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Pastoralism in 18th Century Poetry

The pastoral is a poetic genre popularized in the 18th century that idealizes the peaceful and simple countryside lifestyle. Pastoral poems are ordinarily written about those who live close to nature, namely shepherds and farmers. These poems about rustic tranquillity often relate a life in which humans lived contentedly off the earth. The pastoral poem often looks to nature and the simple life as a retreat from the complications of a society in which humans have become degenerate.

Two poems from this era which we have studied, The Thresher’s Labour, by Stephen Duck, and An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray, fit well into this category of literature. The first poem, The Thresher’s Labor, gives a first-hand account of the hard life of a farm worker. Lexico LLC’s Online Dictionary defines the verb “thresh” as: “To beat the stems and husks of grain or cereal plants with a machine or flail to separate the grains or seeds from the straw” (Lexico LLC, 2001). In the course of the poem, the author tells the story of his life working on his master’s farm threshing crops.

The author does not seem to enjoy his work, but rather accepts its grueling repetitiveness as a way of life. The boss expects hard work from his threshers; he says to them, “Get all things ready, and be quickly drest; Early next Morn I shall disturb your Rest. Strict to his Word! For scarce the Dawn appears, Before his hasty Summons fills our Ears” (Duck, p. 5). The author’s acceptance of the necessity to continue working is illustrated in the line, “Supper and Sleep by Morn new Strength supply; And out we set again, our Work to try” (p. 2).

The workers are given little time to rest from their work, and the author says, “Rest never does, but on the Sabbath, show” (p. 5). The workers recognize that the fruit of their labor is enjoyed by those who are more fortunate, saying: “Let those who feast at ease on dainty Fare, Pity the Reapers, who their Feasts prepare” (p. 5). In my opinion, this poem is not necessarily anti-pastoral in nature, despite the reader’s perception that the author is faced with constant hardship with little leisure time.

“Thus, as the Year’s revolving Course goes round, No respite from our Labor can be foundour Work is never done” (p. . Signs of an appreciation for the land can be seen in the lines: “The grateful Tidings presently imparts Life to our Looks, and Spirits to our Hearts And, joyful, long to breath the op’ner Air” (p. 2). The life of a thresher is depicted in this poem as a hard one, but the author and the workers have appreciation for the land, and recognize the usefulness of their hard work. The second poem, An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard, by Thomas Gray, begins with a much more peaceful and serene style in its depiction of a country landscape.

It begins with nightfall, the author reflects on the sunset: “Now fades the glimmering Landscape on the Sight, And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds” (Gray, lines 5-6). The elegant pastoral prose of the author reflects the beauty of the peaceful landscape at night. The author is in a graveyard, and this is realized upon reading the observation that “Beneath those rugged ElmsWhere heaves the Turf in many a mould’ring Heap, Each in his narrow Cell forever laid” (13-15).

The true purpose of the poem is not to illustrate the natural beauty of the English countryside, but the gracefulness and value of life and death. Gray says that “The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave” (36). He sends the message that in death, we all go on to a place where earthly possessions are meaningless with the line: “Can storied Urn or animated Bust Back to its Mansion call the fleeting BreathOr Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold Ear of Death! ” (41-44).

Gray is perhaps trying to express his belief in Heaven, that regardless of one’s status in life on Earth, we are all equal in the eyes of God. Gray’s view of death is not altogether that of moving on to another place, he also believes that in every grave lay the remains of a human being who potentially did not meet their destiny. He says, “Perhaps in this neglected Spot is laid Some Heart once pregnant with celestial Fire, Hands that the Rod of Empire might have swayed” (45-48).

His idea that death has potentially robbed these souls of their destiny is reflected in the line: “Full many a Gem of purest Ray serene, The dark unfathomed Caves of Ocean bear: Full many a Flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its Sweetness on the desert Air” (53-56). Gray describes the inscriptions on headstones as, “a holy TextThat teach the rustic Moralist to die” (83-84). In my opinion, this poem is meant to help the reader realize not only the fortune that is life, but also the peace that comes with death.

These two poems which I have chosen, in my opinion, adequately reflect the purpose of pastoralism, in that they reflect both authors’ comfort with simplicity. While The Thresher’s Labor reflects the toiling and ongoing struggles of a simple farm worker, An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard examines the value of life itself. I believe that Stephen Duck’s poem aims to convey the message that struggling and hardship is a part of life for many people, but those efforts are not without value, and Thomas Gray’s poem teaches us that life is precious and delicate thing that should not be taken for granted.

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