Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Sukanta Chaudhuri, ed., A Companion to Pastoral Poetry of the English Renaissance
by Melissa J. Rack

A Companion to Pastoral Poetry of the English Renaissance: An Anthology. Edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. Manchester UP, 2018. 336 pp. ISBN: 978-1526126986 $110.00. Hardcover.

The companion volume to Sukanta Chaudhuri’s anthology of Renaissance pastoral verse is an invaluable supplement and incisive contribution to the existing canon of pastoral theory.[1]  Chaudhuri’s eloquent critical introduction justifies and contextualises the unique selections within the anthology, alongside close readings that illustrate the potentialities of a diffuse mode marked by a persistent conceptual paradigm. In his capacious definition of pastoral, the author proposes the mode extends chronologically beyond the oft-cited endpoint in Milton’s Lycidas, and formally beyond the boundaries of classical eclogue, crossing in diverse manifestations into other forms: georgic, ode, romance and drama, preserving dominant motifs even as its sheds the structural constraints of traditional Virgilian design. This genre-traversing conception of pastoral is what Chaudhuri espouses, extending Renato Poggioli’s notion of the persistence of the pastoral ideal ‘under many names and disguises’.[2] In addition to its lengthy critical introduction, the volume includes numbered textual notes which indicate source editions and line variants for each of the anthology’s 277 poems, a segment with succinct biographical notes on its authors, and an incredibly useful analytical index. This last feature is a treasure scholars will find especially valuable, for it conveniently groups the poems by genre, theme or motif, pastoral or fictional name, mythological, biblical and historical names or allusions and geographical and mythological place names. Early modernists will no doubt find merit in the subtleties of Chaudhuri’s intertextual mapping, and Spenserians in particular would enjoy the author’s sketch of Spenser’s impact on both contemporary and subsequent versions of English pastoral, principally in the unique collection of verse known as England’s Helicon (1600), and notably in the work of Michael Drayton, Phineas and Giles Fletcher, William Browne, George Wither and Christopher Brooke.

The volume’s introduction is helpfully divided into titled sections in which Chaudhuri explores the driving ‘energy’ of pastoral, beginning with a gesture to the mode’s fusion of folk and popular lore, alongside a brief primer of its overarching conventions: landscape as metaphor, shepherd as trope, etc. To clarify Harry Levin’s assessment of pastoral as characteristically repetitive, the author explains how the mode applies and repeats the conventions of a mere handful of source texts in a multiplicity of themes, forms and genres.[3] Chaudhuri refutes Levin’s contention that pastoral is driven by an ‘emotional charge’, and suggests instead it is pastoral’s contextual and tropological energy that underlies the mode’s innately metonymic experiential process, and its diverse application to a seemingly vast array of subjects. Confirming Paul Alpers’s observation that ‘the ethos of a work informs its technique and that technique implies an ethos’, Chaudhuri maintains that pastoral is best understood as a mode because its nostalgia infers an imaginative paradigm indebted as much to a topos as a point of view.[4]

The volume begins with Theocritus’ Idylls (ca. 300 BCE), which Chaudhuri names as a point of modal origin, albeit with an acknowledgement of earlier renderings via a nod to David M. Halperin’s work on the pre-Alexandrian bucolic tradition.[5] Theocritus is a significant starting point for Chaudhuri’s discussion of ‘art-pastoral’ and ‘allusive pastoral’, for in Theocritus he finds the source of the former, which he describes as a vein of pastoral ‘contentedly following its lowly, even trivial pursuits, oblivious of any externalised, purposeful world’, and framed by a self-referential paradigm that foregrounds the aesthetic and the imaginary (5). In his discussion, Chaudhuri usefully catalogues the stock themes, structures and characters derived from Theocritus, as well as classical sources of other common pastoral topoi. His theoretical counterpoint to art-pastoral is ‘allusive pastoral’, which is externally referential and firmly grounded in the real. The source for this type is Virgil’s adaptation of a Theocritean model in the Eclogues (37 BCE), and it is to Virgil that Chaudhuri also attributes the origins of Arcadia as a setting, the notion of pastoral community and the consolidation of the Hesiodic notion of the Golden Age (notably in Eclogue IV). Following William Empson, Chaudhuri reminds us that pastoral nostalgia for the Golden Age contrasts the ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ man in a remote, historical locale.[6] As the idealised simple man is oft-represented as subordinate to the complex, this juxtaposition sets up a curious paradox in which pastoral nostalgia becomes not so much backward-looking as a reflection on the unrealised potential of the present, particularly in later, Christian representations of the Earthly Paradise as precursor to the New Jerusalem.

