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Sukanta Chaudhuri, ed., Pastoral Poetry of the English Renaissance: An Anthology
by William Rhodes

Pastoral Poetry of the English Renaissance: An Anthology. Edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. Manchester UP, 2016. xxvi + 557 pp. ISBN: 978-1526109057 $90.00 cloth.

This volume brings together a staggering array of pastoral poetry in English from the late fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In 277 poems, it manages to feel both voraciously expansive and meticulously selective. The anthology pulls this off thanks to the enormous amount of material there is to choose from: even at about 550 pages, it is clear how much Chaudhuri had to exclude. And so, without any excerpts from William Shakespeare’s plays or any of Andrew Marvell’s mower poems, Chaudhuri seems to have opted to instead create space for lesser known works, including a handful that are printed here for the first time. Rather than devoting a big chunk of this anthology to Marvell’s famous Upon Appleton House, for example, he includes the anonymous country house poem All Hail to Hatfield, which while not as long, is as intricate and, sometimes, even as surprising as Marvell’s masterpiece.

The fact that country house poems are even included points to another strength of this volume: its expansive definition of pastoral. While the majority of these poems are about or sung by shepherds, the selections also include excerpts from Michael Drayton’s chorographical poem Poly-Olbion, examples of Plowman literature like Of Gentleness and Nobility, a generous representation of popular ballads, and general celebrations of rural life and landscape like Thomas Churchyard’s “Of the Quietness that Plain Country Bringeth.” Even when a poem adheres mostly to pastoral conventions (a shepherd or group of shepherds singing or talking in an idyllic landscape), Chaudhuri find unusual gems like “A Pastoral Riddle” from a manuscript at Cambridge University Library. The sonnet begins predictably enough with a shepherd and a “damsell,” before we learn that her body is full of eyes, and that she can’t speak unless a shepherd tries to kiss her. This is because this “damsell” is, as a marginal note in the manuscript helpfully explains, “a bagpipe or flute” (207). It might not be the cleverest riddle or the most artful sonnet, but it demonstrates the vast range of applications that the pastoral mode had throughout the Renaissance. Pastoral conventions could give voice to anything from a historical recreation of pre-Roman Britain (songs from Jasper Fisher’s Fuimos Troes, 437-38) to the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation (Edward Fairfax’s “Hermes and Lycaon,” 395-400). Margaret Cavendish brutally dispenses with pastoral’s playful illusions in her anti-pastoral “A Description of Shepherds and Shepherdesses,” where herds of sheep do not graze, but, like a bunch of ticks, “to the mounts steep sides … hanging feed” (521). Meanwhile badly dressed shepherds sing harsh songs that might please “Joan his love at home,” but never anyone that’s “nicely bred” (522).

This expansive selection of pastoral and pastoral-ish verse extends to the volume’s inclusion of copious translations, not only from the expected sources of Theocritus and Virgil, but also from Spanish, Italian, French, and neo-Latin poets. This is one of the best things about this anthology, so it is a relatively minor quibble that these translations are organized by the date of the source text, and not of the translation. Given that the volume is organized chronologically, this means that the first part of it contains translations of Theocritus and Virgil from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which in some ways seem to obscure one of the points of arranging the volume chronologically: to show lines of influence. While Virgil and Theocritus might have started a tradition that influenced Spenser, for example, Spenser’s pastorals influenced subsequent translators of Virgil or Theocritus. Hence, the first poem in the collection is an anonymous translation from 1588 of Theocritus’s “Idyll VIII.” This translation concludes with Spenserian emblems invented by the translator for the poem’s three speakers, clearly under the sway of The Shepheardes Calender (3). Treating this work as if it comes “before” Spenser because it is a translation of an ancient text mixes up the intervening influences that change the way a source text can be transmitted to a target language and literary culture.

Aside from this editorial decision about the placement of the translations in the volume, the selections themselves are fascinating, because they display the distinct currents that flow together to form English Renaissance pastoral. Shortly before the volume presents aureate productions like Samuel Daniel’s translation of Tasso’s “Golden Age Chorus” from Aminta, we get Alexander Barclay’s original additions to his translations of Mantuan’s bitter pastoral satires, which eschew the beguiling fantasies of rural otium, and instead offer one shepherd’s harsh self-portrait: “See howe my handes are with many a gall, / And stiffe as a borde by worke continuall, / My face all scoruy, my colour pale and wan, / My head all parched and blacke as any pan” (50). Like Cavendish’s puncturing of pastoral conventions with sharp realism in her anti-pastorals, Barclay represents a strain of class-conscious poetry about rural labor that is attuned to the hardships of living and working outside. While this is usually described in connection with an old-fashioned, medieval mode of “native” Plowman literature that is eventually supplanted by the courtly eclogue in the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, this anthology bears out the recent work of scholars like Katherine C. Little who trace the persistence of critical poetry about rural labor up to the seventeenth century.[1] An excerpt from William Browne’s Britannia’s Pastorals of 1616, for example, reprises a familiar critique of enclosure from the “Commonwealth” literature of the mid-sixteenth century: “The poore must starue to feede a scuruy beast,” while the King’s favorites prosper only by “being Parasites” (371). The section of Spenser’s work shows how he joins this critical tradition of pastoral to its idealizing capacities in The Shepheards Calender thanks to the inclusion of the courtly “April” eclogue alongside the topical satire of “July” (69-73, 78-83).

