What is Pastoral Elegy?

An elegy is a poem on the death of someone. And pastoral suggest that the elegy is related to 'shepherd', and rustic life. Pastoral elegies are poems in which the poet speaks in the guise of a shepherd in a peaceful landscape and expresses his grief on the death of another shepherd.

The pastoral is the form of poetry that deals with the urban poets’ nostalgic image of the peace and simplicity of the life of shepherds and other rural folk in an idealized natural setting. Classical poets described the pastoral life as possessing features of mythical ‘golden age’. But Christian pastoralists, like Milton himself, have combined the golden age of the pagan fables with the Garden of Eden so that religious symbolism could also be exploited especially Christ as shepherd and people as sheep. Pastoral poems other than the elegiac ones deal with the beautiful, harmonious and pleasing atmosphere and life. The ‘pastoral’ background to an elegiac poem serves to highlight the intensity of grief against a peaceful and pleasing atmosphere and pattern of life where death disrupts it all.

Thus the pastoral elegy borrows images, allusions and even the setting from the pastoral world of antiquity. The pastoral elegy has a tradition going back to its earliest known writer Bion through Arnold, Shelley, Milton, Spenser, Petrarch, Virgil, Theocritus, and Moschus. Besides the personal grief of the individual shepherd-poet, the pastoral elegy says something about the world as a whole.

The pastoral elegy is highly conventional, generally opening with an invocation that is followed by a statement of the poet’s grief and a subsequent description of a procession of mourners. The pastoral elegy also usually involves a discussion of fate, or some similarly philosophical topic. There are phases or movements of thought like the different patterns of emotions, shock, crying, complaining, memory, gloom, contemplation, and consolation. But more typically, the pastoral conventions include mourning by the nature and the shepherds, funeral procession, laying flowers on the dead, interruption by a divine figure or a voice which tells some truth or console the mourners.

The most famous example of the pastoral elegy is Lycidas (1638), by the English poet John Milton. The pastoral elegy is characterized by many conventional features, though different poets make many variations, and each poet tends to modify the conventions and add his own features. The occasion for Milton’s pastoral elegy (Lycidas 1638) was the death of Edward King, one of Milton’s younger colleagues at Cambridge, who had drowned on his way to his native place in Ireland. King was also a poet-student like Milton at Cambridge. Other examples of pastoral elegies are Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous elegy on John Keats Adonais (1821) and Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis (1866).

Published on 22 Sep. 2014 by Kedar Nath Sharma