Summarily admit

The way ice falls on us during winter holidays fills the imagination with shapes. Single-digit cold and drift-covered roads meant dangerous driving from home to hometown for me and many others this week. But I’m stubborn (as most poets inevitably must be). The pastoral mood exerted its irresistible pull, and we braved salted highways and steep winds.

Ever unconsciously, the charm of landscape saturates imagination, even in worrisome conditions. The conscious mind of a poem or artwork keeps itself busy with destination, with loved ones we long to see, and with desire for warmth of arrival.

Our holiday travel from the big city into the peaceful, rural quiet put me in the mood for pastoral poetry. Exalting fields and streams and snowy valleys in a hush of snow, in contrast with the rush and slush of urban/suburban bustle is what poets do best.

What is the purpose of the pastoral form, you might well ask. By definition, it’s neither a celebration nor a complaint.

PASTORAL

1 a: a literary work (such as a poem or play) dealing with shepherds or rural life in a usually artificial manner and typically drawing a contrast between the innocence and serenity of the simple life and the misery and corruption of city and especially court life

b: pastoral poetry or drama

c: a rural picture or scene

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Artificial? Maybe. Nostalgic? Often. Pastorals are not purely descriptive for their own sake, and therefore not merely decorative. I propose that the pastoral is a thorough conversation with one’s own spirit, by which we can receive direction and nourishment. At least, that is what I wish for in a pastoral mood.

I’ve been reading a travel memoir written in 1859 about an expedition in pursuit of icebergs, and in the mode of a pastoral, the descriptive interludes are the whole experience of this book. After Icebergs with a Painter gives an account of a voyage chartered by the Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church’s to see and paint what locals in Newfoundland and Labrador called “islands of ice.”

Drawing, Floating Icebergs; Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900); USA; brush and oil paint, graphite on tan paperboard; 9.4 × 28.2 cm (3 11/16 × 11 1/8 in.) Frame: 39.4 × 50.2 × 2.5 cm (15 1/2 × 19 3/4 × 1 in.); Gift of Louis P. Church; 1917-4-290-a
Cooper Hewitt Museum

The writer, Louis Legrand Noble, was a clergyman, a wannabe poet, and Church’s good friend— a thorough and entertaining chronicler of their dangerous adventure in Iceberg Alley.

“So vast and varied is the scene, at this moment, that many pencils and pens would fail to keep pace with the rapid description of the mind. Directly west, is the Land’s End of Newfoundland, Cape Quirpon–in the seaman’s tongue, Carpoon, which we now shoot past. A few miles to the north, as if it might have been split off from the Cape, lies Belle Isle. The broad avenue of the dark sea, extending westward between the cape and the island, opens out into the Strait of Belle Isle, and carries the eye to the shore of Labrador, our first view of that bony and starved hermit of a country. In this skeleton sketch, as it shows on paper, there is nothing very remarkable, but with the flesh and apparel of nature upon it, it is more beautiful than language can paint to the reader’s eye.

“The entire east is curtained by one smooth cloud, of the hue called the ashes-of-roses. Full against it, an iceberg rises from the ocean, after the figure of a thunderhead, and of the color of a newly-blown rose of Damascus–a gorgeous spectacle. The waves have that dark violet, with a silvery surface, lucent like the face of a mirror, and a complexion in the deeps reminding one of the soft, dusky hues of a Claude Lorraine glass. The painter is busy with his colors, and all are silently opening mind and heart to the universal beauty…”

He goes on descriptively, in total awe, for another page, and then falls to quoting Goethe.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900)
The Iceberg, c. 1875
Oil on canvas, 22 x 27 in. (55.9 x 68.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1993.6

If this pastoral has shepherds, they were the elements themselves, and the icebergs were their sheep.

Church and Noble entered into the sublime of the pastoral mood through danger and discomfort (lots of seasickness, along with cold weather). They were inspired by explorers of the Arctic who went before them, like the tragic Franklin expedition, which stoked the fires of popular imagination of the time. Through their courage and the artworks they made, many could take inspiration from and seek to preserve the living, harsh beauty of the world.

Holiday gift from my kids

Other artists take us into pastoral in the exact opposite way: by moving towards safety and comfort. I’m reading Fady Joudah’s Tethered to Stars (Milkweed Editions, 2021), which feels very much like a retreat into an inner-verse of universal hopes.

The poem he reads in this short news segment, titled “House of Mercury,” describes the damage to his parents’ home by a hurricane, but is much more descriptive of the kindness of neighbors and family in the post-storm salvage of the trees and cleanup of garden.

Most of this collection is more difficult to read than this News Hour-friendly poem. I like some of his earlier poems better, like this one:

from The Poetry Foundation

Another way to define pastoral poems (from The Making of a Poem, by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland) is that they honor the places and situations of personal, emotional, and spiritual renewal. I like the way this description frees the pastoral form from the rural/urban dichotomy and gives us the freedom to find nature and human nature coalescing in ways that inspire beauty from within our own minds and hearts.

If you want to make… a pastoral poem

Do you have time to go for a walk or a drive today? I hope you can spend some moments enjoying those places and activities that bring you into a pastoral mood this holiday season and into the new year. More of this is definitely going on my list of artistic resolutions for 2023.

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