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Shifting Shepherds in the Poetry of Marvell, Milton, and Herbert

About the Author: Shana Kogan

Shana Kogan is a recent (2014) Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. She majored in English with a concentration in Elizabethan literature. Her literary interests include the works of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Ben Jonson. Shana's studies of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have also fueled her academic exploration of the oscillating relationship between power dynamics and gender performativity in the literature of the English Renaissance. Shana plans to apply to law school in the fall of 2014.

By Shana Kogan | General Essays

Throughout much of Western literature, the shepherd has endured as a versatile and complex poetic figure. In his subsistent relationship with nature and distance from the urban, the shepherd has traditionally functioned as a lens and mouthpiece through which history’s poets have examined and voiced their social criticism. From the bucolic poems of Theocritus, to the Old Testament’s Book of Psalms, to Shakespeare’s As You Like It, shepherds have come to symbolize an unpolluted understanding of the world in which truth lies in simplicity. During 17th-century England, however, the figurative meaning of the shepherd began to shift. Due to England’s rapidly growing wool industry and enclosure crises, mankind’s relationship with nature began to change. The shepherd, instead of representing a peaceful existence alongside nature, now drew negative connotations as the face of betrayal in an era where profiting from nature began to take dramatic precedence over concern for one’s fellow man. Representations of the shepherd in the poetry of Marvell, Milton, and Herbert reveal varying attitudes towards the shepherd that reflect the era’s increasingly complex economic situation and relationship with nature.

With its origins reaching back to the 12th century, England’s history of open-field system and enclosure is one that is rooted in its community’s understanding of common rights. Although there were many variations, English villages that operated on the open-field system typically consisted of two land types: privately owned land and communal land. After the farmers’ hay and grain was seasonally harvested from their privately-owned tracts, the tracts were then converted into communal lands that were open to the rest of the population (“Enclosure” 361). Because landowners and tenants were aware of each other’s mutual dependence on the same land for sustenance, the open-field system naturally encouraged a culture of communal awareness and concern among the village’s classes. The open-field system essentially functioned as social equalizer in which the members of a village shared and dined off of the same food sources (McRae 35). The introduction of enclosure, however, counteracted the culture of mutual concern that the open-field system had established. The motivating incentive for landowners to enclose their property was to have complete control over it throughout the entire year. Enclosure presented a huge loss to the rights of the community, as it severely reduced the amount of territory upon which tenants could farm. To remedy this, enclosing landowners were theoretically obligated to relinquish some of their own rights to the communal fields. This required landowners to reduce the number of their personal livestock that they allowed to graze with the rest of the village’s herd.

During the Middle Ages’ moderately-sized populations and plentiful territory, enclosure agreements were fairly benign and uncontroversial. However, enclosure’s controversial legislation reached its zenith during the Tudor dynasty (“Enclosure” 361). During this period, enclosure was viewed as a huge betrayal and violation of common rights. As the foreign demand for wool increased, landowners found it more lucrative to enclose with the main purpose of allowing their own sheep to graze year-round rather than seasonally leasing to tenants. As the central authority began to see the problem of depopulation and the displacement that went along with the unfair distribution of land, much anti-enclosure legislation was passed to remedy the problems (“Enclosure” 361-2). Outright rebellion occurred twice in 1607 in the regions of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire. The controversy of enclosure continued to be an issue into the 18th and 19th centuries of England (Durant 178-85).

The poetic implications of enclosure on the figure of the shepherd in 17th-century English literature are significant as they are an expression of the era’s increasingly complicated relationship with nature. From the classical Idylls of Theocritus to the Ecologues of Virgil, the shepherd functioned as the voice of courtly criticism. Through his unadulterated relationship with the natural world and lack of courtly pretension, the shepherd archetype was valued by poets as a figure of peace and truth amid the trivialities of courtly life. In 16th- and 17th-century England, however, man’s relationship with nature began to shift to a problematic one. Due to the era’s rapidly growing wool industry, farmers abandoned their former subsistent relationship with the natural world. Nature was no longer a window into the idyllic life, but rather a means to profit and an opportunity to improve one’s social standing. Alastair Fowler discusses this connection between the pastoral genre and the role of England as the major wool producer of Europe:

The English were then not yet a nation of shopkeepers, but of shepherds, woolcarders, dyers, weavers, fullers and other of the sixteen occupations assignable to the wooltrade. Not surprisingly, English pastoral tended in consequence to be somewhat more realistic, its shepherds a little less implausibly innocent of all knowledge about the trade the practised so effectively. (84-5)

Additionally, England’s struggle with its enclosure crisis directly affected the connotation of the shepherd. To the general public, the shepherds’ tending to sheep took priority over displaced rural workers. This, therefore, lead to the faulty assumption that it was the shepherds, and not the landowners, who were responsible for tearing tenants from their land. During 17th-century England’s age of pervasive enclosure, the shepherd was transformed from a symbol of idyllic peace into a stigmatized face of enclosure.

