A spiritual January in a material May evaporating into an as yet immaterial June, and I thought of Shakespeare's Sonnet 94 ("They that have power to hurt and will do none"):
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die
And of Empson:
The feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so, is naturally at home with most versions of pastoral; in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power. Conversely any expression of the idea that all life is limited may be regarded as only a trick of pastoral, perhaps chiefly intended to hold all our attention and sympathy for some limited life, though again this is not necessary to it either on grounds of truth or beauty; in fact the suggestion of pastoral may be only a protection for the idea which must at last be taken alone.
According to Pliny, art is (as Empson would later remind us) only a trick of the pastoral. One day in Arcadia a shepherd made out the shadow of another on a tomb. The first shepherd traced the shadow with his finger. Thus was born the pastoral trick of representation. Poussin's Les Bergers d'Arcadie in the Louvre "documents" this moment.
The first image in the (or anyway this) history of art is also the first application of symbolism. The shadow on the tomb represents a death. (Poussin had underlined this meaning in an earlier version of the motif, now in Chatsworth House, in which a skull can be seen atop the tomb). Death thus enters Arcady, making it the scene of his mortal dominion. Art, however, challenges Death's dominion by producing images representing lost loved ones. In their commemoration the feelings of loss engendered by their absence are in part counteracted. Their memory is kept green in Arcadia. Unexpressed feelings lingering after their departure are articulated and in part resolved. Life goes on, though of course everyone knows this temporary sense of the perpetuation of the loved ones is only a trick. In time they will inevitably be forgotten. Unless more and more art intervenes. But the second temple was not like the first, and the later and later shades of green are less and less rich in hue, until finally they are merely pale imitations. Finally no one can remember any more what true green looked like, or where the early paths through the meadows lay; they were first overgrown, then over-run, and so variously degraded until at last somebody decided to pave paradise, put up a parking structure and subdivide the roof space for luxury condominums.
"The summer's flower...": Shakespeare, Sonnet 94
"The feeling that life...": William Empson: Some Versions of the Pastoral, 1935
Les Bergers d'Arcadie (II) ("Et in Arcadia Ego") (detail): Nicolas Poussin, 1637-1639 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Valley Pasture: Robert Duncanson, 1857 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Les Bergers d'Arcadie (I) ("Et in Arcadia Ego"): Nicolas Poussin, 1827 (Chatsworth House, Derbyshire)
Pastoral farm scene, Traverse City, Michigan: photo by David Ball, 2005