“An intermediate nature . . . prevents the universe falling into two separate halves.”
—Plato, Symposium (203b).
Almost from the beginning of when human beings began to ponder their situation in the order of things, they have somehow seen themselves as living in a world which is incomplete: a world that is separate, split, in some way ‘torn apart’ from its source (whatever that may be, or have been); a cosmos, latterly a universe, “under” or “suffering” the consequences of this diremption.
From certainly the time of the Ancient Greeks (especially Plato and Aristotle – although they are relatively late in their own tradition), the teachings and writings of the Prophets of Israel, some of which become the Old Testament, Rome, the so-called “Dark Ages” and their (equally so-called) Enlightenment, the Reformation of the Early Modern Period and on into the Age of ‘Reason’, the era of Modernity, the late period of which (some call it Postmodernity) we ourselves live in, artists (in the West and Middle East – India, China and the Far East have different traditions outside the scope of this argument) in all expressive forms have to a greater or lesser extent attempted to address the nature and discover or explain the meaning of this diremption, its consequences for humanity, and to sometimes suggest ways that it may, or may not, be overcome, ‘repaired’, or even redeemed.
The focus of this essay is the British Literary Pastoral tradition, or, more precisely, that group of writings which has been loosely classified as such; it is extremely difficult to produce an exact definition of what the Pastoral “is” but, nevertheless, we shall attempt to identify some common themes across a selection of texts.
In this argument I shall propose that the most fundamental “ingredient” of the English Pastoral is precisely its engagement with this question of the nature of diremption and its consequences. This study will range from the works of Shakespeare and Milton, the “Gothicism” of Gray, the Romanticism of Wordsworth, the nineteenth century and into the contemporary period, a time-span of almost five hundred years.
I wish to begin this discussion in the middle as it were, at least in terms of the “philosophical” development of the tradition. In his poem of 1900 The Darkling Thrush, Thomas Hardy expresses what we might call a moment of intense pathos in the trajectory of the Pastoral. This “moment” is one from which we will be able to move both back to Shakespeare, and forward to writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Hardy writes about the “Century’s corpse outleant, /His crypt the cloudy canopy, /The wind his death-lament” and how “every spirit on earth” seems “fervourless,” thus presenting a sense of unrelenting gloom and oppression. Yet, almost bizarrely in this landscape of utter bleakness, “At once a voice arose” a voice, moreover, of “joy illimited” as an “aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small . . . Had chosen thus to fling his soul/ Upon the growing gloom.” And we might for a moment be tempted to think all was well after all, but the poet spells out his position:
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Hardy’s use of the subjunctive leaves us, I suggest, in no doubt: there is no justification for this Hope. This is perhaps the late nineteenth century’s purest expression of a sense of diremption: in the age of Darwin, of Utilitarianism, materialism and Positivism there is no room for something as naive as hope, certainly not Hope, however earnestly wished for thus portending the godless universe of the coming century’s nihilism which will bring with it the terrifyingly casual non-fearfulness of the nihilist, for whom even life and death would seem finally of no consequence. Yet there is still pathos here: Hardy can still feel the pain acutely of the loss of that Hope.
In his earlier novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy presents us with, I suggest, an equally bleak vision in his prose writing. He describes a nature which is nothing if not fecund:
Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Var Vale, at a season
When the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization,
it is impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The
ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings. (p. 149)
Nature has become the most physical of lovers, it seems. But there is perhaps something sterile in the midst of all this physicality; it is not love of the order that Milton describes between Adam and Eve: it is not spiritual: it is no Garden of Eden. This garden seems overgrown, disorderly, going to seed. But if nature is “merely” physical, can it ultimately satisfy the deepest human longings? Certainly in the case of Tess it does not; nature, in the novel, and through the character of the brutally physical Alec D’Urbeville, and consequently for Tess, natural fecundity is reduced to the macabre caricature of rape: the antithesis of love. And in an equally macabre distortion of justice, as Hardy presents it, perhaps in the very absence of God’s Justice (like Hope) it is Tess who pays the ultimate price exacted by this “nature” which while it may be “fecund”, like Shakespeare’s “dissembler” Richard III it can “know no rules of charity.”
