Ashbery’s Pastoral Art

Echoes of an older age

Giulio J. Pertile
pastoral scene with sheep
Anonymous, Pastoral landscapes, late 18th–mid-19th century. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New York School Pastoral?

It might seem counterintuitive to speak of John Ashbery, the principal figure in the New York School of poets, as a pastoral poet. Ashbery’s verse has always dwelt on the heady distraction of metropolitan living, its haphazard and abstract qualities tuned most closely to the blur and sensory alienation of the city. A poem such as “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” exemplifies this conjunction of urban living with an urban aesthetic influenced above all by stream-of-consciousness and surrealism:

Something strange is creeping across me.
La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars
Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from
Amadigi di Gaula for everything–a mint-condition can
Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy
Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile
Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged
Stock–to come clattering through the rainbow trellis
Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland
Fling Terrace.

In the rush of disconnected, commodified detail, the speaker is overwhelmed. He tries to process it but has no time to respond aesthetically or affectively; he proves unable even to fully register the discomfort evinced in the first line. And yet while the experience described in the poem is unquestionably a “city” one–the address suggests a busy intersection, and the list of objects the detritus on a city street–the phrase “rainbow trellis” and the street name itself, “Highland Fling Terrace,” evoke, if only fleetingly, a rural green space.

Ashbery grew up not in the city but in the farmland of Sodus, New York, near Rochester, and he has often repudiated the idea of a “New York School” of poets. He has described New York itself a place inimical to poetry, an “anti-place, an abstract climate”–a description that the urban experience described in “Daffy Duck” bears out. Thus it is perhaps not so surprising that we should find, even in this poem, evidence of a counter-strain, an attempt to escape the onslaught it describes. If “Daffy Duck” itself seems written not from the “margins of our technological society” but from its center, elsewhere in Ashbery’s poetry those margins are more fully explored, and what we might understand as the pastoral impulse of his work is more fully borne out.

Ashbery’s poetry can hardly be described as nostalgic for Sodus; to speak of it in terms of the pastoral must mean, therefore, something other than picturesque recollection or nostalgic longing. Indeed the “pastoral” itself goes beyond rural imagery to involve engagement, generally quite self-conscious, with one of the oldest literary genres we know. And it involves, also, attitudes, problems, and questions relating to literature’s place within social and political life. Ashbery’s poetry belongs to the pastoral tradition in these strong senses as well.

The title of Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees (1956), already implies a pastoral orientation. The poems, it suggests, will not only be about trees; they are themselves in some sense trees. The collection announces itself as a gathered offering at once precious and humble, a modest garland of “first fruits” in earnest of more to come. It thus participates in the “signaling” that is typical of pastoral, as do the titles of individual poems: “Eclogue,” “A Pastoral.” Such titles let us know in advance something about the poem or collection, and that in turn helps us imagine its setting and its speaker, even, broadly, its subject matter. They invoke generic precedents in order to guide the reader’s expectations, sacrificing individuality and particularity for the sake of asserting their place in a specific, codified tradition.

Several of Ashbery’s readers have picked up on the pastoral strain in his work, but while they recognize that it goes beyond nostalgia, they have read it as largely independent of pre-twentieth-century pastoral modes. And yet the signaling I have just described, along with the titles of poems such as “Sunrise in Suburbia,” “Evening in the Country,” “The Task,” and “For John Clare” from The Double Dream of Spring (1970), links Ashbery’s work to a pastoral tradition that stretches back through Milton’s “Lycidas” and Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender to Virgil’s Eclogues. The very gesture of signaling a poem’s place in this tradition through titles and allusions is a conventionally pastoral one. If such a gesture seems to vitiate some of the originality we today expect a poet to aspire to, it at the same time conveys that the poet is still in a certain–the early–phase of his life and career. Precisely in this self-conscious humility, pastoral holds in reserve a level of seriousness, a future stage of development which the poet hints he or she will eventually reach. That mixture of humility and seriousness, naïveté and anticipated maturity is taken up throughout Ashbery’s early and middle work.

Ashbery’s pastoralism is rooted in a specifically classical and Renaissance tradition, and we need to read his “naturalism” through the lens of that earlier tradition as well as in the context of the Romantic and modernist lineage into which he is generally placed.

Ashbery as a pastoral poet, then, is not to be confused with a nature poet, and this distinction goes to the heart of the apparent contradiction of my designation “New York School Pastoral.” By picking up on the formal markers of pastoral as well as on its typical content, by working within pastoral as a genre and not merely as a body of imagery, Ashbery activates the tones, moods, and positions of this genre; he endows his nature imagery with a significance that goes beyond the referential, in which, as in classical and Renaissance pastoral, the “pasture” becomes as much a social and political location as a topographical one, as much a metaphor that can apply to anywhere as a literal description tied to a specific place and time. In opposition to Timothy Gray, who argued, in Urban Pastoral: Natural Currents in the New York School, that “the convoluted phrases and teasingly ironic images filling his poems help him evade the facile escapism prompting pastoral writers since Virgil to dream of a sentimental return to the Golden Age,” I see Ashbery as making extensive use of the deeper ironies, ambiguities, and tensions essential to the pastoral tradition from Virgil on.

