A Full Enquiry into the Nature of the Pastoral (1717) by Thomas Purney


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Page 1




INTRODUCTION


In the preface to each of his volumes of pastorals (_Pastorals. After
the simple Manner of Theocritus, 1717_; _Pastorals. viz. The Bashful
Swain: and Beauty and Simplicity, 1717_) Thomas Purney rushed into
critical discussions with the breathlessness of one impatient to reveal
his opinions, and, after touching on a variety of significant topics,
cut himself short with the promise of a future extensive treatise
on pastoral poetry. In 1933 Mr. H.O. White, unable to discover the
treatise, was forced to conclude that it probably had never appeared
(_The Works of Thomas Purney_, ed. H.O. White, Oxford, 1933, p. 111),
although it had been advertised at the conclusion of Purney's second
volume of poetry as shortly to be printed. A copy, probably unique, of
_A Full Enquiry into the True Nature of Pastoral_ (1717) was, however,
recently purchased by the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library of the
University of California, and is here reproduced. Despite the obvious
failure of the essay to influence critical theory, it justifies
attention because it is the most thorough and specific of the remarkably
few studies of the pastoral in an age when many thought it necessary to
imitate Virgil's poetic career, and because it is, in many respects, a
contribution to the more liberal tendencies within neoclassic criticism.
Essentially, the _Full Enquiry_ is a coherent expansion of the random
comments collected in the poet's earlier prefaces.

Purney belongs to the small group of early eighteenth-century
critics who tended to reject the aesthetics based upon authority and
pre-established definitions of the _genres_, and to evolve one logically
from the nature of the human mind and the sources of its enjoyment; in
other words, who turned attention from the objective work of art to the
subjective response. These men, such as Dennis and Addison, were
not searching for an aesthetics of safety, one that would produce
unimpeachable correctness; Purney frequently underscored his preference
for a faulty and irregular work that is alive to a meticulous but dull
one. This is not to be understood as praise of the irregular: the rules
of poetry must be established, but they must be founded rationally on
the ends of poetry, pleasure and profit, and the psychological process
by which they are received, and not solely on the practices and
doctrines of the ancients. Taking his cue from the Hobbesian and Lockian
methodology of Addison's papers of the pleasures of the imagination
without delving into Addison's sensational philosophy, Purney outlined
an extensive critical project to investigate (1) "the Nature and
Constitution of the human Mind, and what Pleasures it is capable
of receiving from Poetry"; (2) the best methods of exciting those
pleasures; (3) the rules whereby these methods may be incorporated into
literary form (_Works_, ed. White, p. 48). It is this pattern of thought
that regulates the _Full Enquiry_. Perhaps more than any other poetic
type, the pastoral of the Restoration and the early eighteenth century
was dominated by classical tradition; the verse composed was largely
imitative of the eclogues of Theocritus and Virgil, especially the
latter, and criticism of the form was deduced from their practices or
from an assumption that the true pastoral of antiquity was the product
of the Golden Age. Of this mode of criticism Rapin and Pope were the
leading exemplars. In opposition, Fontenelle, Tickell (if he was the
author of the _Guardian_ essays on the pastoral), and Purney developed
their theories empirically and hence directed the pastoral away from the
classical tradition. (On these two schools see J.E. Congleton, "Theories
of Pastoral Poetry in England, 1684-1717," _SP_, XLI, 1944, pp.
544-575.) Although Purney adopted a modification of Aristotle's critical
divisions into Fable, Character, Sentiment, and Diction, and took
for granted the doctrine of the distinction of _genres_, he otherwise
rejected traditional formulae and critical tenets, and began with the
premise that man is most delighted by the imaginative perception of the
states of life for which he would willingly exchange his own. These are
"the busy, great, or pompous" (depicted in tragedy and the epic) and
"the retir'd, soft, or easy" (depicted in the pastoral). From this
analysis of "the Nature of the Human Mind," the characteristics of the
true pastoral, such as the avoidance of the hardships and vulgarities
of rural life, follow logically. Similarly, since a minutely drawn
description deprives the reader's fancy of its naturally pleasurable
exercise, pastoral descriptions should only set "the Image in the finest
Light." Rapin, on the other hand, had determined the proper length of
descriptions by examining Virgil and Theocritus. For the association of
the pleasure afforded by the pastoral with the natural human delight
in ease, Purney was indebted to the essays on the pastoral in _The
Guardian_ (see no. 22), from which he borrowed extensively for many of
his principles, and to Fontenelle, who constructed his theory of the
pastoral upon the premise that all men are dominated "par une certaine
paresse." By contrast, although Pope adopted Fontenelle's premise, he
tested its validity by relating it to the accepted definition of the
_genre_.

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