Chaudhuri establishes a precise schema of classification with a broad application. He takes care to distinguish the allegorical function of art-pastoral from the metonymic function of allusive pastoral, drawing on Roman Jakobson’s concept of literal association, or ‘contiguity’, and Walter Benjamin’s distinction between the allegorist and the ‘collector’.[7] He untangles the false conflation of allusion and allegory, and explains that whereas allusion is metonymic, allegory is metaphoric. This contrast is obscured when the two are used in combination, as in Virgil’s first eclogue, in which the poet presents himself as a shepherd piping (via metonymy), yet also compares a shepherd guiding his flocks to a king guiding his subjects (via metaphor). Alongside this functional contrast are foundational contrasts (country vs. city/court; fictive/aesthetic vs. topical/ real) that are potentially illustrated more fully in larger forms like romance and drama. Conversely, in the domain of small-scale lyric, pastoral expansiveness is realised in part through structural design. The idyll (‘little picture’ or ‘sketch’) and the eclogue (‘selection’) harbour an intermittent, episodic quality that provides for easy inclusion into larger sequences. Likewise, the georgic’s reversal of the traditional pastoral focus on otium (in its concern with toil) reframes pastoral fiction as a more inclusive space, embracing all human life and experience. This inclusiveness is underscored by the recurrence of typical names derived from Theocritus (Daphnis, Tityrus, Melioboeus, Thyrsis, Corydon, Thestylis, Amarillis, etc.), which evokes a greater narrative with a comforting consistency. Chaudhuri contends it is this metaphoric and metonymic layering, alongside a representation of experiential inclusivity, that is key to the endurance and range of this literary mode.

Moving chronologically, Chaudhuri traces the evolution of Renaissance art-pastoral and allusive pastoral by identifying corresponding medieval strains of the mode that display competing definitions of rural life, or what A.O. Lovejoy and George Boas refer to as ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ primitivism. These categories illustrate the tension between the aesthetic and moral idealism inherent in rustic life and the reality of its hardships, often engendered by an unjust political system.[8] This contrast is due in part to divergent literary progenitors. The former, ‘soft’ primitivism, is the purview of art-pastoral, in which otium is the governing principle in a recreative world of lusus pastoralis which foregrounds the flexibility of genre and renders a mythic ‘pastoral religion’ with its own pagan gods and goddesses. Its lyric progenitors are folk and popular poetry, quasi-pastoral forms like spring songs (the reverdie), love songs, dance songs, carols, the virelai or ballata, the pastourelle, indigenous country songs such as the frottola and the madrigal, which lend a brevity and distinctive simplicity to later Elizabethan pastoral. This stands in marked contrast to allusive pastoral, which follows the vein of William Langland’s Piers Plowman (ca.1370) in its concern with the moral condemnation of courtly corruption, and the injustice of social and economic disparity. These models are revealed in Chaudhuri’s choices in the anthology, which in turn illustrate the reception, revision, and relationship between these two pastoral strains. 