The issue of the stigmatized shepherd presented England’s poets with a problem of representation. In her essay “Pastoral,” Michelle O’Callaghan notes “the shepherd-poet was a persona adopted by authors to announce their literary vocation and to place themselves in a tradition that reached back to the very origins of poetry” (225). In the same way man’s relationship with nature was complicated by economics during this period, so was the poet’s relationship with nature. As the role of the shepherd and attitudes surrounding the figure began to change, poets too began to question whether the shepherd was still an appropriate symbol for poetry.

In Marvell’s Mower Poems, the shepherd is the target of destruction both in a physical sense as well as in a literary sense. The poems describe a mower, Damon, who obsessively compares the cruelty of the shepherdess, Juliana, to the cruelty of nature. From the very outset of the poems’ description, we can see that Marvell has already “destroyed” the shepherd archetype in the sense that he has translated him into a mower. Whereas the traditional pastoral shepherd lived peacefully alongside nature, Marvell’s mower, by contrast, is depicted as constantly being at war with his environment. The clearest case of the shepherd doing violence onto nature is offered in “The Mower’s Song.” The poem’s central argument follows Damon’s frustration with nature, as it seems to refuse to weep with him in his state of unrequited love:

Unthankful meadows, could you so
A fellowship so true forego,
And in your gaudy May-games meet,
While I lay trodden under feet? (Marvell, “The Mower’s Song” ll. 13-16)

As punishment for nature’s lack of sympathy, Damon resolves that he will mow and decapitate the surrounding nature so that it is forced to weep with him. The phrase “in one common fall” disturbingly connotes a suicide-like pact between Damon and the nature he destroys:

But what you in compassion ought,
Shall now by my revenge be wrought:
And flowers, and grass, and I and all,
Will in one common ruin fall. (Marvell, “The Mower’s Song” ll. 19-22)

This notion of the mower destroying his surroundings is also dovetailed in “Damon the Mower.” Although this motif is not explored as the central idea of “Damon the Mower,” it is still significant in establishing the poem’s hostile tone and Damon’s tense relationship with nature. In the poem’s fifth stanza, Damon’s gifts to Juliana of a “harmless snake . . . / disarmed of its teeth and sting,” “chameleons changing hue, / And oak leaves tipped with honey dew” are all vestiges of the war that Damon has waged upon nature (Marvell, “Damon” 35-8). Damon has gone out of his way to aggressively tear these things from their rightful place in natural world. In doing so, he transforms them into ontologically ruined versions of their pure, original forms. By depriving the serpent of its fangs, the chameleons of their surroundings, and the oak leaves from their tree, we can see that Damon has stripped them of their distinctive essences. Damon’s gifts to Juliana are not charming fragments of nature: they are dissevered representations of man’s quest to conquer nature for consumption and exploitation.

Another significant aspect of “Damon the Mower” is in its physical and literary destruction of the shepherd figure. In lines 77 through 80, the mower himself is described as being “mown” as he gashes his own ankle:

The edged steel by careless chance
Did into his own ankle glance;
And there among the grass fell down,
By his own scythe, the Mower mown.

In this passage we can see Marvell’s graphic destruction of the shepherd figure. At first glance, it may seem as if the mower accidentally cut himself as a result of absentmindedness. However, when read in the context of the speaker’s latent suicidality and hostility towards nature, the mower’s gash begins to resemble self-mutilation borne out of frustration with the unyieldingness of Juliana as well as nature. In the seventh stanza, Marvell qualifies his destruction of the shepherd by attacking the profession and insisting on the superiority of the mower:

What though the piping shepherd stock
The plains with an unnumbered flock,
This scythe of mine discovers wide
More ground than all his sheep do hide.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And though in wool more poor then they,
Yet I am richer far in hay. (Marvell, “Damon the Mower ll. 49-56).

In this quotation, we can see Marvell pushing against the pastoral tradition of celebrating the shepherd lifestyle. Instead, the shepherd’s lifestyle is depicted as outdated, while the mower is admired. Embedded in this comparison is also the value of quantity over quality: whereas the shepherd is limited to “mowing” only the sheep in his flock, Marvell values the mower more because of the vast amount of land he is able to mow. The shepherd experiences nature by carefully paying attention to one sheep at a time, while the mower’s natural experience is passive and almost mechanical as he mows through the landscape. But because the mower’s output of hay is potentially larger than that of a shepherd, it follows that the mower would be valued higher in the increasingly capitalistic society of England during the 17th century.

