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Paul Alpers, What is Pastoral?
by Christopher Warley

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

Perdita’s Flowers 

Why should you read Paul Alpers’s What Is Pastoral?  For many readers of The Spenser Review, that probably seems like a stupid question: Spenserians all know Alpers is the critics’ critic of the poets’ poet.  Yet to the broader world, to undergraduates or graduate students or the mildly curious, it might not seem so obvious why they should read a nearly 20 year-old book that was conspicuously untrendy when it arrived.  Those are, however, the readers to whom Alpers’s book is finally directed, because those are the readers, he will insist, that pastoral tries to imagine.  Finding future readers: that will be the moral of What Is Pastoral? 

Insisting upon a future through reading pastoral, though, is not an easy case to make.  Undergraduates immediately notice that pastoral may be the silliest form of poetry ever invented: how can you take seriously poems in which shepherds, and upper-class people dressed up as shepherds, stand around complaining?  Worse: how can you take seriously literary criticism written about such absurd poems?  Future readers, Professor Alpers hears your gripes.  Here is his reaction to Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1559), the work that set the terms for Renaissance pastoral: “One can hardly believe that such nonsense carries conviction, and there is no way to become a believer short of reading [it]” (123).  Nonsense: that is pastoral in a nutshell.  Nonsense about nonsense: that is literary criticism of pastoral.  But look carefully again at the second part of that sentence: “there is no way to become a believer short of reading [it].”  Where does the conviction of pastoral come from?  It comes from you, from reading in the future. “Short of reading” means “only after reading.”  What Is Pastoral? is a book that shows you how to read—not only how to read pastoral, but how to read literature.  And it tries to make you a believer in the claim on life that pastoral literature can make.  But it is a book whose arguments—for pastoral, for literature, for literary criticism—always depend upon reading in the future.  To become a believer in pastoral, to become a believer in literary criticism, is to become a believer in the future.  That is why you should read Alpers—now maybe more than ever.

What sort of belief is a belief in the future?  The claim of literature on future lives is not exactly a new argument.  Alpers gets his version mostly from Reuben Brower’s now-famous course “Hum 6” at Harvard, where Alpers had been a teaching assistant (he later called Brower his “most important influence”[1]).  What Brower terms “reading in slow motion”[2] emphasizes that you read not knowing exactly what is going to happen.  And since you don’t know what is going to happen, slow reading requires a lot of trust on your part.  Alpers’s debt to Brower is clear in the very first sentence of his 1967 book The Poetry of the Faerie Queene: “The purpose of this book is to bring The Faerie Queene into focus—to enable the ordinary reader and student to trust Spenser’s verse.”[3]  You have to trust the poem to say something, to come into focus, to make its claim.  Alpers writes to help you trust literature.  By believing in the future he does not mean adhering to a metaphysical certainty or treating literature as religion.  He means trust.  Trust happens when there are no certainties.

Much of the point of What Is Pastoral? is to get you to trust the nonsense of pastoral poems and, really, the nonsense of literature in general.  Not everyone, of course, feels this way about pastoral (or about literature).  The promise of reading in the future is Alpers’s response to a “more serious case against pastoral” than mere silliness.  That case boils down to this: despite pastoral’s willingness to highlight its own limitations, it “does not envisage deprivation” (7).  By “deprivation” Alpers means the many forms in which human beings oppress other human beings.  In its celebration of its simplicity, innocence, and purity, the argument goes, pastoral seems incapable of recognizing the miseries of the shepherds’ life—the pain of all those explicitly and implicitly excluded from its singing contests because they actually have to be shepherds.  Alpers is very sympathetic to the politics of this serious case, made by critics from Raymond Williams to Marjorie Levinson to Louis Montrose, among many others.  He agrees that pastoral is always a privilege (that is one reason it can be silly at all), and his defense of pastoral is not a political disagreement: he is no elitist and no defender of literature as a religion.  But he is deeply opposed to the general turning away from literature (to “culture” or “discourse” or “hegemony”), to the often tacit but nevertheless deep-seated lack of trust in literature, that he feels has accompanies such criticisms.  In his sense that literature needs defending, Alpers is very much in line with others of his generation (Said, Kermode, Poirier) who had made similar cases.  “If my account of pastoral and my individual analyses are convincing,” Alpers writes, “their effect should be to discourage reading specific works as mere instances or allegories of (what the interpreter conceives to be) their ideologies or historical situations” (xi).  Pastoral does not turn away from deprivation, he repeatedly insists.  Pastoral constantly envisions deprivation, but it does so to imagine a future beyond deprivation.