We will see the pathos that Hardy presents “degenerate” into bathos in the work of Larkin, MacCaig and others, and also how in itself, in Hardy, it is already a long way from the ‘hope’ of writers such as Marvell (whose “skilful gardener” has created an environment of “Fair Quiet” “And Innocence”) and Gray (in his “glimmering landscape” where “all the air a solemn stillness holds”) for example.
But let us go back, in time at least, to Shakespeare and Milton. For the author of As You Like It Nature is a backdrop in the sense that it is “there” in an uncomplicated fashion (we will see below how complicated this relationship can become in the work of MacCaig) his characters ‘blend seamlessly’ into the Forest of Arden; as Duke Senior says, “Are not the woods/ More free from peril than the envious court?” Certainly their lives are complex enough, but this is not a fault in Nature but in the world created by men, the “court,” it is in the people themselves, it is their fallen nature. In fact Shakespeare has little to say here about nature as environment as we understand it: that is not his problem.
Milton has no doubt at all about what the problem is: it is the consequence “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit/ of that forbidden tree” which, of course, is expulsion from Eden, and the loss of God’s Grace in separation from Him. This is the Fall of Man and the beginning, for Milton, of human history in time. But Milton has a trick up his sleeve: he will write about “our general Parents” in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. This will enable Milton to present the perfect Pastoral vision: Man in Paradise. Into Eden “forth came the human pair” “when all things that breathe/ From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise/ to the Creator” into this perfect landscape in their perfect love for each other; Adam will exclaim, “Sole Eve, associate sole, to me beyond/ Compare above all living creatures dear” while she (ever the more practical) outlines to him a day of perfect labour (which is not drudgery) in Eden reminding him, “Adam, well may we labour still to dress this garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower, /Our pleasant task enjoined.”
Adam will only ask, “How we might best fulfil the work which here/ God hath assigned us.” But this is before the Fall, before the split, before diremption. It is before history in time which makes us mortal (and therefore Damned) begins. Yet for Milton this is not a reason for pathos in its most tragic sense, because Milton does have hope, precisely Hope. That Hope which, for Hardy, as we have seen, is no more than a ‘wish’ a wish, furthermore that he cannot believe in. That Hope that looks forward to the ‘return’ of Grace, when the immanent world of men and the transcendent ‘world’ of what Eric Voegelin calls the “Beyond” (or call it God or by any other appropriate signifier) are reconciled, or redeemed.
Marvell, Gray, Collins and Goldsmith et al. provide us with many more instances of the sort of Hope that Milton evinces. They each have their individual “take,” but it is, from the point of view of this argument, essentially a variant of this perspective.
Let us move forward again to the Romantic Wordsworth. Of course he too has his own “take” on the Pastoral but, as ever, it is a vision of love in a loving Nature, a nature that is beyond, or potentially beyond, diremption: it is still, or it has become, a Nature of Redemption. However, as a writer later on in the wake and course of Modernity his vision, and this is the case with most of the so-called Romantics, is perhaps less ‘Scriptural’ and more pantheistically metaphysical: to them Nature is in itself the site of a kind of mystical Unity (although this perhaps lacks the panentheism of Shakespeare and Milton which differs from pantheism by positing that God not only exists in nature, but extends transcendentally beyond it). Wordsworth makes this clear in Tintern Abbey: Nature has been invested with almost Godlike power in itself (present even when absent, as it were):
These beauteous forms
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration . . .
A restoration of precisely the kind, I suggest, that is denied to Hardy, and even delayed or ‘put back’ for Milton (although he remains assured and certain of it). And this is a kind of “restoration” a form of communion common to many of the Romantics. A writer with a “Gothic mind” (that antithesis to utilitarianism) of a slightly earlier period, Thomas Gray, expresses similar feelings: in the churchyard of his Elegy even death is no more than reconciliation with a godlike nature where even “Some inglorious Milton . . . may rest.” Gray is explicit, every man (it is probably safe to assume Gray means woman as well) is brought back to God:
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose,)
The bosom of his father and his God.
