Skip to main content

The Influence of Satire in Renaissance Pastoral Poetry

To today’s reader, Pastoral poetry and theatrical works from the English Renaissance may remind us more of fairy tales and fables than pieces of great literature. The plays and poetry from this period are often relegated to the world of kitsch alongside porcelain shepherd and shepherdess salt and pepper shakers or the mediocre oil paintings of impossibly idealized bucolic country sides, second cousins to oil-on-velvet paintings of sad clowns and Elvis Presley. At first glance, the pastoral’s ruffle-clad shepherdesses and pan-flute-playing shepherds generally fail to garner much of our literary respect or stir much of our interest, however “first glance” may not be a close enough inspection of this particular genre. These seemingly quaint fables are not in fact what they at first seem. The very fact pastorals occupied some of the greatest poetic minds of the Renaissance should, but doesn’t always, imply the form at one time spoke to something deeper and more substantial than a pan flute, courtly shepherd, or velvet Elvis ever could.
But the Renaissance pastoral might be better understood within a context of the rich and more widely embraced literary traditions which preceded it. If we give the form its proper place in the history and evolution of literature, the pastoral seems less an enigma and more a continuation of the rich satirical tradition of Medieval and Early Renaissance writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Thomas More. Before the pastoral gained widespread popularity, satire was already an established staple in Medieval and Renaissance literature. Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular in England as early as Chaucer’s time although little has survived. “The Canterbury Tales” served as Chaucer’s platform to satire blind religion and the thoughtless bigotry of his day. When viewed as a continuation of the satirical tradition the pastoral poem may be greater appreciated for its sense of wit, style and daring.
Pastoral literature is in some ways synonymous with utopian literature, and from its inception utopian literature has been a stronghold for the imaginative use of satire. In his Utopia (1516), Thomas More criticized the religious and political views of his contemporaries by obscuring his true intentions through the use of satire. Modern readers have come to understand a “utopia” as a paradise, a world built on higher ideals where the lamb lays down with the lion. As such, it would be natural to assume that in this book More had explained his designs for a more perfect world, with his own religious, political, and moral beliefs fulfilled. But in fact, the word “utopia” (which was coined by More himself from Latin) would be literally translated as “no place”. By calling his dreamland “Utopia” More is betraying his story, showing it is a made up tale; he is literally calling it a place which does not, and presumably cannot, exist. He further betrays his true view by the names he assigns to various characters and places within the story.
Thomas More wrote his “Utopia” as a satire on his contemporaries’ religious and political thoughts. The positive light given to religious, political and philosophical ideas diametrically opposed to those of the author, the presence of ridiculous wordplay in the names, titles and locations within the piece, and the pseudo Renaissance-humanist air given by setting the work in Latin, all reveal More’s satiric intent.
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines satire as:
“A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule, satirical writing or drama often scorns such folly by pretending to approve of values which are the diametric opposite of what the satirist actually wishes to promote.”