Marvell brings his literary and physical destruction of the shepherd full circle by transforming him into Death itself. Besides the conspicuous parallel between the characters’ scythe-bearing personas, the mower’s occupation of “[d]epopulating all the ground” for the purposes of human consumption is in itself a signal of Marvell equating the mower with a type of grim reaper (Marvell, “Damon” 74). Additionally, the phonetic similarity between the name Damon and “dæmon” also lends itself to Marvell’s conversion of the mower into Death.

In the poems “The Mower to the Glowworms” and “The Mower against Gardens,” Marvell depicts the shepherd as psychologically distancing himself from his natural surroundings. In “The Mower to the Glowworms,” Marvell exemplifies this psychological estrangement in the speaker’s characterization of the glowworms as useless because they can no longer guide the “wandering mowers:”

Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come;
For she my mind hath so displaced
That I shall never find my home. (ll. 13-16)

In “The Mower to the Glowworms,” we can see the speaker’s difficulty in recognizing the possibility that nature may exist outside of the purpose of aiding man. Because nature can no longer aid the speaker as a tool, he turns away from it. Furthermore, the speaker’s act of anthropomorphizing the glowworms as “courteous” and the nightingale as a musician who “stud[ies] all the summer night” is in itself an act of distancing one’s self from nature (Watson 122). By constantly attaching human characteristics to nature and not allowing it to exist independently of human association, the speaker detaches himself from nature by blurring his perception of it (Watson 123).

“The Mower Against Gardens” also explores this notion of distancing the self from nature. The poem reads as a criticism of the elite’s artificial gardens that were so popular during the 17th century. The poem opens with the mower’s critique of the “[l]uxurious man” who exploited and perverted nature for financial gain (Marvell, “Mower Against,” l. 1). The mower goes on to argue that gardens are not a part of the natural world. Instead, the speaker maintains that gardens are artificial and do not offer spiritually transcendental experiences or a vis medicatrix naturae that the courtiers insist they do (King 239). Interestingly, the mower attributes the Garden of Eden’s fall to the first instance of enclosure: “He first enclosed within the garden’s square / A dead and standing pool of air” (Marvell, “Mower Against” ll. 5-6). It is ever since this moment of man’s selfish possessiveness that nature began to lose its ability to find its literal and metaphorical roots: “No plant now knew the stock from which it came; / He grafts upon the wild the tame” (ll. 23-4). These lines are also significant because they can also be read in the context of the era’s collapse of feudalism. Due to enclosure eviction, displaced agrarian workers were no longer able to till the soil of their forefathers. Distance from one’s land not only meant unemployment, but also distance from one’s ancestral heritage. Just as the plants cannot go back to their original stocks and the field workers cannot return to their ancestral fields, neither can Marvell’s mower go back to a shepherd-esque relationship with an Edenic nature. For Marvell, only the mower can exist in a fallen Eden.

In his Mower Poems, we can see Marvell pushing against the pastoral shepherd figure by translating him into a mower, pitting him at war with his environment, and psychologically distancing him from nature. Marvell does away with the shepherd, because he sees the shepherd’s relationship with nature as no longer being attainable in an era where enclosure and capitalism dominate nature. Just as Damon frustratingly cuts down the grass, Marvell frustratingly cuts down the shepherd because he represents a relationship with nature to which his society can never return.

In contrast to Marvell’s destructive treatment of the shepherd, Milton’s “Lycidas” mythologizes the shepherd and his relationship to nature. The poem opens with the central speaker, a shepherd, mourning over the death of another shepherd, Lycidas. In keeping with the pastoral elegiac mode, the poem narrates the speaker’s coming to terms with death. In addition to the speaker’s praise of Lycidas, the poem also explores the cruelty of death, the effect of his death on nature, and, finally, an acceptance of death in the hope for eternal life. In the poem’s general design, we can already see Milton’s departure from Marvell in that “Lycidas” begins with the death of a shepherd. Milton’s choice of writing in a pastoral elegiac mode means that his treatment of the shepherd is formal, and deeply rooted in classical pastoral. In effect, Milton’s rendering of Lycidas is so traditional and idealized that it renders him as somewhat flat to the point of inaccessibility.

