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Alpers, What is Pastoral?
by Syrithe Pugh

Alpers, Paul. What Is Pastoral?  The University of Chicago Press, 1996; pbk. 1997. 444 pp. ISBN: 9780226015170. $23 paper. 


Alpers’s magisterial What Is Pastoral? ranges with enormous confidence and poise from Theocritus to Wallace Stevens and the late twentieth-century novel (John Berger’s Pig Earth), and represents the culmination of decades of meditating the sylvan muse.  As well as numerous articles on Renaissance pastoral—returning frequently to The Shepheardes Calender and including valuable work on Milton and others—Alpers’s previous work also included an impressive demonstration of his classical learning in The Singer of the Eclogues [1], a study of Virgil’s pastoral poems, prefaced by a fine translation, which helped to provoke dialogue between Classics and English Studies by stirring interest on both side of the disciplinary divide, and which anticipates many of the arguments of What Is Pastoral?  Even his first monograph, The Poetry of  The Faerie Queene (1967), could be said in some ways to belong to this deep continuity of thought.  It’s not only the discussion of the pastoral cantos of Book VI, which survives largely unchanged through later incarnations in an article for ELH and chapter 5 of the pastoral book.[2]  His meticulous attention to what he called the surface of the poem, the effect of the verse as it unfolds from line to line, is of a piece with the sensitive and sustained close readings which are the jewel in the crown of What Is Pastoral?, and recurrent emphases of his later analysis of pastoral—its “suspension” of difference without resolution, its rhetorical nature and the relative insignificance of landscape—are foreshadowed in his description of the mode of writing in The Faerie Queene as conveying different perspectives without rendering judgement (336) and concerned with rhetorical effect rather than constructing a fictive “world” (19-35). What appealed to him in pastoral seems akin to what he found attractive in Spenser from the start.

The final form he gave to this ongoing meditation was provoked, he tells us, by “two irritants”: modern criticism’s association of pastoral with “naive idyllicism,” and the “ungoverned inclusiveness” with which it uses the term (ix). His warnings against both temptations were salutary, and have been heeded by subsequent critics.

Alpers traces the tendency among modern critics to characterize pastoral as an escapist mode to ideas expressed by Schiller in his categories of “naive” and “sentimental” poetry. Sentimental poetry arises from civilized man’s alienation from nature, which was apprehended and imitated simply and directly by the naive poet in the childhood of culture, and reflects his inescapable sense of a divide between the ideal and the actual. Alpers argues convincingly that all modern criticism which emphasizes nostalgia for a lost Golden Age or idealized landscape are drawn by their Schillerian assumptions into a view of pastoral as merely backward-looking and self-indulgent.[3]

Against the emphasis on idealized landscape, Alpers proposes that we focus instead on the human figures—what he calls “the representative anecdote of herdsmen and their lives” (26), quickly expanding this to “herdsmen or their equivalents” (28). The term “representative anecdote,” which he borrows from Kenneth Burke, does not refer to the way such subject-matter marks a particular work as representative of the pastoral mode—it wouldn’t be enough to do so, in Alpers’s view. Rather, it refers to the way genuinely pastoral texts make herdsmen or their equivalents “representative of some other or of all other men and / or women” (26). These “equivalents” come onto the scene, in the diachronic account of pastoral which follows the first three chapters’ theoretical work of definition, with Shakespeare: thereafter, a “pastoral speaker” need not have anything to do with shepherding. To understand what makes them qualify, we must refer to chapter 2, where Alpers explains what he means by defining pastoral as a “mode” by focussing on the view it presents of human “strength relative to world.”[4] The shepherd’s powerlessness in practical terms, though at times accompanied by a moral “strength in humility,” is taken as definitive, and “precisely” what makes him “representative” of humanity (50).

