ANALYZING THE PASTORAL ELEGY

analyzing the pastoralIntroduction

Though strictly a fictionalized imitation of rural life, the term 'pastoral' is often used to describe the town dweller's depiction of the countryside. The pastoral elegy adds the note of lament, and its great practitioners include Virgil, Petrarch, Spenser, Milton, Goethe, Shelley and Arnold. {1}

The form is still very much alive, {2} though contemporary examples are much less formal than the piece we analyze here.

Thomas Arnold: Thyrsis

Thyrsis was written by Matthew Arnold {3} in commemoration of his friend, Arthur Hugh Clough, and is famous for the poignant hedonism of passages describing the English summer: {4}

Thyrsis

It irk'd him to be here, he could not rest.
He loved each simple joy the country yields,
He loved his mates; but yet he could not keep,
For that a shadow lour'd on the fields,
Here with the shepherds and the silly sheep.
Some life of men unblest
He knew, which made him droop, and fill'd his head.
He went; his piping took a troubled sound
Of storms that rage outside our happy ground;
He could not wait their passing, he is dead.

So, some tempestuous morn in early June,
When the year's primal burst of bloom is o'er,
Before the roses and the longest day--
When garden-walks and all the grassy floor
With blossoms red and white of fallen May
And chestnut-flowers are strewn--
So have I heard the cuckoo's parting cry,
From the wet field, through the vext garden-trees,
Come with the volleying rain and tossing breeze:
The bloom is gone, and with the bloom go I!

Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?
Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,
And the full moon, and the white evening-star.

From Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold: Stanzas 2-4. 1866.

The larger issues are Arnold's loss of poetic impulse, {5} and what George Landow calls the Pisgah sight: Arnold cannot reach the goals he and Clough idealized in The Scholar Gypsy, and catches only a brief glimpse of their elm tree as the sun sets. {6} The sensory richness of the world, and its imaginative recreation in art, are the only compensations life affords, and it's to understand this poignancy of description serving as thought (c.f. Imagism) that we now analyze these sections.

Unlike Gray's ode, the form ( end-stopped lines rhymed a b c b c a d e e d ) does not preclude a deeply moving and personal note. Arnold drives on the sense with dependent clauses, piling description on description:

So, some tempestuous morn in early June,
When the year's primal burst of bloom is o'er,
Before the roses and the longest day--
When garden-walks and all the grassy floor
With blossoms red and white of fallen May
And chestnut-flowers are strewn--
So have I heard the cuckoo's parting cry,
From the wet field, through the vext garden-trees,

And then brings the reader up short with desolating brevity of the spectacle:

Come with the volleying rain and tossing breeze:
The bloom is gone, and with the bloom go I!

With this comes some parallelism: anaphora: {7}

Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,

and chiasmus:

The bloom is gone, and with the bloom go I!

The structure is not markedly rhetorical, however, or less obviously so than Tennyson's Tithonus, but the key words are carefully placed, first to create impetuous despair:

So, some tempestuous morn in early June,
When the year's primal burst of bloom is o'er,
Before the roses and the longest day--
When garden-walks and all the grassy floor
With blossoms red and white of fallen May
And chestnut-flowers are strewn--
So have I heard the cuckoo's parting cry,
From the wet field, through the vext garden-trees,
Come with the volleying rain and tossing breeze:
The bloom is gone, and with the bloom go I!

And then to reign that back into the idealized, fragrant and familiar:

Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?
Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,
And the full moon, and the white evening-star.

Arnold is not usually seen as a Romantic, but these lines have the sensuous beauty of Keats, without his sometimes cloying sweetness. {8} Their secret is the phrasing: where Keats will write: {9}

The Day Is Gone, And All Its Sweets Are Gone

The day is gone, and all its sweets are gone!
Sweet voice, sweet lips, soft hand, and softer breast,
Warm breath, light whisper, tender semitone,
Bright eyes, accomplished shape, and lang'rous waist!
Faded the flower and all its budded charms,
Faded the sight of beauty from my eyes,
Faded the shape of beauty from my arms,
Faded the voice, warmth, whiteness, paradise—
Vanished unseasonably at shut of eve,
When the dusk holiday—or holinight
Of fragrant-curtained love begins to weave
The woof of darkness thick, for hid delight;
But, as I've read love's missal through today,
He'll let me sleep, seeing I fast and pray.

