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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote The Pastoral in general


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[Sidenote: The Pastoral in general.]

The Pastoral, as being of the most ancient and in a literary sense of the highest formal rank, may occupy us first, but by no means longest. A great deal of attention (perhaps a great deal more than was at all necessary) has been paid to the pastoral element in various kinds of literature. The thing is certainly curious, and inevitably invited comment; but unfortunately it has peculiar temptations to a kind of comment which, though very fashionable for some time past, is rarely profitable. Pastorals of the most interesting kind actually exist in literature: "pastoralism" in the abstract, unless treated in the pure historical manner, is apt, like all similar criticism and discussion of "kinds" in general, to tend to [Greek: phlyaria].[128] For a history in a nutshell there is perhaps room even here, because the relations of the thing to fiction cannot be well understood without it. That the association of shepherds,[129] with songs, and with the telling of "tales" in both senses, is immensely old, is a fact which the Hebrew Scriptures establish, and almost the earliest Greek mythology and poetry confirm; but the wiser mind, here as elsewhere, will probably be content with the fact, and not enquire too busybodily into the reason. The connection between Sicily--apparently a land of actual pastoral life--and Alexandria--the home of the

first professional man-of-letters school, as it may be called--perhaps supplies something more; the actual beauty of the Sicilian-Alexandrian poems, more still; the adoption of the form by Virgil, who was revered at Rome, renowned somewhat heterodoxically in the Middle Ages, and simply adored by the Renaissance, most of all. So, in English, Spenser and Milton, in French, Marot and others niched it solidly in the nation's poetry; and the certainly charming _Daphnis and Chloe_, when vernacularised, transferred its influence from verse to prose in almost all the countries of Europe.

To what may be called "common-sense" criticism, there is, of course, no form of literature, in either prose or verse, which is more utterly abhorrent and more helplessly exposed. Unsympathetic, and in some points unfair and even unintelligent, as Johnson's criticism of _Lycidas_ may seem, to the censure of its actual "pastorality" there is no answer, except that "these things are an allegory" as well as a convention. To go further out of mere common-sense objections, and yet stick to the Devil's-Advocate line, there is no form which lends itself to--which, indeed, insists upon--conventions of the most glaring unreality more than the pastoral, and none in which the decorations, unless managed with extraordinary genius, have such a tendency to be tawdry at best, draggled and withered at worst. Nevertheless, the fact remains that at almost all times, both in ancient literature and since the revival of letters, as well as in some probably more spontaneous forms during the Middle Ages themselves,[130] pastorals have been popular with the vulgar, and practised by the elect; while within the very last hundred years such a towering genius as Shelley's, and such a manifold and effectual talent as Mr. Arnold's, have selected it for some of their very best work.

Such adoption, moreover, had, for the writer of prose fiction, some peculiar and pretty obvious inducements. It has been noticed by all careful students of fiction that one of the initial difficulties in its way, and one of those which do not seem to get out of that way very quickly, is diffidence on the writer's part "how to begin." It may be said that this is not peculiar to fiction; but extends from the poet who never can get beyond the first lines of his epic to the journalist who sits for an hour gazing at the blank paper for his article, and returns home at midnight, if not like Miss Bolo "in a flood of tears and a sedan chair," at any rate in a tornado of swearing at himself and (while there were such things) a hansom cab. Pastoral gives both easy beginning and supporting framework.


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