This refocusing broadens our sense of the scope of pastoral. The notion of “representative shepherds” valuably emphasizes the importance of analogy, whereby pastoral poetry refers to something outside itself, and connects with the present rather than being consumed by nostalgia for the past. Such an emphasis informs much important work on pastoral: the play of analogy has been highlighted as central to Theocritus’ bucolic idylls by Gutzwiller, and Iser has taken pastoral as paradigmatic of fiction in the mirroring by which it does not merely reflect but constitutes and refashions the socio-political world.[5] The most important fruit of this shift of attention in Alpers’s own work is his insistence on “pastoral’s capacity to represent political realities” (162).[6] Demonstrating through close reading of Virgil’s Eclogue 1 that vulnerability to political power and all forms of loss, death and separation is closely woven into the fabric of pastoral from (what he sees as) the beginning,[7] he brings this to bear in consummate readings of As You Like It and Lycidas, which argue convincingly that moments often seen as disrupting, ironizing or transcending pastoral are in fact integral to it.

These readings figure largely in Chapter 3, in which he analyses literary convention in this “notoriously conventional” mode (79) in relation to social convening, as represented in the song contests and, especially, scenes of shared mourning which provide the motive for so many pastoral poems. Pastoral takes human life as “a matter of common plights and common pleasures,” and its conventions are the product of human beings coming together to agree on methods which enable them to “deal with” such plights collectively, sustaining society through song (93). This is an invigorating approach to conventionality, a word which has so often prompted the reflex action of shutting a book with a yawn. But it is telling that Alpers takes the elegiac lament, and not the song contest, as the paradigmatic form of this convening. Resignation in the face of inescapable loss fits his identification of the powerlessness and vulnerability of the shepherd as the essence of pastoral, and the idea of lament merging into and generating ritual sits comfortably with the conservative aesthetic underlying his continual emphasis on the way pastoral “suspends” any hint of dissonance “in the harmonies of verse” (169). Such quiet “suspension” is harder to reconcile with the agon literalized in the amoebaean song contest. It is possible to find echoes of this agon in many aspects of pastoral—not least in its handling of convention—and where I take issue with Alpers is in his inclination to downplay such conflict on all fronts.

Firstly, the universality of his representative shepherds minimizes their individuality and any sense of agon between them: everyone represents everyone else, to the extent that, but for the insistence on communal and social values, dialogue might as well be monologue. In Eclogue 1, Tityrus and Meliboeus even represent each other.[8] The idea is hard to square with Tityrus’s startling insensitivity when he vows, in his gratitude to his benefactor,


Ante leves ergo pascentur in aethere cervi,

et freta destituent nudos in litore piscis,

ante pererratis amborum finibus exsul

aut Ararim Partus bibet aut Germania Tigrim,

quam nostro illius labatur pectore voltus


[sooner light-footed stags will graze in air,

The waves will strand their fish bare on the shore;

Sooner in exile, their borders having been crossed,

Will Gauls and Persians drink each other’s streams,

Than shall his features slip out of our hearts (trans. Alpers)]


Tityrus seems not even to notice that, far from being a measure of the impossible, “the migrations of [his] adynaton are to be a bitter reality for Meliboeus—and for those like him.”[9] But Alpers gives no credence to the idea that this displays a lack of sympathy, tact and understanding on Tityrus’s part, and finds “differences and distress suspended” here, as in all pastoral (173).

Despite his recognition of the presence of political themes, we can see from this that Alpers resists the darker implications of the so-called “pessimistic” or “Harvard” school of Virgil criticism, which began to tackle the Eclogues in the 1970s.[10] The Harvard School tends to see the threats to the Virgil’s pastoral community as undermining the more optimistic elements of the Eclogues—Tityrus’s good fortune and gratitude, the Golden Age prophecy of eclogue 4, the catasterism of Daphnis (widely taken as an allegory of Julius Caesar) in eclogue 5—to articulate grave doubts about the political future of Rome under Octavian and Antony. Since Alpers takes Virgil’s Eclogues as the measure of true pastoral, this has wide ramifications. Harvard School commentators emphasize the gulf in Eclogue 1 between the perspectives of Meliboeus and Tityrus, as between their situations, a gulf which Patterson highlights as “structured so as to provoke … an ideological response.”[11] This possibility of conflict between different ideological positions, and potentially between the poet and political power, is another form of agon minimized by Alpers, but one which seems to have been important in the subsequent pastoral tradition.

