Pastoral: (1) As an adjective, a term that can be applied to any work that has a rural setting and generally praises a rustic way of life; (2) as a noun, a term that refers to a literary mode historically and conventionally associated with shepherds and country living. Many poets, especially the ancient Greeks and Romans, have associated pastoral life with some supposed golden age of humankind. The third-century B.C. Greek poet Theocritus wrote the first pastorals, which he ostensibly based on the lives of Sicilian shepherds. The first-century B.C. Roman poet Virgil, who imitated Theocritus and established the pastoral as a popular literary form, set many of the conventions of the genre. Traditional pastoral verse typically involves a singing contest between two shepherds, a monologue praising someone or something or lamenting the loss of love, or a lament for a dead shepherd and friend.
The pastoral became so popular that it evolved into new, hybrid forms including pastoral elegy, pastoral drama, pastoral romance, and even the pastoral novel. Pastoral elements, settings, and themes, moreover, began to crop up in a variety of nonpastoral works (William Shakespeare’s plays, for instance). The use of the term pastoral was extended by the critic William Empson, in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), to refer to any work that cloaks complexity in simple garments (for instance, urban characters in a rural setting) and that praises values associated with simplicity.
FURTHER EXAMPLES: Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar (1579); William Wordsworth’s Michael (1800), subtitled A Pastoral Poem; Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874); Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908); Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911); and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa (1937; adapted to film in 1985).