The Day Is Gone, And All Its Sweets Are Gone. John Keats: 1795 - 1821

With a very regular metre half lost in the heavy consonants:

Of fra |grant-cur | tained love | be gins | to weave
The woof | of dark | ness thick | for hid | de light;

Arnold's lines are much less regular: we probably read some as tetrameters:

1. So, some | tem pest | u ous morn | in ear | ly June,
2. When the | year's pri | mal burst | of bloom | is o'er,
3. Be fore | the ro | ses and | the long | est day
4. When gar | den-walks | and all | the gra | ssy floor
5. With blo | ssoms red | and white | of fa | llen May
6. And chest | nut-flow | ers are strewn
7. So have | I heard | the cuck | oo's par | ting cry,
8. From the | wet field | through the vext gar | den-trees,
9. Come with | the vo | lley ing rain | and to |ssing breeze:
10. The bloom | is gone | and with | the bloom | go I

and, most importantly, with a the metre verging on the anapaestic / dactylic. Pope and the Augustans placed on the ictus on unimportant words to create variety in stresses per line, but Arnold used the device for a headlong impetuosity:

From the wet field | through the vext garden-trees |
Come with the volleying rain | and tossing breeze ||
The bloom is gone | and with the bloom go I ||

All good verse is extraordinarily complicated, and poets create rhythms more from matters half sensed than through theoretical templates, but the reversal in metre should be apparent from lines annotated as 6 and 7 above, the slowing in line 8 and the continuation of the original metre, subdued, in lines 9 and 10.

Out Walking

So, we have lines of unequal length, a metre varying in pace, and a complex rhyme scheme for our model. The poem below has this scheme: 5a 5b 5c 5b 5c 4a 3e 5f 5f 5e, though the metre is somewhat irregular, with generally a slowing in line 4a to give emphasis to 3e. A similar approach, but not (alas) the heart-winning accomplishment of Arnold's poem.

It comes when walking maybe in the Spring
Time — or I don't know — out driving, at the first
Frail plumes of greenness in the barren fields:
The hope then beating outwards, the nights reversed,
Refringence of morning on the hills that yields
Days beautiful, beyond imagining —
Months to cut the heart.
The trees and the warm lanes that blind us stumbling on,
Seasons with their fragrance, the keen winds gone
Dwindling to the heavens, as the long days start.

It's the same, then, is it? in that begetting
Of April after April in those groves of trees?
Clouds in their passage over furze and heath,
Smell of the warmth, of shadow, the hum of bees
Contenting the honeysuckle, the fume beneath:
All in delirium gathered and then forgetting -
How the waters pour —
Impassioned and headlong in each tumbling brook
With never a turn backward, never a look
To us who are rootless and return no more

To the high fields of childhood that summer long
Invited and thickly through the schoolyard netting,
Where we romped and got grass in shirts and socks,
Took them all off, ran careless, abetting
The girls in freckles and their summer frocks.
Till Persephone was taken and her song
Echoing through the pain,
The deceptions, the lies and misbehaving.
Do you stand in the doorway the same and waving
In the warmth of sunlight and the simple rain?

In bright shapes and dark the hot earth goes
Radiant and gossamer in its burnt-out train
Of fruit, crops and pastures, till one by one
The quiet hills grow farther, fainter, gain
An effulgence of Eden in the midday sun.
Goosestrife is yellow. Dandelion and rose
Bay willow splay
Out to a spinnakering. By a single thread
Hanging, of its making, the spider is fed
Off as winds lift, and is winnowed away.

Dust, drowsiness, and on the earth
A tinctures of autumn in the velvet plum.
Distending the gourd and on waxed marrows throwing
Crocodile blotchings till the fatness come,
Seasons as ever have fullness but in this a sewing
Up of their sameness and sadness on the russet turf.
We who come no more
Now in our seeking of pattern in the patterning sun
Lean to our hard time, our course near run,
Silent, inconsolable on that further shore.

Elderberries thicken, are picked. Companionable days
Mope among bracken and birches. The gossamer threads
Criss-cross the brambles with silver drops.
Sorrels soar upward into burnished reds,
Thistles turn cyphers and empty to whitened tops:
All is an absence and space of greys
Where trees dissolve into watery spots
And yarrows turn spinsterly into fibrous stalks.
The thick boughs wear slowly into winter's forks
And bright leaves are gone and the dark earth rots.

Again to return — will they not? — out in early May
With the sky-larks soaring, to dwindle away
To a pin-prick of music through a sky-hung day,
Or rain clouds in torrents as the green-ribbed clay
Is turned in and planted so that we as they
Empty to the first time and nowhere stay.
Whether we would or no
In this be entangled and aching, as on we walk
Enraptured of the Springtime and Springtime talk:
The world is our being, if we think it so.

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References

1. Elegy and Pastoral entries in Preminger, A. and Brogan, T.V.F., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993).
2. Strand, M. and Boland, E., The Making of a Poem: The Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (Norton, 2000), 207-239.
3. Matthew Arnold (1822 - 1888). Gunnar Bengtsson. 2005. http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/Matthew_Arnold NNA. Biography and poems.
4. Thyrsis. Matthew Arnold. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.
5. Myth and the Time Spirit. E. D. H. Johnson. Jul. 2000. http://www.victorianweb.org/books/alienvision/arnold/3.html#myth
6. Chapter 7. The Pisgah Sight — Swinburne's and Other Bitter Pisgah Sights. George P. Landow. Mar. 2001. http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/type/ch7f.html#ma NNA.
7. Handbook of Rhetoric. Robert Harris. 2002. http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm.
8. John Keats (1795 - 1821). Gunnar Bengtsson. 2005. http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/John_Keats NNA.
9. http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/John_Keats/7751

 

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