On a literary level, Lycidas is inaccessible because Milton depicts him as a classical shepherd, not one from the 17th century. Lycidas is not a shepherd that a 17th-century reader would have commonly seen during the enclosure crisis, like Marvell’s mower. Instead, Milton’s Lycidas is a shepherd of old, and he is presented as something of a legend. The shepherd speaker’s invocation to the muses to sing of Lycidas as if he were on the level of Homer’s ‘storm-tossed’ Odysseus points to this characterization of the shepherd as legend: “Begin then, sisters of the sacred well / That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring, / Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string” (Milton ll. 15-7). To add to the sense of Lycidas’s mythological qualities, Milton emphasizes the idea that the shepherd was so legendary that Nature herself weeps over his death:

But O the heavy change, now thou are gone,
Now thou art gone, and never must return!
Thee, shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o’ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn. (ll. 37-41)

 Additionally, Milton’s association of Lycidas with “[r]ough satyrs,” “fauns with cloven heel,” and “nymphs” also leads the reader to place the dead shepherd within a literary tradition of classical heroes (ll. 34-50). The commentary of Phoebus and Neptune on Lycidas’s death adds to the reader’s sense of the shepherd as a heroic, mythologized figure whose death is significant enough to awaken and draw responses from the classical gods. Taken together, all of these aspects prompt the reader to mentally place the dead shepherd on a literary pedestal alongside the heroes of the classical world. The reader is led to approach the shepherd with a classical formality that renders him inaccessible.

On a more physical level, the speaker complains that Lycidas’s inaccessibility is not only due to his death but, more importantly, because his body is lost at sea. This idea of the deceased’s body being lost is significant, as it signals the speaker’s inability to physically reach him and properly mourn him. In the poem’s famous “flower passage,” Milton also depicts Nature as being unable to mourn Lycidas because she has no body unto which she can bestrew her memorializing flowers:

Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts daily with false surmise. (ll. 149-53)

This notion of our inability to recover the classical shepherd’s body is significant as it also reflects our inability to recover his peaceful relationship alongside nature. In his rendering of the shepherd as physically and symbolically inaccessible, Milton also implies that the shepherd as a poetic lens is obsolete because his society no longer has a classical relationship with nature. Since this relationship has been lost along with Lycidas’s body, Milton argues that the shepherd can now only function as a standard to which society judges its pastors. For Milton, Christ represents the “good shepherd” who earnestly cares and looks after his flock. Alternately, “the bad shepherd” represents the hypocritical pastor whom the Pilot, Saint Peter, describes as a deceiver: “Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold / A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least / That to the faithful herdsman’s art belongs!” (Milton 119-121). The Pilot then goes on to describe the damaging effects the “flock” suffers from their degenerate pastor:

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread,
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said. (Milton ll. 125-29)

In keeping with the pastoral tradition, the shepherd speaker comes to terms with death by meditating on the prospect of immortal salvation. Milton offers that it is only in the pastures of Heaven that Lycidas, the classical shepherd of old, can achieve the ideal pastoral experience:

So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms of joy and love.
There entertain him all the saints above,
I solemn troops and sweet societies
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears forever from his eyes. (171-81)

For Milton, all that remains of the complex shepherd figure is its Christian symbolism.

In “Lycidas,” Milton mythologizes the shepherd figure, creating distance between the reader and titular character by rendering him inaccessible, both in a literary sense (since Lycidas is a classical shepherd) as well as in a physical sense (since his body is lost at sea). The inaccessibility of Lycidas’s body symbolizes man’s inability to return to the original, classical meaning of the shepherd and, by extension, his idealized connection to the natural. When read in this context, Milton’s mythologizing of the shepherd could perhaps reflect an accepting attitude towards his era’s shifting relationship with nature, a reverential farewell to both the classical shepherd archetype and mankind’s past relationship to the natural world. In his presentation of the shepherd in “Lycidas,” Milton lays the archetype to rest alongside the marble busts of the classical world.

In the poetry of Herbert, the shepherd and his relationship to nature are internalized. In Herbert’s poems “Jordan I” and “Christmas,” the shepherd is represented not as a physical person in a field, but rather as a symbol of the spiritually integrated soul. Unlike the lyrics of Marvell and Milton, Herbert’s poetry places the shepherd within the roots of early Christianity and does not rely heavily on classical traditions to reinforce its version of the archetype. However, despite Herbert’s emphasis on his shepherds’ Christian aspects, his shepherd depictions still reserve certain classical characteristics. For example, Herbert and Theocritus’s shepherds are nearly identical in their emphases on earnest, humble, and simple views of the world. Both versions of the shepherd maintain their pure, unadulterated worldviews by constantly rejecting the artifice and the trivialities of the outer world. Instead, their shepherds retreat to internal truths that are pure and strongly connected to God.