How different to Hardy’s “Hope”: a hope now based on no more than a dumb Darwinian bird’s song that “trembled through” the “air.” How “trembling” can signify such different emotions! The hope manifested in the work of the Romantics, it seems, might be called ‘premature’ and therefore unsustainable against the onslaught of the increasingly volatile scientism and tendency toward secularization of the coming nineteenth century.
If we leap, for the moment, forward to the poetry of the post-1945 period we can see how this trajectory has both continued and changed, as is inevitable, even if the nature of that change is case-specific. For instance, in the poetry of Philip Larkin we can detect his sense of only the “ghost” or “trace” of the vanishing pathos that Hardy can still feel acutely, now become a kind of resigned longing or nostalgia as the “countryside” is “raped” (in a not entirely different sense to the way Tess is raped) by “progress” and capitalist profit: “Five per cent profit [and ten/ Per cent more in the estuaries]: move/ Your works to the unspoilt dales . . . ” leaving us with little doubt about what is almost ‘gone’ in Going, Going.
What we’ve lost (or, as it were, about to lose again) is the Garden of Eden, or certainly the garden of England: “And that will be England gone,/ The shadows, the meadows, the lanes” where “all that remains/ For us will be concrete and tyres.” And there is something else ‘missing’ from the world as Larkin sees it, if we consider the ambiguity of his church visit (in Church Going): “A serious house on serious earth it is” where, nevertheless, he’s “sure there’s nothing going on . . . inside” although “he once heard, (it) was proper to grow wise in,” yet despite “A hunger in himself to be more serious” he “always end(s) much at a loss . . . Wondering.”
If this is the same species of “loss” that we can detect in Hardy Dylan Thomas, perhaps “picking up” a more Hopkinsesque tone, will offer us his “parables/ Of sunlight/ And the legends of green chapels…And the mystery/ Sang alive . . . in the . . . singingbirds” (Poem in October) and perhaps we have replaced Hardy’s impossible Hope(less) carolling thrush with a birdsong with a renewed sense of something still beyond our fullest understanding, at least until “the children green and golden/ Follow him out of grace” (Fern Hill).
Elizabeth Jennings will take us back to the garden, or at least a “metaphor of Eden” but “gardener has gone” the place “Looks wistful” as if it is ‘trapped’ or suspended in a kind of unending Easter Saturday “waiting an event” as if “someone cares/ In the wrong way.” It is all still “Quietly godlike” but even the beech tree’s shadow “seemed a kind of threat” yet the speaker “Mocked by the smell of a mown lawn” lingers on: “Sickness for Eden was so strong” (In a Garden) it is, even now, “This spirit, this power” “the tears shed in the lonely fastness” (A Chorus) it is U.A.Fanthorpe’s “permanent/ Presences” even if “cattle, weather,/ Archaeologists have rubbed against them” (Stanton Drew), in these moments before “Humanity goes out/ Like a light” (Canal: 1977)
The “garden” has become R.S Thomas’s landscape where “there is only the past” with its “sham ghosts” and “relics” (Welsh Landscape) almost rid “of the taste of man” (Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man). Where Tony Harrison is nevertheless clinging on to (physical) life, as it seems we still must do, his ambiguous “kumquat” (one part’s sweet and one part’s tart) of “comfort for” at least “not dying young” like Keats, although “however many kumquats” that he eats “being a man of doubt” (A Kumquat for John Keats) it can be no more than a desperate holding off of the moment when “our heads will be happen cold” (Remains).
For Norman MacCaig this trajectory has moved even further along: his sparrow, “He’s no artist” (Sparrow). In MacCaig’s work nature, the Garden, is now “reduced” to a mere “process of observing” although exactly what is making the observation seems indeterminate: “I took my mind a walk/ or my mind took me a walk – / whichever was the truth of it” although the precise quality of this “truth” must remain ambiguous at best, it seems, as the speaker tells us “my feet took me home . . . and my mind observed to me/ or I to it” by which point the reader might well be screaming for some reconciliation to this impasse; but that, of course, is precisely MacCaig’s point: there can be no reconciliation, with N/nature, with God nor even ourselves: there is no way back home to the garden (of Eden), there is no garden, maybe there never was.