The interplay of art-pastoral and allusive pastoral is key to Chaudhuri’s reading of The Shepheardes Calender (1579). In his initial consideration of the poem’s allusive nature, he notes that Spenser aligns ecclesiastical allusion (in ‘Maye’, ‘Julye’ and ‘September’) with historical allusion, using references to the poet’s own life and times by means of the persona of Colin Clout. While these allusions are also didactic, as even the eclogues featuring personal / historical allusion (‘November’, ‘Aprill’, ‘Februarye’ and ‘Maye’) offer moralising tales, themes and elements (such as the moral fables of ‘Februarye’ and ‘Maye’), art-pastoral dominates as Spenser’s historical allusions are dismantled by the Calender’s elaborate thematic and structural fiction. E.K. plays a significant role in establishing the poem’s fictionality as he projects an imaginative lens onto the Calender’s allusions via an inventive critical apparatus. Spenser’s pastoral intertext, alongside the intertextuality of the poem’s metrical and stanzaic innovations –his use of forms that reference earlier forms and their corresponding source-texts – further deconstructs the poem’s historical allusions by means of an aesthetic infrastructure. Likewise, the complex web of relationships spun by the Calender’s intertextuality, its layering of personae and the characters which come to life in the quasi-georgic cast of its woodcuts, collaborate to impose a societal structure on Spenser’s fiction, forming an intertextual, transnational and transhistorical community of poets. This, Chaudhuri contends, is Spenser’s gift to the subsequent body of English Renaissance pastoral, written by poets who, through their references to Colin Clout, are citizens of the pastoral community Spenser has created.

In addition to this sense of pastoral belonging and community, The Shepheardes Calender offered later poets a point of pastoral origin far more immediate than Virgil. Yet, Chaudhuri explains, although Spenser’s model supplemented the Virgilian corpus, it also far exceeded it in variation on genres, forms, and topoi. Likewise, the narrative of Sidney’s Arcadia (1590) showcased the wide array of poetic forms available to English lyricists in its extended Virgilian eclogues, short lyrics, elaborate odes or canzones and sophisticated forms with intricate rhyme schemes, such as the sestina, dizaine or crown, alongside poems in quantitative meter. Chaudhuri suggests that even the Arcadia’s non-pastoral verse is significant for the development of English pastoral, for these poems, in their pastoral context, function as ‘conductors of pastoralism’ (41). This legacy of pastoral possibility is notably manifest in the diverse forms represented in England’s Helicon: selections from prose narratives, poetic collections, plays, entertainments and translations. As an anthology of Renaissance pastoral verse, England’s Helicon links the entire formal corpus of English poetry under the guise of a single mode, framing pastoral as a force of unification. As such, this multi-modal conception of pastoral replaced, for Elizabethan poets, the more formally limited (albeit germinative) Virgilian model.

Chaudhuri’s anthology includes several lyrics from England’s Helicon that reflect on Calidore’s encounter on Mount Acidale in The Faerie Queene, Book VI. The author notes that among Spenser’s unique innovations there is his crafting of a mythical, often supernatural space that adapts reality (the Irish landscape) to imaginative purposes. This dual setting of nature / not nature (but Faerie) frames a dialogue between rural and courtly, between ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ in ‘a sustained assessment of the courtly ideal’ (38). The Acidale passage, which Chaudhuri includes in his anthology, connects human actions and relations with an archetypal, transcendent world, informed by nature and myth. This wellspring of human knowledge is more accessible to shepherd-poets than knights, as the dancers vanish upon Calidore’s approach. Framed by pastoral, the aesthetic space of that moment is pastoral. In its representation of the limitlessness of pastoral (and poetic) imagination, and of the mode itself, Chaudhuri contends that Calidore’s experience ‘is arguably the profoundest revaluation of pastoral ever made, the high point of the entire mode’ (39).

