Study Guide


by Theocritus

Idylls Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Theocritus is perhaps the originator of the literary genre of pastoral poetry. The Idylls has, therefore, exerted tremendous influence on European literature. The Idylls is a collection of thirty short poems ascribed to Theocritus in antiquity, perhaps incorrectly. Taking its basic inspiration from the yearnings and concerns of Greek shepherds and simple country folk, pastoral poetry is potentially a confining genre. Readers of Theocritus will acknowledge, however, that his poems explore an astonishingly wide variety of themes—love, death, the meaning of art, the joys of life in the country, the nuisances of the city, the mysteries of myth and magic. Part of the explanation for the great diversity of theme and subject matter in the Idylls is to be found in the special character of ancient poetry collections, which frequently included any and all works that might possibly be attributed to a famous name. In fact, some of the poems that are contained in the Idylls are almost certainly the work of imitators of Theocritus.

Little is known about Theocritus beyond occasional hints in his poetry. The dates of his birth and death are not preserved, but he was certainly active in the first quarter of the third century b.c.e. From subtle references in his poetry a tentative biography can be reconstructed. Born in Syracuse, he apparently emigrated from Sicily and spent time in southern Italy, on the Aegean island of Cos, and at the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus in the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, Egypt. His poetry seems to suggest connections with all of these places. The pastoral poems are filled with characteristic details of the environs of southern Italy, Sicily, and Cos; those with an urban setting depict life in two great metropolitan centers of the ancient world, Syracuse and Alexandria. Thus, familiarity with very different aspects of life in the ancient Mediterranean world provided Theocritus with rich material for his poetry. This poet’s particular genius is his ability to synthesize these polarities of human existence in a satisfying artistic whole.

“Thyrsis” (idyll 1) clearly illustrates Theocritus’s brilliant ability to combine high art with an atmosphere of rustic charm. The dramatic situation of the poem is a meeting between a shepherd named Thyrsis and an unnamed goatherd. The goatherd urges Thyrsis to sing a song about the legendary Daphnis, for which Thyrsis is widely admired. In return for the song, the goatherd promises a splendid, carved wooden cup, which the goatherd describes in detail. Up to this point, the dramatic circumstances of the poem do not especially tax the credulity of the reader. The image of a lonely herdsman singing songs to pass the time has elements of realism. As the cup is described by the goatherd, the pastoral illusion becomes more fragile. Intricate scenes are depicted on this marvelous drinking cup, and the descriptions invite a symbolic interpretation. Thus, the scene of the woman who is flanked by two suitors may be seen to represent the important role of love and competition in pastoral poetry. Similarly, the boy who weaves a cricket cage while a fox attempts to steal his lunch seems to suggest how artistic creation makes one oblivious of practical considerations. Thyrsis accepts the offer and sings the song of Daphnis, a legendary herdsman who wasted away because of some mysterious unrequited love. Like the scenes on the cup, Daphnis is a symbol for the artistic experience.

“Pharmaceutria” (idyll 2) presents a strong contrast to the circumstances of the first poem. Theocritus offers an urban scene, a dramatic monologue in which a young woman employs magic to regain the affection of her former lover. In the course of her monologue, Simaetha reveals the details of her seduction and abandonment by Delphis. Gradually the reader understands that Simaetha is familiar with magic. As she speaks she is also weaving a spell to make her lover return or, failing that, perhaps punish him for his faithlessness.

Idylls 3 through 6...

(The entire section is 1672 words.)

Idylls Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Haber, Judith.“Bringing It All Back Home: Bucolic and Heroic in Theocritus’ Idylls.” In Pastoral and the Poetics of Self-Contradiction: Theocritus to Marvell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Analyzes how Theocritus and other poets have handled the inherent contradictions in the pastoral genre.

Halperin, D. M. Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Discussion of the possible antecedents and followers of Theocritus. Useful for understanding the development of the pastoral genre in its earliest form.

Hunter, Richard. “Reflecting on Writing and Culture: Theocritus and the Style of Cultural Change.” In Written Texts and the Rise of Literate Culture in Ancient Greece, edited by Harvey Yunis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Examines how the reading, writing, and distribution of texts in ancient Greece led to new forms of thought, expression, and behavior. The chapter on Theocritus focuses on the meeting and song exchange of Lycidas and Smichidas in Idyll 7, analyzing how this encounter marked a changing fashion in Greek poetics and culture.

Lawall, Gilbert. Theocritus’ Coan Pastorals: A Poetry Book. Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Hellenic Studies, 1967. Presents a persuasive argument for viewing idylls 1 through 7 as a self-contained poetry book, intended as such by Theocritus. Offers valuable insights into structural and thematic interconnections among these poems.

Payne, Mark. Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Argues that Theocritus’s pastoral poetry was the first literature to create a fully fictional world that is an alternative to reality. Examines ancient and modern concepts of fiction in the work of Theocritus and other writers, with special attention to idyll 7.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. The Green Cabinet: Theocritus and the European Pastoral Lyric. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Reprint. London: Bristol Classical, 2004. Traces the evolution of the pastoral genre in later European literature. Provides a valuable discussion of the concept of pastoral poetry and its later manifestations.

Segal, Charles. Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. A collection of interpretative essays that shed light on the poetic qualities of Greek and Roman pastoral poetry. The discussion of some individual poems is invaluable.

Walker, S. F. Theocritus. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Treats the entire canon of Theocritus’s poetry. Highly recommended for the reader interested in a basic introduction to Theocritus.