Before looking at some of the important Renaissance literary individuals, who deserve parts in their own dedication, it remains to outline the last of the literary forms flourishing in the rebirth, and their classical influence. The styles in question are the pastoral and the romance. Pastoral is the ideal of the uneventful country life, while romantic fiction is the wild and unpredictable adventure. They are psychologically linked. Let us look at them separately first before placing them side-by-side.

Pastoral Poetry and Drama

The pastoral evokes the life of the shepherd, the farmyard worker whose job is gentle guidance. Ploughmen and field-workers are largely ignored due to the strenuous nature of the day. In fiction, the shepherd will most likely find company in the likes of nymphs, satyrs, and other flora and fauna. The pastoral is intrinsically connected to the natural

Theocritus' Idylls
A scene from the idylls of Theocritus

life, the shepherd imbued with a life and vitality by the virtue of this inter-connectedness. The tone is in search for simple manners and purity in morals.


Invented in the Alexandrian Age by the poet Theocritus, who placed his bucolic ‘idylls’ in Sicily as an idealised retreat from his own metropolitan life in the courts of Alexandria and Syracuse in the early third century BC. His Roman Age Pastoral partner is Virgil, who published his Bucolics in 39 BC. Some were Latin translations of Theocritus’ own work, Virgil changed the setting from Sicily, which would have been too close to him for the purposes of idyllic retreat, to Arcadia of Greece. The switch stuck. Arcadia lies at the hilly centre of the Peloponnese and since Virgil’s insertion of it into the pastoral tradition, has become heavily associated with music – the pipes of Pan, the lyre of Apollo. Virgil had his character Gallus, a poet and unhappy lover, in Arcadia to receive consolation from the resonances of its musical and natural beauty.


The romance is the long story of love and adventure written in prose. It was first written in Greek within the Roman Empire, in the early centuries of the Christian Era. The three chief examples in this age are:

  1. The Aethiopica of Heliodorus
  2. Clitoophon and Leucippe by Achilles Tatius
  3. Daphnis and Chloe by Longinus

The romance is the place for rhetoric, epigrams, and invention. They deal with the long separation of lovers, their unflinching fidelity amidst a host of trials with chance occurrences that inhibit their unsuspecting lives. The characters generally travel widely throughout the work, common plot points evolving around kidnappings, shipwrecks, and mistaken identity. They found translations into French and English, among other languages in the 16th century, which spread their audience considerably during the Renaissance.

Pan and Syrinx
Landscape with Pan and Syrinx

Aethipoica and Clitophon and Leucippe are adventure stories with a consistent love-affair thread, but Daphnis and Chloe is notable for combining romantic adventure with pastoral atmosphere and charm. They are not high literature as found in tragedy or epic – they do not employ every part of mind and soul into profound contemplation. The romance is ultimately escape literature providing the reader with a pseudo-wish-fulfilment. Just as with romantic fantasy today, they are meant for the young, or for those that wish they were still young. All the leading characters are aged around eighteen and are heavily lead by the immediacy of their unstable emotions. There is a notable lack of planning to the hero or heroine. The style even reflects the youthful feel of the romance – the devices of antithesis and oxymoron mirror the jeune perception of the world as black or white. Like Theocritus’ Sicily and Virgil’s Arcadia, the romances are retreats from the obscenities of corrupt courtly life, be that the court of late Roman Empire or the Macchiavellian jostling of Renaissance princes. As the romance stems from young courtly idealism of rural love, works are notably void of rustic patois and brass tone. Every characters’ feelings are finely spoken and felt, creating a strange atmosphere of nobility sans the nobles.

The legacy of the pastoral and romance has been long and illustrious, despite its youthful tendencies. Think of any work with the idyllic peasant in a setting of clean hilly air, who is both in love with nature and naturally in love with another of the same setting. Worth mentioning specifically is its legacy in non-literary fields – in music the idealism of Pan and Apollo fusing with romance to find their way into the minds of Grieg and Bartok, and notably Beethoven in his Sixth Symphony; in religion we say of Jesus himself that he was a shepherd, despite being a townsman and artisan.

