Published in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 2.4 (2008): 443-462
That humans have forever longed for return to paradise is axiomatic of pastoralism. While the Greek poet Theocritus was arguably the first to present Arcadia as a paradisal, pastoral place in his Idylls, by going beyond merely addressing the essential contradictions of life and attempting to resolve them in his Eclogues, Virgil advances the pastoral mode. Both works are imbued with a paradoxical sense of longing for the unattainable that has influenced much Western literature and art in the past two thousand years. Indeed, just as Virgil re-visions Theocritus, Henry David Thoreau emulated and then extended Virgil’s pastoral form in Walden. Pastoralism is seen, therefore, as an ever-adaptive perspective that continues to inform today’s artists, poets, and philosophers. By analyzing the mythopoeic aspects of pastoralism, Idylls, Eclogues, and Walden may be understood as mythologies of place that embody soul.
If we accept the depth psychological premise of a collective unconscious which allows us to access archaic memories and dreams and connects us not only to each other but the whole world, then we may see the ongoing re-visioning of the pastoral tradition as a longing to return to a mythic past of primordial unity, when consciousness had not yet separated from the unconscious and all was one. In such primordiality was experienced oneness with nature in mythic time—a divine space where time stands still. Yet the pastoral impulse is driven by more than nostalgia for a past way of life; it may be seen also as a mytheme that mediates the oppositions of culture and nature, civilized and wild, imaginary and actual. In other words, it serves as a way to resolve rhetorically the contradictions that civilization imposes upon both the mindscape and the landscape. Pastoralism may be viewed, then, as an ever-adaptive perspective that continues to inform today’s artists, poets, and philosophers.
The roots of a pastoral tradition stretch back to ancient Greece. Although the Roman lyric poet, Virgil, whose Eclogues have been called ‘the single most important document in the history of poetry’ by Paul Alpers (1979: 1), is the best known, it was not Virgil who originated the pastoral form; most scholars agree that the Eclogues are actually modeled after the Idylls by the Greek lyric poet Theocritus of the third century BCE, who preceded Virgil by some two hundred years. While scholarly attempts have been made to ‘find antecedents in ritual and poetry…it seems that Theocritus genuinely invented’ pastoral poetry (Alpers 1979: 2). Nonetheless, it might be argued that Virgil re-visioned Theocritus’ pastoral pieces through his Roman/ romantic/ romanticized sensibility that developed and refined the mode as an agent of transformation. In other words, through the imaging and imagining of pastoralism, one’s perspective changes, a process that psychologist James Hillman equates with ‘soul-making’ (1983a: 39).
Moreover, Virgil’s mythopoesis was neither simply reductive nor totally derivative, for he remodeled Theocritus’ ideas into a unique, new vision of a lost way of life—a nostalgia for the days of the ancient, nomadic hunter-gatherers. It is this sense of longing for the unattainable that has informed much Western literature and art in the ensuing two thousand years. Indeed, just as Virgil re-visioned Theocritus, it may be argued that Henry David Thoreau re-visioned Virgil when he wrote about the New England countryside in the 19th century. Because of all three writers’ contributions to the pastoral tradition, I wish to argue that the Eclogues, Walden, and to a lesser degree the Idylls constitute ‘mythologies of place’, i.e. the mythopoeic creation of landscapes containing sacred and spiritual value in and of themselves.
The ‘place’ in question of the Eclogues is Arcadia—or, rather, an Arcadia. For at issue here are really three Arcadias: the one that is an actual district in the central region of the Peloponnesian peninsula of southern Greece, a second that was mythologized in the Homeric Hymns as the ancient playground of Pan, and a third that was re-mythologized by Theocritus and Virgil as a place of inordinate beauty and virtue—a mythology of a myth, if you will.
The first Arcadia is now known mainly as the site of the original Olympic Games. Because of its harsh and mountainous terrain, it has never been considered a likely place for agricultural cultivation. It is, however, suitable for hunting and sheepherding, which led to its mythologizing through ancient oral tradition as a second Arcadia—this one the home of Pan and his cadre of nymphs and satyrs, all known for their bestiality and other sexually nonstandard behavior. Their brutishness is somewhat ameliorated by music—specifically Pan’s pipes, the syrinx, which he used ‘to bewitch the hearer into states of pan-ic or pan-demonium’, according to Simon Schama, who also notes that Pan’s hypersexuality is not necessarily negative and, in fact, is positively associated with the land’s fertility (1995: 527). This fruitfulness never quite panned out in terms of agriculture, however, as the ‘Arcadians themselves…are never imagined as farmers [but as] hunters and gatherers, warriors and sensualists [who] inhabit a landscape notorious for its brutal harshness, trapped between arid drought and merciless floods’ (1995: 527).
Against this stark image a third Arcadia—one of gentle, lush plains populated with uncorrupted shepherds and rustic deities—was conceived by Theocritus and later developed by Virgil in his Eclogues, wherein Arcadians led simple lives in close harmony with nature. The landscape in which these shepherds relaxed, sang and played music now became the location for an idealized vision of innocent, unsophisticated existence, set in a classical past untouched by the conflicts of contemporary life. Indeed, Theocritus appeared to be describing the verdant fields of Sicily—where he spent his last days—rather than Pan’s home, which was now an imaginary landscape that was personified in the seventh of the Idylls as a divine countryside where trees ‘bow’ and ‘rustle’, sacred groves and ‘hallowed’ water sanctify its inhabitants, and the shepherd, Lycidas, takes the poet/ narrator, Simichidas (Theocritus’ ‘voice’), into a forest where they lie on ‘deep green beds of fragrant reeds and fresh-cut vine-strippings [where] the brown cricket chirp[s]…the tree-frog murmur[s and the] turtle moan[s]’ (7.161-163). This Arcadia was also a musical landscape filled not only with the ‘sweet melody’ of the shepherds’ pipes, but with the ‘sweet…whispers of [a] yonder pine that sings’ (1.1-3). Thus, the formerly threatening setting inhabited by Pan and his pals metamorphosed into a paradisal place of song and sanctuary.