Following this delightful reading, Chaudhuri’s volume traces Spenserianism in later English lyric, with considerable attention to Michael Drayton. While pastoral is thought to be the default mode for lyric forms, the author explains that as pastoral’s scope is formally expanded, it ‘[draws] into itself the concerns of other kinds of poetry’ (46).  In other words, whereas lyric forms make use of the pastoral mode, in the development of the latter’s generic inclusiveness, pastoral forms (pastoral poems) make use of the lyric mode, incorporating song-like elements to craft a distinctively aesthetic space. This sheds particular light on Drayton’s progression as a poet in his revisions of Idea the Shepherd’s Garland (1593). The initial version, while a clear imitation of Spenser’s Calender, has a heavier, more didactic tone than its model, offset in revision by three lighter, playful, in-set songs. The incorporation of lyric into extended pastoral structures is a characteristic of Drayton’s verse, but a paradox as well, as Drayton mediates the weightier concerns of his lengthy, complex poems with the increasing lightness of his lyric versification. In contrast to Drayton, the younger Spenserians take on a more allusive strategy as characters in their own fiction. William Browne of Tavistock (Willy), George Wither (Roget) and Christopher Brooke (Cuttie) exploit the allusive nature of pastoral, both historical and personal, to examine public matters by rendering the pastoral shepherd as trope – as ruler, as priest, as artist, as social commentator, etc. Browne’s Brittania’s Pastorals (Bk I, 1613; Bk II, 1616) (unfinished, in true Spenserian fashion) makes use of a pastoral structure as the framework for an expansive narrative with divergent themes and actions, a method also employed by Phineas and Giles Fletcher, and one which further demonstrates the inclusiveness of the mode.

These Spenserians display the early signs of a shift towards allusive pastoral in the seventeenth century, in which pastoral sparred with anti-pastoral, or ‘country’ poetry in its reflection of divergent political concerns (establishmentarian / royalist v. parliamentarian / puritan). The volume includes a fine reading of Milton’s Lycidas, in which Chaudhuri names the severance of the poem’s pastoral and elegiac components as its primary destabilising element. Milton’s pastoral elements frame real-world concerns, whereas Lycidas is removed from that imaginative / real space in death and resurrection to an imaginative / non-real space. Chaudhuri contends that Milton’s very redefinition of pastoral practice in ‘combining [pastoral strategies] and playing them off each against the rest … sets up a dramatically new structural principle for what, externally considered, we must call an eclogue’ (68).

Herein is a minor yet persistent point of indeterminacy, for the author’s definition of the phrase ‘formal eclogue’ is implied rather than articulated, at times appearing synonymous with ‘Virgilian eclogue’, but later problematised by further sub-categories like ‘piscatory eclogue’ (Phineas Fletcher’s Eclogue VII), or seeming to reference the structural frame of any pastoral poem. Such fuzziness is likely inherent in the term itself, as ‘eclogue’ is commonly defined as merely ‘a short pastoral poem’. What is clear, however, is that Chaudhuri views the eclogue as the traditional vehicle of pastoral, and that the pastoral’s expansive flexibility coincides with the undoing of structural constraints. This understanding of pastoral by a “thematic or conceptual paradigm rather than by specific points of fiction or convention” ingeniously accounts for the mode’s inversion from frame (as eclogue) to mode (as pastoral), to frame (as a pastoral poem employing the lyric mode) and back again, offering scholars infinite possibilities for interpretation (95). While genre theory is often subjective and always slippery, Chaudhuri navigates its uncertain ground with elegant dexterity. His perceptive insight and profound critical acumen will undoubtedly ensure the resonance of this remarkable contribution to our understanding of Renaissance pastoral verse.


Melissa J. Rack

University of South Carolina


[1] See William Rhodes’ earlier review of Chaudhuri’s anthology in The Spenser Review:

[2] Renato Poggioli, The Oaten Flute: Essays on Pastoral Poetry and the Pastoral ideal, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975, p. 33.

[3] Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance, 1969, rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 7.

[4] Paul Alpers, What is Pastoral?, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 44.

[5] David M. Halperin, Before Pastoral. Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983, p. 2 and references there.

[6] William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1966, p. 19.

[7] Roman Jakobson, ‘Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Linguistic Disturbances’: see David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory, London: Longman, 1988, rpt. 1991, pp. 57-61; and Walter Benjamin, Arcades, H4a, I, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, rpt. 2002, p. 211.

[8] Vol. 1 of A.O. Lovejoy et al., A Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935.


  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Melissa J. Rack, "Sukanta Chaudhuri, ed., A Companion to Pastoral Poetry of the English Renaissance," Spenser Review 48.3.8 (Fall 2018). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
Not logged in or