In this postmodern vision of the order of things there isn’t even really any diremption to be redeemed; there is just the Machine, the soulless universe that may be but only in the functional way that any machine can be said to be. Even for MacCaig this is finally a kind of circular paradox, a condition of aporia. He will tell us “how ordinary/ extraordinary things or . . . how extraordinary ordinary things are, like the nature of the mind” but, we may well ask, where is the mind in this “process of observing” (An Ordinary Day)?
Does it have to be this way? Must all come at last to, in Russell Kirk’s words, “This dreary loneliness of the modern ego”? Can the split, the separation we feel from ‘the heart of things’ never be healed; is it all no more than an illusion anyway? Or can we say that even an illusion is still not quite nothing?
Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing around the same time as Hardy, seems nevertheless to see a very different universe; for him the “Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush/ Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring/ The ear, it strikes lightnings to hear him sing.” Hopkins will hear, or can still hear, “A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning/ In Eden garden” a sense that he can at least actually “Have, get, before it cloy,/ Before it cloud” “with sinning” perhaps, but ‘real’ for all that. It is, possibly, the ‘or’ to Hardy’s “either;” yet could there be a “both/and” position?
T.S. Eliot can offer a different perspective. Prufrock may have seen “the eternal Footman hold [his] coat and/ snicker” and “was afraid” and his speaker in his “Windy Night” can conclude that “life” is, ironically, “The last twist of the knife;” yet at the end of The Four Quartets in Little Gidding Eliot will reverse the expulsion from Eden endured by, as Milton, we remember called them, “our General Parents” – Adam and Eve – and therefore (at least in this symbolism) all of us. At the close of Paradise Lost the gates of Eden are shut fast as it were (“the gate/ With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms”) as the original pair are thrown out for bringing sin into the world; and that is what they (and us) are left with: the world, yes, but torn from its source (in God):
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
And thus (even for Milton) human history begins; Eden is no longer paradise, it is just “The world,” and their “solitary” journey through “Eden” – this ruined paradise – leads to Hardy and our present. Eliot, however, seems to show us the gate again: “the unknown, remembered gate/ When the last of the earth left to discover/ Is that which was the beginning . . . A condition of complete simplicity . . . And all shall be well” because things will be reconciled and redeemed, the diremption will be healed “When the tongues of flames are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one.”
But what does this mean? In fact Eliot may seem to be presenting here a condition of aporia analogous to that that I have ascribed to MacCaig, but there is one vital difference, I suggest. Whereas MacCaig’s is a consequence of the void, a perception of profound nothingness (nihil) at the “heart of things” Eliot’s, by contrast, is surely his perception of something like the opposite: an absolute, final substance, something (whatever it is) at the very core of existence; and, to this extent, he is perhaps “rediscovering” the panentheistic perspective of a much earlier age: a universe where God is not “merely” extensional and certainly not ontologically equivalent to the world. How is Eliot’s unity, his “restoration” of “oneness” (although this “oneness” is only “one” in the same way that various Hindu traditions or, indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity understand “oneness”: conjunction and separation, a Whole of wholes) to transpire?
This is too complex an argument to deal with in detail here, but suffice (for now) to say that Eliot does at the very least seem to bring us to a bifurcation point (perhaps another kind of diremption – this is what he seems to mean by “A condition of complete simplicity” which we could also see as functioning as something like the opposite of a condition of aporia). It is the point that reason in the post-Enlightenment sense can take us to, but not beyond which it (unaided reason) can go: we are at the place where something like what Russell Kirk and Eric Voegelin among many others have called a “leap in being” is demanded if further “progress” is to be made. This may be a demand, but it cannot be commanded of us, nor can we command it, and thus, in Eliot’s “world” we come up, at last, against the problem of what he would call Grace, God’s “invitation” to faith and, through it, Redemption. Is this where the dichotomy of either Hopkins’ ‘acceptance’ of the universe or Hardy’s ‘rejection’ of it is “reconciled”? Where we move into a qualitatively different way of seeing and expressing things, beyond a disordering relativism, for which nothing is permanent or finally real, to a place where both evil and good are actual realities and yet the poet can see: “The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing” (Prelude IV).