Ashbery’s pastoralism is rooted in a specifically classical and Renaissance tradition, and we need to read his “naturalism” through the lens of that earlier tradition as well as in the context of the Romantic and modernist lineage into which he is generally placed. His indebtedness lies less in his imagery–though with its focus on agriculture, and on broad, natural changes it does often resemble the generic agricultural setting of classical and Renaissance pastoral rather than the detailed natural world of Coleridge or Keats–than in his use of the “naive” position of the shepherd. Beneath Ashbery’s “difficulty,” his resistance to interpretation, lies a simplicity of voice which is itself a form of pastoral, regardless of a particular poem’s setting or imagery. Ashberian pastorals deflect meaning not through complex imagery or elaborate syntax, but rather through the adoption of self-consciously naive, even provincial voices whose very artlessness encodes forms of social and political knowing. Ashbery’s resistance to interpretation is in fact an assumption of pastoral simplicity–a version of what William Empson, in Some Versions of Pastoral, called “the pastoral process of putting the complex into the simple”–and it is especially evident in his speakers, from the naive shepherds of Some Trees to the anonymous heroes of The Double Dream of Spring. These figures never analyze the social world from the standpoint of a critical observer viewing its complexities from the outside. Instead, like their pastoral precursors, Ashbery’s shepherds respond to the social world with a simplicity that in its very failure to grasp the situation in full testifies to its effect in way that amore comprehensive, detached analysis could not. Far from representing a uniquely modern or postmodern take on pastoral, this strategy brings Ashbery close to the heart of the pastoral tradition in its oldest and most essential aspect: that of the “representative shepherd.”

An Early Eclogue
Pastoral imagery itself is in no short supply in Ashbery’s verse. Here is a small sampling:

                                                                                  There is time enough
Once the harvest is in and the animals put away for the winter
To stand at the uncomprehending window cultivating the desert
With salt tears which will never do anyone any good.
                                                                              [“The Ecclesiast”]

The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.
                                                                              [“Soonest Mended”]

And farms tilled with especial care.
This year again the corn has grown ripe and tall.
It is a perfect rebuttal of the argument. And Semele
Moves away, puzzled at the brown light above the fields.

While the inspiration for such passages was no doubt drawn from Ashbery’s childhood experience of the farmland in upstate New York, their function, at least in the second and third examples, is clearly figurative. In the first example, the image is not a figure but what the rhetoricians call a “scheme,” in this case a periphrasis for the passage of time used in a manner that seems self-consciously prolix and quaint. And in all these passages literary prototypes–if perhaps unconsciously–play a part. It is a specifically rural, agricultural countryside that Ashbery describes, not the green woods and fields, and as such it takes us back past most Romantic nature poetry (with the great exception of John Clare) to such Virgilian lines as: “post aliquot, mea regna videns, mirabor aristas? [Shall I, long years hence, look amazed on a few ears of corn, once my kingdom?]” (Aeneid, 1.69) or “molli paulatim flavescet campus arista [slowly will the plains yellow with the waving corn]” (Eclogues, 4.28; all Virgil translations by H. R. Fairclough).

Whether or not Ashbery had these and similar images from the Eclogues or Georgics in mind, it is hard to find another predecessor, from any era, for whom the yellow and gold of farmland takes on the serene splendor it had for Virgil. The generality of Ashbery’s imagery, too, links it to the Virgilian bucolic tradition, in which nature is described in broad strokes–the rising and setting of the sun, the changing of the seasons, the rhythms of human life–rather than in terms of singular, memorable particulars. Nature in the classical pastoral tradition serves to provide a setting or to mark the melancholy passage of time, but it does not constitute the subject of the poem, and Ashbery in his pastoral vein picks up on that formalism.

But pastoral imagery, I suggested above, is a necessary but not sufficient criterion for inclusion in the pastoral genre. What defines as “pastoral” poems by later poets who are for the most part less agricultural in their imagery–Sidney, Spenser, Milton–is not their imagery but rather their assumption of a particular kind of style and voice, that of the “uncouth swain,” Paul Alpers’s “representative shepherd” (What Is Pastoral?). For these poets the imagery is outweighed in importance by the complex social dynamic of a highly learned poet adopting a naive voice to address an audience which is in turn highly literate (and was therefore in those days necessarily rarefied). In Empson’s words: “The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language (so that you wrote about the best subject in the best way).” To define pastoral in this way is to displace its significance from its imagery to its speakers, and its style of speech from its setting to its sociology. It is to suggest, moreover, that the “simplicity” of the pastoral speaker is not merely a convenient guise, for in this definition simplicity as such becomes an essential part of pastoral’s social meaning: not a mask for sophistication but rather a position in a complex dialogue with it. It is this aspect of Empson’s account–the irreducibility of pastoral simplicity it implies–that I want to keep in mind as I turn to Ashbery.

Two “uncouth swains” are the speakers in Ashbery’s early poem “Eclogue,” which I quote here in its entirety:

Cuddie: Slowly all your secret is had
  In the empty day. People and sticks go down to the water.
      How can we be so silent? Only shivers
      Are bred in this land of whistling goats.
Colin: Father, I have long dreamed your whitened
      Face and sides to accost me in dull play.
      If you in your bush indeed know her
      Where shall my heart’s vagrant tides place her?
Cuddie: A wish is induced by a sudden change
      In the wind’s decay. Shall we to the water’s edge,
      O prince? The peons rant in a light fume.
      Madness will gaze at its reflection.
Colin: What is this pain come near me?
      Now I thought my heart would burst,
      And there, spiked like some cadenza’s head,
      A tiny crippled heart was born.
Cuddie: I tell you good will imitate this.
      Now we must dip in raw water
      These few thoughts and fleshy members.
      So evil may refresh our days.
Colin: She has descended part way!
      Now father cut me down with tears.
      Plant me far in my mother’s image
      To do cold work of books and stones.
Cuddie: I need not raise my hand
Colin: She burns the flying peoples
Cuddie: To hear its old advice
Colin: And spears my heart’s two beasts
Cuddie: Or cover with its mauves
Colin: And I depart unhurt.

The poem seems at first to belong to the pastoral genre primarily in its external features– the names of the two speakers, Colin and Cuddie, which are drawn from Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, and its form, an exchange of quatrains followed by alternating single lines, which mimics Spenser’s “August” (itself modeled on Virgil’s third and seventh eclogues that in turn were modeled on the frequent singing competitions in Theocritus’s Idylls). But where the Spenserian speakers use an English that is ostensibly naive and plainspoken, Ashbery’s “shepherds” speak a language of surreal imagery and discontinuous syntax, a language unthinkable without the influence of French poetry. Behind the surrealism lies at least some allusion to pastoral language and the pastoral situation–the landscape, the father-figure speaking to a younger shepherd–and yet a phrase such as “this land of whistling goats” would still seem to place Ashbery’s “Eclogue” firmly in the realm of the parodic.

