Dry Pastoral

By | 19 January 2009

Contemporary pastoral? Such a term seems oxymoronic when describing a genre at least as old as Theocritus’s Idylls from the third century BCE. The pastoral itself is inherently backwards-looking, literally evoking the greener pastures of a pre-industrialised past. Even the post-classical pastoral par excellence, Milton’s elegy ‘Lycidas’, begins by invoking the Petrarchan crown of poetic tradition: ‘Et once more, O ye laurels, and once more Ye myrtles brown … I come to pluck your berries …’ (49). How can we characterize the contemporary manifestations of a poetry whose very investments are not even in history, but rather in the prehistory of an uncivilized humanity that exists alone in nature?

Most academic accounts deem the pastoral extinct after the eighteenth century, overtaken by the evolution of Romanticism, which replaces the pastoral’s bucolic charm with a sublime nature that both overwhelms the individual subject and offers the possibility of visionary flights of fancy, such as we encounter in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. But despite such obituaries the pastoral appears to be experiencing a healthy afterlife.

There is any number of possible reasons for the re-emergence of this genre in contemporary Australian poetry, not the least of which are political. The question of land since the Mabo decision has taken on dimensions of ownership, use, and colonial appropriation, such that the pastoral as a genre no longer seems confined to the realm of rustic romance, but points to the heart of contemporary social debate. To write about the Australian countryside is necessarily to write about Australian colonial history, race, and tradition, regardless of authorial intention.

As the Rudd Government’s recent rebranding of the drought as the ‘dryness’ suggests, the pastoral has an environmental resonance as well, since those idyllic green pastures threaten to become historical in the most literal sense. Here the pastoral may merge with the budding discipline of ecocriticism, although such academic initiatives may best be examined with a critical eye; ‘conservation’ and ‘conservatism’ possess more than a common etymology, at the extremes also sharing a luddism, a vision of an idealised past, and a scepticism about the ability of human intervention to change the world for the better. Such ecocritical discourse must be careful that its laudable aims do not devolve into the rehashing of culturally received dogmas whose ideological basis is suspect. Nevertheless, the pastoral of the future may necessarily become a dry pastoral, unless action on climate change can take precedence over economic rationalism.

In any case, from the colonial perspective, Australian depictions of landscape have often been a dry pastoral, since the bush has been viewed as harsh and inhospitable – which is, of course, to ignore the thousands of generations of traditional inhabitants who dwelled there. The uniqueness of Gerald Murnane’s pastoral romance, The Plains, stems from precisely the inversion of this colonial assumption. Beginning with an epigraph from Thomas Livingstone Mitchell’s Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia (‘We had at length discovered a country ready for the immediate reception of civilised man …’ (1)) Murnane goes on to present an Inner Australia that is flourishing both culturally and ecologically. To present the Australian pastoral as a dry pastoral requires taking sides in the debate of whether it’s from the deserts the prophets come, or from the prophets the deserts come.

Contemporary pastoral poetry takes part in such debates but also moves beyond them, as attested by David Brooks’s ‘Tinnitus’ in the Summer 2008 issue of Meanjin, the innovation in which stems from an inversion of traditional pastoral yearning not unlike Murnane’s. The poem serves as a stark contrast to a poem such as Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’; in Yeats’s work, an urban-dwelling speaker is haunted by memories of the idyllic countryside: ‘I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;/While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,/I hear it in the heart’s deep core’ (60). Here even the gritty reality of urban life cannot mute the call of the pastoral. Yet in Brooks’s imagination such a haunting call sublimates into irritation, as the speaker’s tinnitus becomes a plague of cicadas entering his head. The call here does not provide a sublime moment of vision, but a cold moment of self-reflection, since the buzzing ends up ‘ironising everything I think or do’ (219). Brooks’s speaker feels the call as strongly as Yeats’s, since the cicadas are ‘pulsing with the blood’s pulse, holding the heart firm’, but that call offers no possibility of a romanticized rural escape, only the pessimistic revelation that it is ‘going to be with me till I die’ (219).

In Brooks’ vision the relation of the individual subject to nature is uprooted from the traditional logic of the pastoral in a gesture that both extends and criticises the genre. In an almost Kantian move, the terrain of the pastoral in Brooks’s poem – the outside world – is actually created by the inner-world of the speaker. Here the pastoral merges with the lyric, and pastoral landscape becomes a metaphor for individual experience. And this, perhaps, is ultimately what makes the pastoral such a resilient form: the green pastures of the pastoral are never real, but always idealized; they are literally the greener pastures of somewhere else, a no-place, a utopia, whether it be Yeats’s Isle of Innisfree or Murnane’s Inner Australia. Thus, for all its grounding in landscape, the pastoral remains paradoxically anti-realist, and it is perhaps this inherent disjuncture between the real and the unreal in the pastoral that is most ripe for exploration in contemporary poetic praxis.

Perhaps more than any other poetic genre the pastoral possesses an investment in tradition, but Brooks’s poem demonstrates that by appropriating that tradition and critiquing it a contemporary pastoral may yet develop. At the same time, while the pastoral may present an ahistorical landscape as its subject, the pastoral, as genre, does possess a history – a history of poetic tradition, indebtedness, and innovation. It might be that this gap remains the most interesting possibility to explore in contemporary pastoral, since poems with inherently unreal subjects may ultimately reflect not so much on landscape as on their own tradition, their own generic heritage. Contemporary pastoral may ultimately provide the possibility of reflecting not on green pastures but on the workings of the poetic tradition and even of poetry itself.

Works Cited:

Brooks, David. ‘Tinnitus.’ Meanjin 67:4 (Summer 2008), p 219.
Milton, John. ‘Lycidas.’ Complete English Poems, of Education, Areopagitica (London: Everyman’s Library, 2000).
Murnane, Gerald. The Plains (Ringwood: McPhee Gribble, 1990 [1982]).
Yeats, William Butler. ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ The Poems (London: Everyman’s Library, 1990).

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