Besides repeated references to the ‘Sicilian poet’ and the borrowing of the same mythical characters and place, Virgil showed his emulation of Theocritus by projecting human feelings, spirituality and musicality upon the landscape of Arcadia as well. In the first eclogue, a dispossessed Melibœus congratulates Tityrus for his comfortable life among ‘sacred springs [where] bees…murmur’ (1.52, 53, 55), and the sixth describes Gallus’ ‘dying of love’: ‘Even the low shrubs and the laurels mourned / Him stretched beneath a solitary rock; / Maenalus mourned and the cold Lycaean cliffs’ (6.13-15). Moreover, Virgil’s Arcadian landscape ‘listens…just as it did when Pan started the practice of singing in rural surroundings’ (Alpers 1979: 134), and is a ‘[h]ome of clear-voiced groves and chattering pines, / [where] Maenalus listens to the shepherds’ loves / And Pan’s—the first to not let reeds lie mute’ (8.22-24).
Although disparaged by some critics as ‘pathetic fallacy’ or ‘projection’, bestowing the shrubs, trees, and mountains (e.g. Maenalus, where Pan dwells) with human abilities of listening and singing showed the bond between psyche and nature, human and divine and was rather ‘an act of ensouling’, insists James Hillman (1976: 13). Personifying the landscape of Arcadia thus ensouls it. Just as soul is placed ‘as a tertium between the perspectives of body…and of mind’, this ‘third’ Arcadia mediates between culture and nature (Hillman 1983a: 16). It is within this ‘third realm’ clash of oppositions in Arcadia that the theriomorphic Pan—as lord of this land—reconciles the animal and divine as well as human and animal, thereby functioning as transformer par excellence. In so doing, Pan both facilitates an image of Arcadia as paradise and subverts that picture by his very presence.
Hillman further underscores Pan’s significance when he remarks that soul, or psyche—for those who can ‘see through’ to it—‘is filled already with occupants, other voices in other rooms, reflecting nature alive, echoing again the Great god Pan alive, a pantheism rekindled by psyche’s belief in its personified images’ (1976: 42). Hillman employs ‘again’ in the previous passage in order to signal the need to revive Pan in soul after his banishment by the march of monotheism two millennia ago, when ‘the psyche’s tendency to personify [was] disdainfully put down as anthropomorphism’ (1979: xxii). Moreover, in ‘An Essay on Pan’—perhaps his most impassioned defense of personification and polytheism—Hillman declares:
[T]he experience of the Gods, of heroes, nymphs, demons, angels and powers, of sacred places and things, as persons indeed precedes the concept of personification….When Pan is alive then nature is too, and it is filled with Gods, so that the owl’s hoot is Athene and the mollusc on the shore is Aphrodite. These bits of nature are not merely attributes or belongings. They are the Gods in their biological forms (1979: xxii-xxiii).
Because to personify is to ensoul, Hillman argues for a renewal of appreciation by Westerners for personified nature, within which is embodied transformation and healing, as the Greeks evidently recognized. By imagining Arcadia as a place inhabited by half-human fauns, satyrs, nymphs, talking trees, and shuddering mountains, Virgil created more than a setting for his characters. Arcadia became an emotive, mythic place where anything, including transformation, is possible. In so doing, Arcadia becomes a place that transcended ‘the usual divides between natural and cultural, urban and wild, sacred and profane’, thus embodying soul (Hillman 2006: 334). Arcadia was no longer just a setting; it became a character.
Greek myths with their emphasis on personified archetypes are especially effective bearers of soul because they provide ‘psychic healing of imagination, the healing fiction, the fictional healer for whom no personal pronoun fits, impossible in life and necessary in imagination’ (Hillman 1983b: 102-03). For the Greeks, then, myths were ‘healing fictions’ that helped them to understand the paradoxical vagaries of their lives. Theocritus and Virgil’s representations of nature as responsive and feeling thus show how connected to place were the ancient people and how much they felt a sense of oneness with their environment that so identified them that their world view is called pantheism.
Noting the historical context in which Virgil wrote is essential for understanding his need to mythologize place through stylistic and rhetorical choices for Eclogues, which was written during a time of civil war and extreme political uncertainty. Land ownership—once taken for granted by Roman citizens such as Virgil—was in dispute, and Virgil himself had narrowly escaped being dispossessed of his property when a change of power occurred. Indeed, his farm was spared expropriation only after the intervention of Octavian, the newly ensconced Roman ruler. This, then, was the backdrop of ambivalence against which Virgil wrote, as demonstrated in the first and ninth eclogues, wherein Melibœus in the former and Mœrus in the latter are landowners who have been exiled from their farms and herds. In contrast to Tityrus, who lazes ‘under the spreading, sheltering beech [tuning] woodland musings on a delicate reed’, Melibœus complains that he must ‘flee our country’s borders, our sweet fields [and] Abandon home’ (1.1-4).
In a later episode it is Mœrus who bemoans the loss of his property when he says that he ‘never dreamt / An outsider would lay claim to our little farm / And say, “This is mine, old plowmen. Now clear out!”/ Defeated, grieving—chance turns all upside down’ (9.2-5). Thus do Melibœus and Mœrus, who both express Virgil’s ‘voice’, lament getting kicked off their farms, setting an introductory as well as culminating tone of dejection and loss.