And yet in “Eclogue” that parodic quality, the stiltedness of the language, quickly shades into a kind of expressionism, a naive pathos that goes to the heart of the pastoral tradition, in which the crudeness of the speakers, their ostensibly provincial and unrefined language, permits them to express sentiments that are usually concealed. Spenser’s Colin is in love with Rosalind, who has transferred her affections to the shepherd Menalcas. Of Ashbery’s postmodern shepherds, only Colin speaks with unrequited passion of a “she.” Like Spenser’s Colin, he suffers from love as from an obscure malaise: “What is this pain come near me?/Now I thought my heart would burst.” There is a silted pathos to Ashbery’s language here; both lines represent attempts to express strong feeling hampered by an uncertainty about how to do so, about the location of the pain and the heart in both space and time. In the search for aesthetic effects in the distortions of simple speech, Ashbery is also, I suspect, trying to capture something of the effect of Colin’s slightly maudlin laments in The Shepheardes Calender:

Such rage as winters, reigneth in my heart,
My life bloud friesing with vnkindly cold:
Such stormy stoures do breede my balefull smarte,
As if my yeare were wast, and woxen old.
And yet alas, but now my spring begonne,
And yet alas, yt is already donne. [“January”]

Let all that sweete is, voyd: and all that may augment
My doole, drawe neare. [“August”]

There is in such passages, typical of the Calender and especially of Colin’s language, a contrast between the immediacy of the sentiments expressed and the artificiality of the form and figurative language (both as yet only incompletely absorbed into English verse from Latin and Italian), which gives them their characteristic feel, a slightly mannered melancholy that is, in its own way, highly expressive. The appeal of such language lies in an artlessly frank sentimentality, “pastoral” not only in its simplicity but also in the sense that it is to be clearly distinguished from what the poet himself feels (or does not feel); it is a self-consciously naive posture. What defines such moments as pastoral is not their content, the particular sentiment they express, but the unusual mingling of formalism and rusticity with which they are able to express it. In both poets formal manipulations of the language are made to resemble the crude resources of an artless shepherd and vice versa–the native workings of the “heart” and “life bloud” are stranger and more unnatural than anything our normal language can convey.

In contrast to his Colin, Ashbery’s Cuddie, appropriately addressed as “Father,” looks outward, and he exhorts his son in an inclusive mode, reproaching him for being “secret” and “silent,” retreating into a pastoral landscape which to Cuddie (as to Meliboeus in Virgil’s first eclogue) has turned frigid. Cuddie tries to cut through some of the pompous self-absorption typical of an amorous young shepherd with poetic talent. He speaks instead of “a sudden change/in the wind’s decay,” of a prince and peons, of good and evil–language which, however vague it may be, nonetheless points to the existence of larger political and historical currents to which Colin is indifferent. Yet Cuddie’s language too has a childlike, even fairy-tale simplicity; it resembles Colin’s in its touching inadequacy for the momentous changes of which it would speak, though in Cuddie’s case in the domain of politics and not eros. The “difficulty” of the poem, its resistance to interpretation, arises precisely because of its simplicity, because it attempts to express significant ideas with the colorful but incomplete understanding of a child. Lines such as “People and sticks go down to the water” and “cold work of books and stones” may be surreal, but their surrealism captures social complexities not through corresponding complexities but rather through monosyllabic nouns and verbs that are the verbal equivalents of stick figures in a child’s drawing. More powerfully than the poem’s title or its outward form, this posture belongs to the pastoral tradition, and it is in such a posture, rather than in anything the poem says, that its meaning can be found.

Ashbery cultivates similar effects throughout Some Trees–for example, in the first section of “Illustration,” whose “novice” is another version, female now, of the naive shepherd, which is to say of the poet himself, in a pastoral greenness that he may never be able to shake off:

A novice was sitting on a cornice
High over the city. Angels

Combined their prayers with those
Of the police, begging her to come off it.

One lady promised to be her friend.
“I do not want a friend,” she said.

A mother offered her some nylons
Stripped from her very legs. Others brought

Little offerings of fruit and candy,
The blind man all his flowers. If any

Could be called successful, these were,
For that the scene should be a ceremony

Was what she wanted. “I desire
Monuments,” she said. “I want to move

Figuratively, as waves caress
The thoughtless shore. You people I know

Will offer me every good thing
I do not want. But please remember

I died accepting them.” With that, the wind
Unpinned her bulky robes, and naked

As a roc’s egg, she drifted softly downward
Out of the angels’ tenderness and the minds of men.

The novice’s language is intentionally artless and oblique, a verbal version of the “little offerings of fruit and candy” and the “roc’s egg.” As with “Eclogue,” the mode is one not of difficulty but rather of disarming simplicity and studied pathos. If the quaintly tragic scene speaks to suppressed homosexuality, it is by highlighting its inability to do so in a politically mature and articulate manner.

While I have found no single source for these early eclogues, it is worth comparing them to the Virgilian poems which first popularized that title, in particular the first eclogue, which, much like Ashbery’s “Eclogue,” features a dialogue between two shepherds facing very different plights. Tityrus, a former slave, has finally saved enough money to obtain his manumission and is free now to “teach the woods to re-echo ‘fair Amaryllis.’” Meliboeus, meanwhile, has been dispossessed of his lands (confiscated and given in reward to soldiers returning from the Battle of Philippi) and is now forced to depart into an uncertain future and an unknown world. As many readers have noted, in the contrast between the two speakers the poem offers a strikingly realistic assessment of the economic and political conditions required to sustain a pastoral, and hence poetic, existence.

