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  Pastoral is an uncomplicated but persistent artistic genre, in which the beauties of the countryside and the perceived simplicities of country life are described and used as a metaphor for natural harmony and calm. (The word ‘idyllic’ comes from idyl, a favourite pastoral verse form.) In Europe, pastoral dates back to ancient Greece, where the simple life was associated with Arcadia (a mountainous region of the Peloponnese, full of oak woods and inhabited in ancient times chiefly by shepherds). The placid life of farmers and shepherds was taken as a human equivalent of the carefree existence of the gods—a notion paralleled in the Middle Eastern idea of the same period that gardens (for example the Garden of Eden) were models of paradise. Pastoral poetry and paintings of pastoral scenes spread to the rest of Europe, both in their simple form and, after the Renaissance, in more complex allegories, in which monarchs and courtiers were depicted as nymphs and shepherdesses. (English and Italian madrigals and the paintings of Watteau are prime examples of this.)

In Europe pastoral styles and forms persisted in literature until the Romantics began to make more sophisticated use of Nature. The pastoral had a late flowering in music, especially the works of Delius, Grieg and Vaughan Williams, which were inspired by folk songs, and the works of Messiaen inspired by bird song. (There was a sub-branch of European pastoral in the US, led by poets resident in New England.) Outside Europe, pastoral has flourished particularly in the Far East, where natural scenes and the events of country life are a favourite subject for artists and writers. In all places where pastoral is favoured, a notable point is that the art made of it has tended to exist for leisured, rich people rather than for country-dwellers themselves. The visions of rural simplicity enjoyed by sophisticates have had little contact with reality, and hence pastoral has tended to have a slightly artificial, ethereal quality which is part of its appeal. This artificiality, in turn, has been set on its head by some creators (for example, in English poetry, by William Blake, the World War I poets and in our own time Ted Hughes), making bitter or ironical use of selected pastoral conventions to articulate distinctly more savage views of human nature and the world we live in. KMcL



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