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Tactics for Shepherds

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

English Pastoral Poetry. By William Empson New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $2.50.

Readers of William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity” will soon discover that a good deal of his case for the “pastoral process” in his most recent volume, “English Pastoral Poetry,” rests on the exploitation of an ambiguity. Apparently, his American publishers are unwilling to indulge him, since the original title of “Some Versions of Pastoral” has been altered to the timid and inexact “English Pastoral Poetry.” The change is a curious one, because Mr. Empson’s concern with the novel and the drama considerably overlaps his concern with “pastoral poetry,” and because the entire weight of argument is towards a strenuous re-orientation of “English pastoral poetry” outside the complacencies of the convention. It is a fact that Mr. Empson is dealing not with “English pastoral poetry,” but with a particular “trick of pastoral”; not with the substance of bucolic verse, but with the analysis of a tactic which he conceives to lie behind pastoral and proletarian literature equally.

The principal insight upon which the volume draws is an attractive one, and it is not easy to enter reservations to the corollaries which emerge from it. In its simplest form, the notion submits that the pastoral process involves a general strategy of compacting “the complex into the simple”—the “Many” into the “One,” the refined into the low, the critical into the magical, and so on. The pastoral way, for example, would be to “take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick.” The benefits are well distributed, since the shepherd is permitted to express “strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language,” and the courtier is permitted the realities of the shepherd. The upshot is to imply a “beautiful relation between rich and poor. . . . From seeing the two sorts of people combined like this you thought better of both; the best parts of both were used.”

What seems to me ambiguous here—I borrow a favorite word of Mr. Empson’s — is the “trick” of establishing a crucial point by employing the part for the whole; by appropriating one element of pastoral and giving it out as the “essential trick of the pastoral.” Derring-do of this kind is hazardous critical procedure even when one is prepared to accept the assertion. One agrees, for example, that from one point of view, the pastoral figure dwarfs the “complex” personage by aggrandizing the “simple” one, but one hesitates to assume that such a version of pastoral is the determining one—is the pastoral process. One would like to consider further, let us say, whether the pastoral, both as a form and a tactic, is not in itself a variant of a larger “literature of magnanimity” which should be followed to first sources behind the purely pastoral version.

Given the assumption, however—that “you can say everything about complex people by a complete consideration of simple people”—Mr. Empson is right to stress in it a larger assumption of a quest for the communal ideal that is both cultivated and benign. It is, in Mr. Empson’s phrase, a “beautiful relation between rich and poor” because it is a magnanimous one in which the “complex” man goes to school to the “simple” man to turn in his skepticism and isolation for the large truths of living nobly together. Its bias, that is to say, is essentially a benevolent one, a wish to unite the heroic with the natural man, and it is “this clash and identification of the refined, the universal, and the low that is the whole point of the pastoral.”

Much space is given to a consideration of the consequences of such a strategy. Mr. Empson is quick to point out, in the first place, that the act of merging the “complex” into the “simple” man endows the pastoral figure with special powers and prerogatives not normally his own. Not only does he become the critic of a social order and a tradition; his tactic of magnanimous realist also makes it possible for him to touch important responses in his audience. The reader is made to feel that the pastoral judgment is a dependable one because it implies a knowledge of both sides of the case; and he is left free to infer a “universal” truth because he is not asked to identify himself with either side of the pastoral equation. A more literary result implicit in this coupling of opposites (the “complex” and the “simple” man) is that the relationship created is, in effect, the dramatization of a metaphor. The “complex” identity, on its way toward identification with the “simple” one, operates metaphorically along a train of implied contrasts—to which Mr. Empson gives the name of a “staircase”—whose meanings are not only part of the action of the play itself, but expand as the play expands. In Mr. Empson’s words, “Two ideas are united which in normal use are contradictory and our machinery of interpretation so acts that we feel there is a series of senses in which they could be more and more truly combined.” In a picturesque form the “metaphor” fulfills its implications readily in such a version of pastoral as the familiar one of the prince brought up in secret by the shepherd: witness “A Winter’s Tale” and “Cymbeline.” The political parable here is almost too neat; the coupling of prince and peasant is the dynamic for an inexhaustible counterpoint of satire, irony, and social criticism that enriches the most trivial details of dramatic action.