The gulf between the perspectives of Meliboeus and Tityrus is, to take a familiar example, a feature of the Eclogues which Spenser repeatedly exploits in his imitation of Virgil, and he seems to do so with an eye to its political implications. Since the self-presentation of the Shepheardes Calender invites us to compare it with Virgil’s Eclogues, and given the traditional identification (from Servius on) of Tityrus with Virgil, we expect in its opening eclogue to meet a shepherd resembling Tityrus and representing the poet. To make sure we bring this expectation consciously with us, EK draws the analogy explicitly in his first gloss, “vnder which name the poet secretly shadoweth himself, as did sometime Virgil vnder Tityrus.” But we find Colin not reclining in the shade praising his benefactor, but in despair. Where Tityrus’s good fortune comes from his encounter with the “godlike youth” Octavian at Rome, Colin’s trip to “the neighbour towne” has resulted in the unrequited love and hard usage he now laments, his state of mind reflected in the wintry environment which offers no protection to himself or to his flock. Rather than the expected Tityrus, Colin resembles instead the disaffected exile Meliboeus, struck down in eclogue 1 by the very powers in Rome which have preserved Tityrus’s happiness, and like Meliboeus vowing to “sing no more songs,” Colin ends by breaking his pipes.[12] Virgil’s dialogue is replaced by a monologue representing only the critical voice of pastoral, which in Sidney’s words “out of Meliboeus’ mouth can show the misery of people under hard lords or ravening soldiers.” Tityrus is present only in the disappointed expectations of the reader, and in the pointedly misleading gloss of EK. In June, Colin like Meliboeus laments his exile:


But I vnhappy man, whom cruell fate,

And angry Gods pursue from coste to coste,

Can nowhere fynd, to shroude my luckless pate.



Hobbinol invites him to enjoy the pleasant “shades” of the dales, where “shades” recalls the shade of the spreading beech which shelters Tityrus in eclogue 1, and the patronage it had come to symbolize.[13] Hobbinol’s description of this idyllic setting, “where shepherds ritch / And fruictfull flocks bene euery where to see” (21-22), centers on a dance of nymphs, Graces and Muses recalling Aprill’s lay of Elisa. The lay is the only example we have had so far of Colin’s earlier poetic production, which Hobbinol goes on to praise, and a song in which, at some point in the past, the now “alienate and withdrawen” Colin accorded divine honours to his ruler—in other words, an example of the Tityrean voice of eclogue 1. Hobbinol is clearly recommending the circle of praise and patronage exemplified by Tityrus and described by Montrose.[14] But Colin actively rejects the invitation, citing the misdeeds of that same Rosalind who was the cause of his cares in Januarye as the reason for his principled, and not enforced, continuation of Meliboean complaint—a self-imposed figurative exile in place of a return to dutiful praise of his ruler. Such antagonism surely informs the pastoral interlude in The Faerie Queene, too, but again Alpers collapses it into a Tityrean quietism. Somewhat surprisingly, given his use of the Spenserian “Melibee” to translate Meliboeus in The Singer of the Eclogues, his treatment of Book VI nowhere draws any connection between the two characters, linking Melibee only to Virgil’s Tityrus, with the effect of emphasizing his social conservatism at the expense of his anti-court satire. His discussion of the pastoral cantos ends with the claim that the courtly Spenser “renounces pastoral” (194), on the evidence of the unsympathetic portrayal of Coridon. (Again, his reluctance to admit differences between shepherds interferes here: Coridon’s namesake in Virgil’s second eclogue seems to many to be marked out as a boorish lover, comically resembling the Polyphemus of the poem’s Theocritean model.) What really brings an end to the pastoral interlude in Book VI is of course the community’s destruction by the brigands, in the service of a money economy first introduced as a theme when Calidore (emissary of the court) offers gold to Melibee, and in the absence of that protection from lawless violence which would justify the state. It is precisely the notion of property, inimical to the pastoral community, and the state’s failure to protect the livelihoods of the dispossessed in Eclogues 1 and 9, which disrupt the lives of all but the exceptionally fortunate Tityrus in Virgil.[15] In Spenser’s reworking of Virgilian pastoral, at least, “differences and distress” are not “suspended,” but insisted upon in ways that suggest a critique of contemporary political realities.

