Pastoral poetry is said to have begun more than two millennia ago with Theocritus, the subdivision called the pastoral elegy born along with it in that poet's first Idyll, where Thyrsis laments the death of Daphnis. The representation of shepherds in a Golden Age, humble but empowered by song, was thus linked with death and mourning from the start. Other subjects and devices associated with pastoral, including the life of dignified ease known as otium, the singing match between shepherds, and the allegorical representation of eminent figures, were employed by Theocritus and taken up by generations of poets, dramatists, and prose writers in a tradition that includes, at its most sublime heights in English, the work of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelley. Yeats may have written of the death of the "woods of Arcady" in the late nineteenth century (relying upon the genre itself, of course, to announce its obsolescence), but the pastoral has lived on, even when, as in T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," Ted Hughes's The Hawk ill the Rain, or certain of the novels of Don DeLillo, it is an inverted, mock, or anti-pastoral. The imaginative connection of human suffering, perceptions of loss, and songs of hope and consolation with natural cycles of creation and destruction is, apparently, fecund enough to prolong the elegiac strand of the tradition for another few millennia, even if, as poets of the wasteland have demonstrated, nature is degraded far enough in our real and imaginary worlds to make savage irony the last keynote of pastoral themes.
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