Early Renaissance Works

We shall look at the most prominent of the pastoral and romance incarnations of the Renaissance, as a look at the full amount produced would be exhaustive, such was its popularity. From the middle ages we find the French play Robin and Marion by Adam de la Halle (fl. 1250) as a pastoral work on the shepherd story, and likewise the fourteenth-century poem Le Dit de Franc Gontier by Philippe de Vitri, a friend of Petrarch. There is an element of the Provencal poets to these works not directly built on classical models.

Boccacio picked up on the theme in his Admetus (Ameto, c. 1341). It focuses on the conversion of a shepherd from physical love to spiritual admiration, not a rigidly pastoral theme but glimpses persist of the idealised rural life. Like his aforementioned Fiammetta, Boccaccio implanted a pagan morality into the conception of the Renaissance pastoral.  Christian sentiment is largely avoided. Pastoral in this time would reject the austere and otherworldly Christian ideals for the assertion of the power of human passions, grounded in the earth and personified by immortal Greek figures.

shepherd and his love
The shepherd and his love – Pastoral meets romance

Jacopo Sannazaro would build a richer work in his Arcadia published in 1504, by which time the manuscript had been circulating for over twenty years. Sannazaro was born in Naples, the son of Spanish immigrants to Italy and devoted much of his life to his monarch Frederick of Aragon, whose exile in France he shared. In his Arcadia he has dropped the allegorising of Boccaccio for more vivid details of rural life. His landscape contains elements of Homer, Theocritus, Virgil, Ovid, Tibullus Nemesianus. In it the shepherds even hold games and wrestle in the classical tradition started by the contest between Odysseus and Ajax in Homer. They challenge each other in the same manner:

Lift me, or let me lift you

Arcadia was a massive success, with similar works soon following. The next to captivate a large readership was the Diana of Jorge de Montemayor or Montemor (1520-61). A Portuguese man who saw Sannazaro’s popularity in Italy and produced the Diana in a Spanish suite of a royal bride, leaving it unfinished at his death. Diana introduces the shepherdess and nymphs as well as other enchanting creatures. It has one central love-story with many subordinate affairs. It is Daphnis and Chloe made for the Renaissance, a romance with a pastoral setting and conveys a good example of the pagan tendency of the pastoral. She is the goddess of hunting, of the moon, and of virginity. In the pastoral her usual company was Venus, the god of love, and Pan, the god of wild nature. It influenced Cervantes’ Galatea and Don Quixote. Shakespeare used one of its many stories in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and probably thought of it when he disguised Viola in Twelfth Night. It is not the only time Shakespeare would reach for the tradition; in his Love’s Labour Lost he has the pedantic schoolmaster quote the Latin Renaissance humanist Baptista Mantuanus, who penned the most famous of the Latin pastorals of the age.

The pastoral bug reached England before the Shakespeare trough Sir Philip Sidney. To his sister he dedicated and unfinished book entitled The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Taking Sannazaro and Montemayor as its main inspiration, it tells the long and graceful tale of love and chivalrous adventure in the classical setting and is brimming with classical imagery, such as the statue of Venus suckling a baby Aeneas. Inspire by Sidney, Edmund Spenser distinguished himself with the Shepherd’s Calendar (1579). By the end of the century Spenser could depend not only on Theocritus and Virgil directly, but also on earlier renaissance writers, including a number of French writers.

It had infiltrated the French psyche by means of first Clément Marot (1496-1544), Ronsard, and most successfully Honoré d’Urfé’s Astraea, published in 1607. The scene and period are fifth-century Gaul at the time of the barbarian invasion, a world where the want for the quiet and pleasant life is a poignant proposition.  French tradition of the pastoral would follow the Astraea, and its classical influence Daphnis and Chloe to produce some of the early modern novels such as Benardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul and Virginia (1788) and also vibrates through the work of Rousseau.

