Now fairest village of the fertile plain,Pastoral has its uses. A particularly important one is to give embittered intellectuals something to aspire to. "The civilized world is so ungrateful! Commercialism is offensive! Once I betake myself to rural life, its idiocy will purify and fulfill me! Deus haec nobis otia fecit!" I admit there is something to this; it's hard not to aspire to clean air, manly work, and sound sleep if the only alternative one has ever known involves reading Gawker and riding the subway. But why, if the image it paints is so welcome, is pastoral poetry so uniformly terrible? Nature poetry in the hands of anyone other than Robinson Jeffers always risks being a sad joke--but pastoral poetry (especially in the eighteenth century) is its own species of bad. Few genres have made more use of unimaginatively repeated tropes, empty moralism, stale sentimentality, and hackneyed rhymes. The few pastoral poems we still read (Goldsmith?) manage to wring a smigden of compelling emotional content out of their meager capital, but they are the exception and not the rule.
Made fertile by the labours of the swain;
Who first my drowsy spirit did inspire,
To sing of woods, and strike the rural lyre:
Who last should see He wand'ring from thy cells,
And groves of oak where contemplation dwells.
Wou'd fate but raise me o'er the smaller cares,
Of Life unwelcome and distressful years,
Pedantic labours and a hateful ease,
Which scarce the hoary wrinkled sage cou'd please.
Hence springs each grief, each long reflective sigh,
And not one comfort left but poetry.
Long, long with her I could have stray'd
To woods, to thickets or the mountain shade;
Unfit for cities and the noisy throng,
The drunken revel and the midnight song;
The gilded beau and scenes of empty joy,
Which please a moment and forever die.
Here then shall center every wish, and all
The tempting beauties of this spacious ball:
No thought ambitious, and no bold design,
But heaven born contemplation shall be mine
In yonder village shall my fancy stray,
Nor rove beyond the confines of to-day;
The aged volumes of some plain divine,
In broken order round my hut shou'd shine;
Whose solemn lines should soften all my cares,
And sound devotion to th' eternal stars:
And if one sin my rigid breast did stain,
Thou poetry shou'dst be the darling sin;
Which heav'n without repentance might forgive,
And which an angel might commit and live.
- Philip Freneau, "The American Village"
In fact, pastoral poetry is shit because the internal logic of pastoral demands that it be (almost) literally shit--the largely irrelevant undigested byproduct of some kind of more beneficial activity. In the game of pastoral, the poet retreats to the country because of its moral, intellectual, and physical benefits; there, he can achieve perfect "contemplation," which is either a kind of rarefied omphaloskepsis or a practice of pious meditation on God's perfections. What role could poetry possibly play in all this? If your contemplation is truly perfect, of what use is publishing your scribbles? At best, poetry offers itself as a vehicle for advertising the Pastoral Way of Life, which also seems unnecessary. There's no purpose for it at all. One contemplates. While one is contemplating, one produces poetry, because that is the sort of thing one does with one's contemplative time--but the benefit of such production ceases when one has stopped contemplating. The quality of the resulting work is entirely orthogonal to its process of production, and the subject matter is necessarily limited to the poet's dwindling stock of experiences. If I write a hymn to God, I will presumably try to make it a good one. But if I'm a good pastoral contemplator, I have no reason to do so whatsoever. Notice how Philip Freneau, one of the better pastoral poets, characterizes his own writing. It's the "darling sin," the blot-that-is-not-a-blot on the escutcheon of pastoral righteousness. By its own logic, it shouldn't be permitted; yet it exists, and no justification is given for it. The need to write poetry is a kind of encumbrance that enables the poet to maintain human shape and not simply go spherical from self-absorption.
There's another interesting line in Freneau's work--the one about the "aged volumes of some plain divine." Freneau, here, is making a somewhat obvious move: identifying a lack of intellectual, cultural, and rhetorical sophistication with distance from civilized society. This has two consequences. The first is that, by its own standards, pastoral poetry has to be bad. It is always a courtly and urban genre, never more so than in the eighteenth century; if all Freneau has are the volumes of a plain divine, he will simply be unable to produce good pastoral poetry. (He resolves this by contradicting himself on the very next page and providing himself with copies of Milton, Shakespeare, Dryden, and the pinnacles of Augustan courtliness, Pope and Addison.) But by the same token, the opposite happens too. The fact that poetry-writing has survived as a parasitic remnant of civilization is a sign that contemplation is still imperfect, that there's still more retreating to the country to be done.
Bear in mind that the distinguishing feature of eighteenth-century pastoral is its intense focus on the conditions of poetic production. It dissects the poet's intellectual, cultural, economic, and physical environment in more detail than other traditional forms could even imagine. When we see that this total investigation leaves out or conceals its central point--poetry itself--we can see how pastoral unfolds as a permanently unstable self-undermining system. Thus, the commonplace (dating back to the second Epode) of the city boy who abandons his pastoral experiment after a few months has its roots in a fairly deep problem. It's not that city boys are spoiled. It's that their system of assumptions dooms them to failure.
And what is Freneau's solution? A simple, and honest, way out:
Now cease, O muse, thy tender tale to chaunt,It was that easy. After "The American Village," he never wrote another pastoral--and it's hard to say that his work suffered for it.
The smiling village, or the rural haunt;
New scenes invite me, and no more I rove,
To tell of shepherds, or the vernal grove.