'In his 1935 study, Some Versions of Pastoral, rather than presenting a genre rooted in escapism, fantasy or paradise, William Empson described the pragmatic, instrumental value of pastoral, its way of ‘putting the complex into the simple’. But he also radically demonstrated, in examining such seemingly disparate texts as Troilus and Cressida and Paradise Lost, The Beggar’s Opera and Alice in Wonderland, the complex range that those simple tropes and narrative parameters could create. In homage to Empson’s groundbreaking study, my new book could well have been titled Some Versions of Pastoral Elegy, since its purpose is not to wearily plod the restricted terrain of classical pastoral elegy, to argue that it has survived intact until today, but to open up its thematic and formal borders, to demonstrate how its landscapes and figures have been imaginatively developed by contemporary poets.
Mourning poets still turn to those distracting things in the attempt to locate or generate emotional recovery, and have re-imagined them so innovatively that they might be almost unrecognisable: the singing herdsmen, cows and sheep of Ancient Greece and Rome have become, in contemporary elegies, a watchful heron over Central Park (in a poem by Michael Longley), African elephants turning over the bones of herd members (Christopher Reid), or even a howling half-potato cut up to make potato-prints (Paul Muldoon). And it’s not just personal loss that the genre is used to come to terms with: war, the loss of childhood, the mutable nature of memory, lost political ideals, the destruction of the environment – whether urban or rural – and the tropes of the form itself, all of these themes can be covered in pastoral elegy’s extensive conceptual and emotional range.
Like pastoral, the pastoral elegy form offers a seemingly simple, constant space that allows mourning poets to untangle the complex tensions and needs bound up with loss, such as the need to accept that a better time has passed, to withdraw affection and somehow reassert the life-instinct, and to establish the dead as a memorial presence. Conventionally, the changing seasons of pastoral elegy suggested a pattern of renunciation, recycling and regeneration. But this is not to say that the ease offered by pastoral elegy is – or ever was – easy, or indeed something the poet welcomes: it may be that no intense grief can be assuaged quickly, and poets are very aware that the pastoral elegy is a working landscape, that mourning is laborious, as well as that reaching the end of the elegy risks assenting to an emotional and memorial exile. In the years after loss, the memory of the dead can be a pastoral location that struggles to maintain its original qualities against the corruptions of time. But the ethical attention sown by pastoral elegy yields a drive to poetic excellence, to create beautiful forms worthy of the subject. Often the imperative to form remains the only meaningful source of comfort, or the sole instinct to life in an emotional and psychological landscape devastated by grief.
Even when it is unable to provide consolation, the pastoral elegy still offers some form of sanctuary to mourning poets, and in its ‘pastoral’ aspect, a paradigm of care. Just as the form has looked after poets, presenting the opportunity to work out how to take care of the legacy of the dead – whatever the lost object may be – so those poets have looked after this vibrant, ultimately life-affirming form, whose grief is a confirmation of love. In this sense, finally, the pastoral elegy also offers a resolute challenge: that is, whether the contemporary poet is able to demonstrate that poetry is still a matter of life and death.'
– Iain Twiddy is the author of Pastoral Elegy in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry - an examination of the nature and function of pastoral elegies in post-1960 British and Irish poetry. You can read the first 30 pages of the book by clicking on the preview button to the left.