The first five lines of the eclogue, spoken by Meliboeus, encapsulate the difference between the two characters’ predicaments not only in what they say but in how they say it:

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
Silvestrem tenui musam meditaris avena;
Nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arva;
Nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus sub umbra
Formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas. [1.1–5]

[You, Tityrus, lie under the canopy of a spreading beech, wooing the woodland Muse on slender reed, but we are leaving our country’s bounds and sweet fields. We are outcasts from our country; you, Tityrus, at ease beneath the shade, teach the woods to re-echo “fair Amaryllis.”]

The lines describing Tityrus (1–2; 4–5) are enjambed in such a way that the adjectival phrases describing his state of repose–“patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi” and “lentus sub umbra”–displace the verbs to the next line, creating an effect of retardation which mimics precisely the otium they describe. The lines in which Meliboeus alludes to his own fate are much shorter, simpler and more urgent. There is no time, he suggests, for him to indulge in the kind of re-echoing that Tityrus teaches to the woods; even his relatively straightforward “Nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arva” he revises to the direct and efficient “Nos patriam fugimus.” For the exile Meliboeus there is no time for poetry.

Both Spenser’s and Ashbery’s Colins reflect their precursor Tityrus’s luxurious love-melancholy, closely associated with leisure, otium, and the writing of poetry; while Colin’s love in Ashbery’s “Eclogue” would seem to be unrequited, he nevertheless remains “unhurt.” In contrast, Ashbery’s Cuddie resembles Meliboeus with his vulnerability and his greater political awareness. These unhappy shepherds speak opaquely but anxiously of imminent political changes threatening the tranquillity of the pastoral state: “Well, I grudge you not–rather I marvel; such unrest is there on all sides in the land. See, heartsick, I myself am driving my goats along, and here, Tityrus, is one I scarce can lead. For here just now amid the thick hazels, after hard travail, she dropped twins, the hope of the flock, alas! on the naked flint. Often, I mind, this mishap was foretold me, had not my wits been dull, by the oaks struck from heaven” (1.11–17). Meliboeus and Cuddie are both forced away from landscape and pastoral life by a nameless “unrest” which has unsettled it, a “sudden change” which neither is able to define and yet which fills them with a vague dread they try, unsuccessfully, to convey to their luckier friends.

Cuddie’s fairy-tale language is similar, in effect, to Meliboeus’s solicitude for his sheep and his naively superstitious self-reproach–both adumbrate a much greater and more serious plight than their simple language is able, or willing, to convey. In the faintly florid, somewhat labored language of Fairclough’s translation, fully on display here, Ashbery (who would almost certainly have encountered it as an undergraduate at Harvard) would have found a model congenial to his own penchant for the formal, the quaint, the slightly stilted–a style well exhibited in “Eclogue.” Consider also the way the impossibilia trope is rendered in English: “Sooner, then, shall the nimble stag graze in air, and the seas leave their fish bare on the strand” (1.59–60); Ashbery’s surreal juxtapositions often gain their effect precisely from such understated and prosaic presentation.

The resemblance of Cuddie to Meliboeus suggests that the common thread running here from Virgil to Spenser to Ashbery is not escapism but its opposite: the oblique expression of an anxiety about turbulent political times. While a specific Spenserian equivalent to these characters does not exist, oblique reference is an essential aspect of The Shepheardes Calender. Critics have long mined its twelve eclogues for covert allusions to the political events of the late 1570s–from Elizabeth’s unpopular marriage plans with the Duke of Alençon, to the controversy over Archbishop Grindal and the Puritan prophesyings. Spenserian allegory arguably originates in the effort to comment indirectly on contentious political affairs at a time when doing so explicitly could lead to imprisonment or worse; the surrealism of Ashbery’s “Eclogue,” imbued with oblique intimations of coming turmoil, may likewise bespeak the repressive atmosphere of the McCarthyite 1950s. Encoded in the difference between Colin and Cuddie, between Tityrus and Meliboeus, is an anxiety about pastoral which is also an anxiety within pastoral: a sense that its escapism is tenuous at best, dependent on political circumstances to which Tityrus and Colin are foolishly, though perhaps willfully, blind, even as Meliboeus and Cuddie are at least obliquely aware of them. It is their anxiety which lies at the root of pastoral’s metaphorical and at times evasive language, from the impossibilia of Virgil’s Eclogues to the surrealism of Ashbery’s “Eclogue.” The poet is not simply using the shepherds as a mask; what knowledge the poems possess is not concealed behind the simplicity of pastoral voices but is tacitly present in that simplicity, a palpable but inarticulate entanglement in forces of cause and effect which is not, in the end, so very different from the rootedness those forces threaten.

Pastoral and the Homoerotic Naive
What the first of Virgil’s eclogues depicts is, in a sense, the fragmentation of a pastoral community: one shepherd is sent away while the other is allowed to remain. And in fact the second eclogue now shows us a shepherd (albeit a different one, Corydon) in melancholy isolation, complaining of his unrequited love for the boy Alexis. Corydon’s passion is homosexual, and as such enforces a greater solitude than that of Tityrus. Corydon is, moreover, not only more isolated but also more self-conscious than either of the shepherds of the first eclogue. At the beginning of the poem he boasts of his property as a shepherd and his skill as a singer of eclogues, but the poem takes a turn at once sad and humorous when he finally realizes how paltry such “assets” really are: “Rusticus es, Corydon; nec munera curat Alexis, /nec, si muneribus certes, concedat Iollas. [Corydon, you are a clown! Alexis cares naught for gifts, nor if with gifts you were to vie, would Iollas yield.]” (2.56–57). Where the first eclogue provides an idyllic picture of pastoral life even while acknowledging how tenuous that image is, the second offers a picture of a crude society and a rustic economy, exposing more cruelly the incompatibility between milking sheep and the discourse of eros. In this poem the naïveté of pastoral–in the economic, social, and erotic domains–is what comes to the fore.

