Friday, 17 April 2015

The Reasons Why Pastorals Delight by Samuel Johnson.

The Rambler.
There are two essays on pastoral poetry in Samuel Johnson's The Rambler: 'The reasons why pastorals delight' (Saturday 21st July 1750) and 'The true principles of pastoral poetry' (Tuesday 24th July 1750). I would have liked to have written about both essays today, but unfortunately whilst I was in the middle of writing something cropped up and I'm going to have to curtail and focus only on the first. 

Johnson begins in this very short essay by observing,
There is scarcely any species of poetry that has allured more readers or excited more writers than that of the pastoral. It is generally pleasing because it entertains the mind with representations of scenes familiar to almost every imagination, and of which all can equally judge whether they are well described.
He goes on to write about the ages of man, and if that which is depicted in pastoral poetry represents the early ages, then it may follow that pastoral poetry itself is an ancient literature. Thus,
... for the same reason that pastoral poetry was the first enjoyment of the human imagination, it is generally the first literary amusement of our minds. We have seen fields and meadows and groves from the time that our eyes opened upon life; and are pleased with birds and brooks and breezes much earlier than we engage among the actions and passions of mankind. We are therefore delighted with rural pictures, because we know the original at an age when our curiosity can be very little awakened by descriptions of courts which we never beheld, or representations of passion which we never felt.
Because of this Johnson argues that the reading of pastoral poetry is a relaxing and pleasurable pastime that we hold on to in adulthood: "we do not, as we advance into the intellectual world, throw it away among the other childish amusements and pastimes, but willingly return to it in any hour of indolence and relaxation".

Johnson then moves on to the range and scope and potential of pastoral imagery, arguing that though it is essentially limited one may see the scientific, or rather the botanical advancements of a society within its pastoral literature:
... as each age makes some discoveries, and those discoveries are by degrees generally known, as new plants or modes of culture are introduced, and by little and little become common, pastoral might receive, from time to time, small augmentations, and exhibit once in a century a scene somewhat varied.
He then goes on to criticise pastoral poets who, he would argue, have no right to write what they do:
... men to whom the face of nature was so little known that they have drawn it only after their own imagination, and changed or distorted her features, that their portraits might appear something more than servile copies from their predecessors.
It is, as he has suggested, difficult to produce new and original pastoral scenes because of the aforementioned limitation in scope. At this point he refers to Sannazarius, and I believe this must be Jacopo Sannazaro, the 15th-16th Century Italian writer (author of, for example, Arcadia, 1504). Johnson writes,
The conviction of the necessity of some new source of pleasure induced Sannazarius to remove the scene from the fields to the sea, to substitute fishermen for shepherds, and derive his sentiments from the piscatory life; for which he has been censured by succeeding critics, because the sea is an object of terror, and by no means proper to amuse the mind and lay the passions asleep. Against this objection he might be defended by the established maxim that the poet has a right to select his images, and is no more obliged to show the sea in a storm than the land under an inundation; but may display all the pleasures, and conceal the dangers of the water, as he may lay his shepherd under a shady beech without giving him an ague, or letting a wild beast loose on him.
Yet Johnson does criticise Sannazarius on the grounds that describing the sea is a great deal more limited than describing the land, and the lack of experience the reader may have with "maritime pleasures" that will naturally curtail the reader's full potential of enjoyment. Identifying with action, for Johnson, is an important part of reading, which he argued in The New Realistic Novel (31st March 1750, also found in The Rambler). Johnson then concludes that it is a near impossible task to improve upon ancient writers:
Our descriptions may indeed differ from those of Virgil, as an English from an Italian summer, and, in some respects, as modern from ancient life; but as nature is in both countries nearly the same, and as poetry has to do rather with the passions of men, which are uniform, than their customs, which are changeable, the varieties which time or place can furnish will be inconsiderable: and I shall endeavour to show, in the next paper, how little the latter ages have contributed to the improvement of the rustic muse.
In the second essay he writes of Virgil, referring (presumably) to Virgil's pastoral poems - the Eclogues (42 - 39 B.C.). I remember reading these a while ago and enjoying them, but I would like to revisit them. Hopefully over the weekend I'll be able to re-read them, then next week I'll write something and refer to Johnson's second essay.

Pastoral Scene, Early Summer by Frederick William Hulme (1877).
'Pastoral Poems' was my 16th work for the Deal Me In Challenge (the second essay was really just a bonus!), and it was the final essay from Johnson's The Rambler. Over the coming month I hope to read the rest of the essays, and I do intend next week to write about Virgil's Eclogues with reference to Johnson's second essay. Next week however for the challenge is a return to Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader: 'How Should One Read a Book?'


  1. I am reading his biography written by Boswell. What a fascinating book! I will have to read these essays when I finish the biography.

    1. I'm hoping to read that soon - I'm glad you're enjoying it, I'm a little intimidated by the size! :)

  2. I have yet to read good old Samuel, but I'm looking forward to it. I'm also dying to read Virgil's Eclogues .... once I had hoped to read them in Latin, but not anymore. You're doing great with your Deal Me in Challenge. I'm a little behind but hope to catch up soon!

    1. I'm loving Samuel Johnson!

      I've started the Eclogues, it's only a very short book but I'm enjoying them. Really want to read more Virgil :)


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