A History of Arcadia in Art and Literature: The Quest for Secular Human Happiness Revealed in the Pastoral by Paul Holberton - review by Peter Davidson

Peter Davidson

Paradises on Earth

A History of Arcadia in Art and Literature: The Quest for Secular Human Happiness Revealed in the Pastoral


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A few years ago I was sitting at summer nightfall in the garden of New College, Oxford. A performance of Handel’s Il Pastor Fido – based on a play of the same name by Guarini – was moving to its measured close as the first lights came on in the college windows. The thought came to me suddenly that this little-performed opera offered a revelation of the mode in which the elites of early modern Europe explored their most serious thoughts, political and personal. This was the gravest kind of pastoral in which courtiers could perform, with all the decorum to which courts aspired. At that moment, I felt that a modest door had opened into the sensibility of the past. If only Paul Holberton’s remarkable two-volume history and anthology had been available to me then, I could have seen Il Pastor Fido truly and richly in context.

This is a substantial publication in every sense: two volumes amounting to almost a thousand pages, with lavish colour illustrations throughout. It offers a survey of the multifaceted tradition (or traditions) of the pastoral in European art and literature, from Virgil’s Eclogues to the English rural landscape paintings of Thomas Gainsborough and Samuel Palmer. Holberton begins with a detailed reading of Virgil’s dialogues of the shepherds ‘coming together (or going apart) to sing’. After this, few (if any) manifestations of the pastoral from the Renaissance to the early 19th century escape the net. Many familiar images and texts are discussed and set in context, while a remarkable number of more obscure pieces which were once influential (forgotten romances, ephemeral academy verses) are also considered and quoted at length.

I must confess to having experienced an initial feeling of scepticism while reading Holberton’s introduction, in which the author takes issue with almost all theories of the pastoral advanced so far, promising that this book will offer in their place ‘a larger purview of pastoral than anything hitherto

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