The sadness expressed by Melibœus and Mœrus is offset, however, by the contrasting calm of their respective conversationalists, Tityrus and Lycidas, who respond with comments praising the serenity and beauty of their environs. Tityrus speaks of his newfound ‘peace’ and freedom ‘to play as I will on my shepherd’s pipes’ (1.6, 10), while Lycidas counters Mœrus’ lament with implications of the existence of a paradisal land ‘where the hills draw back / And begin to make the ridge slope gently down / To the stream’ (9.7-8).
By personifying the hills as the enfolding, primordial Mother, Virgil presented Arcadia as a refuge, but it was one not far from the city, which, for all its faults, was still the cultural fount for poets and artists. ‘Living in an oasis of rural pleasure’, Leo Marx says, means that Virgil ‘enjoys the best of both worlds—the sophisticated order of art and the simple spontaneity of nature [yet] no sooner does Virgil sketch in the ideal landscape than he discloses an alien world encroaching from without’ (1964: 21-22). For, as Virgil recognizes, there cannot be an ‘ideal’ without its opposite: the ‘without’ or ‘evil other’—in this case the Roman state.
The resulting tension between the opposing viewpoints of these characters—Melibœus and Mœrus on one side, Tityrus and Lycidas on the other—serves to make the reader all the more aware of the inherent paradox created by these perspectives: Melibœus and Mœrus are able to truly appreciate their lands only once they have been taken away—a revelation reiterated more recently by Joni Mitchell in the refrain of her song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, which chronicles the turning of Berkeley’s People’s Park into a parking lot: ‘Don’t it always go to show / You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’. The paradisal park for people could neither be appreciated aesthetically nor sociologically until it had been paved and transformed into its cultural ‘other’: a park for machines. Within the contrast between loss and gain, absence and acquisition, is change, without which transformation is impossible. With such a representation, Virgil as poet and his mythologized Arcadia became mediators between the encroachment of civilization on the one hand and the pristine landscape before it was ‘profaned’ by mankind on the other, and loss was highlighted as not only negative but necessary for transformation. This is what Hillman means when he stresses the need for pathology, without which there can be no soul movement.
Paradox, then, is the crux of pastoralism. By expressing melancholia for its loss and at the same time romanticizing the land as a refuge, Virgil’s Eclogues represent a ‘deep rejection of sedentary life—along with its values—and the attempt to recapture core elements of the lost hunter-gatherer [HG] life: egalitarian social relations, self-reliance…autonomy…a “nonreligious” way of being, and the world of immanent brilliance, perpetual surprise’, according to Morris Berman (2000: 153). Because it is semi nomadic, the herdsmen’s lifestyle in the Eclogues is less hierarchical—and, as a result, freer—than that of arable farmers and city folk who are sedentary and reveal what Berman calls ‘sacred authority complex (SAC)’ traits that differ substantially from those associated with pastoral nomads (2000: 153).
Melibœus and Mœrus symbolize the SAC way of life in that they are the disgruntled land-owners whose farms have been expropriated by the new ruling class. Tityrus and Lycidas, on the other hand, signify the ancient nomadic herdsmen who, although connected emotionally to the land, do not consider it something losable. By virtue of their nomadism, the shepherds are able to experience and resolve ‘paradox’ (Berman 2000: 153). In other words, they are able to feel oneness with nature while at the same time recognizing its separation from them. The key difference between the two cultures is movement—sedentism is a defining feature of the SAC, but pastoralism requires itinerancy and so is more closely related to early HG behavior. This motif of movement connotes freedom, which, along with the land, has been expropriated by the SAC.
In the ninth eclogue, ‘it is precisely freedom that is at issue’, according to Alpers (1979: 136). The poet/singer Menalcus, having been threatened with death, now seems helpless to save what is left of his homeland, whose ‘hills draw back…and age-worn beeches [are now] brittle-topped’ as if in sympathy for their loss of Menalcus’ songs (9.7-9). Menalcus appears as well in the fifth eclogue, wherein he urges Mopsus to continue ‘piping and singing both’ to keep alive the memory of the shepherd, Daphnis, whose ‘harsh death’ has brought with it the corresponding death of the Arcadian landscape, in which ‘we have buried barley corns / Grow barren oat straws, darnel, idle weeds; / Instead of violets soft and gay narcissus’ (5.28). By juxtaposing the planting of grain with the native, wild vegetation, Virgil highlighted the discrepancy between agrarian and ancient HG cultures. This clash is furthered by the oxymoron ‘grow barren’. The combination of these paradoxical elements underscores Virgil’s attempt to somehow resolve mythopoeically the conflict created by them. For, as Berman claims, ‘[t]he mind is moved to unfold itself in the space between contradictions’ (2000: 8). Within the space of unfolding—the temenos—lies transformation. Thus, the contemplation of paradox generates different perspectives or ‘takes’ on life.
The motif of death further symbolizes the lost HG way of life and is repeated in the tenth eclogue, wherein Pan and his cohorts congregate to mourn Gallus, who may be read to represent their disappearing landscape that is being replaced by farms and cities. Pan and his mythical flautist faun friends thus become Virgil’s mediators between clashing cultures and are exhorted by the dying Gallus to continue their way of life, rather than being forced into combat, as he was:
All this, here in your hills, Arcadians, masters
Alone of song
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Had only I been one of you—the one
To tend your flocks or cultivate your vines!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Now Mars’ raging love keeps me in arms,
Thrust among weapons and encircling foes
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Meanwhile I with the Nymphs will haunt Mount Maenalus,
Or hunt the keen wild boar. No frost so cold
But I will hem with hounds thy forest-glades,
Parthenius. Even now, methinks, I range
O’er rocks, through echoing groves, and joy to launch
Cydonian arrows from a Parthian bow (10.31-32, 35-36, 44-45, 55-59).
