The Many Layers of Pastoral

The New England pastoral poets who trek beyond the shepherd and beyond the church (Poetry Bridging Continents, Yancheng Teachers University, Yancheng, PRC Nov. 11-15, 2018)

by Rodger Martin

Despite Milton in the 1660s setting much of his epic poem Paradise Lost in Paradise itself and using that setting to push ideas far beyond the classical definition of pastoral, only fifty years later Alexander Pope and Edmund Greene considered the genre of pastoral poetry as second rate work.  Today, by violating those artificial boundaries set by Pope,  poets of New England have breathed new life, depth, and direction into the genre.

Pope in “A Discourse on Pastoral Poetry”  1717 said this:

“A Pastoral is an imitation of the action of a shepherd; the form of this imitation is dramatic, or narrative, or mixed of both; the fable simple, the manners not too polite nor too rustic: The thoughts are plain, yet admit a little quickness and passion, but that short and flowing: The expression humble, yet as pure as the language will afford; neat, but not florid; easy, and yet lively. In short, the fable, manners, thoughts, and expressions are full of the greatest simplicity in nature.”[i]

A half century later Edmund Burnaby Greene, in his 1767 “Essay on Pastoral Poetry” clearly reinforced that rigid British almost class-like boundary for another two hundred years to poets who might choose to compose a poem based in a rural or natural setting as second-rate when he stated: 

“To those, who live in our meridian of more refined simplicity, Pastoral appears most properly in the dress of rural elegance. Something is indulged to the character of the shepherd, and something to the genius of the writer. They, who should place the former on the toilette, would betray an absurdity which would no less extend to the latter, whose thoughts flowed in the rude channel of uninformed rusticity.”[ii]

Even after two centuries, as late as 1968, the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature were introducing Thomas Gray’s pastoral poem “Elegy Written in a County Churchyard” as a poem “best known and most loved by unsophisticated readers.”[iii] 

Though that may be the attitude of Norton editors, by the turn of the 19th Century in New England,  three American poets: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, followed Milton’s example  and began to use the pastoral tradition in more expansive ways.   Having fought and survived two wars, The Revolutionary War  and The War of 1812, the American writers were firmly separated from British oversight, and these New England writers began to see possibilities in pastoral poetry to move their writings in directions which distinguished them from and moved their poetry beyond the confines of Pope and Greene.

Beyond the British colonies militarily separating themselves into an independent state, there was another distinguishing factor which separated New England from England: The climate.  New England, despite having been settled by Europeans for over two hundred years, remained largely in a natural state dominated by a rugged climate that demanded everyone’s attention because, in New England–if one does not take into account the landscape and the winters where it routinely reaches -30C –one freezes to death. The extremes of the natural American state and climate gave poets fertile ground to plant seeds within the concepts of pastoral poetry which once germinated would infuse it with far more depth than Pope or Greene would ever have dared.  

One example of this came in 1854.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow illustrated this expansion of the literary boundaries of pastoral when he composed “The Jewish Cemetery in Newport,” a poem which, one could say, riffs off Thomas Gray’s pastoral “Elegy In a Country Churchyard” and rather than a musing on death in a rural setting, Longfellow inserts a rather less than pastoral  stanza about anti-Semitic intolerance, conflict and politics.  Elements which addresses the oh-so-slowly expanding religious tolerance embedded within that very political Bill of Rights attached to the U.S. Constitution. It is not likely that Wordsworth would pen a refrain such as this: 

               …. What burst of Christian hate
                              What persecution, merciless and blind,
               Drove over the sea—that desert desolate—
                              These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

Concord, Massachusetts’s Ralph Waldo Emerson provides another example.  Emerson, though primarily a prose writer, when turning to poetry, often uses the pastoralist’s technique of place to set a poem such as his “Concord Hymn” which begins “By the rude bridge that arched the flood” but ends celebrating the men who took up arms against their king.[iv] 

Even more so, observe how Emerson uses Pope’s idea of fable and turns it on its symbolic head.   If one visits Central New England today , that same mountain, Mount Monadnock, still dominates the landscape even in Concord.  One cannot escape Emerson’s reference to mountain and politics, and not only see Monadnock and the wars that separated New England from the British Empire, but also the willingness to break out of the literary confines British literature had placed upon English pastoral poetry.  In his “Fable” about a mountain and a squirrel, the mountain begins the fable but only gets two words, calling the squirrel a “Little Prig.”  Emerson then gives the squirrel 16 lines to set the record straight, ending with a sarcastic:

               “If I cannot carry forest on my back
               Neither can you crack a nut.”[v]

It’s hard to hear that “fable” and not be reminded of the Royal Navy’s impress of both men and timber for His Majesty’s service because New England provided the forest in which the finest trees were marked with a “King’s Arrow” for use in keeping Britannia ruling the waves. The Crown even set a one hundred pound fine to any colonist who violated those trees.[vi]

King’s Arrow Mark (Three hatchet slashes)

If there is still doubt about Emerson’s attitude toward nature and literature it is best dispelled with this quote from his lecture “Nature”:

Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.[vii]

Of the three early New England poets noted, Henry David Thoreau’s poetry may be the closest of all not to stray from those 18th Century constraints set by Pope and Greene.   But when he turned to his essays and journals, Thoreau uses the natural world to diverge from Pope’s rigid walls  to explore  politics in “Civil Disobedience” and metaphorical war in his essay “The Battle of the Ants.”

