Stoppard first, then. But, to continue my habit of deferral, Stoppard by way, in a first, brief instance, of Edgar Allen Poe.
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
This is Poe’s 1829 “Sonnet – To Science.” And just how is personified Science cast in these verses? As a despoiler of creativity, a saboteur of poetry and the poets, a wrecker of dreams. Why? Because, of course, science reduces Life, in all its rich mystery, to mute rules, laws, and (later) algorithms; it reduces the “summer dream” to “dull realit[y].” (This, as we will see, is a view with which Blake – a generation or so before Poe – had not altogether disagreed.) I say “of course,” because it is a view that many of the Romantics – prior to and contemporaneous with Poe; and including Blake – held. And it is a view, too, that has persisted in arts criticism and scholarship, particularly the field of literature, for some time. However, and happily (in my opinion), there have been and are voices that challenge what is sometimes presented as a “natural” opposition between the arts/humanities and the “hard” sciences.* A number of these voices belong to critics and theorists, whose work, though deeply interesting and innovative, will often have a relatively narrow readership. But Stoppard’s Arcadia is a highly popular text, by a highly popular writer, that also dissents from crude, binary opposition of the arts and sciences.
Terry Gifford counts Arcadia as an “anti-pastoral” text. (Incidentally, he casts Blake as anti-pastoral, too.) And it is not hard to see why. The so-called “anti-pastoral” might be identified wherever “typically” pastoral settings are the stage or canvas for a negotiation of something other than the rustic/rural/bucolic/Arcadian/Edenic as spiritual haven, versus the city and all the ills of modernity to which it is home. So Arcadia might well be called “anti-pastoral” to the extent that it challenges what Leo Marx has called the “popular and sentimental” kind of pastoralism, the tendency to celebrate a vaguely conceived “return to nature and ‘more natural’ way of living” (but “more natural” than... well, what?). However, to identify a text as “anti-pastoral” in the context of a study of pastoral is a neat critics’ trick, for if a text were genuinely and thoroughly anti-pastoral, there would be little for one to write about it in terms of pastoralism: the truly anti-pastoral text could surely be accounted for by checking the “No” boxes on an extended tick list of pastoral criteria.
Except, of course, that no such definitive criteria could ever be drawn up (if the arguments of the previous essay have been accepted).
These strange and baggy things we call “genres” may not be very clearly defined, but, because of this, they also have a potentially infinite capacity for expansion and accommodation of new texts. This means that texts that are supposedly “anti-pastoral” (or anti- whatever genre happens to be the object of study) in any sort of interesting way must maintain some sort of interesting and productive link to the “parent” genre. Which is a rather circuitous way of suggesting that if a text is interestingly anti-genre, it is almost certainly still part of a tradition (here, again, see previous article), a little like a scion self-consciously railing against her or his family (for a familiar example, think Eric and Sheila by the end of An Inspector Calls).
It might be better, then, to think of the ways in which Arcadia is supra- or, perhaps, meta-pastoral. Certainly, it seems at so many points to be invoking and satirizing the very idea of the pastoral: Stoppard’s title, Arcadia, echoes that by which Sidney’s famous romance, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, is better known; but by dropping the definite article,** it is as if Stoppard wishes also to isolate for examination the very notion of arcadia itself. Certainly, the setting of the play is geographically and spatially isolated. An old stately home amid expansive gardens, Sidley Park is every inch the stereotypical Renaissance pastoral setting, cut off, it seems, from its urban environs. Or at least we the audience suppose that it is, in large part because Stoppard’s characters speak as if it is. For the play never leave the confines of the study. Thus, Stoppard’s staging and stagecraft is fine fodder for the hungry critic: the hallmark pastoral trope of an Arcadian – later Edenic – setting is often cast as a utopian space. But etymologically, “utopia” carries a sense both of “good place” and “no place.” Sidley beyond the study, then, is very much a utopian setting for Stoppard’s audiences: it is described glowingly; it is a model of both “pastoral perfection” and “geometrical” order, and of the meticulously choreographed, “picturesque” disorder favoured by the “modern,” Romantic landscaper, “Culpability” Noakes. But it is also, for the audience, nowhere, a point of constant but unknowable reference. As if to support a point raised in the previous article, that the landscape and horizon, as it were, of the play, for both audience and characters, is comprised of books and manuscripts serves to remind us that such idealized, utopian vistas as “the” pastoral often serves up are cultural, if not literary, compositions. Sidley Park, whether sculpted as Lady Croom or Noakes would have it, is a canvas to be painted, a page to be inscribed; it is something written and endlessly re-written into existence in palimpsestic fashion. And for the audience, it remains, to use a Blakean term, somewhat vaporous. It reminds us, perhaps, that so often when we mourn for a “lost” Golden Age, we mourn for a lost composition that never was, and perhaps never will be, written in full.
* For example,C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures; Tim Armstrong’s Modernism, Technology, and the Body, and Modernism. From the side of science, things don’t always seem so stark. This might be because science writers are happy to draw on the arts to illustrate and/or beautify their narratives. Some writers are also not averse to speculating as to, say, the evolutionary or sociobiological roots of such nebulous a thing as creativity. This in itself might go some way to explaining the wariness of some Arts culture-brokers when it comes to science.
** Sidney’s work is sometimes referred to as Arcadia, sometimes The Arcadia. In fact, two standard versions are generally referred to – The Old Arcadia and The New Arcadia. The latter is the more complicated in structure and plot.