Academic journal article Style

Critical Thumbprints in Arcadia: Renaissance Pastoral and the Process of Critique

Academic journal article Style

Critical Thumbprints in Arcadia: Renaissance Pastoral and the Process of Critique

Article excerpt

It seems that all we can do is compose introductions to the pastoral, although recently these introductions have begun to grow longer and longer and their vocabulary larger and more disparate. We now require words like power to aid our compulsive need to prove that shepherds were poets and poets were courtiers-- and, indeed, many commentators have done an exquisite job of discovering what it meant to write in the fickle courts of the English royalty. (1) But in this short reintroduction to the Renaissance pastoral and theories thereof, I will largely ignore the presence of power and the court and indulge instead the fundamental means of pastoral allegory--critique. Because the pastoral has taught us to value the very idea of critique, it is important to remember that the critiques contemporary readers place into the context of prior critical apparatuses often tell us as much about the process of critique as about the subject itself. "Any collective critical project," Louis Montrose writes, "must be mindful t hat it, too, is a social practice that participates in the very interplay of interests and perspectives that it seeks to analyze" ("New" 415). In elucidating the place of critique in this genre, (2) I will first briefly outline "some versions of pastoral," to borrow William Empson's language, and trace how Raleigh's response to Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (3) and Sidney's Old Arcadia exemplify two rather confusing but quintessential processes of pastoralism and pastoral critique. Second, I will survey how notable contemporary theories of pastoralism often only imitate their subject. Thus, in the context of Montrose's still-vital desire to "draw attention to what seems [...] a vital though largely unremarked conjunction of form and function" ("Gentlemen" 432-33), I wish only to discuss the "function" of the pastoral "form": what it means to criticize, how pastoral writers and critics have gone about it, and how we continue to go about it today as we teach and write about the Renaissance pas toral.

Writing of the "intense preoccupation and experience" (3) revolving around critical employments of the country and city, Raymond Williams suggests that the "initial problem" we face "is one of perspective" (9). A few pages later in The Country and the City, he assigns the same problem--that of perspective--to the history shrouding the pastoral. What is the pastoral, Williams asks, how should we view it, and how did pastoral poets themselves see it? Do we look to the stated subject of the pastoral fiction or to the other fictions to which it alludes and upon which it feeds? Finally, even before attempting to determine perspective, Williams wonders, how do we discern the properties and boundaries of the pastoral itself; when, for example, does a pastoral become antipastoral, and when is it "simply" nature poetry or fiction? In the same vein, in What is Pastoral?, Paul Alpers laments that "it sometimes seems as if there are as many versions of pastoral as there are critics and scholars who write about it" (8). Yet even apart from this problem of a contemporary critical perspective--one fascinatingly implicated in the politics of post-structuralism--the genre of the pastoral poses numerous problems of definition and effect, and did so even to Renaissance writers themselves. (4)

One of the cruxes of these problems, both in form and perspective, lies in the idea of critique. The pastoral, antipastoral, and critical theory thereof denote a process of critical reflection and awareness that exploded in the Renaissance--the pre-modern-and has continued to develop to the present day--the post-modern. Moreover, recent critical theory of pastoral and antipastoral productively mimics the trenchant business of the antipastoral cited above. In this business of critique, the pastoral exists as the given text, the antipastoral as critique, and literary criticism as meta-critique. But this paradigm oversimplifies the relationships, for what initially sounds plain is unavoidably heterogeneous: the entire process surrounding pastoralism is critically charged. …

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