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The notion of labour within the genre of the pastoral had, up until the 18th century, been somewhat ignored. In Book 1 of George Crabbe’s poem, The Village, we see a shift of this paradigm. Crabbe illustrates how depictions of the laborious nature of working on land had been neglected for a fallacious ideal, and how this has led to a misunderstanding of the rural classes. Crabbe also comments on the labour of writing poetry and presents a critique to those who rely too heavily on template ideas.
Of most prominence, Crabbe’s poem demonstrates the discrepancy between the sustained utopian myth of the pastoral and its reality. Crabbe states, ‘Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy swains, / Because the Muses never knew their pains’. This couplet demonstrates not only how idealised depictions of the pastoral are false, but also how they are outdated. Crabbe directs attention here towards the classical tradition of the pastoral, principally that of Arcadia, a utopian ideal of nature with ‘happy swains’. But, as Pete Barrett states, ‘Arcadia is a myth’. This mythological aspect comes from the absence of labour in an idyllic pastoral and is something Crabbe draws upon and attempts to expose in writers who sustain such idealism. Crabbe states, when perceiving those who work the land:
And see the mid-day sun, with fervid ray,
On their bare heads and dewy temples play;
While some, with feebler heads and fainter hearts,
Deplore their fortune, yet sustain their parts.
Here, Crabbe demonstrates the reality of the pastoral as something detrimental to those who live and work there; the sun seems to be almost attacking them as they carry out their jobs. Yet, whilst this is happening, those of the higher classes are wrapped up in the myth of the ‘rural ease’ of the pastoral. Crabbe shows how the enviousness of them ‘deploring their fortune’ is perverse in that what they envy is a fantasy. However, he also hints that this covetousness is somewhat performative: despite deploring their fortune they still ‘sustain their parts’. Crabbe could be suggesting that those who preserve the myth of the pastoral do it not wholeheartedly ignorant of the pains of labour, but as a kind of luxurious artful meditation; they will not be parting with their money to seek a rural worker’s life as they know its arduous nature, but they will instead indulge in the fantasy of the idyllic pastoral for the aesthetic for their poetry.
Indeed, Crabbe is not only seeking to demonstrate the reality of pastoral labour, but also the labour of the poet. As Barrett states, ‘it is clear that the contrast in [Crabbe’s] mind is not between rural England past and present, but between true and false ways of writing’. Speaking of idealised poems before him, he states:
To sing of shepherds is an easy task:
The happy youth assumes the common strain,
A nymph his mistress, and himself a swain;
With no sad scenes he clouds his tuneful prayer,
But all, to look like her, is painted fair.
Here, Crabbe describes past poems on the topic as ‘easy’ and then proceeds to lay out the way in which they conventionally plan out. By doing this, Crabbe shows the redundancy of such poems not only in how they do not produce the reality of the pastoral labour, but also in how they do not differ from each other. Crabbe attacks these poets by showing that not only do they not share the labour of a pastoral worker in terms of physical work, but they do not even show it intellectually in their poetry - they borrow from templates of the past.
Thus, The Village not only demonstrates the fallacy of an idyllic pastoral setting that is devoid of labour, but it also shows the hypocrisy, gentility and laziness of the higher classes who perpetuate it.
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