Robert Frost is the Twentieth Century New England poet most commonly associated with the pastoral tradition.  Yet despite the very pastoral locations of his poetry like “Mending Wall” where “good fences make good neighbors,” within so much of his poetry resides an element of darkness that would make Milton smile.  It permits a pastoral to serve as a doorway where one enters into something quite unpastoral, almost unholy or unnatural— actions such as suicide.  For example, even in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” there is an absentee landlord who can be just as easily interpreted as an absentee God “who will not see me stopping here.”  Such an absence of God or concern for the average man turns those surface thoughts on the “lovely, dark, and deep” woods into something like despair or worse such as why even bother living.  That same darkness shows up in “Death of A Hired Hand” and in “Design,” the sonnet in which he upends the purity of whiteness with that chilling final couplet which asks if everything light and white can be this brutal and ugly have we gotten our beliefs and our faith backward:

               “What but design of darkness to appall?—
               If design governs in a thing so small.”[viii]

As one moves into the second half of the Twentieth Century, New England landscape changes again.  It reverts more to its earlier natural state.  According to Harvard University’s forestry program, “The peak of deforestation and agricultural activity across most of New England occurred from 1830 to 1880. By 1880 across much of New England, 60 to 80 percent of the land was cleared for pasture, tillage, orchards and buildings.[ix]

A diorama of Central Massachusetts about 1880

Yet only a century later, according to a reporter for The Boston Globe in 2013, the reverse is true. “Today, 80 percent of New England is covered by forest or thick woods.”[x]

Mt.Monadnock looking south from Pitcher Mountain, 2018

There are four other poets who fit into this latter tradition but because they will be talked about by others, I will simply note them here.  Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon who settled and died in New Hampshire  in this more current time, are often considered pastoral in their poetry. Clair Mowbry Golding will address their impact in her essay.  Mary Oliver and Pat Fargnoli are two other contemporary New England poets often using the pastoral tradition in new ways.  Susan Roney-O’Brien will talk about those poets in her essay.

Scholar B. Eugene McCarthy writes about four of the Monadnock Pastoral Poets (John Hodgen, Susan Roney-O’Brien, Henry Walters, and myself) in his opening lecture to the 2017 Magic of Monadnock Colloquium at Keene State College,  

  “None of these poets take the pastoral as a simple-minded escape, an abandonment of the sensory
world which is our knowledge.    They are all too solidly attached to the earth, from rock to angel, from grain to bird. For each, creation is the necessary instructor to our senses, which our (or rather your) imaginations create into coherence.”[xi]In keeping with McCarthy’s understanding of how the contemporary poets use the pastoral as the rock or field or forest as an anchor from which to depart and return another late Twentieth Century New England poet, Galway Kinnell, excelled in this liberation of the pastoral form from its Classical heritage by using non-urban or suburban locations as the point of departure to examine all kinds of possibilities.  His book Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock is one of the best known works centered on that mountain which dominates Central New England.

For example, Kinnell’s  “To Christ Our Lord” examines death in the midst of a celebratory Christmas dinner but begins far from that table deep in the wild, frozen New England landscape:

               “The legs of the elk punctured the snow’s c rust
               And wolves floated lightfooted on the land …”

And ends in that same desolate place:

               “Then the Swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north,
               The pattern and mirror of the acts of the earth.”[xii]

Kinnell also shows how the pastoral theme can, by using the rustic and the rural, be expanded beyond the rustic or the rural in his remarkable, almost Crown of Sonnet-like sequence of poems titled “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone.”  In this 11 poem sequence of 13-line poems, each a single sentence, every poem begins and ends with the same line:  “When One has lived a long time alone.” But something remarkable happens when one speaks the poem—those twenty-two identical lines.  Each time the line is spoken, it takes on a different emphasis, rhythm or connotation and becomes new again.  And as the listener begins to realize that technique, the repetition builds with an almost musical crescendo while the listener anticipates what the next chorus will bring. 

