Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930

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Daphnis and Chloë (the work has also been translated as The Pastoral Loves of Daphnis and Chloë, 1924, and as The Story of Daphnis and Chloë, 1908) first appeared in English in a version by Richard Waldegrave in 1587, but the translation made by George Thornley in 1657 is more familiar. More recent translations by George Moore and Jack Lindsay are considerably more readable but have not enjoyed wide circulation. Daphnis and Chloë was an influential work throughout Renaissance Europe, its subject matter and style being respectfully recapitulated in pastoral romances produced in the vernacular throughout Europe. Like many late classical works, however—the most notorious examples are credited to Petronius and Lucian—Daphnis and Chloë came to be considered an indecent work because of its relative frankness about sex. For this reason the English text retired for a while in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into the shady realm of privately printed editions. Unlike the satires of Petronius and Lucian, however, Daphnis and Chloë contains nothing deliberately coarse or obscene; its allegory of the growth and maturation of sexual love is handled with scrupulous delicacy that seems intended to avoid giving offense.

Although the labored and archaic style of the Thornley translation obscures the fact, Daphnis and Chloë is in several ways a strikingly modern work. It has better claims to be considered the first protonovel than any other work of classical literature. Its plot—comprising an event-crowded obstacle course that continually parts the two lovers but finally delivers them to a marriage blessed with unexpected wealth and status—foreshadows the formula that has by far been the most successful in the popular fiction of more than a century. It is also one of the earliest works to take for granted that the life of rural folk needs to be tactfully explained and sentimentally glorified for the benefit of a thoroughly “civilized” (in its literal sense of city-bred) audience. The nostalgic reverence for the pastoral in Daphnis and Chloë is identical in spirit to that which infects a great deal of nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century fiction; even its disapproval of Gnatho’s homosexuality is far more reminiscent of modern attitudes than of what are usually thought of as the attitudes of ancient Greece.

What remains classical about Daphnis and Chloë is its careful use of allegory, particularly in its use of the Greek pantheon. Its invocation of Pan is, however, self-consciously metaphorical and artificial. Unlike the dramas of several centuries earlier, in which the gods are treated with reverent awe as overlords of human destiny, the attitude of Daphnis and Chloë is conspicuously casual. This offhandedness is a natural partner of the somewhat anecdotal style of early prose fiction, but it is as much a cause as an effect. The author can refer to the gods without excessive stylization because he is fully conscious of the fact that they are, for him, symbolic. His account of the myth of Echo and the tale of Pan and Syrinx assumes that the audience knows them as fables or amusing stories. When Pan afflicts the Methymneans with the panic named after him, he acts as a friend doing a favor, not as a loftily offended god wreaking havoc upon human playthings.

It is not merely Pan’s name that is carefully diminished by the author of the romance; the names “Daphnis” and “Chloë” have their own significance. One attribute of the name Chloë is “Blooming,” and it has been used as a surname of the goddess Demeter, protectress of the green fields. The original Daphnis was the alleged son of Hermes and a nymph, who was brought up by the nymphs and taught by Pan to play the flute; he became a shepherd and the inventor of bucolic poetry. Pan symbolizes nature; the names allotted to the hero and heroine of the story symbolize agriculture and animal husbandry. As the plot finally emphasizes, these are essentially technologies, but they are products of civilization that must work within the framework of nature. Necessity rules that they must be harmonized, at least to some extent, with nature’s wildness and seasonally patterned fecundity. The nostalgic manner of the tale is a gentle reminder to a civilized audience that all their triumphs of artifice and manners remain rooted in the soil and the pastures.

There remains in all this a certain honest reverence, but it is a buoyant politeness rather than the somber and fatalistic reverence of Greek tragedy. The name that Daphnis takes after his marriage, Philopoemen, would also have been well known to the original hearers of the tale, being that of the last great military leader Greece produced before losing its political independence. Having come into his proper heritage, Daphnis is transformed from herdsman to hero. This indicates nostalgia for an era when Greece was the fountainhead of civilization rather than a mere handmaiden of Rome.

Few people today would read Daphnis and Chloë for pleasure; the text is too cluttered and too discursive, the prose irredeemably primitive even in more sensitive and less florid translations than Thornley’s. Those who read the tale for instructive purposes, however, cannot help but notice that in almost everything that is currently read for pleasure some echo of Daphnis and Chloë sounds. The message that it puts across is still being broadcast. To say that it stands as the remote ancestor of all modern romance stories is not to insult it but rather to confirm that it contains the seeds of a vast and flourishing literary growth, and is—in its assiduously modest fashion—a great work.