I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Arcadia recently, partly as the result of reading Adam Nicolson’s Earls of Paradise: England and the Dream of Perfection (2008).  It describes the how one newly-created aristocratic English family, the Pembrokes, tried in the sixteenth century to create an arcadia on their estate around Wilton in the county of Wiltshire in southern England.

This may all seem a bit remote from food history and politics but bear with me and we will get there.

Et in arcadia ego. Poussin.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in arcadia ego. The Louvre

I realized as I read that I was really a bit vague about what Arcadia was beyond a peaceful rural existence peopled by shepherds. I had to look up the original meaning of Arcadia on the web.

Arcadia: A region of ancient Greece in the central Peloponnesus. Its inhabitants, somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, proverbially lived a simple, pastoral life. Any region offering rural simplicity and contentment. The term Arcadia is used to refer to an imaginary and paradisal place.”


The early Earls of Pembroke, according to Nicolson, were taken with the idea of a Wiltshire arcadia away from the cutthroat life of the royal court in London.  And London court life could be pretty stressful in Tudor England, what with intrigues, wives beheaded, and the latest shifts away from or toward Catholicism to be dealt with.

It was at Wilton that Sir Philip Sydney, poet, soldier, and brother-in-law of the second Earl, wrote his Arcadia in the 1580s.

Sir Philip Sidney (National Portrait Gallery)

In Arcadia, Sidney eulogized time spent alone in the woods in contrast to the venomous atmosphere at court.

O sweet woods, the delight of solitariness!

Oh, how much I do like your solitariness!

Here nor treason is hid, veilëd in innocence,
Nor envy’s snaky eye finds any harbor here,
Nor flatterers’ venomous insinuations,
Nor coming humorists’ puddled opinions,
Nor courteous ruin of proffered usury,
Nor time prattled away, cradle of ignorance,
Nor causeless duty, nor cumber of arrogance,
Nor trifling title of vanity dazzleth us,
Nor golden manacles stand for a paradise,
Here wrong’s name is unheard, slander a monster is;
Keep thy sprite from abuse, here no abuse doth haunt.
What man grafts in a tree dissimulation?

And it has to be said that the great woods on the Wilton estate, particularly in May when the bluebells paint the understory lavender blue and the leaves are still fresh green, really do seem paradisiacal.

Grovely woods, Wiltshire England

Philip Sidney rode along this “ride” in Grovely Woods that stretch along the top of the downs about two or three miles from Wilton House

Arcadia, difficult to read today, was highly popular in its time.  William Shakespeare borrowed from it for the plot of King Lear; parts were dramatized by John Day and James Shirley.  King Charles I is reported to have quoted it when he mounted the scaffold to be executed in 1649.

And the vision of Arcadia, originating with Virgil, went on from the poets and painters of the early modern period right down to our day.  As Adam Nicholson says:

Arcadia was the elite dream of happiness.  It is an ideology that has appealed ever since to those who have not subscribed to the mainstream: political conservatives, the Romantics, the young Karl Marx, William Morris, early conservationists and modern Greens.  It came to play a central part in the shaping of America and in America’s own inherited idea that it was the Arcadian dreamland of the European subconscious: the place of abundance and liberty, of an easy civility between its agrarian citizens, a country which bore the duty which came with those benefits, to be a beacon and model to the world (5).


Thomas Cole. The Course of Empire. The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1836)

As people have left the land, moved to the cities, and become richer, the Arcadian dream has ceased to be just for the aristocracy and become part of common sense.  The historian, William Cronon, talks about this in the introduction to Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991). As an aside, this is a must-read on American food history.

We learned our city-country dichotomy from the nineteenth-century Romantics, who learned it in turn from pastoral poets stretching back to Virgil.  . . .Our nostalgia for the more “natural” world of an earlier time when we were not so powerful, when the human landscape did not seem so omnipresent, encourages us to seek refuge in pastoral or wilderness landscapes that seem as yet unscarred by human action.

The little worm in the apple of the Arcadian dream is that not everyone can be a Philip Sidney riding on horseback through the woods.  Someone (and in the past that means most of us) had to be the shepherds tending the picturesque flocks.

And as Nicholson points out in his book, and as I will return to in succeeding posts on the Arcadian dream, what the elite dreamed of as happiness was a daily grind for those who followed the flocks and pushed the ploughs.

And my family were, if not those shepherds, at least the farmers who paid the rents that sustained the Pembrokes. My parents farmed land that had once been part of the Pembroke Estate, my grandparents and uncles farmed land that continued to be part of the estate. Every Sunday, as a child, my grandmother took my mother for a walk around the high walls that surrounded the gardens of Wilton House itself.

Wilton House in the Nineteenth Century

 And every day when I went to school, I could look down from the upper deck of the red bus into the walled grounds with their magnificent cedars.

Gardens at Wilton House, Sir Philip Sydney's Arcadia
Wilton House gardens today

Reading Nicolson’s account of the the tensions in the Arcadian dream of the Pembrokes, the cracks in its foundations, the problems in its execution on the Wilton estate a three hundred years before I was born, I found echoes of dreams, relationships, and frustrations of the adults I encountered in my youth.

Nicolson drops the story in 1650.  As Nicolson hints but does not spell out, if we are to understand the conservationist movement and the modern Green movement, then we have to understand its roots.  We are all Arcadians now.






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