Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The Pastoral Outlook

Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), pp. 134-135:
Nowadays, pastoral, like satire, survives mainly as an outlook—a cluster of attitudes and feelings. At its center beats a sophisticated longing for something that is experienced as "missing": a way of life, a power of seeing, a desired condition of things now viewed as lost (though possibly recoverable), even though it may never have existed or been in fact enjoyed. Explanations of this state of affairs abound. Some see in it the normal cantankerous human addiction to whatever it is we do not presently have: the grass in the last pasture, the good old days, the Golden Age, the Earthly Paradise, the security of the womb (Boethius's sixth-century lament, "O that our times would go back to the old ways!"—Utinam modo nostra redirent In mores tempora priscos—seems to be a cultural constant since earliest times); or, alternatively, if the orientation of the moment is toward the future, the grass in the next pasture, the millennium, the City of God, Utopia, matriarchy, the triumph of the proletariat. Other analysts, remembering Freud, locate in this habit of mind "the discontent of the civilized with civilization," an ineradicable malaise contracted from the repressions and inhibitions necessary to the socializing of the individual and the development of a stable personality. Still others associate it with a primal urge to be reborn—to recover, or discover, some such wholeness of being as Matthew Arnold, in a "pastoral" of his own, ascribes to a seventeenth-century wandering scholar, whom he imagines living on through the centuries in the byways of Oxfordshire untouched by Victorian angst:
O born in days when wits were fresh and clear,
And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;
Before this strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o'ertax'd, its palsied hearts, was rife—
Fly hence, our contact fear!
On this view, such events as the flight to the woods of the 1960s, the multiplication of communes, the assiduous application to handicrafts, even the regression of several generations of youth to a costume derived largely from the American "Western" (itself an expression of nostalgia for the vanished simplicities and hardihoods of the frontier) may be claimed to be as solid symptoms of the pastoralizing impulse as the games that Marie Antoinette used to play with her court shepherdesses in La Bergerie at Versailles.
Thanks very much to the generous reader who kindly sent me Mack's biography of Pope as a gift. I am reading the book with great enjoyment.

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