Here the mythic Arcadians clearly embody the ancient hunters of ‘wild boar’ with their ‘arrows’ and ‘bow’ as opposed to Gallus, who has taken up more modern weapons for the god Mars, father of Romulus, founder of Rome. Virgil, therefore, seemed to lament the growth of civilization that brought with it development, which came at the expense of—indeed, death to—ancient culture. At the same time, he suggested that the pristine ‘forest-glades’ and ‘echoing groves’ served as a last refuge against the onslaught of civilization and drew attention to Arcadia as a place of reflection not only of the echoing kind but of the human. It became a place where the human capacity for self-contemplation was facilitated and nurtured.
By being ‘set halfway between myth and reality’, Virgil’s Arcadia mediates the ancient HG and SAC landscapes, where it serves as a ‘no-man’s land between two ages, an earthly beyond, a land of the soul yearning for its distant home in the past’, according to Bruno Snell (1982: 301). In other words, Virgil’s pastoral poetry reflects the soul’s longing for the wholeness that was experienced before consciousness separated from the unconscious. It is a wholeness that is further expressed in the interaction between Pan and Gallus: By placing deities and humans together, Virgil bridged the divine and mortal realms wherein transformation became possible.
These attempts at resolution of opposition are what set Virgil apart from Theocritus, who presented the perceived clash between HG and SAC cultures by simply changing ‘styles and conventions when he treat[ed] non-bucolic subjects’ according to Alpers (1972: 358). Indeed, of the thirty idylls by Theocritus, only ten are considered to be true pastorals, and in all but numbers one and seven Theocritus wrote literally about shepherds and their songs, as opposed to Virgil, who consistently stayed with a figurative style ‘no matter how serious or elevated’ he became (Alpers 1972: 358). He demonstrates this in the eighth eclogue when one of the shepherds sings a version of a ‘non-pastoral’ idyll. In so doing, Virgil ‘extend[ed] the pastoral mode’ (Alpers 1972: 358). As a result, he brought ‘together into a single mode the spiritual acts that free and refresh us and those that comprehend what is dangerous and tragic’ (Alpers 1972: 359). The tension generated by these opposing emotions forces an apprehension of paradox.
By combining ‘human suffering and superhumanly perfect surroundings’, Virgil created ‘dissonance [which] once felt, had to be resolved’, according to Erwin Panofsky, ‘and it was resolved in that vespertinal mixture of sadness and tranquility which is perhaps Virgil’s most personal contribution to poetry’ (1955: 300). Thanks to this resolution, ‘the sense of opposites, the union of polarities in tension, changes into a centered, relaxed, static unity’ (Klingner 1961: 325-26). Virgil’s Arcadia thus became a place of healing—if only in his imaginary mindscape—from the intrusions of an outside world fraught with pain and suffering.
Through the Idylls and Eclogues, then, we come to view the landscape in a different way: Prior to Theocritus and Virgil, place in literature is merely setting; after them, it gains soul. As Steven Marx says, ‘In bucolic poetry, setting does not merely furnish a backdrop; it functions as an essential foreground element. Indeed, a good portion of pastoral consists of pure landscape… redolent with meaning and feeling’ (1984: 63). What Marx seems to be saying is that in its pastoral personification, nature is no longer merely a location; it is a character.
It was such a landscape of blended myth and reality ‘that was to be particularly relevant to American experience’, according to Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden, his account of technology and the pastoral ideal in America (1964: 19). Henry David Thoreau, in particular, made the ‘political overtones of the pastoral situation become evident’ (1964: 20), just as they are in Virgil’s Eclogues, as symbolized by the dispossessed Melibœus and Mœrus. For Thoreau, however, the encroaching civilization embodied not only the threat of an agrico-industrial complex but the menace of modern technology as well. Furthermore, while Virgil positioned his mythological Arcadia as a pastoral mediator between modern and ancient culture, Thoreau no longer saw the pastoral landscape as the ideal; now that agrarianism was driven by technology, nature was ruined:
Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our Cattle-shows and so called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin.…He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather.…By avarice and selfishness…the landscape is deformed (1999: 132).
Here Thoreau suggested that agrarianism was now devoid of sacredness thanks to both its commercialization and its divesting of ancient rituals. In so doing, he pointed to the metamorphosis of ancient hunter-gatherers into farmers, who gained security and prosperity but who, along with the land, lost soul.
The absence of ritual portends dire consequences for humans, according to Mircea Eliade, because it is through participation in them that we access mythic time—what Eliade called in illo tempore, which has a healing effect upon us (1987: 85). He added that ‘rituals invoke the mythical beginning…when the world was not yet made’ (1987: 83). That is why when ‘[e]mptied of religious symbolism, agricultural work becomes at once opaque and exhausting; it reveals no meaning, it makes possible no opening to the universal, toward the world of spirit’ (1987: 96).
For Thoreau, then, as well as for Virgil, the nostalgia expressed is for the loss of connection to origins, when ‘divine or semi-divine beings were active on earth’ (Eliade 1987: 92). Humanity ‘desires to recover the active presence of the gods….It is the nostalgia for the perfection of beginnings that chiefly explains the periodical return in illo tempore [which] could be called a nostalgia for paradise’ (Eliade 1987: 92). This ‘nostalgia for paradise’—when archaic HGs were not yet separated from nature—is what drives the pastoral impulse in both Thoreau and Virgil. Thoreau wished to return to the idylls of his youth when his beloved brother John was still alive and Walden was still primordially forested, and Virgil wished to return to the pre-Octavian days before his land was so unfairly taken away from him. Such longing by the soul is ‘the ground of both its imperfection, felt as restlessness and failure, and the creative poiesis in humans and all of nature to produce endless novelty, endless variation in the making of itself’ (Hillman 1983a: 83). Thus does loss—be it of another person or of a place—inform pastoralism.
