The Pastoral Concert, by Titian

Pastoral is a style of art, be it literature, painting, or another form, that focuses on villages and herdsmen, particularly shepherdss and milkmaids, who are romanticized and depicted in a highly unrealistic manner.

The pastoral genre was invented in the Hellenistic era by the Sicilian poet Theocritus, who may have drawn on authentic folk traditions of Sicilian shepherds. The Roman poet Vergil adopted the invention and wrote eclogues, which are poems on rustic and bucolic subjects, that set an example for the pastoral mood in literature. Later pastoral poets, such as Edmund Spenser and William Wordsworth, typically looked to the classical pastoral poets for inspiration. A typical mood is set by Christopher Marlowe's well known lines from "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love":

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

Pastoral shepherds and maidens usually had Greek names like Poliphilus or Philomela. Pastoral poems were often set in Arcadia, a rural region of Greece, mythological home of the god Pan, which was portrayed as a sort of Eden by the poets. The tasks of their employment with sheep and other rustic chores were held in the fantasy to be almost wholly undemanding and backgrounded, and to leave the shepherdesses and their swains in a state of almost perfect leisure. This made them available for embodying perpetual erotic fantasies. The shepherds spent their time chasing pretty girls --- or, at least in the Greek and Roman versions, pretty lads as well. The eroticism of Vergil's second eclogue, Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexin ("The shepherd Corydon burned with passion for pretty Alexis") is entirely homosexual.

A harsher note was struck in Girolamo Fracastoro's 1530 poem Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus ("Syphilis, or the French Disease"), in which Syphilus ("pig-lover"), a typical pastoral name for a shepherd, is stricken by the disease syphilis that takes its name from Fracastoro's poem. Fracastoro's poem contains the first recognisable description of the symptoms of syphilis; today, far too few contemporary physicians announce their discoveries in verse, pastoral or otherwise. Fracastoro has Syphilus the shepherd catch it for having offended Apollo, a somewhat unusual method of infection. Fracastoro's Latin poem was much admired in its day; it was translated into English heroic couplets by Nahum Tate:

A shepherd once (distrust not ancient fame)
Possest these Downs, and Syphilus his Name;
Some destin'd Head t'attone the Crimes of all,
On Syphilus the dreadful Lot did fall.
Through what adventures this unknown Disease
So lately did astonisht Europe seize,
Through Asian coasts and Libyan Cities ran,
And from what Seeds the Malady began,
Our Song shall tell: to Naples first it came
From France, and justly took from France his Name. . .

Pastoral paintings, likewise, were typically used to give the respectability of the classics to paintings of nymphs, swains, satyrs, and other mostly human legendary creatures frolicking in neatly tended hills and woods in a state of perpetual déshabillé. The pastoral genre is very little used in contemporary times, which is in itself remarkable; here is a whole genre of sexual fantasy that has fallen almost completely out of fashion.

See also: Et in Arcadia ego

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Pastoral can also be used to describe the professional role of the Christian clergy.