Nevertheless, academic polemic does not really interest Alpers very much, and he offers his book less as theoretical corrective than to “[exemplify] a way of reading.” Trusting literature to imagine a future means also trusting an immanent method that sticks very carefully to the texts at hand, rather than “directly engaging in our current debates” (xi).  Such sentiments help to account for the surprising Prologue to the book.  It centers on the writings of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.  When What Is Pastoral? first came out, some reviewers were puzzled by the appearance of Levi, but Alpers’s strategy is clear in retrospect: he begins with Levi to take the question of pastoral’s privilege, the charge that it cannot envision deprivation, very seriously by demonstrating pastoral’s “way of reading.”  The Prologue begins with a slightly complicated story.  In his introduction to Levi’s If Not Now, When?, the critic Irving Howe invokes a scene from another book by Levi, If This Is a Man (in the United States often translated as Survival in Auschwitz).  The Prologue begins, then, with a story about a story—a representation of a representation, so to speak.  As a doubled representation, the Prologue will express, even if it isn’t entirely obvious at first, what interests Alpers about pastoral, for at its deepest argumentative level, What Is Pastoral? does what it says.  It is not only a literary-historical account of pastoral.  The book, in a very subtle way, is pastoral.  The opening story is not just a reading of Howe and Levi by Alpers; it is a model of reading and writing that places you, as a reader, into a pastoral moment.

Alpers puts you in this moment through Howe’s recollection of one of the most extreme and sordid moments of deprivation in human history, the work camp at Auschwitz.  “Levi recalls a day,” writes Howe,

when he and a few other prisoners were put to work scraping an underground gasoline tank.  They worked in almost total darkness, and the work was very hard.  Then, from some inner fold of memory, Levi began telling young French prisoners about Dante’s great poem, reciting these lines:  “Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance / Your mettle was not made; you were made men / To follow after knowledge and excellence.” Coming “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God,” these lines flood the hearts of the prisoners, so that ‘for a moment I forget who I am and where I am’ and the wretched might suppose they are still human beings.”[4] 

Here is what Alpers initially says about this recollection: “Levi’s quoting [Dante’s lines] in the midst of a modern hell makes literature confront the human situation with an almost shocking directness.  The incident thus evokes the heroic and tragic modes in whose terms we have learned to speak of the power of literature to move us and illuminate our lives” (4).  As the blast of a trumpet or a divine utterance, literature challenges the bare life to which the camp would reduce its prisoners.  Levi becomes the conduit for Dante, and the epic poet becomes the conduit for the voice of God pronouncing on the barbarism of the Nazis and declaring the humanity of the wretched.  

In this heroic or tragic mode, and with shocking directness, literature confronts and denounces deprivation with sudden illumination.  Howe’s is a powerfully attractive vision of literature; it recalls, for example, Adorno’s life-long commitment to what he called aesthetic resistance.  But all is not as it seems.  After giving us Howe’s recollection, Alpers returns to Dante, this time in the original, which he says makes the incident “even more poignant by the clarity, energy, and confidence which its main terms have in Dante’s Italian” (4).  He quotes Dante in Italian, then adds, a little cannily, “[t]hese noble lines had themselves outlived Dante’s apparent condemnation of their human presumption” (4).  It’s unnerving.  Suddenly you ask yourself: what exactly is the “confidence which its main terms have in Dante’s Italian”?  Dante, you remember, is not in any simple sense a celebrator of human beings.  He is also a condemner of human presumption.  He writes a comedy, not an epic.  And this canto is about Ulysses, the most slippery of epic heroes.  What initially looks like a divine pronouncement on humanity and inhumanity ends up looking … well, it is hard to say.  The passage no longer seems quite direct.  Is Ulysses a hero in this passage?  Is literature resisting deprivation, or is literature the name of deprivation? 