In addition to Eliade, Thoreau also anticipated Carl Jung, who asserted that rituals are critical for maintaining contact with nature and bemoaned their loss when he wrote, ‘No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature is gone’ (Jung 1971: 85). Steven Marx points out the devastating effect of HG ritual loss as well: ‘Among the features of rural existence eroded by the growth of mercantile civilization, the decline of seasonal celebrations evoked some of the strongest nostalgia from the [pastoral] poets and their audiences’ (1984: 29-30). Just as loss of land induces longing, so does loss of ritual. For, when a ritual is no longer performed, the meaning of the myth behind it dies as well. Marx likens pastoralism to a longing for youth, which, once consigned to the mythic past, metaphorizes a longing for our collective conscious beginnings. Thus Thoreau attempted to restore ritual—and, therefore, connection—to nature by giving voice and song back to the stones, plants, and animals. In so doing, he envisioned his beloved Walden as a new idealized Arcadia—an intermediary between the wilderness on one side and Concord on the other, just as Virgil’s Arcadia mediated between wild, uncultivated nature and Rome.
Intensifying the clash between nature and culture in Thoreau’s world was the train. With its overtones of fire, smoke, speed, iron and noise, the iron horse—introduced into the New England landscape in 1844—became ‘the leading symbol of the new industrial power’ (Marx 1964: 27). Throughout Walden Thoreau referred to this man-made beast that had insinuated itself into what was once a pristine, pastoral landscape. That this symbol of all Thoreau despised in 19th century civilization was an unpleasant, unwelcome intrusion in his otherwise tranquil life at Walden was demonstrated by his word choice: ‘The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods sounding like the scream of a hawk’ (1999: 92). Yet, this sentence illustrates his underlying ambivalence: The train was annoying, but it also sounded bird-like, melding culture and nature into one. Similarly, nature may be destructive, but it is also a source of aesthetic pleasure. In other words, life is about paradox and ambivalence.
Moreover, Thoreau’s sense of loss for the pastoral way of life extended beyond the intrusion of the agrico-techno-industrial complex, for his reminiscences about ‘that fabulous landscape of my infant dreams’, when the pond ‘was completely surrounded by thick and lofty pine and oak woods’, now produced anguish, thanks to its subsequent deforestation (1999: 124, 153). This idealized past was paid homage by Thoreau in ‘House-Warming’, in which he wrote:
I would that farmers when they cut down a forest felt some of that awe which the old Romans did when they came to thin…a consecrated grove, (lucum conculare,) that is, would believe that it is sacred to some god. The Romans made an expiatory offering, and prayed, Whatever god or goddess thou art to whom this grove is sacred, be propitious to me, my family, and children… (1999: 199).
Such ritualistic entreaty and sacrifice, he seems to say, might restore to nature some of its lost spirituality—what depth psychologists call anima mundi, or world soul (Hillman 2006: 33). For by tapping into anima mundi, rituals connect us to the collective unconscious, thereby promoting communitas, or collective solidarity. Thus does nature—in addition to its pastoral role of refuge—represent a source of sacredness for Thoreau, as it did for the pagans.
As a counter to the disruption of technology, Thoreau offered the natural sounds of the birds, wind and his own flute-playing, of which the latter provided yet another suggestion of Arcadian pipers: ‘I frequently sat in the boat playing the flute, and saw the perch, which I seemed to have charmed’ (1999: 139). He clearly fancied himself as the syrinx-playing Pan: a link between the terrestrial and the aquatic, human and celestial worlds of Walden Pond. Furthermore, he absolutely rhapsodized about the divine harmony created by nature’s sounds when he wrote, ‘The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as sweep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music.…Olympus is but the outside of the earth everywhere’ (1999: 68). His reference to the mythological home of the Greek gods indicates his association of Walden with divinity. Moreover, Thoreau personified these sounds in much the same way as Virgil and Theocritus did: Not only does he play music to nature, but Nature responds in kind to him: ‘The brooks sing carols and glees to the spring’ (1999: 246).
What is more, in the chapter ‘Sounds’, Thoreau offered a veritable inventory of auditory experiences: a sumac branch breaking, cows lowing, whippoorwills, owls and the croaking of frogs, which produce ‘one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre’ (1999: 98). With this reference to ‘the universal lyre’ he showed his skill at perceiving each sound separately as well as part of a unified whole, an idea broached in regard to Theocritus’ Idylls by Thomas Rosenmeyer, who considered the inventory trope to be ‘the single most effective and congenial literary device in the pastoral lyric’ (1969: 257). Rosenmeyer believed that ‘the loving enumeration of…goods documents the discreteness of the herdsman’s sensory experience [and proves] that the grove is harmonious, a miniscule but well-ordered universe [that] encourages this formal combination of a delight in separateness with an insistence on kinship’ (1969: 258). The net effect of this cataloguing, explains Lawrence Buell, is to solidly establish Walden as place, with the result that ‘Nature remains other but connected, meaningful albeit not fully known: not terrain, but place. In the process of perceiving this place-sense for himself, the speaker creates it for the reader also’ (1995: 268).
Another, perhaps even more important ‘sound’ to Thoreau was the echo, which further supported Walden’s sacredness. Thoreau’s use of the echo as a literary device, which Leo Marx identifies as a ‘metaphor for reciprocity’, hints ‘of the quasi-religious experience to be developed in [American] romantic pastoralism’ (1964: 23). ‘The echo is’, according to Thoreau, ‘an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition…but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph’ (1999: 98-99). As it did in Virgil’s Eclogues and Theocritus’ Idylls, the echo thus confirms nature as a reflective, responsive entity, reinforcing human participation in and connection to the land, as well as further establishing place-sense.
