Herding the Sheep: A Letter to Poets

Sit down now, goatherd, (think the Nymphs had asked you)
And play your pipe, here where the hillside steepens
And tamarisks grow on the slope. I will watch your goats.”
Theocritus, Idyll 1″I hate the craftsman who dreams of building his house
As high as the mountain ridge of Oromedon there,
And I hate the artless gaggle of bardic ranters
Who match themselves against Homer with posturing cries.
Now for our songs, Simichidas. I will start
If….But see what you think of this small poem
Which I have been labouring over, up in the hills.”
Theocritus, Idyll 7

Cambridge, England, summer. The temperature hovers around the high twenties – it is something of a heat wave. The fields around the area are generally a tawny gold, though there are tinges of green around the waterways and lowest of the fenlands. I visit the Fitzwilliam Museum and look at Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s 1876 painting 94 degrees in the shade. I am a little homesick for the wheatfields of Western Australia, and as a consequence find this idyllic painting somewhat ironic. It is both a landscape and a portrait, and as this paper is concerned with ways of seeing and the apportioning of “space” within a landscape, it is worth noting the difference between the positioning of the photographic “portrait” and “landscape” – that is, the horizontal and the vertical. This is a vertical painting. In the foreground a youth is spread out cheek in hand reading a book on butterflies. Much in the same way as a lazing cavalier might have his rapier lying nearby, but still with a sense of being “at the ready”, so too the boy”s butterfly net lies in front of him. He is wearing a cream summer suit with a “pith hat”; he is every bit the private-schoolboy on his summer hols, resting in the shade, while in the background, “his” Arcadia glows in its fertile glory. Here is the granary of empire, the wealth that keeps home secure. The stooks have been gathered, but lie in comfortable disarray; they are neat, but not too predictable – there is a sense of abandon in the picture. As an Australian, the first thing I wonder is why the hell he’s wearing a full suit in the heat. The codes of this painting are very specific; it is about the preservation of the civilised, foregrounded against the Arcadian idyll. Here are the vestiges of the Theocritan pastoral that in poetry, it might be argued, passed away with the work of Wordsworth. It would not be hard to imagine the Hardyesque “rustic” wandering past on his way to look over his flock of sheep. The herdsman makes an appearance; the polite young gentleman and the herdsman notice each other and nod before returning to their occupations. The artifice implicit in Theocritus”s “arrangement” of the herdsmen”s song-dialogue into a metrical construct that works within, whilst extending the conventions of, the “Alexandrian poem” – already characterized by a flexibility and willingness to absorb aspects of and even use as a blueprint popular songs and song cycles – is what constitutes the “pastoral poem”. In the intertwining of the “natural” and “human”, the evocation of a “pathetic fallacy”, the landscape as a “stage”, the evocation of the sublime, all find qualification in Theocritus. This idealization with a basis in “day-to-day” existence in the Arcadian world will find its apotheosis in Virgil and extend on through Dante, Spenser, Milton, to Wordsworth, where, in Lyrical Ballads, and specifically the poem “Michael”, an abrupt shift in the possibilities of the pastoral takes place. James Sambrook, in English Pastoral Poetry, writes:


Theocritus’s technique is that of a dramatist (as indeed, Wordsworth’s too often was, according to Coleridge). His invented and deliberately unheroic characters utter soliloquies or engage in dialogues, sometimes in a framework of description and reflection by the poet, but more often within a wholly objectified narrative framework. The idylls span a long scale of notes from the nobly elegiac to the grotesquely gross. Theocritus makes love and song the central motifs of pastoral poetry. Countless generations of later pastoralists borrow, often at second, third, or umpteenth hand, his devices – the literary-cum-rustic language, the song contest, the elegy, the pathetic fallacy, the folklore and the rest. Some, though they are regrettably few, recapture Theocritus”s humour, which remains delicately on the edge of burlesque; but very few have his understanding of human nature.

It is winter, Cambridge, England. I am in my college apartment poring over photographs and paintings of the Australian “outback”. They are all pictures of heat, the harvest. The first is by John Glover, junior, and is called My Harvest Home (1840). In Australian Painting 1788-1990, Bernard Smith writes,


In My Harvest Home the old blends with the new. A bountiful harvest has sprung from what was once an antipodean wilderness. The eucalypt forest glows in the mellow light of Claude. It is a vision of a pioneer’s paradise. But the sense of plenitude and physical well-being which the painting figures forth is no mere pictorial device, for it expressed the living experience of the Glover family as Australian farmers. Northern Tasmania became a granary for the mainland in the early 1830s and played an important part in the growing prosperity of the island. “We sow, plant, fence and break up new ground in progressive order”, wrote John Glover junior to his sister in England, “and our crops thank goodness turn out equal to most, our wheat in particular often surpasses most of our neighbours… Mr Glover continues painting.”

It goes without saying that the Arcadian plenty implied by this painting has come at the expense of an undoing of the original environment. This is a portrait, though painted as a landscape, that is Virgilian in its intent. I also have in front of me photographs of farming land in the Avon Valley region of Western Australia. The harvest has been completed, the fields are of a blond-gold stubble, with sheep grazing in an aching heat. There is a photo of an A-type wheat bin looking pragmatic and indifferent, surrounded by asphalt and dead grass. It is glaringly white. While representing “the plenty”, presuming this has been a good season, there is nothing in the “mood” of the photograph to suggest this; it is stark and factual. As with the sheep in the paddock: they are just there because there is good feed available, and it is part of a process that will bring the farmer profit. This of course is the truth behind the Alma-Tadema painting and the Glover painting, as well as these photographs. It will be the endeavour of this paper to examine the modern pastoral in the light of this consciousness. Functionality, modernity, the “awareness” of artifice in the creation of pastoral texts, the consideration of movement between urban and rural spaces – both conceptual and physical – and, fundamentally, the relationship of lyrical language and the position of the observer, the lyrical I, to the rural, will be central to this exploration. I will contend that poetry written in Australia and England, and possibly in many other places in the English-speaking world, is frequently written within or against the pastoral tradition. Having said this, I note that no “true” – that is, Theocritan/Virgilian – pastoral tradition, really exists in Australia. There is rather a case of imitation pastoral or bucolic, which has to do with the “heroic” nature of carving a place out of the bush, of defining a cordon sanitaire. It is a landscape with which one is constantly struggling, and this lends itself to a Georgic moralising about process, consequently not providing such an efficient stage for the artifice of pastoral drama. Further to all this, the question of gender and the creation and reading of pastoral texts will be considered: the “landscape” as a body-without-organs in the Deleuze and Guattarian sense, waiting to be filled with the bucolic paraphernalia of the poet vis à vis urban society, vis à vis the natural order of things re the patriarchy as proposed by feminist theory, and the possibility of rewriting the pastoral per lécriture féminine, such as in the work of the young Canadian poet Lisa Robertson. The anti-pastoral, the post-pastoral, the radical pastoral, the neo-pastoral are all terms that are in frequent use among pastoral theorists and practitioners in the late twentieth century. It is my proposal to examine these issues in the context of these terminologies through praxis, that is through my own writing, and that of other poets from Australia such as Les Murray, Judith Wright and Dorothy Hewett; from England, such as J. H. Prynne, Peter Riley and Peter Larkin; and from the United States, such as Robert Frost and many others. A diverse range of materials will be used, including interviews, email discussions, with actual poetry texts evolving as part of the writing process. This document is meta-textual, being concerned with its own development. It is a dialogue between the “poet” and the reader, listener, or “rival” singer.