Beware the Croc in Beach Clothing
There are times when I don’t believe the old saying “there’s a word for everything.” That’s usually when I make up a word to fill the gap, a process I call “partermition.” There are other times when I’m not so sure there’s not a word for everything. I had this thought the other day when Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day popped up as “eclogue.” An eclogue is a poem in which shepherds converse. That’s right. There’s a word made up just to describe a chat between two people minding sheep. It’s not an obvious choice from my perspective. I would have used something like a “baa-a-logue” or “conversheeption” instead. Anyway, just so you know, eclogues are also called bucolics and generally address pastoral subjects, which makes sense given sheep, cows, pastures, shepherds, etc.
A pastoral in the strictest sense is a rural picture or scene like the one above. From a literary perspective, it is more than that. Pastorals, and eclogues among them, attempt to turn a complex life into a simple one, the romantic equivalent of getting back to nature or going off the grid (see the movie Captain Fantastic for a recent extreme example). Some of the more famous eclogues (called, naturally, The Eclogues) were written by the Roman poet Virgil. Rather than being pastoral, however, these were dramatic mythical tales that just happened to be told by shepherds tending their fields. They were often performed on stage and spoke of the revolutionary change in Rome between 44 and 38 BC, a time in which “wide confusion fills the countryside.”
For a more “recent” eclogue example, this line might ring a bell: “Come live with me and be my love.” That’s from Christopher Marlowe’s 1599 poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” In it, the shepherd invites his love (a nude nymph naturally [hey, an alliterative pun, a.k.a., punniterative!]) “to sit upon the rocks and see the shepherds feed their flocks.” I have a feeling that, were the shepherd making this pitch today on Match.com or some other dating site, he wouldn’t be getting much action.
I can think of many other words we might apply to pastoral visions today — innocent, naive, wishfulthinkingness. But even so I can see the appeal. Life can get too complex. Sometimes you just need to go to the island equivalent of a pasture, here a beach like the one at Fort Zachary Taylor, and stare at the waves coming in slowly, rhythmically, hypnotically until all cares and troubles fade into the spray. You can only do this with one eye, however. The other one, of course, must be kept peeled for the crocodiles.