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


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Page 2

One of Purney's major purposes in the essay was to dignify the pastoral
by demonstrating that it admits all the components generally reserved
for tragedy and the epic. Most critics had considered the pastoral
a minor form and consequently had narrowed their attention to a few
frequently debated questions, mainly the state of rural life to be
depicted and the level of the style to be adopted. All agreed that the
poem should be brief and simple in its fable, characters, and style.
But it was therefore a poetic exercise, no more significant, Purney
complained, than a madrigal. He was intent upon investing the pastoral
with all the major poetic elements--extended, worthy fable; moral;
fully-drawn characters; and appropriate expression. For in his mind the
poem best incorporates one of the only two true styles, the tender, and
therefore warrants a literary status beneath only tragedy and the epic.

Like his critical method, Purney's decision that the pastoral should
depict contemporary rural life divested of what is vulgar and painful
in it, rather than either the life of the Golden Age or true rustic
existence places him on the side of Addison, Tickell, Ambrose Philips,
and Fontenelle (indeed, his statement is a paraphrase of Fontenelle's),
and in opposition to the school of Rapin, Pope, and Gay, who argued for
a portrait of the Golden Age. Both schools campaigned for a simplicity
removed from realistic rusticity (which they detected in Spenser and
Theocritus) and refinement (as in Virgil's eclogues); but to one group
the term meant the innocence of those remote from academic learning and
social sophistication, and to the other the refined simplicity of an
age when all men--including kings and philosophers--were shepherds. With
reservations, the first group tended to prefer Theocritus and Spenser;
and the second, Virgil. Hence, too, the first group approved of Philips'
efforts to create a fresh and simple pastoral manner. As a poet, Purney
moved sharply away from the classical pastoral by curiously blending an
entirely original subject matter with a sentimentalized realism and a
naive, diffuse expression; and as a critic he pointed in the direction
of Shenstone and Allan Ramsay by emphasizing the tender, admitting
the use of earthy realism in the manner of Gay, and recommending for
pastoral such "inimitably pretty and delightful" tales as _The Two
Children in the Wood_. Had his contemporaries read the treatise,
how they would have been amused to contemplate the serious literary
treatment of chapbook narratives, despite Addison's praise of this
ballad.

In his usual nervous manner, the critic did not confine himself to his
topic, but touched on a number of significant peripheral subjects. He
showed the virtue of concrete and specific imagery at a time when most
poets sought the sanctuary of abstractions and universals; commented
cogently on the styles of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare; anticipated
the later doctrine of the power of the incomplete and the obscure to
suggest and therefore to compel the imagination to create; adopted and
expanded Addison's distinction between the sublime and the beautiful;
and, borrowing a suggestion that he probably found in Dennis (_Critical
Works_, ed. Edward N. Hooker, Baltimore, 1919, I, 47), developed a
profitable distinction between the sublime image and the sublime thought
by examining their different psychological effects.

But, because they run counter to the accepted opinions of his age, it
is Purney's comments on matters of style that are especially striking,
although it must be remembered that most of them have to do with the
pastoral alone and do not constitute a general theory of poetics.
Perhaps his most original contribution is his attack upon the cautious
contemporary styles of poetry: "strong lines," a term that originally
defined the style of the metaphysical poets, but that now described the
compact and pregnant manner of Dryden's satires, for example, and the
"fine and agreeable," exemplified, let us say, by Pope's _Pastorals_ or

less popular styles, the sublime and the tender, corresponding to the
two pure artistic manners that Addison had distinguished. How widely
Purney intended to diverge from current poetry can be judged by his
definition of the sublime image as one that puts the mind "upon the
Stretch" as in Lady Macbeth's apostrophe to night; and by his praise of
the simplicity of Desdemona's "Mine eyes do itch." Both passages were
usually ridiculed by Purney's contemporaries as indecorous.

Equally original is Purney's concept of simplicity, which he insisted
should appear in the style and the nature of the characters, not in
denuding the fable and in divesting the poem of the ornaments of poetry,
as Pope had argued in the preface of his _Pastorals_. It was this
concept that also led Purney to his unusual theory of enervated diction.
How unusual it was can be judged by comparing with the then-current
practices and theories of poetic diction his recommendation of
monosyllables, expletives, the archaic language of Chaucer and Spenser,
and current provincialisms--devices that Gay had used for burlesque--as
means of producing the soft and the tender.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 15th Dec 2019, 20:56