The naive shepherd of the earlier pastorals is transformed into the anonymous hero of an allegorical quest of the spirit; the naïveté of those earlier poems is refigured as spiritual fortitude.

In its idealism and its anxiety, in its emphasis on community combined with inevitable returns to isolation, and in its uneasy naïveté, pastoral provides the genre most able to accommodate the homosocial, as well as homosexual, aspects of New York School poetics and of Ashbery’s poetry in particular. What we can call the “homoerotic naive” in Ashbery can, I would suggest, be placed in the lineage of Corydon’s homoerotic love song in the second eclogue. Many of Ashbery’s early poems are declarations of love, written in a tone that is almost childlike in its awkward frankness. Stepping outside bourgeois norms, the homoerotic naive invokes a boyhood innocence, the naïveté of homoerotic bonds formed in childhood, before puberty and entry into the adult social world and the inhibiting knowledge of what is “normal” and what is forbidden. In this state Ashbery’s “I” can be almost willfully simple in scope, with its ingenuousness (or “impishness,” to use John Shoptaw’s term in On the Outside Looking Out) working as a kind of defense against the destructive knowledge of social and erotic norms. Ashbery’s poem “Blessing in Disguise” opens by contrasting that “I” to an unnamed “they,” which could be society at large or even the more localized society formed by the New York School’s brand of counterculture. Like Corydon, Ashbery’s speaker “sing[s] amid despair and isolation/Of the chance to know you,” with woods and trees as a backdrop:

Yes, they are alive and can have those colors,
But I, in my soul, am alive too.
I feel I must sing and dance, to tell
Of this in a way, that knowing you may be drawn to me.

And I sing amid despair and isolation
Of the chance to know you, to sing of me
Which are you. You see
You hold me up to the light in a way

I should never have expected, or suspected, perhaps
Because you always tell me I am you,
And right. The great spruces loom
I am yours to die with, to desire.

Corydon’s words, Virgil tells us, are incondita, unformed–hurled forth to the landscape with “futile eagerness”–and these descriptions apply equally to Ashbery’s strains in a “Blessing in Disguise” as well. The surreal imagery and sustained abstraction typically associated with Ashbery are barely present; what distinguishes such a poem from the meditative Romantic lyric is not modernist difficulty but, on the contrary, a self-conscious simplicity and frankness of tone and voice which hark back, I would submit, to the speakers of classical and Renaissance pastoral. The “I” here represents the self-deprecating address of an apparently simple and earnest speaker, the play of pronouns only serving to add to his fumbling expressivity. Both Virgil’s and Ashbery’s shepherds recognize that others have “colors” that they may not; both feel they “must sing and dance, to tell/Of this in a way, that knowing you may be drawn to me”; both of their songs are thus appeals for love that, according to their own rhetoric, distinguish themselves from that of competitors not by means of superior technique but rather by frank acknowledgment of limitation. The two speakers hope that what they lack in sophistication might be made up for by an honesty and directness of which the poems’ simplicity of style is a pledge. The poems present themselves as mere songs that are in turn mere gifts, occasional works designed as shows of affection rather than prowess. Such is the fiction that makes them pastoral.

The concluding lines of “Blessing in Disguise” finally verbalize the tender invitation which has been implicit in the poem since its start:

You must come to me, all golden and pale,
Like the dew and the air.
And then I start getting this feeling of exaltation.

The trope of the shepherd’s invitation (the huc ades), when he sweetly beckons to his love, bidding her or him to come and live with him in the fields, is one that runs from Theocritus’s eleventh idyll–

Nay come to me, and nothing, that is yours now, shall you lack.
Leave the blue breakers of the sea to gasp against the land.
More sweetly will you pass the night beside me in my cave.
There do laurels grow, and there the slender cypress trees.
[trans. R. C. Trevelyan]

–through Corydon’s “huc ades, o formose puer” (2.45) and his

O tantum libeat mecum tibi sordida rura
atque humilis habitare casas et figere cervos,
haedorumque gregem viridi compellere hibisco! [2.27–30]

[O if you would but live with me in our rude fields and lowly cots, shooting the deer and driving the flock of kids with a green hibiscus switch!]

to Marlowe’s

Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

and Amiens’s song in As You Like It:

Under the greenwood tree,
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither.
Here shall he see
No enemy,
But winter and rough weather.

The phrase “come here” or “come to me” is itself pastoral not by virtue of the location from which it is spoken but rather because of its overtness. In contrast to the machinations of lovers at court, where distance can be overcome only by coyness and artifice, the shepherd can woo his beloved simply by saying “Come live with me,” or “Come hither, come hither, come hither.” In its earnestness it has already begun to create the kind of community which the beloved is being invited to join.

I would propose that the figure of the “shepherd” is the literary archetype for Ashbery’s speakers throughout his poetry–speakers whom we can never either separate completely from the poet (as we do with T. S. Eliot’s “voices”) or identify with him (as we usually do in James Merrill or Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry). Such figures are clearly more naive, more “simple” than the poet himself, yet the poems do not offer us a position above or outside them. Ashbery’s use of simplicity and naïveté, as Empson shows, is a quintessential pastoral technique–a “trick,” to use Empson’s word, that may well involve pastoral imagery and a retreat to a more simple and natural setting, but that ultimately subsumes those features in an artless voice which, in true pastoral, itself becomes the poem’s dominant artifice. A voice that resonates with echoes of literary tradition, it is neither undermined nor bolstered by those echoes; its very persistence is the reverse of pastoral’s refusal to “grow up,” of the inertia, at once pleasant and melancholy, which keeps pastoral almost unwillingly rooted in a place outside place and a time outside time.

