Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Defining Pastoral Odes

Ah, the lonely goatherd, watching his flock from the hilltop, not a care in the world, other than the welfare of some goats. No cell phone, no cable bill, no social media – pretty idyllic, right? With so many hassles in our hectic modern lives, it’s easy to see why literature about shepherds and the countryside would be popular, but would it surprise you to know that writing like this has been a thing for over 2000 years? Writers have been idealizing the countryside since the time when there was hardly anything but countryside. In this lesson, you’ll learn about this type of writing, how it has evolved, and what it looks like now.

An ode is a type of poetry focused on a single theme, with a single purpose. While there are distinct types of odes, one thing that sets an ode apart from other poetic forms is its elevated approach. The ode has weight. It’s stately, dignified. Maybe you once wrote ‘Ode to School Lunch’ as part of a class assignment, but it probably wasn’t truly an ode. Odes are serious business.

The word pastoral refers to shepherds and rustic country life. When you combine those terms, a pastoral ode would be a dignified, serious poem about the simple country life. And it probably contains a shepherd or two.

Pastoral History

Pastoral poems got their start in the third century B.C. with some rustic written poetic sketches of the countryside by Theocritus. Back then there were certain distinct types of pastorals. First you had poetic singing contests between shepherds – sort of like an ancient Greek battle of the bands, only by shepherds – in poetry. The second type was long poetic speeches from a single character, telling the world about how special a certain someone was, and the third kind of pastoral was elegies for the dead. All three types had a few things in common that still hold true. They were written in an elevated language, and they made the countryside look like the place to be. Even the shepherds spoke like intellectual poets from the city more than illiterate rural workers.

A Sample Pastoral Ode

Jump ahead to 1579, and we get that classic The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spencer. This pastoral starts from the voice of a poor shepherd boy, Colin, who loves a young woman, Rosalind. He tries to woo her by rocking out on his sweet pan pipes, but she turns him down and in a fit of emo rage he smashes his instrument.

I loue thilke lasse, (alas why doe I loue?)

And am forlorne, (alas why am I lorne?)

Shee deignes not my good will, but doth reproue,

And of my rurall musick holdeth scorne.

Shepheards deuise she hateth as the snake,

And laughes the songes, that Colin Clout doth make.

The reader is left to wonder why would anyone ‘holdeth scorne’ and laugh when hearing such beautiful ‘rurall musick.’ Set that aside and note the characteristics of the pastoral ode. It’s written in an elevated style using a formal set of rules for rhyme and rhythm, and it’s about that sweet country life including one sad shepherd tooting on his flute. Poor Colin.

Modern Interpretations

Keep moving forward in time to more contemporary versions. Current pastorals don’t really focus on the shepherd part; after all, it’s not a common profession in our era of factory farms. Nevertheless, they’ve retained that longing for a simpler existence and the tendency to gloss over the bad aspects of that way of life. They give you all the sweet parts of that quiet cabin in the woods while ignoring the cold, a lack of running water, and the mice infestation. One particular writer has latched on to the pastoral in recent years. William Empson, literary critic, notes that the pastoral specializes in putting the complex into the simple. Let’s examine that dichotomy of complex and simple a little further.

Pastoral poetry takes some of the biggest ideas, the largest universal truths of life and death and love and hate, and it expresses those ideas with the single focus of the ode. It has those complicated and important concepts come from the mouths of the simple shepherd, thus reducing ideas that are often too large to grasp to simple, folksy wisdom. But remember – there’s still a tension between simplicity and complexity in the ode, which is written in the language of the highly educated and framed in a structure that’s anything but simplistic. Complex ideas stated in complex ways coming from simple people. That’s the pastoral ode for you!

Lesson Summary

Pastoral poems focus on shepherds and rustic country life while the ode is an elevated poetic style that sticks to a single theme or focus. Pastoral odes have been around in some form since the third century BC, and while more recent ones have strayed away from always using shepherds, they’re still poems that idealize country life. William Empson, a literary critic, explained that pastoral poems have a tension between the simple and the complex. They take complex ideas and have them come from the mouths of simple characters who use complex language. The form of the pastoral may have changed, but it’s still popular to imagine an escape to a simpler, low tech existence.

Join the conversation