Ah, the simple life. The brook babbles by, the sunlight dapples on the ground, filtering through the live oaks above. And yonder, a blue jay takes flight, while we tend to our flock of sheep, here on the grassy hummocks…
Oh, pardon us. We were just operating in the pastoral mode. Shmoop likes the great outdoors, and sometimes we just can't help ourselves. See, the pastoral mode is all about glorifying the simple life, the rural life, the country life.
In ye olden times, pastorals were mostly about shepherds out shepherding. (In fact, the word pastoral comes from the Latin word pastor, which means shepherd. And of course a modern day pastor shepherds his flock, or congregation.) We have an old Greek dude named Theocritus to thank for that. He wrote Idylls, which is considered by lots of folks to be the root of pastoral literature because it depicted the everyday, rustic life of regular folks, rather than the epic battles of folks like Achilles (cough—Homer—cough). Sounds pretty good, right? So it's no wonder that poets like the Roman Virgil came along in later years to write more pastoral works, like the Eclogues, which continued that tradition.
But the Greeks and Romans weren't the only ones fond of sheep. During the English Renaissance, writers like Shakespeare, with his pastoral comedy As You Like It, Christopher Marlowe, with his famous poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", and Edmund Spenser with his landmark The Shepheards Caldender revived the tradition in English poetry. We guess those guys were spending too much time in dirty old London, and were missing the idyllic world of the English countryside.
Later, poets began to combine the whole rural-life-is-awesome thing with the conventions of the elegy to write pastoral elegies (clever title, right?). These were poems that discussed mourning and grief, but still operated in the pastoral mode and idealized the country life of shepherds. Plenty of poets wrote them, but the most famous of all is John Milton's "Lycidas". Like all typical pastoral elegies, Milton mourns the loss of his best bud (who died in a shipwreck). But he also compares him to a shepherd and describes the ways in which nature mourns his loss, too.
So let's recap. If the work you're reading features babbling brooks, gently swaying trees, hidden valleys, rustic haystacks, and a herd of sheep, you're probably reading a pastoral. And if all the countryside seems to be mourning the loss of a particularly awesome shepherd, well then you're reading a pastoral elegy.