Hillman avers the importance of place-sense when he says, ‘The power of place [is] as a determining fantasy in thought and action’ (1983a: 76). Place, therefore, returns us ‘to the ancient idea of a genius loci, a specific local daimon which was foundational to places in the pagan world for the siting of temples…From the beginning of Western therapeutics…a sense of place informs psychological practice’ (1983a: 77). Hillman is saying that the inspiriting of place is not merely ancient whimsy; it provides healing. It is the genius loci—through animating location—that allows the ‘vaguer term “environment” [to] be more precisely defined as “place”’ (Hillman 2006: 334). While Thoreau was rather vague about Walden’s genius loci, wondering ‘what nymphs presided over it in the Golden Age?’ (1999: 144), we may presume that he considered it to be ‘the great God Pan’, at whose shrine he claimed to be ‘most constant’ (1980: 65).
That Thoreau was deeply concerned with mythology as with place is undeniable. In fact, had he been born a century later, Thoreau would have been a depth psychologist, for his approach to inward exploration, mythology and spirituality anticipates both Freud’s and Jung’s. In Walden Thoreau attempted to address the lack of a meaningful Western mythology for the New World by creating one. Disenchanted with his Protestant birth religion, he sought in Eastern religion solutions to the problems he had with American Christianity. Emulating techniques he learned from his intensive reading of Asian literature, Thoreau arguably succeeded in creating through Walden a new mythology or ‘joint Bible’ as he called it, which syncretized esoteric Eastern and Western scripture that focused on achieving self-transcendence through contemplation and the practice of yoga. Little did he realize that he had stumbled upon the unconscious and ‘archetypes’—the universal, symbolic manifestations of our basic instinctive urges.
The failure of some scholars to appreciate Thoreau’s mythopoesis has been demonstrated by their criticism of his numerous self-contradictions; yet, what these commentators have overlooked in their analyses is that paradox is the main maxim of mythology. It is not surprising, then, as Joseph J. Moldenhauer maintained, that ‘[v]erbal paradox is…the dominant style of Walden’ and was ‘embraced’ by Thoreau’s ‘ironic sensibility’ (1964: 133, 134). Indeed, this ‘habit of vision that gave rise to such paradox…came naturally to Thoreau; it was a natural expression of his bifurcating eye’ (Buell 2001: 245). Although he considered his predilection a fault, so enamored was Thoreau of the rhetoric of paradox that his writing burst with all forms of this trope, including plenteous puns and plays on words. Thoreau clearly concocted oxymorons for fun, as evidenced by the lists he made of them in his journals. Obviously, paradox was a poetic device that suited Thoreau’s ‘crooked bent’, according to Moldenhauer, who commented ‘paradox is apposite to the literary design of Walden: its themes, symbols, characters, and plot’ (1964: 134, 135). By featuring paradox in Walden, Thoreau drew attention, however inadvertently, to the essential uncertainty of the human condition—precisely the concern of mythology.
Accordingly, not only did Thoreau present numerous self-contradictions throughout Walden, he embodied them within his rhetorical style, in which he repeatedly made use of oxymoronic reversals like the following:
I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude (1999: 108).
My house was not empty though I was gone (1999: 201).
Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth (1999: 157).
Walden was dead and is alive again (1999: 246-47).
At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all
things be mysterious and unexplorable (1999: 251).
Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights (1999: 260).
The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us (1999: 264).
The above epigrams demonstrate Thoreau’s recognition of a paradoxical unity underlying infinite diversity; moreover, the above last two examples represent a repetitive motif of light/dark opposition that forms what is considered Walden’s essential paradox, according to Arthur Versluis (1993: 27), who points to a passage in the second chapter, ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For’, to support this claim: ‘Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius,…to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light’ (1999: 71). Here, as elsewhere in Walden, light symbolizes awakening/ enlightenment, while darkness is its opposite—the unconscious. Thoreau thus indicated not only his comprehension of the inherent paradoxicalness of such opposition, he called attention to its necessity. He seems to suggest that however difficult, one must experience the shadowy abyss of the unconscious—one must pathologize, as Hillman would say (1983a: 57)—in order to contact the light and the good. In other words, to become enlightened, one must descend to the dark.
In this way did Thoreau, as did Virgil’s Melibœus, privilege loss: ‘Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations’ (1999: 137). Just as Virgil attempted to mediate the opposition of nature versus culture through the use of oxymorons such as the aforementioned ‘grow barren’, so did Thoreau, who iterated that we cannot truly appreciate something’s presence unless we have also experienced its loss.
Thoreau’s ‘penchant for paradox’, as Alan D. Hodder called it, therefore demonstrates his indebtedness to myth (2001: 245). His dependence on this trope, as evidenced by the multiplicity of examples, signifies his mythopoesis. It also denotes his desire to engender critical thought by causing disorientation and confusion. In this way it was a vital antidote to his sermonizing, which would have become tedious without figures of speech like paradox. Thoreau well understood that even though it leads ultimately to transformation, duality is rebelled against by rational minds because it forces the apprehension of moral antitheses, thereby creating anxiety and ambivalence. His heavy reliance upon pithy paradox thus helped to convey the ‘dual nature of Thoreau’s existential vision’ (Hodder 2001: 246) and enabled him, according to Versluis, ‘to demonstrate that humankind exists as a continuum, a hierarchy stretching from base to ethereal, from sleep to waking, from cocoon to butterfly, from animal to transcendence’ (1993: 88).
