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The Pastoral Romance in Fiction and Drama

Pastoral romance, which flourished especially during the Renaissance, constitutes a particular branch of romantic and erotic pastoral expression. Although the form derives some of its motivation from Theocritus and Virgil, its primary influence comes from late classical novels, most importantly Longus' (third century A.D.) Daphnis and Chloe.

Set on the utopian island of Lesbos, this urbane and witty story recounts the love--and the obstacles to that love--between Daphnis and Chloe. At the end of Book III, lovesick Daphnis fetches a perfect apple for his beloved Chloe, a gift that recalls the love poetry admired by Longus' sophisticated readers.

In addition, the comic buffoonery, in Book IV, of the gross pederast Gnathon's attempts to get the handsome Daphnis for his sexual pleasure, is ironically juxtaposed against the eloquent self-defense that Gnathon makes by claiming only to be following the precedent set by the illustrious gods.

Homoeroticism is not condemned in Longus, so much as it is deployed as a cultured and witty adornment to a primarily heteroerotic narrative. This is also partly true for later pastoral romances that engage homoerotic desire through the trope of transvestism, which draws on the importance of disguise in classical romance fiction.

In Honoré d'Urfé's (1567-1625) French romance, L'Astrée (1627), cross-dressing is always temporary, though it can lead to confusions of sexual and gender identity as it does with Adamas, Silvandre, and especially Celadon.

In d'Urfé's text and numerous other romances, homoeroticism questions the supposed universality of heterosexual desire. Love between the sexes in these texts is often tortured and incoherent; "friendship" between persons of the same sex, however, is generally tranquil and honest.

Such is the case in Sir Philip Sidney's (1554-1586) Arcadia (1590; 1593), where the powerful bond between Pyrocles and Musidorus suggests a latent nostalgia for the former homoerotic liberty of male-male friendship.

Lesbian eroticism emerges in conjunction with transvestism in another pastoral romance, La Diana (1559) of Jorge de Montemayor (1519-1561). La Diana explores lesbian eroticism as subtly and tenderly as heterosexual attachments.

As in L'Astrée, same-sex groupings provide the opportunity for homoerotic desire to flourish, for it is during a women-only night of worshipping at the temple of Minerva in Book I that the shepherdess Selvagia falls in love with Ysmenia, who is in fact a cross-dressed man. In Book II, Felismena's rival, Celia, believing her to be a man, falls in love with her and dies of unrequited love.

Lesbian eroticism reaches a high pitch in William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) pastoral play As You Like It (1599), where the shepherdess Phebe loves "at first sight" the cross-dressed Rosalind, primarily for her feminine aspects. In the same work, Rosalind's costuming as Ganymede and subsequent playful wooing by the love-sick Orlando also invoke a homoerotic tension that is not annulled by the closure of marriage at the end.

The tradition of elegiac lament is fused with romance in chapter 5 of Jacopo Sannazaro's (1458-1530) Arcadia (1504), where ten cowherds dance around the tomb of the shepherd Androgeo. The barely concealed homoeroticism of this scene is fully realized in the following eclogue when Ergasto sings of Androgeo sitting in heaven between Daphnis and Meliboeus, and describes Androgeo's relation to the cowherds as having been like that of a bull to its herd.

Remnants of the Pastoral in the Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, pastoral disappeared as a pure genre; yet, the image of a blissful, natural space apart from the turmoils and repressions of society remained important in much of gay literature. In E. M. Forster's (1879-1970) Room with a View (1908), the Reverend Beebe swims naked with the young, handsome George and Freddy in a secluded forest pool. Maurice (1913; 1971), also by Forster, presents the idyllic union of Maurice and his lover Alec, a literary descendant of Virgil's Alexis.

Aschenbach's pederastic infatuation with the beautiful and unattainable youth Tadzio in Thomas Mann's (1875-1955) Death in Venice (1912) also occurs in a setting of Arcadian beauty.

In a short piece entitled "Idyll" (1981), Guy Davenport parodies Theocritus' boisterous, erotic dialogue between the shepherds Komatas and Lakon, and has Walt Whitman make an appearance as a beneficent father figure for young gay men, thereby expressing the importance of continuity and community for homosexual literary and social existence.

