Elements of Pastoral Literary Mode in Alan Hollinghurst’s the Swimming-Pool Library

Topics: Pastoral, English people, Arcadia Pages: 11 (3663 words) Published: April 4, 2012


Summary: This essay's purpose is to explore the use of the pastoral technique as a specific dominion for English homoerotic literature, focusing on Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Swimming-pool Library. I make an attempt to look into the main features of classic pastoral mode incorporated in English landscape culture and also to find the contrasting characteristics of anti-pastoral literature. This essay, therefore, is meant to determine whether and, if so, how the pastoral traditions are made use of, in the process of re-establishing the technique of pastoral presentation to serve the needs of gay writing at the end of the twenty-first century.

The term pastoral is used in three broadly different ways. The pastoral is a historical form with a long tradition which began in poetry, developed into drama and more recently could be recognized in novels.[1] It is the use of it, in novels, what is of a special interest for my essay; therefore, I will focus on the course of its evolving as a literary mode which reverberates powerfully in many recent works and more specifically in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library. Considering the tendencies of literary devices as regards their transformation and reformulation in fiction, the challenge of this paper lies in discovering the particular usage of the pastoral literary mode in the novel and also to demonstrate how, taking into account the use of anti-pastoral, it outclasses the classically known application of former. I will also make an attempt to find an answer to the question what has made this tradition to be so closely related to homoerotic literature.

In its essence, the pastoral literary mode depicts a utopian scene of countryside with the naturalness and innocence of its inhabitants, which is displayed in a direct contrast to the decadent urban life. Although pastoral works are written from the point of view of shepherds, they are always penned by highly sophisticated, urban poets. Some related concerns in pastoral works are the tensions between nature and art, the real and the ideal, and the actual and the mythical. English Renaissance pastoral has classical roots, but contains distinctly contemporary English elements as well. Among them “humanism, sentimentality, depictions of courtly reality, a concern with real life, and the use of satire and comedy.”[2] I think, it has been employed as a technique to assume a role of a shield rendering gayness invisible and imperceptible as well. However, it is very important that we make a proper distinction between the pastoral literary mode and nature literature, what the former is not. “Indeed pastoral literature may use elements of nature literature along the way, but always making a point beyond it, or it can be pointed out that pastoralism contains the Arcadian motif, a mythologised world, with often a lament for something lost”.[3] As a set of binary oppositions to be considered in their use in the novel, I need to touch upon the anti-pastoral conception as well.

By contrast, anti-pastoral, suggests a poetics of undermining, in which pastoral conventions are deployed or alluded to, in order to suggest or declare the limitations of those conventions, or their downright falsity. If pastoral suggests that rural life offers freedom, anti-pastoral may proclaim it is a prison-house, and the farmers slaves. A defining feature of such poetry has been its realistic treatment of labour, protest against idealising poetic traditions, and in some cases outcry against political conditions related to land enclosure.[4]

The pastoral, as a genre can be traced back to the Greek poet Theocritus (316 -260 B.C.) who used the pastoral literary technique to entertain the sophisticated Alexandrian court of Ptolemy.[5] Nonetheless, it was Virgil (70 -90 A.D.) who, two centuries later, writing with the Idylls very much in mind,...
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