chloe in an unaccustomed relation to its early modern successors, seeing it as a much more complex and suggestive work.  This is because it places shepherds at the center of the action (not entirely, one must demur).  By contrast, Renaissance pastoral romance (and to some extent drama, though Alpers says little of this outside Shakespeare) subordinates the shepherd to courtiers or other outsiders who enter and usually dominate his world.  The shepherd becomes a “pastoral speaker” rather than the pastoral protagonist.

In other words, Alpers is exchanging the “cyclic” structure usually stressed in pastoral narrative—court to country and back to court—in favor of another structure he finds more meaningful, marking the development of personalities, relationships and values primarily within the pastoral community.  Much pastoral romance and drama will not match this model; but another neglected yet sizeable section certainly will.  By drawing attention to it, Alpers not only rights the historical balance; he offers a new paradigm for pastoral narrative that might better draw out the potential of the mode.

Once he turns his attention to wider narrative designs, Alpers cannot help extending his view beyond the traditional and Virgilian, as any commentator today must do.  Pastoralism grows diffuse in this terrain, and there is every risk that its analysis may do so as well.  Alpers cannot completely avoid this risk.  These chapters (like the earlier ones) abound in sparkling readings of particular works, linking up with his general theoretical points.  But the links seem more tenuous than before, and sometimes, one feels, forged by stretching or playing around with words.  Again, the final section is full of general insights into pastoral, examples of how it realizes its potential—often the better for being free of the conventional frame.  But they seem less imperative, less versatile in their application, less touched by the universality that validates the best theoretical analysis.

This diffuseness relates, as I suggested above, to the nature of the material.  The pastoralism of Silas Marner or The Country of the Pointed Firs is a post facto pastoralism, read into these works from an earlier corpus formally so designated.  Wordsworth’s is an earlier and subtler case:  the corpus of formal pastoral is part of his literary memory, directly evoked in his deliberately different work, defining the latter in terms of earlier tradition. 

Pastoral enters into endless combinations with an open range of post-pastoral exercises, increasingly without reference to and apparently without knowledge of the formalized Virgilian legacy.  It is all the more telling that the legacy can be invoked to illuminate these later developments.

Walter Benjamin spoke of the afterlife (Nachleben) of a literary work.  What is true of the individual work might be truer still of a category or mode:  its diffused presence exceeds its formal life-span.  With respect to pastoral, no study of this open-ended development has compassed more than a fraction of the material.  Alpers’s may do no more, but it does no less.  And beyond the treatment of individual works, he has a special contribution matched by few others:  he provides an exceptionally strong theoretical framework for relating any appropriate work to the thematic and formal impulses we call pastoral, on the basis of a body of works written well over two thousand years ago.


Sukanta Chaudhuri

Jadavpur University


[1] Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

[2] Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

[3] Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 59, cited in What is Pastoral?, 13.




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Cite as:

Sukanta Chaudhuri, "Alpers, What is Pastoral?," Spenser Review 43.2.20 (Fall 2013). Accessed March 20th, 2018.
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