The poem is an elegy on aging and the pastoral tradition itself even including a reference from.Milton’s Paradise Lost when his character Satan states his famous thesis: “It is better to reign in hell”[xiii] or when Adam and Eve choose each other despite their final separation from Paradise, the speaker of Kinnell’s poem, like Adam,  chooses reunion over separation from one’s kind and becomes new again. Here is the final poem in that Kinnell sequence:

When one has lived a long time alone,
one wants to live again among men and women,
to return to that place where one’s ties with the human
broke, where the disquiet of death and now also
of history glimmers its firelight on faces,
where the gaze of the new baby looks past the gaze
of the great granny, and where lovers speak,
on lips blowsy from kissing, that language
the same in each mouth, and like birds at daybreak
blether the song that is both earth’s and heaven’s,
until the sun has risen, and thet stand
in a halo of being made one: kingdom come,
when one has lived a long time alone.[xiv]

Finally, I’d like to consider another way in which the Monadnock New Pastoral Poets have expanded that boundary for pastoral.  Merriam Webster dictionary lists one definition of pastoral as:

                “a letter of a pastor to his charge: such as

                        a : a letter addressed by a bishop to his diocese

                        b : a letter of the house of bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church to be read in each parish”

Gene McCarthy alludes to such a possibility in his Monadnock essay.  “What, for example, if we are caught in the corrupt structures of government, arbitrary law, religious constraint, cultural desecration, as if our very lives are at risk…what then do we do? We flee then to the other world: the green world, the forest, the pastoral idyll where the arm of corrupt civilization cannot reach.  And we remain there while we clarify our minds and spirits. . . .”[xv]

McCarthy goes on to offer the option the new pastoral poet chooses: A “place of solitude, a retreat from which we may reach toward the spirit world, a thin place where the natural and the supernatural touch and we might momentarily contemplate the union for illumination.”[xvi] 

And this is exactly what the poet does under the kind of contemporary stress brought on by the artificiality of the Twenty-first Century.  The poet must, with clear mind and spirit, return with a missive for his culture.  So many of the poems composed by the Monadnock poets could be construed as spiritual letters to their listeners or readers, but unlike Frost in “Stopping By Woods,” they provide the reader or listener with a sense of hope and direction among the debris of Twenty-first Century human existence.[xvii]

Note that McCarthy does not say abandon, he says “retreat” and that is exactly what Hodgen, Walters, Roney-O’brien, Fargnoli, MacNeil, Golding, Degutis, and Beschta do.  They retreat into solitude to search out and find illumination.  Then they compose the poem, (their missive or pastoral), return, and provide it for their parish—we readers or listeners. 

One example would be John Hodgen in his poem “For The Leapers” which selects as its location one of the most non-pastoral locations and happenings imaginable:  The World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  But in all that awfulness and modern obscenity which forced human beings to choose between leaping to their death from the top of the skyscraper or burn alive, Hodgen somehow transcends the ugliness and finds solace and illumination in the atmosphere itself, turns it to “the way twilight comes falling,” the way leaves “have fallen / at the height of their beauty” until the poem concludes:

               We will fall past the angels,
               We will fall from such height,
               Our tears will lift up from our eyes.
               We will fall straight through hell.
               And then we will rise.”[xviii]

We can thank our stars that these poets did not take too seriously the editors of The Norton Anthology’s attempt to keep pastoral in the “unsophisticated” past.  Instead, the new pastoral poets have given poetry an avenue to bring hope, harmony, and solace between the planet and its inhabitants in the Twenty-first Century.

William Carlos Williams said of the Twentieth Century:

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”[xix]

What the Monadnock New pastoralists warn in the Twenty-first Century is should we not take our planet seriously, it is not just men who will die miserably, but women and children, and they won’t die by the plural, they will die by the billions.  (The Worcester Review, XV 1&2, 145, 2

Edited for clarity, March 10, 2024.



[iii] Abrams, M.H. et al. Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. I.  (W.W. Norton Co., New York: 1968)  p. 1760

[iv] Perkins, George et al, The American Tradition in Literature, 7th. Edition.  (McGraw Hill, New York: 1990) p. 552

[v] +ibid, p. 563

[vi] The King’s Broad Arrow and The Eastern White Pine, NeMLA 2018.

[vii] Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1959). Early Lectures 1833–36. Stephen Whicher, ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[viii] Frost, Robert.  Selected Poems of Robert Frost.   (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York: 1963)198


[x] Nickerson, Colin. “New England sees a return of forest and wildlife.”  The Boston Globe, Aug. 31, 2013.

[xi] McCarthy, B. Eugene. “Monadnock New Pastoral Poets,” Keene State College, Oct. 9, 2017

[xii] Galway Kinnell.  Selected Poems.  (Houghton Mifflin Co. New York: 1982) p.14

[xiii] Inbid p. 67

[xiv] Ibid p. 69

[xv] McCarthy, Oct. 9, 2017

[xvi] ibid

[xvii] ibid

[xviii] Hodgen, John.  Grace (University of Pittsburgh Press:  Pittsburgh, 2006) p. 9

[xix] William Carlos Williams, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and Other Love Poems: That Greeny Flower