Contemporary Inclusions

The pastoral blossomed to become more popular than its classical predecessor had ever been. Perhaps this was a symptom of a civilisation that felt itself moving further and further away from the natural state and yearned for a basic primitivism that could calm a modern mind. Pastoral writers were striving for quintessence of all the beauties of eternal spring and kind Nature, with their characters often containing heavy echoes of the author themselves. In ways this was no different to Theocritus, whose seventh idyll contains himself under the name of Simichidas and his friend Leonidas of Tarentum, who bears the name which has since become famous in pastoral – Lycidas. We find the trick of the rustic pseudonym in Virgil, Sannazaro and Montemayor.

Milton’s Lycidas combines the pastoral with Christian duty

In England we find Spenser, as in epic, followed by Milton, whose pastoral rhapsodies include L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Milton was operating in a sense of Christian duty which had fully encapsulated the pastoral language – clergymen are called pastors (a.k.a. shepherds), and the bishop carries a shepherd’s crook. This crossover led literary figures to fit in church criticism. Mantuanus had done it in Latin, and Milton in his Lycidas was aping techniques found in Spenser. In Lycidas St Peter appears to denounce bad pastors:

Blind mouths! That scarce themselves know how to hold

A sheep-hook, or have learnt aught else the least

That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!

The Pastoral in other Literary Fields

Renaissance Theatre was not immune to the spread of pastoral popularity and was found in works mentioned under Renaissance Drama such as Politian’s Orpheus, which placed the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice in a Virgilian pastoral frame. The first full-scale pastoral drama was produced by Beccari in 1554 at the Ferrera court in The Sacrifice. It soon spread to France with the first such work was The Shades by Nicolas Filleul in 1566.

The hero of Boccaccio’s Admetus is not a cowherd but a hunter. Herding was a commoner’s occupation, hunting a nobleman’s. The distinction is important and was understood by Renaissance writers who knew their audience. Tasso would call his pastoral works favole boschereccie, ‘tales of the woods’, which would help broaden the appeal. Shakespeare, ever the businessman, spotted the chance to broaden the pastoral to include the native English woodsmen. In As You Like It, the exiled duke and his companions take to the maquis and become huntsmen.

Allied to the pastoral drama of the of Beccari, Filleul, and Shakespeare was the pastoral masque and pastoral opera. For the masque we have Milton’s Comus of 1634 while the opera tradition had started earlier with Rinuccini;s Daphne in 1594. Among the most famous on this trajectory are Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Bach’s Peasant Cantata and Pheobus and Pan.

No mention of pastoral opera could be complete without Gluck’s beautiful Orpheus and Eurydice produced in 1762. It was his attempt to return to a natural expression in opera, which explains why the pastoral theme was appropriate. In Gluck’s time his friend Rousseau, the child of Nature himself, produced The Village Soothsayer and began Daphnis and Chloe with the same artistic purpose. During the nineteenth and twentieth century the pastoral opera followed Rousseau’s lead, and left imaginary Arcadias for the real (though still a little distant) countryside, where it created Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Mascagni’s Rustic Chivalry, Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover, all the way down to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Without exhausting the list, we see a similar pattern in ballet, notably Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe.

Oklahoma!: 20th Century Americana meets Pastoral Antiquity

Arcadia never truly dies. The pastoral tradition continued through the era of revolution to Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun, and Debussy’s Prelude to the poem set in music, and by Nijinsky’s ballet on the same theme. In painting it strives, in forms seemingly far removed from the classical tradition such as Picasso’s 1947 Joy of Life. Wherever is heard the flute, the shepherd names (Damon, Chloe, Phyllis, Ophelia), or the simple love of nature, recall that it all contains echoes of Theocritus and his disciples.