Which way to go? One may be tempted to invoke an ideal of academic “objectivity” here and discretely decline to answer. But is this ideal objectivity actually available to us, does it even exist? Perhaps there is only the record of our actions across history, which is our attempt to understand the order and ordering of these actions, and the ground that would prevent their collapse into disorder, and are these not always mental and physical, objective and subjective experiences?
Capturing the essence of this when talking about experiences of order across time from the biblical age to our own period, Kirk, locating another manifestation of bifurcation, identifies ‘that there exist two distinct forms of history: sacred history and secular history’ the one dealing with man’s experience of God and the transcendent, the other with experience “in mundane affairs.” Kirk adds, “The first form of history often can be expressed only through imagery – through parables, allegories, and the high dream of poetry.”* This high dream is no mere fiction, but rather the attempt to understand and express the experience of transcendence itself, even if “through a glass darkly.” It is this form of experience that follows the “leap in being,” that would seem to be a necessary ingredient in any impulse to write poetry that wasn’t simply propaganda, and I suggest it is present in all the poets discussed here. But it is surely a strange kind of leap that “lands nowhere” – in the despairing nihilism of some of the poets here. We may well ask where the impulse itself to leap originates; it can hardly be the Pastoral tradition in itself, which is already, as it were, the history of a particular form of expressing the transcendent.
There is a historical trajectory to the Pastoral in our argument, but there is, perhaps, finally a fork in this path right at the end, a bifurcation not unlike that between the sacred history of experience and the secular history of experience, or perhaps the sacred and profane. We can go down the postmodern route with MacCaig et al., into the paradoxical universe where we will probably still feel the need for “home” even after we know (paradoxically?) that it cannot exist, and where there are no, in Eliot’s phrase, “permanent things” – those “things” described by Kirk as “more than natural, more than private, more than human”; or we can follow the alternative route where things are reconciled and opposites, the immanent and the transcendent, are joined (or re-joined) as symbolized in the “likely story” or Myth, as Plato understands this which, of course, must remain a symbol for us, even if it does represent truth itself , because our nature in time must remain “intermediate” – but this is the balanced intermediacy of the Platonic metaxy that would overcome or, at least prevent, further diremption. Such a symbol as Eliot’s “fire” and “rose” in their final unity. In this symbol, what we may call an expression of Eliot’s vision of the Pastoral, “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding); and we have, so to speak, finally come (back) home at last again to begin.
Yet, if the experiences that a poet tries to convey are indeed those of an authentic transcending toward the permanent and ultimate “things,” then poetry is surely of the “sacred form” of history, and poetry’s high dream is nothing less than that the poet, in Kirk’s words, “sometimes obtains a glimpse of truth.”
The question of the final authenticity, the “truth” of experience itself, especially experience of transcendence, and the transcendent ‘overcoming’ or reconciliation of diremption, of the Fall of Man—that symbol of the cause of the disorder that we would wish re-ordered—of the return to the garden—is what great poetry graciously asks of us. Some, certainly, of the poets mentioned here have, in their own way, presented their ‘glimpses of the truth’, and as long as there is a question like this that someone can still ask, and must ask, there will probably persist the Pastoral tradition as an expression of the moral imagination in which artists in all spheres will continue to create their works and express themselves and their experiences.
*The Russell Kirk quotations are from “The Law and the Prophets” in The Roots of American Order, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991) and are also quoted in The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by George A. Panichas (Wilmington, Delaware, ISI Books, 2007), and can be found on pages 71-72 of the third paperback edition (2017).
This was originally published in The Imaginative Conservative on November 17, 2018.