Some of the Renaissance’s greatest writers drew upon the satirical traditions of their predecessors while approaching the pastoral. In “Arte of English Poesie” George Puttenham argues the pastoral is a literary form especially designed "not of purpose to counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and communication: but under the vaile of homely persons, and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters, and such as perchance had not bene safe to have beene disclosed in any other sort." Strand and Boland note how the pastoral spoke to poets of the Renaissance period and their “deep European unease about power, urbanization, and the demands made for a new centralization”, citing the pastoral as “one of the true intellectual engines of [Elizabethan] poetry”.
One central feature of the influential Renaissance humanism movement was a commitment to study the primary sources of the best writing from ancient Greece and Rome. This commitment was summarized in the Renaissance humanists’ motto “ad fontes”, which means “to the sources”. Renaissance humanists glorified the ancient civilizations and sought to both imitate and recreate the ideals of ancient literature. From this aim, the Renaissance pastoral emerged as a direct descendant of works by the Greek writer Theocritus, who may have drawn on authentic folk traditions of Sicilian shepherds. His bucolic poetry represented the life of Sicilian shepherds living in an idealized natural setting reminiscent of the Golden age of Greek mythology, the highest in the Greek spectrum of Iron, Bronze, Silver, and Golden ages. Theocritus’ shepherds lived in a time of peace and stability. He wrote in the Doric dialect but in dactylic hexameter, which had previously been associated with the Greek’s most prestigious poetic form, epic poetry. This melding of simplicity and sophistication would later play a major role in the history of pastoral verse in the hands of Renaissance writers. The devices of these early pastorals were later adopted by the Roman poet Virgil, who adapted the genre into Latin with his “Eclogues”. Virgil wrote about a more idyllic vision of rural life than Theocritus had done and was the first to set his poems in Arcadia. Arcadia, although an actual location, became highly idealized within the realms of literature and developed into the most popular location for ancient pastorals. Virgil introduced elements of political allegory into the pastoral, implementing the practice of exploiting the pastoral form to make clandestine insinuations about contemporary problems. Virgil’s “Eclogues” contained a blend of visionary politics and eroticism, and his work was met with popular success in the Roman theatre, catapulting Virgil into fame and establishing him as a celebrity and a legend among his contemporaries.
First in Latin with the work of Petrarch, Pontano and Mantuan, and then in Italian vernacular with the works of Boiardo, Italian poets led the way in a 14th Century revival of pastoral form. The pastoral became fashionable throughout Renaissance Europe. Because of the satire’s popularity in England during Medieval and Early Renaissance times the pastoral’s appearance there carried a new satirical bent. In 1579 Virgil's “Eclogues” inspired Edmund Spenser's “The Shepheardes Calendar” (a series of twelve eclogues, one for each calendar month) and ushered the pastoral form further into fashion. But Spenser’s creation was more than just a collection of colloquialisms. A study by Robert Lane interprets “The Shepheardes Calender” as criticism of the Elizabethan hierarchy and how society exploited and neglected society's underprivileged. According to Lane, “The Shepheardes Calender” undermines the courtly role assigned to Elizabethan poetry and capitalized on such pop culture mainstays as woodcuts, proverbs, fables and the calendar format to further
drive its point home.
Renaissance writers such as poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe contributed to the pastoral’s evolution. Marlowe made the pastoral his own by introducing exaggerated imagery and sexuality to the form. Shepherds in the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil had expressed love as a deep longing without sexuality, but in his pastoral poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” Marlowe’s shepherd asks a woman to share an idealized romantic relationship. However, the shepherd’s proposal is actually more ridiculous than idyllic, possibly indicating Marlowe’s intent to satirize the traditional pastoral form. The shepherd offers his love:
“Fair-lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold . . .”

While a pretty promise, these and other claims in this poem are far from anything an actual shepherd could afford to bestow upon anyone. The poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard had previously utilized the country life as a refuge for rejected suitors, but Marlowe’s shepherd is not concerned about rejection or whether his social or financial status is acceptable to the girl; his only concern is the desire for immediate pleasure:
“And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love."

William Shakespeare used the pastoral form to explore the realms of political and social commentary. Shakespeare frequently exploited poetic form and theatrical convention to provide a vehicle for his legendary wit, so it may be safe to assume his use of the pastoral was also intended to “glaunce at greater matters”. He made frequent use of the pastoral both through brief examples within plays and as the framework for complete works. His poem “When icicles hang by the wall” from the play “Love’s Labor’s Lost” may at first glance appear quaint. In this piece the country folk go about their daily work, subjected to the harsh and cold winter. They carry firewood into the hall, watch the sheep, milk the cows, all the while dealing with the bitter cold. But the owl represents more than a common bird; Shakespeare’s owl represents the wealthy of society who watch over the poor, oblivious of the plight and singing a “merry note”.
It is no stretch to assume Shakespeare’s owl played an allegorical role in this pastoral. Shakespeare frequently used the owl for similar purposes. A blog post entitled “The Birds of Shakespeare” points makes several observations about the bard’s use of the owl (
For example, as Lady Macbeth prepares to murder the king she is startled by the shriek of an owl:
“Hark! - Peace!
It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern’st good-night.” [Macbeth - II, 2]

Prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar an owl was reported:
“The bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place
Hooting and shrieking.” [Julius Caesar - I, 3]

Further, in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Puck says of the owl:
“Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.” [A Midsummer Night's Dream - V, 1]

Since Shakespeare often associated the owl with death, its use here may very likely represent the pending death of such rustics as cataloged within the poem. Also noteworthy is the owl’s disregard for their situations throughout this poem, singing his merry song in spite of their toil. Given the satirical tendencies of the Renaissance pastorals, the owl could easily represent the wealthy officials who go about their merry way oblivious of the common man’s trials.
Shakespeare drew from existing pastoral literature for the subject matter in "As You Like It", specifically Lodge's pastoral romance, "Rosalynde". The play's Phebe and Silvius appear in Lodge's novel, but are stock pastoral figures as well. Within the classical pastoral, conventional shepherds and shepherdesses had occurred in pairs with names like Phoebe and Silvius or the alternate Phoebus and Silvia. In these traditional roles, the shepherd is lovelorn while the shepherdess is disdainful. The lovelorn shepherd laments the loss or disdain of his lady, either in solo lyric or eclogue (a dialogue between shepherds about the simple life). In “As You Like It” Silvius complains to Corin about his love’s rejection and the lovelorn Orlando hangs lyrics about his own love from all the tree branches. Again true to the classic pastoral form, Phebe supplies the customary elegy for a dead shepherd by quoting Marlowe:
“Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
‘Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?’”

