Pastoral Poetry

Pastoral Poetry – A Guide to Prose About Rural Landscapes

When it comes to poetry, the natural world is often a major source of love and appreciation. We love nature and certain poetic varieties try to focus on that very thing. This is where pastoral poetry enters the scene. We will be examining a number of different aspects of pastoral poetry today, such as its origins, characteristics, present use, and examples of the form. If that, and a fixation on rural landscapes, seems like your walk in the woods, then stay a while and learn some more!



A Look at Pastoral Poetry

There tends to be a special kind of draw when it comes to rural and natural landscapes. The human animal often finds a certain peace and beauty within such spaces. This is what pastoral poetry aims to show. This form is usually concerned with presenting a gorgeous and idyllic interpretation of rural life, and it has ancient origins too. So, let’s tap into that sense of natural awe together and have a look at pastoral poetry.

Famous Pastoral Poem The Hay Wain (1821) by John Constable; John Constable, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Summary of Pastoral Poetry

Before we jump on in and wade around the waters of pastoral poetry, let’s have a pit stop at a summary! This may not be necessary for everyone who is interested in pastoral poetry, but it can certainly help:

  • Pastoral poetry is concerned with rural life. This is the primary characteristic for which pastoral poetry is known, and there tends to be a very positive and idyllic interpretation of said rural landscapes in pastoral poems.
  • Pastoral poetry began in ancient Greece. The earliest instances of this form of poetry, like many other forms of poetry, can be traced all the way back to this Classical period. Theocritus is seen as the father of the form.
  • Pastoral poetry is still in use today. While most of the immensely famous examples of pastoral poetry were written in earlier times, pastoral poetry continues to be written today and, when not written directly, it does still often have a direct influence on poems that explore natural themes and ideas.

We all know that summaries are inherently flawed. By their very nature, they are too short and do not go into any real detail, but that’s what the rest of this article is for!

So, if this summary was not enough, let’s keep going!



The Origins of Pastoral Poetry

The origins of this particular form of poetic expression can be traced back to Theocritus, who was an ancient Greek poet. So, the earliest origins of this poetry are truly ancient. Other writers, such as Virgil, the later Romantics, and many others, would come to present their own versions of pastoral poems. The form would persist into the present day and can now be found in various places around the world, although we will look at that in a little more depth below.

Pastoral Poem Style



The Characteristics of Pastoral Poetry

The primary characteristic of pastoral poetry is its focus on rural life. However, this rural life is usually shown in very idyllic terms, such as a focus on a kind of divine beauty. In addition, there tend to be allegorical or metaphorical ways in which these pastoral landscapes are presented to the reader. For instance, the rural countryside is often shown to have a certain innocence that urban landscapes do not possess. In many ways, pastoral poetry exists as a contrast to other forms of poetry for this reason. It does indeed typically focus on the real world, in a sense, but it does so by exploring it from an overly optimistic lens.

This fixation on the natural has led it to become quite an influential genre of poetry.



The Prevalence of Pastoral Poetry in the Modern Day

When exploring a kind of poetry and trying to understand its presence in the modern day, I have always found in my own experience that it is not necessarily useful to simply claim that some type of poetry does still exist. Instead, where have the tendrils of influence managed to move into the present day? Basically, pastoral poetry does still exist, but the most famous versions are generally those that are older.

Famous Pastoral Poetry View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (1836) by Thomas Cole; Thomas Cole, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, pastoral poetry also had a major influence on nature poetry in general. And when it comes to poems about the natural world, there is no reduction in the production of such poems in the present day. For this reason, if we are to take the influences of pastoral poetry over just standard pastoral poems and have a look at their prevalence today, there are probably more than there’s ever been before!

Pastoral poetry, and the nature poems that have followed from it, are alive and well today.



Examples of Pastoral Poems

We learn best about a topic when we do one simple thing, and that’s to have a look at several examples. So, we are going to engage in that exact same type of activity, because being educational is often inherently unoriginal, and we’ll look at two such instances of pastoral poems that have become influential examples of the form.

Pastoral Poem History


The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (1599) by Christopher Marlowe

Date Published1599
Type of PoemPastoral poem
Rhyme SchemeAABB
MeterIambic tetrameter
TopicA shepherd’s desired life

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love is a pastoral poem that focuses on the life of a shepherd as he thinks about the world that he wishes to create for the woman that he loves. The natural world that he describes in this poem focuses on a rural presentation, a kind of natural sensuality, and an idealized form of love.

This has gone on to become one of the best-known examples of pastoral poetry ever written.

Modern Pastoral Poem The Good Shephard (1660) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo; Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Lycidas (1638) by John Milton

Date Published1638
Type of PoemPastoral elegy
Rhyme SchemeVariable
MeterIambic pentameter
TopicElegy for Edward King

Lycidas is both a pastoral poem and an elegy. The poem was written for one of Milton’s friends, a man named Edward King, who tragically drowned. The poem uses many different pastoral elements to create the image of a natural landscape while also focusing on the sense of mourning and what comes after death. The idyllic landscape is used as a representation of innocence and beauty and, as a result, this poem has become seen as an archetypal pastoral poem.

Pastoral Poem The Monk by the Sea (c. 1810) by Casper David Friederich; Caspar David Friedrich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


We have come to the end of our brief examination of pastoral poetry, but there is still much that we can learn if we wish to do so. This article has quickly explored some elements, such as the origins and characteristics of pastoral poems, but if you want more of this kind of rural-focused poetry, there is so much out there for you to find!




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is Pastoral Poetry?

When it comes to understanding pastoral poetry, it is rather easy to do so because it is poetry that focuses on a pastoral existence. This means that pastoral poems explore rural life, the countryside, nature, those who work in such environments, and so on.


What Are the Characteristics of Pastoral Poetry?

When we take a look at pastoral poetry in general, there is typically a more idyllic interpretation of rural environments. There is usually an emphasis on peacefulness, a connection to the natural world, and so on.


What Are Some Famous Pastoral Poems?

Many of the most famous pastoral poems are older texts, such as The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (1599) by Christopher Marlowe and Lycidas (1638) by John Milton. However, elements of pastoral poetry can still be found to this day, and many instances of nature poetry have been influenced by it.


Cite this Article

Justin, van Huyssteen, “Pastoral Poetry – A Guide to Prose About Rural Landscapes.” Art in Context. January 24, 2024. URL:

van Huyssteen, J. (2024, 24 January). Pastoral Poetry – A Guide to Prose About Rural Landscapes. Art in Context.

van Huyssteen, Justin. “Pastoral Poetry – A Guide to Prose About Rural Landscapes.” Art in Context, January 24, 2024.

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