The first time I encountered the phrase was not in a pastoral painting or poem, but as an object in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It was inscribed across the pate of the skull that sat in ostentatious splendor in Charles Ryder’s Oxford rooms. When the great art historian Erwin Panofsky came to write his article on the two meanings of the classical motto, he congratulated Waugh for both grasping and exploiting its ambiguity. For who, exactly, was the “I” in “And I too was in Arcady”? Read innocently, the tomb inscription discovered by Poussin’s shepherds seems to be a wistful epitaph for a pastoral idyll enjoyed and then lost. The monstrous skull in Guercino’s earlier version, though, was unequivocal in its declaration that “even in Arcady, I, Death, am present.” The cunning of Waugh’s conceit is to lure the reader into assuming that Ryder’s revisitation of Brideshead speaks an elegy for a golden age when in fact it turns into a long graveside oration for the death of faith, love, dynasty, England itself.
“Landscape and Memory”