Contemplation of paradox consequently makes change possible. That is why contradictory images of androgyny, dualism, and incongruity, such as those seen in Pan, have long been associated with archaic myths and rituals that allowed the participant to confront the coexistence of primordial oppositional elements. In so doing, mythology serves as ‘healing fiction’, for within paradox lies transformation, and transformation is therapeutic. Hillman contends that archetypal figures of transformation enable us to:
…re-value the antithetical mode of thinking. It becomes a Siamese-twin mode of insight. One is always never-only-one, always inseparably bound in a syzygy, insighting from a member of a pair. Within these tandems we become able to reflect insight itself, to regard our own regard (1983b: 103).
Like Thoreau, Hillman employed the rhetoric of paradox to express its essential concept; oxymorons such as ‘always never’ and repetition of ‘twin’ serve to articulate figuratively the duality of these motifs as well as the multiple polarities embodied in archetypes. In so doing, Hillman revealed the goal of mythopoesis to be wholeness. In this way, all great myths serve as guides for how to live with paradox, thus functioning as transformers of human attitudes and behavior. The resulting ‘mythical sense of life’ allows one to apprehend ‘the twisted paths that imagination takes in a human life’ (Hillman 1983a: 80-81). When one observes the actions and their consequences of mythical figures interacting in their environments, one becomes better informed regarding the outcome of one’s own actions, enabling one to make different choices in life.
By using paradox as a literary device, Thoreau appropriated art as a mediator between opposites. Indeed, he encouraged everyone to use creativity and imagination to achieve balance and harmony. He proclaimed: ‘We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones’ (1999: 176-77). He wanted his readers to look, therefore, at their lives as works of art in which they continually draw upon imagination in order to accept, if not resolve, the contradictions they constantly confront. Thoreau took it one step further in Walden by using ‘archetypal imagery and symbolism [to express] a syncretic view of the world, which illuminates and harmonizes the polarities of human existence.…In Walden, the art of living…and the life of art are identical’ (Nath Kerr 1991: 27, 29).
If Thoreau was transparent about his mythopoeic intentions in Walden, he was somewhat vague about his location, preferring his own names for places to those assigned by his neighbors whose attributions he viewed as profanations of nature’s inviolacy. We see this when he raged on about the name of one local pond:
Flint’s Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skinflint, who loved better the surface of a dollar (1999: 156-57).
In this way Thoreau took a sarcastic swipe at the capitalistic Concordians who, he believed, were not worthy of naming and thereby sanctifying a natural place.
Diatribes like the above pervade Walden, illustrating Thoreau’s intention to create a discourse of social criticism. In so doing, he re-visioned the same mytheme that we saw in Virgilian pastoralism: Just as Virgil condemned a culture that would allow the misappropriation of private land, so did Thoreau revile farmers like Flint who exploited their property for financial gain. Therefore, he proposed that rather than calling it Flint’s,
…let it be named from the fishes that swim in it, the wild fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wildflowers which grow by its shore, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is interwoven with its own; not from him…who thought only of its money value (1999: 157).
He offered instead another name for Flint’s, ‘Sandy Pond’, and proceeded to take the reader on a tour of the other neighboring ponds which sport toponyms like ‘Goose Pond’ and ‘White Pond’ (1999: 156, 158). Such topotropism concretized place and affirmed Thoreau’s personal sense of it, making it ‘obvious that for him place does make a crucial difference in how one perceives one’s experience in nature’, says Richard J. Schneider (2000: 1). In this way, Thoreau showed himself aware of inhabiting at once a mythical and an actual, closely chronicled New England landscape, just as Theocritus and Virgil’s shepherds did.
Thoreau’s place-sense is further displayed in his internal debate over the naming of Walden Pond, which he imagined could have been from an ‘English locality’, an ‘Indian Fable’, or even a toponym like ‘Walled-in Pond’ (1999: 146). Such ambiguity about place reflects the existential ambivalence—the ‘epistemological split’—that all humans experience as their essential condition (Schneider 2000: 2). As a result, Thoreau urged his readers to overcome their binary bias against wholeness that makes them want to categorize everything into oppositions, for it is only within the attempted resolution of paradox—the unification of opposites—that true transformation is possible. Part of Thoreau’s genius, therefore, lies in his attempt to balance the dualities of life in mythopoeic form, thereby resolving our ‘epistemological split’.
Place as a mythopoeic construct in pastoralism is affirmed by E. R. Curtius, who equated such sites with the rhetorical topos of the locus amoenus—the pleasurable spot—which he described as ‘The place of heart’s desire, beautiful with perpetual spring…the lovely miniature landscape which combines tree, spring, and grass’ (qtd. in Marx 1984: 63). The locus amoenus, then, is more a ‘place’ of the imagination than a geographical location. Lack of materiality, however, does not mitigate the intensity of longing that is expressed; rather, it emphasizes the locus amoenus as ‘a mythic rather than a merely rhetorical place. Like all myths, it means more than any interpretation can articulate, and whether consciously believed in or not, it shapes people’s sense of the world and it motivates their behavior’ (Marx 1984: 68).
The ongoing re-visioning of Arcadia thus speaks to an enduring human desire for mythology of place. For it is within myth that one may escape conventional time and space to arrive in mythological time and space—‘primordial sacred place’ as Eliade called it (1987: 154), where one may experience the primal oneness of infancy—as individuals as well as components of collective humanity—which once left behind is forever coveted. As Steven Marx notes,
Whether manifested as the locus amoenus, the Garden of Eden, the Golden Age, or the land of Arcadia, the ideal of innocence is itself a metaphor for another world in the past that all people have inhabited: the world of adolescence, childhood and infancy, the world of their own youth recollected as different and dislocated from their present selves (1984: 69).
