Susan Snyder. Pastoral Process[:] Spenser, Marvell, Milton.
Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1998. xiv+242pp. ISBN 0 8047 3106 3. Cloth.
Bryan N.S. Gooch
University of Victoria
Gooch, Bryan N.S. "Review of Susan Snyder, Pastoral
Process." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue
8 (May, 2001): 17.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/revgooch.htm>.
- Susan Snyder's thoughtful and solidly grounded Pastoral Process
is a welcome addition to the group of studies which, quite properly, devote
their attention to the lost-or, as in the case of Traherne, apparently lost-world
of innocence which so many authors over centuries have yearned to recover.
The reasons for this yearning, of course, are various, and range from a concession
to nostalgia for innocence, a recreation of earlier happy memories, the creation
of an imaginary context for reflection beyond the pressing implications of
the present world, to a desire to escape the stark dismay (including cruelty
and death) of the now. Focusing, as her subtitle indicates, on Spenser,
Marvell, and Milton, Snyder nevertheless rightly engages her readers in pondering
a wealth of pastoral reflections from the classical ambulations of Virgil
through her principal early moderns and the romantics (Wordworth's "Intimations
Of Immortality" is caught in the same current) to twentieth-century writers:
it is entirely apt that a consideration of Thomas' "Fern Hill" serves as a
sensitive and helpful coda to the study. Thus, while the emphasis in the volume
is on her three major figures, the applications-because of the way in which
she delineates the process-is broad, and the book serves to instruct
a far wider audience than its title might seem to suggest.
- The Introduction offers definitions of - and distinctions between - the
pastoral and Snyder's idea of "pastoral process", "process" having to do with
change, as time passes, from a beneficient, paradisal world to its antithesis
(3); there is a differentiation between what she sees as "spatial pastoral"
and past (and unrecoverable) bliss, between Arcadian and Golden Age approaches.
Thus there is a difference between the spatial temporary concept: the relation
of Spenser's Meliboee in The Fairie Queene, Book VI, the retreat from-and
return to-the real world in As You Like It, and the lost benign youth
of Polixenes and Leontes ("We were as twinn'd lambs…") offer a clarification
of Snyder's direction. Pastoral process allows for the memory of a lost and
better world but does not permit a return to it-hence the particular exploration
in this book of Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar, the Mower poems of
Marvell, and Milton's "Lycidas", together with related literary psychological
and theoretical texts which illuminate the central concept and the movement
from a world of innocence to one of uncomfortable experience.
- The first chapter, "Manifest Content," begins by addressing The Shepheardes
Calendar, noting initially the overview offered in "December" and focusing
on the irreversible changes in Colin Clout's existence, the effect of the
perspectives offered by other characters in the eclogues, and the reactions
to the relation of transition and loss. The explication of Snyder's process
within the work as she moves through her study of each section is sure-footed,
and it also offers the reader further bounty in its close and perceptive reading
of Spenser's text. In turning to Marvell, Snyder sees the Mower poems as a
clear sequence of which the sum is, proverbially, greater than the parts (48),
and suggests that the "garden section" of Upon Appleton House serves
as a useful background (50); just as Mary Fairfax "…cannot go back to being
a flower among the flowers", so "this irreversible passage from youth to adulthood…is
the central focus of the Mower poems" (51). Imagery is a central issue in
the discussion; creation of new floral varieties, the effect of grafting,
and mowing (itself a violent act and, as Snyder observes, redolent here with
suggestions of the Civil War) play their role: Damon's mowing is not the "positive"
act he perceives it to be (58). The direction in the set of poems, she argues
through detailed analysis, is ultimately pessimistic. So, too, is the vision
of "Lycidas": "at its center is not the advent of desire but the discovery
of death…[T]he nature of the catalytic event in "Lycidas" creates in this
version of pastoral process a specific emphasis on the changing experience
of time. "Lycidas" is, in a special way, a study in then and now"
(64). With the news of the death of Lycidas life cannot be seen in the same
way; the past is, as Thomas would later put it, "forever fled"; past
has become past, and mortality, including the narrator's own, is clearly present
in an uncomfortable, saddened now. Snyder's treatment of the poem is
compelling and useful: as she observes, even the attempts at pastoral recovery
are fruitless in the face of the experience that time provides, and her pointed
citation (71) of Milton's change from "humming tide" to "whelming tide" (cf.
the Trinity MS and Justa Eduardo King ) clearly reveals Milton's
direction, and she is in accord (72) with Michael Lloyd in seeing the reason
for Lycidas' demise not in the natural world but in the flawed work of the
human hand-a fragile ship-in a post-lapsarian world. The consolation at the
end of the poem comes in the notion of resurrection, and yet one must note
that despite such affirmation of faith the world of the now is irrevocably
altered and a more sober vision, reinforced, in fact, by the awareness of
loss, is the inevitable result. In this sense, the effect of the process seems
sharpened: the memories of innocence and bliss remain, but only at severe
cost as paradise cannot be recreated in the mortal world.