At this point in his story Alpers gently begins to unpack the implications of Howe’s recollection: “in recounting this extraordinary episode, Irving Howe’s memory has played him false.  Primo Levi did quote these lines to a fellow prisoner, and his recalling them affected him as powerfully as the quoted phrases suggest.  But the circumstances were different and have their own unheroic poignancy” (4).  In Levi’s narrative, illumination does not appear as a bolt from heaven.  It appears begrudgingly and ironically.  Levi was working in an underground gasoline tank, but that post was, writes Levi, “a luxury job”[5]: no guards could see them or enter the tank without shaking the rope ladder and alerting the prisoners ahead of time.  Instead, coming down the rope was Jean the Pikolo, one of the prisoners who acted as supervisors, and he asked Levi to help him fetch the soup for lunch.  This was also, very relatively speaking, a privilege, because Jean managed to pick a path that required nearly an hour to walk the half-mile to the kitchen.  Even if it meant having to carry the hundred-pound vat of soup back, the walk offered a brief moment of something like relief.  Along the way, Jean and Levi talk about their houses; they talk about their mothers (“how all mothers resemble each other!”), the books they’ve read, what they’ve studied.  At one point Jean, who “thinks indifferently in both German and French,” drops into a little German (“Ein ganz gemeiner Hund” he says of an SS man passing on a bicycle).  The topic turns to language.  Jean mentions “he had once spent a month in Liguria and would like to learn Italian,” and Levi responds that “‘I would be pleased to teach him Italian: why not try?  We can do it.  Why not immediately, one thing is as good as another, the important thing is not to lose time, not to waste this hour.’” Levi tries to start teaching Jean by using The Divine Comedy.  “Who is Dante?  What is the Comedy?  That curious sensation of novelty which one feels if one tries to explain briefly what is the Divine Comedy.”  Levi starts slowly and accurately (“Lo maggior corno della fiamma antica”[6]) and tries to translate.  “Disastrous—poor Dante and poor French!  All the same, the experience seems to promise well” (Survival 102).  Yet Levi keeps forgetting passages: 

“Open sea,” “open sea.”  I know it rhymes with “left me”: “…and that small band of comrades that had never left me,” but I cannot remember if it comes before or after.  And the journey as well, the foolhardy journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules, how sad, I have to tell it in prose—a sacrilege!  I have only rescued two lines, but they are worth stopping for:

“…that none should prove so hardy / To venture the uncharted distances.”

“to venture”: I had to come to the Lager to realize that it is the same expression as before “I set forth.”  But I say nothing to Jean, I am not sure that it is an important observation.

(Survival 103)

It is only at this point, after misremembering so much of Dante, when he realizes that “to venture” and “set forth” are the same expression, that the passage that Howe quotes finally erupts.  “As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God.  For a moment I forget who I am and where I am” (Survival 101-3).  From here the urgency picks up, passages keep coming with Levi’s commentary. 

I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this “as pleased Another” before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today…

But they come to the soup queue, the official announcement is made that the soup today is cabbages and turnips, and, with a final, unglossed quotation of Dante (“And over our heads the hollow seas closed up” [Survival 104-5]), the chapter ends.  The “flash of intuition” never quite manifests itself.  But something else does.

After two pages of description of the scene, Alpers tells you what he’s been getting at: “The reader will recognize that Levi’s and Jean’s sense of physical and conversational ease at noontime replicates, under painfully unlikely circumstances, a situation conventionally found in pastoral poems” (5).  Rather than epic illumination, Levi’s chapter offers the slow realization of pastoral conversation.  And so, too, does Alpers’s Prologue.  Careful readers already knew what was happening, because Alpers’s construction of the Prologue has taught you how to read it.  Superficially, it is the gathering of “shepherds” to exchange conversation and song (Jean and Primo’s noontime walk).  But that “exchange” involves a convention (“how all mothers resemble each other!”), and a “convention,” Alpers points out in an especially brilliant chapter, means not something hackneyed and overdone.  Convention is con-venire: “a usage that brings human beings together; a pastoral convention brings them together under the figure of shepherds” (93).  In pastoral, convention means both the conversation and the representation of the conversation.  In pastoral “the poet represents (himself as) a shepherd or shepherds” (161), and “what makes a shepherd representative is his ability to represent” (193).  Pastoral convention means telling your story in front of another; it also means, consequently, listening to the stories of others.  Pastoral means trusting literature: listening to or reading the passage with the trust that it will go somewhere, that there will be a point to it. 

