The Keats-Shelley Blog

4 April 2022

A Brief History of Elegy: Part 3 The Pastoral Elegy

The Pastoral Elegy

The elegiac form most often namechecked as inspiring Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, not least by Shelley himself, is the ‘Pastoral Elegy’. The title of his poem contains an allusion to Bion’s ‘Elegy for Adonis’, while Shelley’s ‘Preface’ quotes the ‘epitaph’ for Bion, then attributed to Moschus. Shelley himself translated both Greek poems into English. The Pastoral Elegy blended the Greek and Roman influences we glimpsed in the previous section. One of its founding fathers Theocritus was most likely born in Greece but spent much of his adult life in Sicily.

The ‘Pastoral Elegy’ is as flexible as other elegiac form, but does have certain recurring characteristics. Most are present in Theocritus’ ‘Thyrsis’ (or ‘The Death of Dapnis’), which 2000 years later would inspire Matthew Arnold to write one of the greatest elegies of the Victorian age using the same title.

1. An idealised rural setting, which frequently responds to the mood of the poet, whether celebratory or melancholy.

2. A shepherd-singer, who sometimes converses with a rival (pastoral comes from the Greek pastor meaning to graze).

3. A loved and/or lost one.

4. A procession who arrive to pay respects or critique.

Daphnis, whom Thyrsis mourns in the elegy, was a mythological shepherd supposed to have died of a broken heart. Before he succumbed, he tried to drown his sorrows in the healing properties of song. This ensured that Daphnis like Linus was remembered as a semi-mythological archetype for all singers. Sadly, however, his talent alone wasn’t enough to save him: Daphnis died young, although whether this by falling from a cliff or gushing from the ground like an uncorked geyser is unclear. Whichever it was, Daphnis became a big enough star to be elegised by one of poetry’s biggest stars Virgil in his ‘Fifth Eclogue’.

We might think that ‘Pastoral Elegy’ possesses a somewhat limited appeal: how many doomed, semi-mythological shepherd-singers do you know? But the form received a major shot in the arm when Moschus wrote his ‘epitaph’ for Bion (who had written in his turn the ‘epitaph’ for Adonis), a real, flesh and blood human, and a poet to boot. This helped John Milton elevate an English elegiac tradition when he wrote Lycidas, which mourned his friend Edward King, a young, but unfulfilled poet who died aged 27. Bion, Moschus and Lycidas would all help Shelley write Adonais for John Keats, who is by turns friend, literary rival and great talent also lost at an unnaturally early age. Shelley also doffs the hat to Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender. Perhaps more pastoral than elegiac, this homage to Virgil’s Eclogues not only inspired poems of the same name by John Clare and James Hogg (contemporaries of Keats and Shelley), it also coined the term sarcasm.