An article on pastoral poetry which Alpers did not incorporate into What Is Pastoral? goes some way to answer this concern, in its argument that the Shepheardes Calender carves out a “lyric domain” of “relative autonomy,” by addressing “not the monarch” but “ a heterogeneous group of knowledgeable readers” through the humanist medium of print and affiliation to the literary tradition.[16] Alpers explains the exclusion by saying that the article deals with “the situation of poetry in Elizabethan culture, not the character of pastoral in and by itself” (What Is Pastoral?, xi), but surely the real problem is the way such a claim for a publically recognized “literary authority” challenges the monograph’s thesis of the shepherd’s negligible “strength relative to world.” Even in the article, though, Alpers touches only briefly on specific politically heterodox ideas in The Shepheardes Calender, and finds Spenser ultimately retreating into “quietism.”[17] It is significant that neither here nor anywhere else does Alpers give more than a passing mention to Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, where the self-imposed exile of the June eclogue is refigured as a positive locus of vatic authority independent of Cynthia’s court, from which outspoken satire can be voiced.[18]

Lastly, Alpers minimizes any sense of agon between the poet and his forebears in the pastoral tradition. One of the most suggestive moments in the key chapter on convention and convening is the remark that Theocritus is one of the shepherd-singers called into presence in Virgil’s Eclogue 5 (86). But the thing about conventions is that, if they are not exactly there to be broken, they at least need to be continually remade, and this creative dynamic involves revision of or even conflict with a predecessor. It is not enough to say that Virgil’s eclogues contain the capacity for change (see, e.g., p. 174): poets will often present themselves as rejecting some element of what they see as definitive in their model—a process that begins, but does not end, with Virgil’s introduction of political themes to Theocritean bucolic, and his expansion of its style and content beyond the strict limits of Alexandrian and neoteric poetics. Alpers usefully reminds us that pastoral is largely about song.[19] But the way this song is imagined is coloured by the timeless “stasis” which Alpers presents as characteristic of the mode. What can inject dynamism into the approach is the recognition that pastoral is largely about the poetic tradition, a recognition implicit in Patterson’s focus on imitation in Pastoral and Ideology, for instance, and central to Hubbard’s Pipes of Pan.[20] Such a focus on pastoral as a tradition, to which a work belongs by virtue of its imitation of or dialogue with previous pastoral poetry, rather than as a mode or a genre, would also be another way of dealing with that “ungoverned inclusivity” which irritated Alpers. He chose instead to determine the boundaries by fixing pastoral’s essence, a project of definition which itself results in some surprising inclusions and exclusions (Don Quixote appears to “count as pastoral,” while Sidney’s Arcadia does not), and the essentializing approach resists the dynamics of competitive rewriting.

But if it is hard to accept as definitive the mood, techniques and purposes which Alpers takes as pastoral’s essence, there are nevertheless works which are well served by his framing concepts, and when these are subjected to his exceptional skills in close reading, the results are superb. The painstaking and sensitive analyses of Sidney’s lyric “Ye Goatherd Gods,” Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage,” Eliot’s Silas Marner, and Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge” are reward enough—exceptionally illuminating as criticism of the texts, and quite beautiful in what they tell us about the resources of literature.[21] The fact that I wouldn’t categorize Hardy’s poem as pastoral and would hesitate over so labelling Eliot’s novel doesn’t only mean that I disagree with Alper’s definition of the mode: it also means that his meditations reverberate beyond the green cabinet, and bequeath to us thoughts and ways of thinking about literature whose value transcends boundaries of genre or mode.


Syrithe Pugh

University of Aberdeen


[1] The Singer of the Eclogues: A Study of Virgilian Pastoral (with a new translation of the Eclogues) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

[2] “Spenser’s Late Pastorals,” ELH 56 (1989): 797-817. Alpers’s use of the term “pastoral” in his chapter on Book III in The Poetry of  The Faerie Queene is probably looser than his later self would have allowed.