This sense of convention, the requirement that literature be trusted, is surely the reason Alpers has set up the Prologue as he has.  He makes you work through convention—he asks that you convene and trust him.  He does not tell you in the first sentence that Irving Howe is wrong about Primo Levi.  He makes you read it first.  He gives you a description of Levi’s heart-wrenching chapter.  And then, after gently correcting Howe’s account, Alpers stresses that Howe really wasn’t wrong: “Irving Howe’s false recollection of the episode was perfectly natural, the way any of us would be likely to remember this overwhelming moment in Levi’s narrative … he gave it a form in his mind that conveys his sense of the human value of literature” (6).  It is a remark both characteristic and acute: Alpers’s generosity to Howe echoes the start of Howe’s own paragraph: “Toward those…with whom he shared suffering and death, Levi is invariably generous,” writes Howe (“Introduction” 10).   Howe’s memory and Alpers’s reconstruction reveal just how tenuous and delicate reading literature, and not just pastoral literature, is, because together they reveal just how tenuous and delicate human social relations are. “What the true form of the episode tells us,” writes Alpers,

is that conventions of pastoral that sometimes seem callow and in bad faith—the pretense that poor, humble, and deprived people are simply free to sing and woo—these fictions convey the sobering truth that literature can give us our sense of human worth only if we have the kind of space Levi and Jean the Pikolo found on that midday in June and that is represented by the pleasures of the locus amoenus.  This is, at least in the present context, a sobering awareness, because if anything is clear from Primo Levi’s book about Auschwitz, it is that the episode as Howe recounts it could not have happened.  Under ordinary conditions of life in the camp, one did not remember lines of poetry … what is most deeply disturbing about If This Is a Man is that the creators of Auschwitz very nearly succeeded in their project of denying fellow creatures their humanity.


Pastoral doesn’t mean anything on its own.  It is the voice of human beings coming together: coming together fortunately, as a lucky privilege.  To turn back to “The Canto of Ulysses” chapter in If This Is a Man is to discover not simply the power of literature in the abstract; it is also to rediscover the happy privilege of explaining, thinking about, working through literature that is literary criticism.  Alpers’s exemplary Prologue invokes Levi as an exemplary reader and critic.  What begins as a language lesson in Levi’s account turns into literary criticism of the highest order:  “‘So on the open sea I set forth.’  Of this I am certain, I am sure, I can explain it to Pikolo, I can point out why ‘I set forth’ is not ‘je me mis,’ it is much stronger and more audacious, it is a chain which has been broken, it is throwing oneself on the other side of a barrier, we know the impulse well” (Survival 102-3).  Through the effort to explain, through the urge to sort out with precision the barriers of the words, Levi discovers that to set forth is always also to venture, that they both are and are not quite the same as “je me mis.” 

To begin with Primo Levi, to venture or to set forth with the Holocaust in a book nominally about pastoral, is a very bold move.  Alpers risks the serious accusation leveled at pastoral: that it is “callow and in bad faith,” that it is incapable of envisioning real deprivation.  He is in great danger of insensitivity of the worst sort: of trying to appropriate significance on the cheap by irresponsibly comparing his work to Levi’s memoir.  How can you compare literary criticism of pastoral to surviving Auschwitz?  But Alpers’s analysis, his invocation of Levi, does not feel callow.  It does not because it follows Levi’s humility and generosity, his wry but serious irony, the Dantesque comedy of his writing.  Alpers’s reading imitates, in short, Levi’s pastoralism.  He is invariably generous.

The case against pastoral—that it does not envision deprivation—has been completely turned around.  Suddenly the stakes of trusting literature, of having the time to read slowly, of participating in the coming together at the virtual noontime that is the basis of any literary performance and any literary criticism, have become very clear.  Pastoral and the criticism it inaugurates constantly envision deprivation.  They require a sobering awareness of their own vulnerabilities, limitations, and privileges.  Approaching literature and criticism via pastoral consequently demands that you not overstress the mightiness of those stakes.  Pastoral is vital, important, and illuminating.  It is also not the only thing in the world.  Alpers does not overplay his hand.  He does not really say any of the things I have just said about his book.  Such an immanent humility and generosity is part of pastoral’s “mode,” what Alpers calls (borrowing from Angus Fletcher) its “assumptions about man’s nature and situation” (50).  Hence the Prologue begins with this pastoral sentence: “The reader of this book may ask as I have often asked myself, why pastoral poetry deserves the kind of attention I have given and ask the reader to give to it” (3).  Alpers has devoted a lifetime’s scholarly activity to pastoral poetry.  And he knows such devotion will look a little ridiculous, even to scholars.  To defend the humility of pastoral, you have to write with a gentle but serious wryness that exemplifies a way of reading.  Reading pastoral—reading slowly, reading the way of reading that pastoral exemplifies—becomes a communal exercise: “I hope this book contributes to our consideration of literature and its claim on us” (WIP xi).  Alpers’s first-person plural is not the usual “we” of scholarship (naïve, pedantic, pretentious).  It is the we of human beings—the “ordinary reader” he imagined at the start of The Poetry of the Faerie Queene.  The consideration and the claim are pastoral: a devotion to artifice and to art in order to try to grasp human lives.