Herbert’s championing of simple, pure internality as oppose to intricate, deceptive externality is most clearly represented in “Jordan I,” in which Herbert writes against rhetorical ornamentation in poetry while embracing internal truth. The title “Jordan” suggests Herbert’s purpose of re-baptizing the art form altogether. Although the speaker in “Jordan I” never explicitly reveals his occupation, he assumes a shepherd-like disposition as he questions the value of ornamentation in his society’s taste for poetry. The speaker’s questions of “Is all good structure in a winding-stair?” and “Must all be veiled, while he that reads, divines, / Catching the sense at two removes?” both point to his skepticism towards poetic ornamentation (ll. 3-10). It is only in the poem’s final stanza that the speaker begins to speak in sentences rather than in questions. The last stanza’s line of “[s]hepherds are honest people, let them sing” directly ties in to Herbert’s own personal philosophy of writing with the intent of accessibility (l. 11). Herbert explicitly addresses this in “The Country Parson” when he says “[p]eople by what they understand are best led to what they understand not” (3). In her essay on “The Country Parson,” Margaret Bottrall shrewdly observes that Herbert “recommends familiar language and everyday comparison because they were habitually used by Christ himself” (2). The poem’s last three lines of “I envy no man’s nightingale or spring: / Nor let them punish me with loss of rime / who plainly say, ‘My God, my King’” bring to fruition Herbert’s notion of writing from an honest and genuine perspective (“Jordan I” ll. 13-15). According to Herbert, the best writing style is forthright and sincere towards its audience. Because God’s message is already rich in itself, Herbert argues that rhetorical ornamentation in religious poetry is redundant and interferes with the literary promotion of Christianity. By letting the shepherds sing, Herbert allows the audience to hear the word of God through a vessel that is pure and free from distracting embellishments.

In his poem “Christmas,” Herbert internalizes the shepherd by translating him into a psychological construct. In “Christmas,” the speaker is a wanderer in search of spiritual shelter. Similar to “Jordan I’s” rejection of rhetorical ornamentation, “Christmas” reads as a rejection of existential ornamentation. By turning away from the garishness of the outer-world and turning inward to find God, the speaker of “Christmas” is able to realize meaningful spiritual insight. Herbert’s internalization of the shepherd as a symbol of thought is significant, as he takes the Christian version of the shepherd and his relationship to nature and applies it as a cognitive model to man’s inner-psychology:

My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds,
The pasture is thy word: the streams thy grace
Enriching all the place. (ll. 17-20)

In his application of the shepherd-nature relationship to man’s psychology, Herbert presents an interesting path to God that is simple, straightforward, and accessible to his audience. The way to Christian salvation, according to Herbert, is to organize the self, its thoughts, and God’s word in the same fashion that a biblical shepherd would orient himself and his flock to nature. For Herbert, man’s inner psychology should mirror the shepherd’s relationship with nature if he is to truly unite himself with Christian doctrine.

In his internalization of the shepherd figure, Herbert rejects rhetorical and existential ornamentation. It is because the shepherd embodies the rejection of these two principles that he is the ideal figure for Herbert’s purpose of leading his audience to God. Herbert’s representation fights against traditional 17th-century portrayals of the shepherd as a hollow archetype for courtiers to exhibit their poetic abilities. By internalizing the shepherd, Herbert purifies the archetype’s image by disassociating him with the era’s enclosure crisis. Herbert’s poetry prompts the reader to reach back to a nostalgic Biblical model of the shepherd as Christ. It is when society begins to favor ornamentation that Herbert suggests that we become unnecessarily distracted from and deaf to God’s message. Although Herbert’s poetry does not present an explicit solution for dealing with the era’s complicated relationship with nature, his poetry does offer the first step to finding the answer. Herbert encourages the individual to turn away from garish externality and adopt a shepherd-like mindset of reflecting inwardly and simply. To Herbert, once people embark on this path, they will start to realize their Christian priorities and rediscover their genuine concern for the environment as well as their fellow man.

In their differing treatments of the shepherd archetype, Marvell, Milton, and Herbert each reveal contrasting attitudes towards their era’s relationship with nature in their poetry. In his Mower Poems, Marvell seeks to destroy the shepherd figure as he translates him into a mower, making it impossible for man to return to his innocent relationship with nature. Milton’s “Lycidas” mythologizes the shepherd and, in turn, also does away with the archetype but in a reverential manner. Herbert, unlike Marvell and Milton, does not dispose of the shepherd, but instead internalizes the shepherd as means of attaining spiritual integration. Despite their different viewpoints, the shepherd remains a powerful figure in English poetry at the crossroads of the natural and the modern world.

Works Cited

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