As the result of this contrast there arises an idea which comes perhaps as near being universal in pastoral as any—the idea, namely, of the ’golden age.’ This embraces, indeed, a field not wholly coincident with that of pastoral, but the two are connected alike by a common spring in human emotion and constant literary association. The fiction of an age of simplicity and innocence found birth among the Augustan writers in the midst of the complex and luxurious civilization of Rome, as an illustration of the principle enunciated by Professer Raleigh, that ’literature has constantly the double tendency to negative the life around it, as well as to reproduce it.’ Having inspired Ovid and Vergil, and been recognized by Lucretius, it passed as a literary legacy to Boethius, Dante, and Jean de Meung; it was incorporated by Frezzi in his strange allegorical composition the Quadriregio, and was thrice handled by Chaucer; it was dealt with humorously by Cervantes in Don Quixote, and became the prey of the satirist in the hands of Juvenal, Bertini, and Hall. The association of this ideal world with the simplicity of pastoral life was effected by Vergil, and in this form it was treated with loving minuteness by Tasso in his Aminta and by Browne in his Britannia’s Pastorals. The fiction no doubt answered to some need in human nature, but in literature it soon came to be no more than a polite convention.
The conception of a golden age of rustic simplicity does not, indeed, involve the whole of pastoral literature. It does not account either for the allegorical pastoral, in which actual personages are introduced, in the guise of shepherds, to discuss contemporary affairs, or for the so-called realistic pastoral, in which the town looks on with amused envy at the rustic freedom of the country. What it does comprehend is that outburst of pastoral song which sprang from the yearning of the tired soul to escape, if it were but in imagination and for a moment, to a life of simplicity and innocence from the bitter luxury of the court and the menial bread of princes.
And this, the reaction against the world that is too much with us, is, after all, the keynote of what is most intimately associated with the name of pastoral in literature—the note that is struck with idyllic sweetness in Theocritus, and, rising to its fullest pitch of lyrical intensity, lends a poignant charm to the work of Tasso and Guarini. For everywhere in these soft melodies of luscious beauty, even in the studied sketches of primitive innocence itself, there is an undercurrent of tender melancholy and pathos:
E invecchiando intristisce.
I have said that a sense of the contrast between town and country was essential to the development of a distinctively pastoral literature. It would be an interesting task to trace how far this contrast is the source of the various subsidiary types—of the ideal where it breeds desire for a return to simplicity, of the realistic where the humour of it touches the imagination, and of the allegorical where it suggests satire on the corruption of an artificial civilization.