The Original Cottagecore: European Pastoral Motifs Through the Ages
Taylor Swift could do "Works and Days,” but could Hesiod do “Folklore?”
Cottagecore, an aesthetic that romanticizes the simple quietude of rural life, was primed to experience a spike in interest during the pandemic. In a world where we now have to sequester ourselves away from a world wracked by an insidious virus, what if that sequestering could be on a homestead that’s imbued with beauty and safety thanks to its remote position in the heart of the natural world? This internet-age idealization of wholesome rural life is the latest permeation of the pastoral genre, a set of themes and motifs that stretches back over two millennia. The pastoral genre specifically emphasizes the lifestyle of shepherds but can be broadly identified as idealizing a rural lifestyle that eschews any mention of the real-life difficulties and practicalities of herding livestock. (Though, as an escapist fantasy, you could do a lot worse than dreaming of tending a blooming garden and doing the thing from movies where you trail your fingers against fields of gold-hued wheat.) Indeed, such literature, music, and visual art have had a tendency to play to audiences far removed from that lifestyle and even the countryside. Not unlike today’s city dwellers scrolling through pictures of softly-photographed orchards and carefully-arranged picnic spreads from the confines of cramped apartments, everyone from the poets of ancient Greece to the French royal court at the height of its decadence have been drawn to the fantasy of pastoral escape.
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"Works and Days" by Hesiod
WHERE: Greece, circa 700 BC
Works and Days is a poem wherein Hesiod moralizes to his brother Perses, who has bribed judges to grant him Hesiod’s share of the farm they inherited, about the virtue of labor and agrarian life. Though scholars have debated over whether or not the premise of Works and Days is autobiographical or partially invented for narrative purposes, it seems that Hesiod was experienced in day-to-day agricultural work (experiences many creators of later pastoral works would not have).
It would seem that Hesiod’s work, which not only praises agricultural work but is also nostalgic for a mythological paradisiac era literally called the Golden Age, is at least partially a reaction to an agrarian crisis that had gripped mainland Greece at the time.
"Eclogues" by Virgil
WHERE: Italy circa 38 BC
The Roman poet Virgil’s collection of 10 Eclogues brought the politics of his age into the pastoral landscape of modern Italy. Though the poems here are populated by familiar shepherd archetypes and mythological characters, such as Daphnis, there are more grounded elements as well. The first Eclogue features the character of Tityrus, whose land was to be given to war veterans. But Tityrus went to Rome and was allowed by the “god” there to keep his land. This particular narrative is directly analogous to Emperor Octavian’s plan to give veterans land from Northern Italy as a payment after his triumph at the Battle of Philippi.
WHERE: Italy circa 1509
There is very little that is grounded, however, in a work such as Pastoral Concert. Though the painting foregrounds four figures, two men and two women representing poetic muses, the background is far from an afterthought. The landscape is rendered serene and verdant, featuring the all-important shepherd tending to his goat herd. The painting evokes an idyllic balance between man and nature. The painting was initially attributed to Giorgione but was later determined to be the work of Titian. Although yet another theory posits that Titian completed the painting after Giorgione died during a 1510 outbreak of the plague in Venice.
Giorgione and/or his disciple Titian
"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Christopher Marlowe
WHERE: England circa 1599
Marlowe’s pastoral vision is about as far from Hesiod’s labor-forward vision or Virgil’s real-life politics as you can get. Life as a shepherd in the world of this poem seems to primarily consist of sitting on rocks and laying in beds of roses. The speaker even devotes two out of six stanzas to the luxurious accouterments that await his love (it seems unlikely that there were many shepherds sporting slippers with “buckles of the purest gold”). Though Marlowe’s love poem isn’t the earliest iteration of pastoral poetry in the British tradition, it’s perhaps the example with the farthest reach thanks to its popularity as a love poem. The poem has inspired responses from numerous poets. Most famously, Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd , but it’s Dorothy Parker’s parody (The Passionate Freudian to His Lover ) that outclasses them all.
"Et in Arcadia ego" by Nicolas Poussin
WHERE: France circa 1638
The title of this painting, depicting shepherds gathered around a tomb, translates to “Even in Arcadia, there I am.” The “I” in question can be interpreted to be either the occupant of the tomb or the broader concept of Death itself. Either way, the effect is a combination of memento mori and the pastoral. A reminder that even in the most idealized version world death is inescapable. In the 19th century, a relief recreating the painting was placed on Poussin’s grave, making for a sort of memento mori on top of memento mori .
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"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray
WHERE: England circa 1750
Thomas Gray wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard after the death of his friend Richard West. The speaker of the poem eulogizes not just a single man, but the shepherds and the farmers that are buried in the country churchyard. Gray not only laments the dead but the potential that has been lost because of the opportunities that such shepherds and farmers miss out on due to the circumstance of class.
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"Marie Anotinette en chemise" by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
WHERE: France circa 1783
This portrait of Marie Antoinette doesn’t feature the natural world or the landscapes seen in other idealized pastoral works. But the French monarch is shown wearing a straw hat and a (relatively) simple muslin dress—attire that immediately evokes a pastoral costume. The painting itself resulted in a scandal as it was considered immodest for royalty to be depicted so informally. Marie Antoinette’s preoccupation with escapist pastoral settings, as she famously had her own retreat in Versailles’ park that recreated a rustic hamlet, complete with small cottages and a decorative mill.
"Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68" by Ludwig van Beethoven
WHERE: Germany circa 1808
Beethoven’s sixth symphony is only one of two symphonies that the composer titled himself (the other being the third symphony which he titled the Heroic Symphony . He had initially dedicated the piece to Napoleon, whom he viewed as embodying the greatest of democratic ideals; Beethoven later revoked the dedication when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France.) Each movement evokes different pastoral vignettes. The first movement’s lighthearted melodies evoke the cheerfulness of arriving in the countryside, a scene by a brook has the instruments imitating running water, the third movement has the lilting melody of a country dance, the fourth movement creates a thunderstorm out of a forceful cacophony of sound, while the final movement expresses the shepherd’s cheerfulness and thankfulness for the storm.
"Daphnis et Chloé" by Maurice Ravel
WHERE: France circa 1912
In a way, much of pastoral art comes back to the mythological character of Daphnis—a shepherd regarded as the inventor of pastoral poetry. Ravel’s ballet stages the classical story (which takes its inspiration specifically from Longus’ novel of the same name) with lush and passionate orchestration, evoking the romanticism that the pastoral genre is known for.