In Some Versions of Pastoral, upon which Alpers heavily leans, William Empson had called this pastoral’s basic social situation—putting the complex into the simple.  But Alpers extends Empson’s brilliant account considerably.  Pastoral, writes Alpers, “takes human life to be inherently a matter of common plights and common pleasures,” but it avoids “naiveté and sentimentality because its usages retains an awareness of … the limitations that are seen to define, in the literal sense, any life.”  Separation and loss are our common plight, and while in pastoral they “can and must be dealt with,” they are nevertheless “not to be denied or overcome” (93).  What you are faced with reading in pastoral—and this is no doubt one of the reasons that critics of a particular bent don’t like it—is simply reading the brute fact of living in history, what Erich Auerbach, speaking of Shakespeare, described as “the conception, so difficult to formulate in clear terms although everywhere to be observed in its effects, of a basic fabric of the world, perpetually weaving itself, renewing itself, and connected in all its parts.”[7]  Alpers defends the “nonsense” of Montemayor’s Diana in similar terms: “what makes the Diana a romance is that it treats love’s fixities and dilemmas as susceptible to change and resolution.  It does so by the simple, but in this work tireless, device of having complaints and dialogues overheard by additional shepherds, whose sympathies and stories in various ways work to complicate or resolve the situation to which they have been introduced” (122-123).  That simple device of overhearing, the original talking cure, is a representation of a representation as well: it is a model for you as reader.  What is pastoral?  Pastoral is the reading of pastoral: the reading of literary representation that is also the reading of a particular social situation of which you are part.

Of which you are a part: because, like Empson, Alpers insists that pastoral does not offer any totalizing view—totalizing views are, perhaps, for epic or tragedy—he also stresses that pastoral is always open to change, to a future.  At the conclusion of his reading of The Winter’s Tale, he remarks that “[o]ur interest in [the parodies of pastoral encounter at the end of Act 4] is expressed less by what is going on between the characters on stage than by what goes on between us and the scenes as comic and pastoral wholes… .  We thus feel a pastoral alternative for ourselves” (222).  That future “alternative” is part of the point of Levi’s chapter: the contemplation involved in translating and explicating Dante offers a momentary hope, a vision of existence beyond deprivation.  Such is likewise the case with Perdita, the lost daughter of The Winter’s Tale.  Alpers puts his reading of her flower speeches at the literal and figurative center of the book.  His analysis sets in motion, more than any other moment, the future possibility contained in pastoral convention.  Perdita’s flower speeches “prepare us to be believers of the greater wonder when her royal mother comes to life and is told that ‘our Perdita is found’” (220).  In Alpers’s hands, Perdita’s flower speeches become a sort of disembodied pastoral force that—if you read it—prepares you to be a believer: in her, in the crazy story of her discovery, in the ridiculous statue of Hermione, in the power of art, and in the promise of a future. 

Watch how Alpers reads these lines that Perdita speaks to Florizel, Polixenes, and Camillo:


Pale primroses,

That die unmarried, ere they can behold

Bright Phoebus in his strength (a malady

Most incident to maids).



He begins with a simple question: “how can we dispute the assumption that the maiden speaker is identical with the maidens represented?” (219-220), those “Pale primroses / That die unmarried?”  That question is the question of pastoral more generally: how can you dispute the assumption that pastoral is identical with the simplicity it depicts?  The answer is to pay attention to the movement of representation—to how representation is represented.  Perdita functions as a literary shepherd not simply because she looks like a pastoral character (humble, simple, and so on) but because she herself represents.  Her speech is a doubled representation.  It represents representation:

The suggestions of maidenly pathos do not determine Perdita’s character as speaker here.  For one thing, she could not speak as she does without some implicit experience, denied to the primroses, of “bright Phoebus in his strength.”  That her grasp of the virgins’ situation goes beyond the simplicitas belonging to girlish years is confirmed by the element of wit in her final phrase.  The Arden editor explains that the reference is to chlorosis, “the green sickness,” and refers us to Herrick’s “How Primroses came green,” which records the legend that virgins, “troubled with Green-sicknesses,” were transformed into the flower which retains their hue.  There is no doubt about the actuality of chlorosis, but neither grammar nor rhetoric allows us to refer “a malady most incident to maids” to the adjective “pale.”  It can only refer to the preceding line and a half, which concerns the condition of being unmarried.  Perdita wittily distances herself from maidenhood and suggests that to live beyond it—as she very much wants to—is a condition of health.