M. Morgan Holmes

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literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Renaissance

Homosexuality is writ large in English Renaissance literature, but its inscription is only rarely direct and unambiguous.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Romanticism

Since homosexuality was severely persecuted during the Romantic period, writers who treated the subject more or less positively were forced to encode it or leave it unpublished and were themselves frequently forced into exile.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

literature >> Overview:  French Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century

While evidence from earlier centuries is sparse, from the sixteenth century onward there were several French writers who treated male and female homosexuality.

literature >> Overview:  German and Austrian Literature: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

With major periodic setbacks, over the last two centuries German-speaking authors have gradually developed a gay and lesbian positive literature.

literature >> Overview:  Greek Literature: Ancient

Ancient Greece holds a unique place in the heritage of homosexual literature as it was a society that openly celebrated same-sex love in its poetry and prose.

literature >> Overview:  Italian Literature

Until quite recently, male homosexuality has had a discontinuous, fragmented, and largely condemnatory history in Italian literature, and lesbianism has been almost totally ignored.

literature >> Overview:  Roman Literature

Roman writers on homosexual or bisexual themes generally followed Greek models; but unlike the Greeks, Romans condoned sex with slaves.

social sciences >> Overview:  Rural Life

Rural life offers both challenges and satisfactions for glbtq people.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Ganymede

Since antiquity Ganymede, the beautiful Phrygian youth abducted by Jupiter, has served as an artistic expression for homosexuality.

literature >> Barnfield, Richard

The English Renaissance poet Richard Barnfield wrote two volumes of homoerotic verse.

literature >> Byron, George Gordon, Lord

The bisexual Lord Byron treated many of his homosexual love affairs in his poetry, encoding them by the use of classical references or by purporting that they were affairs with women.

literature >> Dante Alighieri

In the Divine Comedy Dante treats male homosexuality first as violence against God and then more sympathetically as merely one of the kinds of love.

literature >> Forster, E. M.

One of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century and a tireless defender of humane values, Forster deserves a special place in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Mann, Thomas

One of Germany's greatest twentieth-century authors, Thomas Mann encoded his own homosexuality in his novels but thought that homosexuality led to the destruction of social institutions and the death of the individual homosexual.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Milton, John

While Milton accepted the biblical condemnation of sodomy, some of his works suggest that his attitude toward same-sex relations was enlightened for his age.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

literature >> Theocritus

The ancient Greek poet Theocritus is the first great voice in the homoerotic pastoral tradition in Western literature.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


Alpers, Paul. "What is Pastoral?" Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 437-460.

Bredbeck, Gregory W. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Fone, Byrne R. S. "This Other Eden: Arcadia and the Homosexual Imagination," Literary Visions of Homosexuality. 1983. Rpt. as Essays on Gay Literature. Stuart Kellogg, ed. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1985. 13-34.

Giantvalley, Scott. "Barnfield, Drayton, and Marlowe: Homoeroticism and Homosexuality in Elizabethan Literature." Pacific Coast Philology 16 (1981): 9-24.

Gregorio, Laurence A. The Pastoral Masquerade: Disguise and Identity in L'Astrée. Stanford French and Italian Studies 73. Saratoga, Calif.: ANMA, 1992.

Halperin, David M. Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Kennedy, William J. Jacopo Sannazaro and the Uses of Pastoral. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983.

Marinelli, Peter V. Pastoral. London: Methuen, 1971.

Rhodes, Elizabeth. "Skirting the Men: Gender Roles in Sixteenth-century Pastoral Books," Journal of Hispanic Philology 11 (1988): 131-149.

Sannazaro, Jacopo. Arcadia and the Piscatory Eclogues. Trans. Ralph Nash. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1966.

Zeitlin, Froma I. "The Poetics of Eros: Nature, Art, and Imitation in Longus's Daphnis and Chloe." Before Sexuality; The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. David M. Halperin et al., eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. 417-464.


    Citation Information
    Author: Holmes, M. Morgan  
    Entry Title: Pastoral  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 16, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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