Evening Journeys: The Double Dream of Spring
I noted at the beginning of this essay that the pastoral genre usually marks the appearance of a poet’s “first fruits”–an early effort promising greater things to come, which in the classical schema would have meant an epic poem. And it is true that as he left Some Trees behind Ashbery turned to ever longer and more ambitious poems–from “The Skaters” and “Fragment” to “The New Spirit” and “The System.” Pastoral motifs are still present: indeed, almost half the poems in The Double Dream of Spring, his fourth collection, suggest a rural background and bucolic moods and themes, as well as containing more specifically farm-based imagery: “The Task,” “Spring Day,” “Summer,” “Evening in the Country,” “For John Clare,” “Rural Objects,” “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” “An Outing,” “The Hod Carrier,” “Clouds”–Ben Hickman, in John Ashbery and English Poetry, called Double Dream Ashbery’s “most pastoral volume.” Yet the poems also take on philosophical questions of selfhood, of identity through time, of free will and destiny that were largely absent before. There is an expansiveness of both tone and theme that was lacking in the shorter earlier lyrics, a quality that in the imagery is expressed through the recurrent motif of sunset. Again and again the poems refer to evening, as the transition into night and a vista onto an open landscape beckon the speaker to travel outward into it and to begin a spiritual quest which will fulfill the epic promise always implicit in pastoral beginnings. The naive shepherd of the earlier pastorals is transformed into the anonymous hero of an allegorical quest of the spirit; the naïveté of those earlier poems is refigured as spiritual fortitude.

“The Task,” the opening poem of The Double Dream of Spring, sets for the collection a more elevated tone than has been heard before, introducing the ongoing motif of the spiritual journey, which replaces the more static, imagistic poems of the past:

About the time the sun begins to cut laterally across
The western hemisphere with its shadows, its carnival echoes,
The fugitive lands crowd under separate names.
It is the blankness that follows gaiety, and Everyman must depart
Out there into stranded night, for his destiny
Is to return unfruitful out of the lightness
That passing time evokes.

What is “postmodern” here is the use of the sort of impersonal, formal device that Romantic poetry put aside–“About the time the sun begins to cut laterally”–a classical periphrasis which displaces the first-person speaker and allows the impersonality of the passage of time to take center stage. Temporarily, at least, it detaches the narrator of the poem from its subject; the protagonist here is simply “Everyman.” There is an almost cosmic melancholy in that detachment, with its sense that time passes, suns rise and set, seasons change–all regardless of the human observer. Nothing could be farther from the Romantic poet’s intense involvement in what the speaker feels and sees.

“The Task” is the title of the major work of William Cowper, and Everyman is the protagonist of the medieval English morality play about the soul’s journey toward death. Far from eschewing tradition, “The Task,” and indeed all of Double Dream, is everywhere suffused by it–a fact which goes some way toward explaining the greater seriousness of this collection. As a poem of imminent exile, “The Task” also takes us back to Meliboeus’s imminent departure from the pastoral idyll Tityrus still inhabits. For the speaker’s communion with the lands takes place not in such rural harmony as we typically associate with pastoral but under the melancholy sign of impending dispossession, a condition expressed, in “The Task,” by the rhetorical figure of the hypallage. “Fugitive lands” and “stranded night” both displace attributes from the speaker to his setting, since in the second stanza it is Everyman who “must depart/Out there into stranded night” and in the third it is the narrator who is the “pilgrim”; the displacement of these descriptors corresponds to the speaker’s own displacement from his land and ultimately from his very self.

Through such devices the passage captures beautifully the sense of destiny, of an existential heightening in which one’s past and future are at stake, that the image of sunset evokes. A similar effect is achieved at the end of Virgil’s first eclogue:

Hic tamen hanc mecum poteras requiescere noctem
fronde super viridi. sunt nobis mitia poma,
castaneae molles et pressi copia lactis,
et iam summa procul villarum culmina fumant
maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae. [1.79–83]

[Yet this night you might have rested here with me on the green leafage. We have ripe apples, mealy chestnuts, and a wealth of pressed cheeses. Even now the housetops yonder are smoking and longer shadows fall from the mountain heights.]

The last two lines, justly celebrated, create a beautiful balance between the familiarity and comfort of the rural village and the impersonal expanse of the mountains, between the rising of the smoke from the improbable “culmina” of the houses and the descending of the shadows from the mountains. Even as shadow descends to envelop human dwellings, those dwellings are endued with the daily grandeur of cosmic change and a heightened sense of spiritual possibility. At the same time, absorbed into the growing shadows, the smoking chimneys are impregnated with the obscurity into which Meliboeus must venture the next day, and hence with his impending exile from the land he once inhabited more happily. Yet as we know from the Aeneid, such a departure, westward into the setting sun, may put him on the path of greater things to come. If pastoral poetry always aspires to be “rooted in one dear perpetual place,” then epic poetry is the opposite, a poetry of upheaval and uprooting, of moving from one place to another. Read in this way, the last line can be seen to encapsulate the bittersweet progression from pastoral to epic that pastoral form always implies.

The melancholy of Virgil’s ending is thus more subtle than the “nostalgia” with which pastoral is often associated, and it makes explicit the doubleness everywhere else implied in the genre, the constant contrast between the “simplicity” of the shepherds’ world and the darker forces it appears to shut out. Milton rewrote Virgil’s ending for his “Lycidas”:

And now the Sun had stretched out all the hills,
And now was dropped into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitched his Mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

Milton describes with greater precision the phenomenon described by Virgil–the way the setting sun seems to expand the hills into the plains by casting shadows. He elides the difference, already ambiguous in Virgil, between “maiores … umbrae” and “altis montibus”; for Milton it is the hills themselves that are “stretch’d out” by the sun. On the other hand, where Virgil suppresses what will happen the next day–Meliboeus will depart–Milton includes it as a moment of expected renewal. In the preceding stanza he had compared Lycidas’s fate to the setting of the sun, offering as consolation the prospect of its rising: “So sinks the day-star in its ocean bed/And yet anon repairs his drooping head.” The underlying analogy is the resurrection of Christ. Thus, where in Virgil’s ending the sunset is tinged with melancholy, the sense of the future held in check by an irreversible and impersonal natural process, in Milton’s poem, through the poet’s recourse to Christian teleology, it is endowed with hope and even glory.

