In matters of origin, literature is both creationist and evolutionary. Whether we view the evolution of literary forms and works as imitations of or reactions against previous generations of writers, the shaping hand of the individual author remains the supreme generative force. No literary kind has changed so radically yet retained so much of its original power under the hand of individual geniuses as the pastoral, from Theocritus to Robert Frost. Shakespeare inherited the pastoral in many of its classical forms and Renaissance anti-forms, and he transmuted it into tones ranging from the soft pastoral of A Midsummer Night's Dream to the hard pastoral of King Lear, but the most characteristic action in his pastoral plays involves characters retrieving or reinventing their origins in a natural setting.
A frequent accusation against the pastoral is that its emphasis on withdrawal from society serves only to glorify nostalgia and moral lassitude. Friedrich Schiller, for example, asserted that pastoral idylls ‘cannot vivify, they can only soften’ because of the value they traditionally attach to otium. In a similar vein Renato Poggioli begins his major study of pastoral saying ‘The psychological root of the pastoral is a double longing after innocence and happiness, to be recovered not through conversion or regeneration, but merely through a retreat.’
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