Of course, the locus amoenus is a place that is ultimately unrealizable except in the imagination. It can be attained only through art, which mediates between real and imagined and thus allows the artist to find liberation ‘from the bondage of time’ through the creative process, an insight expressed in Thoreau’s allegory of the artist of Kouroo in Walden’s conclusion (Nath Kher 1991: 29). As a result, Thoreau ‘explore[d] and contemplate[d] the essence of human condition’, a quest that became a ‘metaphoric journey into the hinterland of the human mind [which] constitute[d] Thoreau’s continuous struggle to…become whole and free’ (Nath Kher 1991: 27).
In undertaking his heroic quest through the uncharted waters of the psyche, Thoreau thus fancied himself as Ulysses, albeit with a twist, for Thoreau believed his personal odyssey to be far more perilous than navigating the Aegean. As he opined in Walden’s ‘Conclusion’, ‘it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals…than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone’ (1999: 254). Here Thoreau showed in yet another paradoxical expression that—lest there be any doubt—he is the hero of Walden, and his experience is no less valid because it takes place without his having to go anywhere. Indeed, he exhorted everyone to ‘be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within…, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought’ (1999: 254). His insistence on self-reflection, whether through sedentary or ambulatory meditation, illustrated a desperate need—a calling—to establish place as the foundation of his American myth. In writing about his presence at Walden Pond, Thoreau created it anew. By doing so, he mythologized its placeness, thereby memorializing it forever.
The problem for postmodern culture is that identification of each new Arcadia—be it Theocritus’ Sicily or Thoreau’s Walden—eventually leads to its commoditization, imperiling the mythic, metaphorical quality that formed its initial appeal. Walden Pond is testament to this fact: As the focus of environmental pilgrimages from around the world it shows that the physical place cannot possibly retain the magic expressed in Thoreau’s narrative in which he re-visioned Virgilian Arcadia as a New England mythology of place, extending and subverting the previous bounds of pastoralism and myth into a uniquely American form.
Yet, Thoreau made use of the pastoral theme not only for its abstract mythopoesis but as a way to inform his incipient environmentalism, which may be seen above in his commentaries on the deforestation of Walden and what he viewed as the agricultural exploitation of the land. In so doing, he re-visioned the inherent social criticism of pastoral ideology, which we observed earlier in Virgil’s critique of Roman authority. Much has been written about the literary merits of and environmental ethics in Walden, and extensive further elucidation here is not possible. But it is important to note that that the link between pastoralism and a ‘green’ ethos has spawned a tradition of nature writing that has gone on to inform the fields of ecology, aesthetics, and ecopsychology, among others. Consequently, as ad hoc bearer of the pastoral torch, Thoreau illumined ‘the location of meaning and value. He wrote that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything “out there,” but in consciousness’, noted Leo Marx, who further observed that Walden ‘is a product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mythopoeic power of the human mind’ (1964: 264). In this way Thoreau ‘restore[d] the pastoral hope to its traditional location. He remove[d] it from history, where it [was] manifestly unrealizable, and relocate[d] it in literature, which is to say, in his own consciousness’ (1964: 265). Thoreau consequently proved that the pastoral impulse is an ongoing, soul-making process—a healing fiction—of the collective imagination within which the next generations of poets and artists will dream mythologies of place onward.
Alpers, P. 1972. ‘The Eclogue Tradition and the Nature of Pastoral’, College English 34:352-371.
Alpers, P. 1979. The Singer of the Eclogues: A Study of Virgilian Pastoral (Berkeley: UCP).
Berman, M. 2000. Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (Albany: SUNYP).
Buell, L. 1995. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP).
Eliade, M. 1987 . The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, W.R. Trask (trans.) (New York: Harcourt).
Hillman, J. 1976. Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper Perennial).
Hillman, J. 1979. ‘An Essay on Pan: A Psychological Introduction to W. H. Roscher’s Ephialtes’, in Pan and the Nightmare: Two Essays (Dallas: Spring): i-lix.
Hillman, J. 1983a. Archetypal Psychology (Putnam, CN: Spring).
Hillman, J. 1983b. Healing Fiction (Putnam, CN: Spring).
Hillman, J. 2006. City and Soul (Putnam, CN: Spring).
Hodder, A. D. 2001. Thoreau’s Ecstatic Wilderness (New Haven: Yale UP).
Jung, C. G. 1971 . Man and His Symbols (NYC: Dell).
Klingner, F. 1961. ‘Das Erste Hirtengedicht Virgils’, in Römische Geisteswelt 4th edn. (Munich).
Marx, L. 1964. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford UP).
Marx, S. 1984. Youth Against Age: Generational Strife in Renaissance Poetry (New York: Peter
Moldenhauer, J. J. 1964. ‘The Extra-vagant Maneuver: Paradox in Walden’, The Graduate Journal VI:132-146.
Nath Kher, I. 1991. ‘The Poetic Vision of Walden and the Idea of Human Freedom in the Bhagavadgītā,’ Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin 4:27-30.
Panofsky, E. 1955. ‘Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition’, in Meaning and the Visual Arts (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books).
Rosenmeyer, T. 1969. The Green Cabinet: Theocritus and the European Pastoral Lyric. (Berkeley: U California P).
Schama, S. 1995. Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage Books).
Schneider, R. 2000. ‘Introduction’, in R. Schneider (ed.) Thoreau’s Sense of Place—Essays in American Environmental Writing (Iowa City: U Iowa P): 1-12.
Snell, B. 1982 . The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Religion (New York:
Theocritus. Idylls at http://www.gutenberg.net, C. S. Calverley (trans.), accessed March 2007.
Thoreau, H. D. 1999 . Walden, or Life in the Woods (New York: Penguin).
Thoreau, H. D. 1980 . A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, C. F. Hovde, W. L. Howarth, and E. H. Witherell (eds.) (Princeton: Princeton UP).
Versluis, A. 1993. American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (Oxford: Oxford UP).
Virgil. Eclogues at http://classics.mit.edu//Virgil/eclogue.html, accessed February 2007.