As a departure from the pastoral form, in "As You Like It" Shakespeare tempers the idyll of the sweetly picturesque pastoral scene with the adversity of the malcontented Jacques, as well as the unlikely pairing of Touchstone and Audrey, ensuring neither court life nor pastoral idyll is presented as either too sweet or too adverse. But most of all, Shakespeare tempers the pastoral with an injection of his customary wit and intelligence, riding on the shoulders of the public’s love for satire, to transform the pastoral into the world of social and political commentary. In the Arden Shakespeare edition of Shakespeare’s pastoral play “As You Like It”, editor Juliet Dusinberre comments:
"Social and political realities would not have been far from the minds of its first audiences in 1599, whether at court or in the public theatre. Beneath an impeccably sunny surface ‘As You Like It’ touches on troubled territories."

In the Arden Shakespeare edition, “As You Like It” is represented as a multi-layered chronicle of late English Renaissance culture and of all the various social and political conflicts marking the final decade of the sixteenth century. Dusinberre outlines how the play functions to “glaunce at greater matters”. She cites Jaques's indebtedness to the period’s vogue for satire and the faction-ridden politics occasioned by the Earl of Essex's career and his rivalry with Sir Robert Cecil.
In the real world, literature never springs forth fully developed like Venus in the half shell. The development of literary forms requires a complex process of evolution, with each step in that evolution entirely dependent upon what has come before. To remove a form such as the pastoral from its place within the context of history severely compromises our ability to understand that form at any particular stage of development. Ignoring the satire’s popularity in Medieval and Early Renaissance Europe may cause us to forget how the stage had been set when the pastoral rose to popularity in the 16th century.
Because the original Greek and Roman pastoral literature had presented an idealized bucolic countryside, its later appearance in Renaissance England could easily have been associated with the utopia of Thomas More. Following in the shadows of the popularity of such well-loved writers as Geoffrey Chaucer and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the pastoral could naturally have leaned toward a satirical interpretation by Renaissance readers and audiences. Studying the works of Renaissance writers like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare we can see compelling evidence that pastoral poetry and theatre of that period were viewed as vehicles for political and social commentary. With this in mind, and although the references may likely be obscured with the passing of time, interpretation of the pastoral poem enters a new realm of understanding. Instead of relegating these pieces to the world of kitsch and quaint, we may now be compelled to dig below the surface, blowing away the dust to uncover a treasure, and in doing so are likely to at least appreciate, if not enjoy, the wit of the pastoral form’s
most famous practitioners.
Works cited.
More, Thomas. Utopia. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003.
Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works: Introduction. Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 89. Gale Cengage, 2005. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009 .
Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare As You Like It. Edited by Juliet Dusinberre. London: Thomson Learning, 2006.
Shepheards Devises: Edmund Spenser's 'Shepheardes Calendar' and the Institutions of Elizabethan Society. Renaissance Society of America, 1995. The Free Library. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009 .
Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland. The Making of a Poem. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canturbury Tales. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003.
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love: Introduction. Poetry for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 0. Detroit: Gale, 1998. January 2006. 31 January 2009. .
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (Style). Notes on Poetry. Answers Corporation, 2006. 01 Feb. 2009. .

Popular posts from this blog

Geoffrey Chaucer's Moral Tales "Wife of Bath" and "Pardoner"

P.T. Barnum may not actually have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but it nevertheless seems to have become the creed of snake charmers and snake oil salesmen through the ages. But prior to Barnum, Geoffrey Chaucer gave us both a snake oil salesman and a snake charmer in the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath in his The Canterbury Tales . The Wife of Bath may not be a snake charmer in the traditional sense, but she might try to charm a snake out of its skin, or at least his clothing. The Pardoner may not charm the snake at all, but he’ll sell you both its oil and its skin, and make you believe you’ll go to heaven in the bargain.  Betwixt the two, we find two exemplas , the moral tales which were popular in Medieval times. Ladies first, if Alisoun may be called a lady. In this Wife of Bath’s quite lengthy prologue we learn of her five husbands as well as her Biblical justification for having had so many. We also hear of her poweress both in marriage and in the marriage bed. For

12" x 12" Acrylic Flow Painting, DA-2

12" x 12" Acrylic Flow Painting, by Terry Heath, DA-2. Craft acrylic and Elmer's Glue on canvas.

12" x 12" Acrylic Flow Painting, DA-1

 12" x 12" Acrylic Flow Painting, by Terry Heath, DA-1. Craft acrylic and Elmer's Glue on canvas.