115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pastoral Mirrors, Pastoral Selves: Reflection as Self-Construction in Garcilaso and Marvell

Allison Collins, "University of California, Los Angeles"

While the most famous pastoral reflection is that of Narcissus, a lesser-known mirror trope involves the figure turning from the water to his beloved, using his reflection to persuade her she should love him. This paper compares uses of the trope in Garcilaso de la Vega’s Egloga I and Andrew Marvell’s “Damon the Mower.” It argues that the trope allows for an examination of self-construction and self-representation, especially as relates to vision/perspective, the poetic voice, and the pastoral genre.


In a pastoral landscape, a figure leans over to examine his reflection in the water and finds what he sees there pleasing. In the most famous instance of this mythological beginning, we end with the youth Narcissus falling in love with his reflection, unable to recognize the face in the water as his own. In the lesser-known instance, the figure addresses his beloved and uses his reflection as an argument for why his love should be reciprocated. This trope originated with Theocritus and was imitated throughout antiquity before losing popularity in the Middle Ages. It staged a prominent return in Garcilaso de la Vega’s Egloga I and Andrew Marvell’s “Damon the Mower.” This paper approaches Garcilaso and Marvell’s use of the mirror trope as a mise en abyme of pastoral which explores key issues of selfhood, perspective, and nature. It will also look at this trope’s position within the pastoral invitation to examine the connections among self, nature, and poetry. This paper compares the two Renaissance innovations, showing how they bring the classical trope to bear on their early modern poetic interests and arguing that the trope allows for an examination of the process of self-construction and self-representation.

Recent work on Renaissance mirrors has examined mirrors as exempla. As Debora Shuger and Nancy Selleck have demonstrated, didactic mirrors are used to destabilize, rather than confirm, identity: the purpose of reflection is to present an idealized self rather than the current self. There is a distance between mirror image and self, and as in the Narcissus model, the image and the self are not properly (re)united. In the trope examined in this paper, the disconnect between image and self remains, but the self exploits that disconnect and uses the image as an opportunity to construct an attractive self and present that constructed self to others. One thinks of modern “selfie” culture, in which an image of the self is used as a conscious self-presentation, a constructed “other” self for the consumption of the intended audience. The split self offers an opportunity for self-construction and self-presentation, although the pastoral speaker is typically less aware of the process of self-construction, and delusion plays a significant role in the speaker’s interpretation and representation of their own image. Rather than providing aspirational exempla, the reflections examined in this paper enable the viewers to mis-see and mis-understand themselves, fostering a subjectively constructed conception of the self that has implications for the construction of poetry and of reality.

The mirror trope is itself a mirror of the larger pastoral pathetic fallacy, in which nature as macrocosm mirrors man as microcosm; as such, the trope provides a pastoral in miniature through which to examine broader considerations of the genre and its structure and function. Man seeks his image in nature, approaching the natural landscape as a mirror. This act presumes that nature reflects humanity, that the pastoral landscape offers an opportunity for self-reflection. The negative side of this premise is that engagement with the landscape runs the risk of becoming a pretext for narcissism in which pastoral speakers impose themselves on nature. Garcilaso and Marvell explore both sides of this premise. The “real” self, the presented/constructed self, and the outside world’s judgment are often at odds, urging the reader to explore the discrepancies between the speaker’s self-assessment and the narrator’s frame. Questioning the speaker’s relationship with a natural mirror calls into question the overall structure of pastoral as itself a mirror. This paper examines Garcilaso’s use of the mirror trope and compares it to classical precedents, then compares Marvell to both Garcilaso and classical pastoral, arguing that their respective innovations of the mirror trope illuminate their larger poetic projects.