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Both the elegiac and the romantic pastoral have been associated with homoerotic desire from their beginnings in classical literature to their echoes in contemporary literatures.

Pastoral derives from the Latin word pastoralis, which denotes things connected to shepherding and other types of animal husbandry. The setting of literary pastorals is usually a rustic locus amoenus where shepherd-poets sing of their lives and loves. Generally written for a sophisticated, urbane audience, pastorals often possess a gently ironic naiveté combined with a nostalgia for what are perceived to have been simpler, more straightforward times.

The Classical Predecessors

The ancient Greek poet Theocritus is taken as the originator of the pastoral genre. figures prominently in his pastoral and nonpastoral Idylls, as it does in the Eclogues (43-37 B.C.E.) of his most famous classical successor, the Roman poet Virgil. Theocritus' and Virgil's poems present male-male desire as part and parcel of a broad economy of desire, as debauched and as refined as any examples of heterosexual passion.

The profound and eloquent representations of homoerotic love found in these two authors have been continuing sources of inspiration for writers concerned with representing the plurality of human affection, as well as contesting a heterosexist normalization of desire in literary and social domains.

Theocritus' Idylls makes the prototypical division of pastoral literature into elegiac and romantic or erotic modes. Idyll I is a pastoral elegy sung by Thyrsis for Daphnis, a shepherd who will not love a maiden and who therefore dies to spite love.

Classical Elegiac Pastorals

The Lament for Bion, attributed improbably to the Syracusan Greek poet Moschus (ca 150 B.C.E.), follows in this elegiac tradition. The speaker of this poem bewails the death of his dear friend, a grief shared by the homoerotic figures of Apollo, Priapus, satyrs, and nameless young men.

Virgil's Eclogue V is an elegy on the death of Daphnis sung by the shepherds Mopsus and Menalcas whose profound attachment to Daphnis conveys a sense of homoerotic affection similar to that found in Theocritus' first idyll.

Petrach's Elegiac Eclogues

Francesco Petrarch's (1304-1374) Bucolicum Carmen (1346-1352), a series of Virgilian eclogues, offers variations on classical elegy. Eclogue II is a lament for Argus by the shepherds Pythias and Silvius in which Petrarch allegorically explores and recounts his own sense of personal loss at the death of his close friend, Robert of Naples.

Eclogue XI is Petrarch's only all-female eclogue. Its lesbian eroticism is conveyed by the expression of passionate love and sorrow for the dead Galatea by the nymphs Niobe, Fusca, and Fulgida. As projections of Petrarch's own grief over his beloved Laura's death, the mourners figure an unusual in the poet and confound a simple reading of a putative "heterosexual" orientation.

English Pastoral Elegies

The best known of English pastoral elegies based on Theocritean and Virgilian models is John Milton's (1608-1674) Lycidas (1638), a heartfelt lament that commemorates the death of the author's friend, Edward King.

Not as insistently pastoral as Milton's work, Percy Bysshe Shelley's (1792-1822) Adonais (1821) mourns the death of John Keats through the expression of deep, sexually ambiguous yearning for a departed male friend, described as "a portion of the loveliness / Which once he made more lovely."

Matthew Arnold's (1822-1888) Thyrsis (1866) commemorates the death of his friend Arthur Hugh Clough. Its vision of a homoerotic, unspoiled innocence is reinforced by reading the companion pastoral The Scholar-Gipsy (1853), in which Arnold evokes a sexually charged image of a sturdy youth (Clough) uncorrupted by modern decay.

Classical Pastorals of Homoerotic Yearning and Celebration

Theocritus and Virgil provide the major models for pastoral explorations of romantic and erotic yearning and celebration. In Theocritus' Idyll V, Comatas and Lacon engage in a ribald verbal spat that blatantly conveys the heated erotic fascination between the two young men through references to and sexual temptation.

A singing contest in Idyll VI between two handsome adolescents, Amoetas and Daphnis, is matched in its sweetness by Idyll VII's presentation of Lycidas' fond dream to have whiled away his years with Comatas, minding his goats and listening to his music. Unrequited love also forms a part of this poem in the account of Aratus who yearns for the hard-hearted Philinus.

Similar to his nonpastoral homoerotic idylls, Theocritus' pastoral poems typically counsel that love ought to be seized when it appears because, just like the seasons, human life is a fleeting thing.

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