The dichotomy between critical and idealizing pastoral can’t be used to categorize every poem in this volume (where would we put the riddle?), but it does point up one reason why reading pastoral now is especially vital. Thanks to works like Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, questions about why and how “the hermeneutics of suspicion” remain so powerful in literary studies have taken center stage. [2] At times, surveying a collection of pastoral this vast demands Felski’s “postcritical” orientation. The sheer volume of pastoral poetry here invites a certain kind of enchantment and receptivity, both to read it with pleasure and to understand why so many took such pleasure in writing it. Maybe I will want to accept some of these invitations to dally by pleasant springs, enjoy fresh cheese, and dance with handsome shepherds and shepherdesses, instead of looking for the serpent under the flowers. After a while, identifying this or that convention, perceiving possible political allusions, and recognizing the artificiality of the whole thing loses whatever appeal it may have had. The repetitive fantasy, like reading a bunch of superhero comics, becomes its own allure.  This is to approach pastoral as Thomas G. Rosenmeyer sees it in the work of Theocritus, in which the point is not to disguise weighty matters to be decoded by knowing readers, but rather to celebrate immediate pleasure through art: “Theocritus’ otium is […] the vital experience of a moment which it is known will be brief, but which is so fully entertained that the future and the past are largely shut out. The emphasis is on the right moment, on the proper season, not on a habit or a lasting order.” [3]

While this perspective might enhance for a while the pleasure of the reader being carried along through what Raymond Williams dismissed as the “enamelled world” of Renaissance pastoral, it doesn’t take long before a poem insists on being decoded as it registers a searing critique of rural life or contemporary politics [4] This is when the post-Theocritan pastoral of William Empson—“putting the complex into the simple”—asserts itself. [5] When satirical critique, occlusion, and encoding are part of the very DNA of the mode, pastoral seems to demand suspicious reading. The strength of this anthology lies in its breadth, which enables us to see the ugly and the pretty, the violent and the serene, or the violence always lurking beneath the serenity of a fantasy of traditional life. As such, it poses a challenge or a case study for the divergent possibilities of critical and post-critical reading; the anthology shows that pastoral poetry has been playing with this divergence between enchantment and suspicion for a very long time, and that is the source of its strength and its vital importance to contemporary debates in literary studies.

The anthology’s breadth extends to the aesthetic range of these poems as well. For every intricate stanza extolling the musical prowess and shady bowers of the shepherds, there seems to be a ballad measure punctuated with a simple refrain. A learned exercise in quantitative meter will sit alongside a romp in fourteeners. The section on Spenser emerges from this stylistic whirl, and shows Spenser harnessing its energies. While the headnote to the section on Spenser claims that The Shepheardes Calender “marks the virtual start of formal pastoral poetry in Elizabethan England,” Spenser’s appearance here is exciting in large part because he doesn’t start on his own, but adds a unique strain to an already-busy chorus. Scores of poets would join this chorus under Spenser’s influence, so the publication of this volume as part of the Manchester Spenser series makes a great deal of sense. Spenser is presented as the central figure of English Renaissance pastoral here, but for Spenserians who already know his work and his influence well, this anthology provides a welcome chance to be reminded of gems like Philip Sidney’s description of a cat from the “Second Eclogues” of the Arcadia:

A king vpon a mouse, a strong foe to the rat,
Fine eares, long taile he hath, with Lions curbed clawe,
Which oft he lifteth vp, and stayes his lifted pawe,
Deepe musing to himselfe, which after-mewing showes,
Till with lickt beard, his eye of fire espie his foes. (107)

And if you prefer loftier themes than musing, fire-eyed cats, the anthology offers William Drummond’s striking “Fragment of a Greater Work,” which begins with an unexpected pastoral simile to evoke the sublimity of spiritual contemplation:

As vhen a sheaphard boy from fearful hight
Of steepie rocke lookes to some groundless deep,
Even so vhen I vith troublet thochts behold
Beyond vorlds firie clostere dec vith beames
Him in eternitie […]
I quake, I sound;
Amaz’d, I’m made like to the sensles ground. (393)

Meanwhile, the worldly dimensions of pastoral are amply expressed in Richard Fanshawe’s “An Ode Upon Occasion of His Majesty’s Proclamation,” which ranges from Holland and France to Poland, Russia, Turkey, and Persia in a highly topical pastoral of 1630 (434-37).

In short, Pastoral Poetry of the English Renaissance lives up to its ambition to be the largest anthology of its kind, and not just through sheer quantity alone, but through a selection that reflects an appreciation of the immense range of things that pastoral poetry can do. A brief introduction offers a quick history of the pastoral mode from Theocritus through the Middle Ages before sketching a map of English Renaissance pastoral that locates the major figures and their circles of influence, while also previewing the diversity of this “infinitely versatile trope” (xxv). This introduction provides a useful framework for navigating the expansive collection that follows by highlighting pastoral’s artistic and allusive range. The volume as a whole shows that pastoral and its related modes are an especially rich area for exploring and historicizing debates about critical practice in literary studies, and it will prove to be an invaluable resource for early modernists and literary historians for years to come. When a forthcoming companion volume appears with analytical indices, full textual notes, and an extended introduction with information on the authors, Professor Chaudhuri’s collection will be hard to surpass for researchers looking to discover the farther reaches of Renaissance pastoral.


William Rhodes
University of Pittsburgh


[1] Katherine C. Little, Transforming Work: Early Modern Pastoral and Late Medieval Poetry, U of Notre Dame P, 2013.

[2] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique, U of Chicago P, 2015.

[3] Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Green Cabinet: Theocritus and the European Pastoral Lyric, U of California P, 1969, p. 86.

[4] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, Oxford UP, 1973, p. 18.

[5] William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, New Directions, 1974, p. 22.


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Cite as:

William Rhodes, "Sukanta Chaudhuri, ed., Pastoral Poetry of the English Renaissance: An Anthology ," Spenser Review 47.2.27 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed September 20th, 2018.
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