Virgil and Milton, poets of deliberation and the grand style, may seem improbable precursors for Ashbery, poet of the spontaneous, the offhand, the casual. Yet both Virgil and Milton often occupy, perhaps more than critics usually acknowledge, a generic space of transition between pastoral and epic–between, that is, a poetry fixed around a certain singular and immovable place, and a poetry of movement between places. This is a space in which the self is transformed from shepherd to hero. Ashbery’s “The Task” ends, like Virgil’s first eclogue, with a beautifully captured tension between the appeal of pastoral rootedness and the call of further “reaches”:

I plan to stay here a little while
For these are moments only, moments of insight,
And there are reaches to be attained,
A last level of anxiety that melts
In becoming, like miles under the pilgrim’s feet.

The Double Dream of Spring abounds in such moments of ambiguous suspension between repose and departure, shifting from stasis to motion or vice versa, and often expressed by a switch from the first person to the third. In “Evening in the Country,” the state of repose announced in the first line is gradually eroded:

I am still completely happy.
My resolve to win further I have
Thrown out, and am charged by the thrill
Of the sun coming up. Birds and trees, houses,
These are but the stations for the new sign of being
In me that is to close late, long
After the sun has set and darkness come
To the surrounding fields and hills.
But if breath could kill, then there would not be
Such an easy time of it, with men locked back there
In the smokestacks and corruption of the city.

The pastoral qualities of the speaker’s initial state are not so much the properties of a landscape as they are “stations for the new sign of being/In me.” Yet the evening and the “surrounding fields and hills” draw the speaker’s look outward into greater distance than he is accustomed to contemplating, and by the time the poem ends, the opening dismissal of the “resolve to win further” has been replaced by the incipience of a vague but all-important journey: “the vast open, the incredible violence and yielding/Turmoil that is to be our route.” Like “The Task”–and like Virgil’s first eclogue–“Evening in the Country” resolves its driving tension with a moment of precarious balance between pastoral stasis and rejection of the epic “resolve to win further” on the one hand and the incipience of a vague but all-important journey on the other. Another poem, “Parergon,” tracks a similar path (its title, referring to something that is accessory to the main work or subject, points, like “The Task,” to a larger labor which is soon to begin but which we have not yet undertaken). It too opens with a pastoral state of repose and social remove, gradually undermined as the poem progresses: “We are happy in our way of life. It doesn’t make much sense to others. We sit about,/Read, and are restless.” But as in “Evening in the Country,” this restlessness gradually overtakes the rest, and the highly allegorical final stanza suggests, yet again, an estranged, third-person traveler departing into night:

As one who moves forward from a dream
The stranger left that house on hastening feet
Leaving behind the woman with the face shaped like an arrowhead,
And all who gazed upon him wondered at
The strange activity around him.
How fast the faces kindled as he passed!
It was a marvel that no one spoke
To stem the river of his passing,
Now grown to flood proportions, as on the sunlit mall
Or in the enclosure of some court,
He took his pleasure, savage
And mild with the contemplating.
Yet each knew he saw only aspects,
That the continuity was fierce beyond all dream of enduring,
And turned his head away, and so
The lesson eddied far into the night:
Joyful its beams, and in the blackness blacker still,
Though undying joyousness, caught in that trap.

Along with a transition from repose to adventure the poems also register a change in the speaker, who evolves, as the poem progresses, from blithe acceptance (“I am still completely happy”; “We are happy”) to fortitude and resolve to face his new adventure.

Like Milton, then, Ashbery takes the compressed Virgilian ending and extends its imagery in a quasi-allegorical manner, with the landscape and the rising and setting of the sun serving as “new sign[s] of being/in me,” and with the speaker transformed into the anonymous, third-person protagonist of an allegorical quest. Similar imagery is scattered throughout the collection, from “a proper ramble into known but unimaginable, dense/Fringe expecting night” (“Sunrise in Suburbia”) to the end of “Plainness in Diversity,” where an “old man” is “forced to begin his journey into the sun.” The opening quatrain of “Rural Objects” depicts, in frustrated terms, the transience of the static pastoral moment–

Wasn’t there some way in which you too understood
About being there in the time as it was then?
A golden moment, full of life and health?
Why can’t this moment be enough for us as we have become?

The second quatrain seems to answer the question of the first, almost as if it were assigned to a second pastoral speaker–a Cuddie or a Meliboeus, alerting a Colin or a Tityrus to the necessity of moving on to “other lands”:

Is it because it was mostly made up of understanding
How the future would behave when we had moved on
To other lands, other suns, to say all there is time for
Because time is just what this instant is?

The quatrain’s suggestion that departure and exile–“other lands, other suns”–are embedded within the pastoral moment is borne out by many of the poems in the volume, each moving from a pastoral state of repose to an epic mode of adventure. If nostalgia is part of pastoral (as the first stanza suggests), then the overcoming of nostalgia, the embracing of a journey into the unknown, is a part of it no less.

Whereas “Eclogue,” while going beyond the parodic, retains the quality of an exercise in the pastoral mode, adopting its most explicit forms and conventions, the poems of The Double Dream of Spring discard those superficial forms and enter into a deeper engagement with what might be called the spiritual side of pastoral, the side that verges on the themes of epic, inscribed by both Virgil and Milton into pastoral contexts: loss, exile, regeneration in the West. At such moments the naïveté of the pastoral speaker is transfigured into something resembling heroism–or at least the pietas of Aeneas–as the emergence from that naïveté is shown to involve an unprecedented journey into the future. The poems of The Double Dream of Spring celebrate an almost stoic acceptance of one’s destiny, of the need to move beyond the comforts of the pastoral world and its amorous melancholy. The naive posture now permits a moment of genuine spiritual expansion which would have been harder to credit had it come first. Thus, while we might look to Romantic lyric for precedents, the generic scheme remains important for understanding Ashbery’s career, his changing styles, how one register leads to another, and how this change itself is expressed in his imagery.