The preparation for believing in literature occurs when you pay attention to the “grammar” and “rhetoric” of the lines.  Invoking maids as she does distances her from the simplicity of one of her prime models, Ovid’s Proserpina.  A “malady most incident to maids” is being unmarried; it’s a tautology to say being unmarried defines maids.  But the passage isn’t a tautology, because in its doubled convening it ends up revealing something.  The first thing it reveals is Perdita’s character—“Perdita wittily distances herself from maidenhood and suggests that to live beyond it—as she very much wants to—is a condition of health.”  Perdita herself lives “beyond” the lines because her grammar and rhetoric makes it apparent that she is performing a number of roles here. 

But the lines do not only reveal Perdita’s character.  There is something else beyond that they point to, some “condition of health” that Alpers comes to call the “possibility” that emerges out of pastoral and out of a “commitment to pastoral usages” (221).  The power of The Winter’s Tale, and the power of pastoral, comes from its commitment to its own artfulness.  That power is, quite specifically, future transformation:

The possibility of exchange—which is to say, the possibility of action and utterance that establish connections between separate persons, the recognition of likeness in apparent difference (Perdita’s imagined rebuke to Polixenes), the possibility represented by the grafting Polixenes defends when it is understood in the spirit of Perdita … —these pastoral usages and thematics are the means by which the play transforms the disasters with which it began.  


The “disasters with which it began” are, so to speak, the very deprivations that pastoral has been said to be unable to depict: Leontes’s tyrannical jealousy and Polixenes hypocrisy can stand in for deprivations of many sorts.  The pastoral movement of representing representation, the ability to trust literature and read it and discover that the representer is not identical with the representation: these double movements quite literally generate the ending of The Winter’s Tale, an ending which throws in your face the question of what is real and what is represented.  Representing representation generates “a pastoral alternative for ourselves” (222).  Pastoral art does not gesture beyond itself by attempting to enforce a particular worldview.  That sort of epic presumption is not part of its humble ethos.  But figuring figures of literary shepherds creates a future alternative to the disasters and deprivations that inaugurate pastoral art. 

The word Alpers comes back to throughout What Is Pastoral? to describe this pastoral condition is “suspension.”  He borrows the term from Charles Segal’s reading of Virgil’s Eclogue 1.  Suspension

implies no permanently achieved new relation, while at the same time it conveys absorption in the moment.  It thus suggests a poised, even secure contemplation of things disparate or ironically related, and yet at the same time does not imply that disparities or conflicts are fully resolved.


Pastoral suspends rather than resolves, and it does so because it remains committed to time and history.  Nothing is a permanent state of affairs, but pastoral suspension, its devotion to its own artificiality, permits contemplation of the very “dilemmas and pain” that call it into existence.  In Primo Levi, the voice of poetry and the promise of humanity emerge in the suspended moment as Levi and Jean walk to pick up the soup.  Suspension is a lucky privilege.  The suspension in pastoral art resolves nothing; it guarantees nothing; it secures nothing.  But through its fortunate leisure, through its momentary representation of representation, it offers hope, a glimpse of a different world. 

