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>.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 [1638]) 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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, do not.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)