- Chapter Two, "Cultural Day's Residue[:] The Level of Myth" explores at
some length the background and underpinnings of the pastoral process. Figuring
largely here-quite logically prompted in Snyder's discourse by her reference
to the unblemished pastoral state of stanza eight of "The Garden"-is the story
of Eden and the Fall along with its intriguing train of linkages and variations.
Built into this are specific references to the principal texts under discussion
so that this section of the book, while cutting a fairly broad swath (demonstrating
clearly, by the way, Snyder's considerable range of scholarship and intellectual
acuity), never fails to compromise the book's central focus. The movement
from Hesiod and Ovid through the Genesis tradition and its various interpretations
is fluid and lucid, evidently the work of an author who has pondered not only
the issues but related scholarship over time. Plato, Aristophanes, Augustine,
Lather, Calvin, Browne, for example, and others are all here-as they should
be-as are distinction between Golden Age and Christian (pre/post-lapsarion)
views, the whole-earth theory, and the notion of the child-centered world.
As Snyder observes, "of the many convergences between the 'Genesis tradition'
and pastoral process in Spenser, Marvell, and Milton, the most suggestive
and far-reaching is the correspondence between unfallen Adam and the idealized
child in his simplicity, centeredness, and pre-sexual purity" (99), and remarks
on the conflict between the views of the child (as innocent or bearing sin)
follow logically: Fuller, Aquinas, Chrysostom, Erasmus, and especially the
apostle Paul come into play here, as do Herbert, Winstanley, and modern commentators.
In one sense, the story of Eden (from bliss to temptation, sin, knowledge,
and expulsion into a harsh world demanding self-sufficiency) is, as she puts
it," about growing up" (111), but the idea of the fortunate Fall offers its
own considerations and complications. Nonetheless, the shape of the process
is clearly delineated, and even students of theology could spend a useful
hour pondering the implications of Snyder's felicitous tour-de-force.
- The third chapter, "Latent Conflict[:] Resisting Differences," reminds
the reader of a "universal nostalgia for childhood" (114) in European literature.
In looking at the problem Snyder considers the views of Freud and other psychologists
as well as modern theorists (especially Lacan) and, always bearing on her
texts, notes that "the central figures of process-pastoral are close to adulthood,
though they hesitate on the threshold" (135), and points to the strength of
the "repressive wish…at any age" (135). A pointed reference to Lear's desired
dependence on Cordelia figures aptly here, as does a distinction between the
situations of Shakespeare's Adonis and Polixenes, and the difficulty of what
I refer to earlier as "cost"-the price of perhaps both failing to move and
of moving between the Imaginary and the Symbolic--is further elucidated by
the views of Kristeva and Jung.
- Chapter four, "'As time her taught'[:] Biographical and Historical Speculation",
offers the notion-compellingly put and defended-that Spenser, Marvell, and
Milton all venture on their pastoral excursions at the end of their normal
(in the case of Milton, extended) adolescence and transition to the world
of harsh reality. These are not merely conventional poems, they are not simply
youthful flappings of poetic wings, and they are not just traditional bows
to the legacy of Pope's "Mantuan muse", though the Virgilian shadow is beyond
doubt. In reviewing the biographical details of her three figures Snyder suggests
that in each case the works produced were logical given the age and experiences
of each poet, goes on to consider the nature and timing of the movement from
adolescence to adulthood in the early modern era, and notes that the seventeenth-century
particularly, with its shift in world-view, the rising importance of capital,
and its growing urbanization brought inevitably a very different view of the
now-and hence a weakening of a sense of historical continuity and a
confidence in existing in an unchanging world. Time-and the increasing pervasiveness
of clocks-is an important issue: time passes and brings change (163), not
all of it positive, and it is not inappropriate to observe that the currency
of the carpe diem theme at the time is more clearly symptomatic of
the changes Snyder details than merely conventional within the dialect of
love. It is therefore hardly surprising that there should be a nostalgia for
a lost, more innocent life. Traherne may see the child as corrupted by an
external world and offer the hopeful voice that a return to an earlier state
in this world is possible: Spenser, Marvell, and Milton, in the end,
- By way of summation, Snyder turns in her Afterword-"Green and Dying"-to
a careful reading of Thomas' "Fern Hill." Far from being out of place, her
analysis brings together superbly the elements of her argument about the return
of this pastoral process. Thomas' poem is not just about the pastoral but
about time and the eventual loss of the farm (in stanza 6): the passage of
time is inevitable, as the narrator finally becomes aware. The paradox is
ultimately resolved, though the nostalgia (as the very existence of the poem
attests) will always be present. Return is possible in the imagination, only;
the memories may be sustaining and refreshing (as they are in Thomas'
case), but the sense of loss, in looking back, is inescapable.
- Snyder's volume offers a range of remarkable insights into the pastoral
process, the poets and their poems, and a broad sweep of related material
and commentary from ancient to modern. This book was, as she notes in her
introduction, a work developed over many years; that is hardly surprising
as one takes into account its breadth, scholarly range, and clarity of critical
vision. It should command a wide audience and sincere respect, and its stylistic
felicity does justice to the discussion throughout.
- Lloyd, Michael. "The Fatal Bank". Modern Language Notes, 75 (1960):
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)