Suspension consequently is a lot like what deconstruction calls aporia, but it is not quite the same thing.  Consider the work Alpers alludes to in his reading of Perdita: Paul de Man’s highly theoretical unpacking of “grammar” and “rhetoric,” “Semiology and Rhetoric.”  The similarity between Alpers and de Man is no accident.  De Man too was a teaching assistant for Brower, and his “The Return to Philology” is in large part a celebration of “Hum 6.”  Though the course was “utterly devoid of subversive intentions,” de Man emphasizes that the stress on “mere reading” was “deeply subversive to those who think of the teaching of literature as a substitute for the teaching of theology.”[8]  Alpers’s disposition is similar.  His brief remarks on the “actuality of chlorosis” in Perdita’s speech gesture at what de Man calls “the more or less secret aim of literary teaching”: trying not to read, whether in the name of theology or historicism.  But where de Man’s stress on aporia is subversive, Alpers’s stress on suspension is optimistic.  At the end of “Semiology and Rhetoric,” de Man concludes that “[l]iterature as well as criticism—the difference between them being delusive—is condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most rigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and transforms himself.”[9]  Much of this passage could easily be a gloss on What Is Pastoral?.  The difference between pastoral and reading pastoral is “delusive.”  Pastoral is a rigorous effort to name and transform human beings.  Pastoral is condemned and privileged.  But in Alpers’s hands, it is certainly not the case that pastoral is “unreliable.”  In its privileged suspension, in its devotion to its own artifice, pastoral is very, very reliable.  There are few more devastating depictions of Auschwitz than the chapter on Dante in Is This a Man.  In de Man’s “unreliable,” you can hear him not quite trusting his own method.  The literary theorist, rather than the literary critic, yearns for reliability, for a metaphysics of literature that would rigorously end the dilemmas of life and secure not simply the privilege of literature but the cultural capital of literary critics.[10]

But for Alpers, pastoral suspension is the most reliable of efforts to name and transform human life exactly because of its unreliability.  Life is unreliable.  Describing a puzzling moment in Silas Marner, Alpers remarks

we are not so superior to Dolly and Silas as we might think.  We can read the letters, like Silas, and we know, like Dolly, that they have connections with the church.  But what do they mean? …  If you think you know unequivocally what the letters mean, you are less different from Silas and Dolly than you imagine; if you are aware of the various interpretations and the history of the letters, you recognize that your knowledge is an intellectual version of Dolly’s puzzlement.


The indeterminacy of meaning here is perfectly de Manian, but de Man would never have written these sentences.  The promise of pastoral, and the promise of literary criticism, lies in their willingness to admit that their suspension is momentary, that their solutions will not necessarily last.  Nothing in life is permanent.  Pastoral offers not solutions but “companionship,” the “shared pleasure” that “is a founding idea of pastoral” (364).  Pastoral “encourages an attitude…of hearing people out and taking them on their own terms” (365).  Pastoral offers no beliefs, but it asks for the trust that can lead to pleasure and, perhaps, to a future for life: “why not try?  We can do it.  Why not immediately, one thing is as good as another, the important thing is not to lose time, not to waste this hour.”

I met Professor Alpers only once.  I went up to him at a conference and said, more or less, “gee, I think you’re swell.”  He was polite and a little baffled.  The entire encounter lasted about five seconds.  But it really isn’t over yet.  What do Perdita’s flowers bring?  Her very name is loss, and yet her speech promises reconciliation and recovery.  After reading What Is Pastoral?, you can see that The Winter’s Tale ends on a pastoral note:


Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely

Each one demand, and answer to his part

Perform’d in this wide gap of time, since first

We were dissever’d.  Hastily, lead away.


How do you read these lines?  Leontes’s haste makes me nervous; maybe the tyrant has not quite gone away.  But then I remember Perdita’s final words: “So long could I / Stand by, a looker-on.”  Through Alpers’s model reading, our Perdita might be found.  Flowers in mind, she is the leisured literary criticism Leontes hastily demands, the future possibility the play promises to recapture.  One day in the future, I trust, a Perdita will slowly read this wide gap of time and, in the process, offer a flower to Paul Alpers. What is pastoral?  Hope in loss.


Christopher Warley

University of Toronto

[1] “A conversation with Paul Alpers,” The Sophian, October 24, 2002.

[2] Reuben Brower, “Reading in Slow Motion,” in In Defense of Reading: A Reader’s Approach to Literary Criticism, ed. Rueben Brower and Richard Poirier (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962), 3-21.

[3] The Poetry of  The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), vii.

[4] Irving Howe, “Introduction: Primo Levi: An Appreciation,” in Primo Levi, If Not Now, When?  (New York: Penguin, 1986), 11.

[5] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier Books, 1973), 99.

[6] Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (Torino: Einaudi, 1958), 142.

[7] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 327.

[8] Paul de Man, “The Return to Philology,” in The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 21-26, 24.

[9] Paul de Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 3-19, 19.

[10] See the reading of de Man in John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 176-265.




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Cite as:

Christopher Warley, "Paul Alpers, What is Pastoral? ," Spenser Review 43.2.25 (Fall 2013). Accessed June 5th, 2023.
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