[3] Alpers’s rejection of the escapist model of pastoral goes back to The Singer of the Eclogues and is shared with several other studies of the Eclogues which came out in the same decade: Michael Putnam, Virgil’s Pastoral Art: Studies in the Eclogues (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970); Eleanor Leach, Virgil’s Eclogues: Landscapes of Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974); the articles reprinted in Charles Segal, Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral: Essays on Theocritus and Virgil (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981); and A. J. Boyle, “A Reading of Virgil’s Eclogues,” Ramus 4 (1975): 187-203—see too his later The Chaonian Dove: Studies in the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid of Virgil (Leiden: Brill, 1986). All were reacting against Bruno Snell’s influential characterization of Virgil’s Arcadia as “a far-away land overlaid with the golden haze of unreality” in The Discovery of the  Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, trans. Thomas Rosenmeyer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 282.

[4] The phrase is adopted from Angus Fletcher’s description of Northrop Frye’s classification of modes according to “the hero’s power of action.” See Fletcher, “Utopian History and the Anatomy of Criticism,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, ed. Murray Krieger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 34, and Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), 33.

[5] Kathryn J. Gutzwiller, Theocritus’ Pastoral Analogies: The Formation of a Genre (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991); Wolfgang Iser, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), ch. 2.

[6] (An insistence he shares with the critics listed in note 2 above.)

[7] Alpers follows Halperin in denying any special generic status to Theocritus’s bucolic idylls, and privileges Virgil’s Eclogues as the founding text of pastoral. See David  M. Halperin, Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

[8] “Each shepherd comes to speak for the other, as if singing the other’s song. The mutual responsiveness of Theocritean bucolic … becomes mutual representation” (167).

[9] Robert Coleman, ed., Vergil: Eclogues (Cambridge University Press, 1977), 85, glossing 1.64.

[10] Putnam and Boyle (n. 2 above) are good examples of this approach applied to the Eclogues. Alpers leans rather towards the “European” or “optimistic” school exemplified for instance by Friedrich Klingner, cited often and approvingly in The Singer of the Eclogues, and a critic deeply influenced by the very Bruno Snell with whom both exponents of the Harvard School and Alpers find fault. See Klingner, Virgil: Bucolica, Georgica, Aeneis (Zürich: Artemis Verlag, 1967). Pessimism has dominated Virgil criticism in recent years, but two recent monographs return to an Augustan or “optimistic” reading of the Eclogues while taking account of the problems raised by the Harvard School critics: Niklas Holzberg, Vergil: Der Dichter und sein Werk (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2006), and Anton Powell, Virgil the Partisan: A Study in the Re-Integration of Classics (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2008). Adam Parry’s seminal article “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid,” Arion 2 (1963): 66-80 is normally seen as the founding text of the “pessimistic” school, and throughout the 1960s the Aeneid was this school’s focus.

[11] Annabel Patterson, Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Valéry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 7.

[12] Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Politics, and National Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 181-82.

[13] John D. Bernard, Ceremonies of Innocence: Pastoralism in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 55-60.

[14] Louis Adrian Montrose, “The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text,” in Literary Theory / Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986), 302-40.

[15] Putnam, Virgil’s Pastoral Art, 46, 49.

[16] Alpers, “Pastoral and the Domain of Lyric in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender,” Representations 12 (1985): 83-100 (quotations at 94-95).

[17] “Pastoral and the Domain of Lyric,” 85-87.

[18] Hadfield, Literature, Politics, and National Identity, pp. 188-90; Syrithe Pugh, Spenser and Ovid (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005),  178-99; Richard McCabe, Spenser’s Monstrous Regiment: Elizabethan Ireland and the Poetics of Difference (Oxford University Press, 2002), 170-76.

[19] Alpers’s “representative shepherds” and “pastoral speakers” sometimes represent humanity as a whole, but often and more helpfully poets or the poet (which he calls “the Virgilian formula,” 138). The idea of pastoral as “Dichtung der Dichtung” is an even stronger emphasis in Ernst A. Schmidt, Poetische Reflexion: Vergils Bukolik (München 1972), also reacting against “naive idyllicism.”

[20] Thomas K. Hubbard, The Pipes of Pan: Intertextuality and Literary Filiation in the Pastoral Tradition from Theocritus to Milton (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).

[21] In their fuller form in The Singer of the Eclogues, his analysis of Virgil’s individual eclogues is equally impressive.




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Cite as:

Syrithe Pugh, "Alpers, What is Pastoral?," Spenser Review 43.2.24 (Fall 2013). Accessed July 18th, 2024.
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