Mr. Empson scores even more tellingly when lie presses the notion to its next logical, though by no means obvious, assumption: that the entire mechanism of the double-plot so dear to the Elizabethans can be regarded as an enormous metaphor whose inflections during the course of the play point the theme as a whole. Thus, the parallel operation of a comic, or pastoral, sub-plot beneath the framework of the tragic, or heroic, main-plot is not to be regarded as an indulgence without any bearing on the play itself, or as a sop thrown out to facilitate the solemn business of the main action. The two plots are, on the contrary, moving toward a single statement. They are, that is to say, opposing counters in a metaphor which propounds, in effect, that A (the main-plot) is very much like B (the sub-plot). Thus, the story of Cressida in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” is opposed to the story of the Trojan War, and both are saturated with an imagery of love and fighting, to establish the large metaphor that love is very much like warfare. Again, in the more disorderly “The Changeling,” the comic underplot of the jealous madhouse keeper is opposed to the villainy of De Flores to suggest the proposition that the “lunatic and the lover are of imagination compact” — though in a more mordant sense than Shakespeare’s statement of that metaphor. In this way Mr. Empson goes on to cite further instances of double plot in “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,” “Henry IV,” and “Marriage-a-la-Mode” for metaphorical integrations of the heroic and pastoral.

Another lively by-product of the pastoral strategy derives both from the coupling of the “simple” with the “complex” sensibility, and from the “dramatic ambiguity” (Mr. Empson’s phrase) arising out of the double-plot. I refer to an order of pastoral irony which has its source in the tactic of the “complex” man turned humble, on the one hand, and the “simple” man turned critic. The latter, for example, would, according to Mr. Empson, imply a logic of: “I am not clever, educated, well born, etc‘ “—and then at once make clear that the person before whom the speaker has humbled himself could never achieve the dignified standards which are the mark of the “natural” man. The irony of the double-plot—of dramatic ambiguity, that is to say—is a more subtle matter and turns upon the reader’s doubt (which may not have been the dramatist’s intention) as to how much of the irony is intentional, and to what degree the speeches of the characters are simply or complexly intended. “The puppets are plausible if they don’t mean all that the play puts into their words, and delightful if they do, and the shift between the two theories is so easy that we take them as both,” Mr. Empson explains in a chapter on “The Beggar’s Opera.” The value of this state of mind is a positive one, in that it encourages a ripeness of sympathy and a gaiety of judgment that is ripe and gay precisely because “it can keep its balance among all the materials for judging.”

I should like to cite such rewarding versions of pastoral as the “fool as critic” (Touchstone), the mock-heroic rogue as spokesman (“The Beggar’s Opera”), the clown as Death, the pastoral of the innocence of man and nature (“Paradise Lost”) in which simple characters achieve the heroic by virtue of their quasi-magical function of ambassadors of mankind; and in what is perhaps, along with the admirable section on Marvell, the sharpest chapter of them all, the “child as swain,” typified by Alice’s adventures in wonderland and through the looking-glass. The opening chapter on “Proletarian Literature”—which, by a strange procedure, becomes the flywheel of the whole book—is similarly loaded with crucial distinctions and therefore mandatory. It is good to have this volume to point to with confidence as one of the most fruitful and challenging of recent years. Its place is with Kenneth Burke’s “Permanence and Change” and “Attitudes Toward History,” even though one must protest the finickiness and narcissism of many of the glosses and warn the reader that the writing, for all its wiriness, is often ex-asperatingly opaque and filled with longueurs one would cheerfully wager to be affectations.


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