The decline of the neo-classical pastoral 1680-1730 : a study in Theocritean and Virgilian influence
The classical pastoral was an accredited genre in antiquity usually associated with a series of contrasts between the country and the city or between the supposedly natural and artificial worlds. With the decline in allegorical writing, however, the Restoration's neo-classical translators, especially Thomas Creech (Theocritus, l684) and John Dryden (1697), offered a pastoral with most of the potentially ironic commentaries on contemporary life either softened or erased altogether. Creech's Theocritus is free of the Doric alternations between the Heroic (Idyll I) and Rustic (idylls h and 5). Dryden's Eclogues pay homage to a transcendent classicism calculated to contrast with post-Revolution beliefs in limited traditions of authority. These two images of the classical pastoral provide one facet unacceptable to neσ-classicism (Theocritean rusticity) and one which casts doubt on its bucolic status altogether (Virgilian artifice). This dualism in the classical legacy is seen as rooted in opposed definitions of "simplicity", one a lyrical and affective quality, the other paying testimony to the classical past by imitating what was taken to be its bolder and enduring melodies. The foundation of the Modern variety, as exemplified by Ambrose Philips (1709), lies in its depiction of indigenous shepherds and their freedom from the classical, but not the rustic (Spenser and Theocritus). Alexander Pope's Pastorals (1709), on the contrary, demonstrate an Ancient preoccupation with a current culture’s indebtedness to its traditional sources of inspiration. His Strephons or Alexises wander amongst Windsor/Mantuan groves. The disappearance of much fresh neo-classical pastoral writing is then studied, especially in the mock-forms of the years I7IO-I6, particularly John Gay's The Shepherd's Week (I7l4). Within the Ancient pastoral Gay discovers sentiments incommensurate with contemporary rural poverty and so obviously redundant mimetically, but also an "unofficial" gusto in Theocritus and less imitated material that points forward to the particularity of the georgic. In short, Gay's mock-pastoral work, in the service of the prevailing Landed Interest, not only uncovers urban corruption but also the deceptions of the Ancient mode. In Purney's Theocritean pastorals (1717) and Ramsay's Scots Doric (1723-28), it is the Theocritean example which survives, not the more celebrated Eclogues of Virgil.