As the self explores its boundaries, the particular content of its life–specific memories, places, people–is left behind, and a broader, more general landscape is ventured into. In his journey beyond pastoral the speaker assumes the persona of an allegorical Everyman, to quote from “The Task,” or “the stranger,” to quote from “Parergon.” The destiny at stake in these poems is ultimately a figure for Ashbery’s increasing engagement with literary tradition as he matures as a poet. The landscape now works not merely as a setting or a source of imagery but rather as a figure for an interior condition of literary realignment, as the poet turns from the surface innovations of New York School poetics to the more personal and meaningful form of renewal that only a deep encounter with tradition can permit. In “The Task” or “Parergon,” the sense of estrangement, exile, and anonymity that goes hand in hand with the vast and empty landscape conveys the hollowing of the poet’s self as he enters into rapport with the voices of Cowper or Clare–or Virgil or Milton–more fully than in the past. The superficial loss in personal style is compensated for by the gain in seriousness that this engagement with tradition allows Ashbery to obtain–an act of what Harold Bloom would call kenosis. Thus, in this book the problem of the speaker, always central in pastoral, blends into the question of the development of the poet’s voice, as the highly self-conscious naïveté of Ashbery’s earlier poems is replaced by a quieter, more meditative voice whose anonymity and subdued spiritual fortitude are a more mature version–but still a version–of the pastoral simplicity we have seen running through Ashbery’s work.

Conventions and Conclusions
The imagery of an evening landscape might seem commonplace and conventional, part of the stock of poets of all eras. Yet it is in its conventionality and generality that it obtains its peculiar power in a body of poetry that everywhere else prizes the contingent and the unexpected. From William Collins to Keats and Clare, the Romantic evening poem became increasingly specific in its description. In Virgil and Milton, by contrast, such moments are never the central theme of the poem (unless they are being read allegorically). Yet they are more than ornamental. They locate the poem in a time and a setting which are essential to its mood and significance; they serve to suggest the connections between humans and the universe in which the passage of time is the key mediating element. They are mimetic, therefore, not in the sense that they represent a particular object or action but in the sense that they take universal conditions of life and restate them, and in doing so perhaps affirm them. The conventionality of the description is an essential part of its meaning, affirming, in the face of death and exile, the poet’s connection to cycles that are themselves essentially repetitive. The “green shade” of pastoral is the measure of its attunement to the shadows in which it takes cover from the heat; the genre is defined by the dogged simplicity with which it refuses to illuminate that shade, insisting instead that, like Tityrus and Meliboeus, we simply linger there for the time being.

In its elaborate digressions and distractions Ashbery’s poetry contains plenty of detail, much of it apparently unmotivated. But at key moments in the poems the detail is reabsorbed into a more general, pastoral, and in some cases cosmic framework. Here is the end of “The Skaters,” the long poem which concludes Rivers and Mountains (1966), his third collection:

The apples are all getting tinted
In the cool light of autumn.
The constellations are rising
In perfect order: Taurus, Leo, Gemini.

Unlike many Romantic poems, “The Skaters” does not end with a return to the poet’s own mind, nor does it end with a deepening or resolution of the crisis that occasioned the poem. It ends instead more neutrally, with the simplicity of the natural world and its order. The “constellations” per se exist through the human capacity for observing similitude, and yet it is a capacity exercised not by the poet but rather by the power of the ancient, communal conventions in which pastoral is rooted. Compare the “ripe apples” that end Virgil’s first eclogue; for the constellations, compare the endings of the sixth and tenth eclogues:

omnia, quae Phoebo quondam meditante beatus
audiit Eurotas iussitque ediscere lauros,
ille canit, pulsae referent ad sidera valles;
cogere donec ovis stabulis numerumque referre
iussit et invito processit Vesper Olympo. [6.82–86]

[All the songs that of old Phoebus rehearsed, while happy Eurotas listened and bade his laurels learn by heart–these Silenus sings. The re-echoing valleys fling them again to the stars, till Vesper gave the word to fold the flocks and tell their tale, as he set forth over an unwilling sky.]

Surgamus: solet esse gravis cantantibus umbra,
iuniperi gravis umbra; nocent et frugibus umbrae,
ite domum saturae, venit Hesperus, ite capellae. [10.75–77]

[Let us arise. The shade is oft perilous to the singer–perilous the juniper’s shade, hurtful the shade even to the crops. Get home, my full-fed goats, get home–the Evening Star draws on.]

Much like the ending of “The Skaters,” these endings zoom out, removing us to the margin where daily human agricultural activity borders on the larger world of impersonal natural cycles, a border marked by the anthropological poetry of the constellations. If the sixth eclogue humanizes those cycles by suggesting that Vesper, the Evening Star, is “unwilling,” the tenth and final eclogue reaffirms their difference: the inhumanity of the night, which is harmful to singers, to the goats, to fruitfulness. The human being’s position and hold on the earth, established through cultivation as well as culture, through pasture as well as poetry, remains a tenuous one.

If the “perilous shade” is to be staved off, if the human hold is to be maintained, it is not through constant innovation but rather–and this is what pastoral finally suggests–through the repetition of certain fundamental rhythms: the rhythms of daily labor which, in pastoral poetry, find their equivalent in the rhythms of conventional imagery, whether inherited from a shared, prepoetic past (the constellations) or from the poetic tradition itself, as in the image of the drawing on of evening and the shepherds’ retreat. That John Ashbery, a poet whose name is all but synonymous with the transformation of twentieth-century American poetry from formalism to postmodernism, should participate in such conventions is a powerful reminder that in poetry, as in all things, tradition and convention are the nightly shelters without which the renewal of day would never take place.

Giulio J. Pertile is a lecturer in early modern English at the University of St. Andrews.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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