In antiquity, Bion was considered the third great pastoral poet after Theocritus and Moschus. This order of ranking is apparently both chronological and stylistic. Very little is known of the life of Bion. He was born in an obscure place called Phlossa near Smyrna sometime in the second century b.c.e. His death provides the subject of a superb pastoral elegy traditionally attributed to Moschus, “Lament for Bion.” Actually this lament occasioned by the death of Bion is not by Moschus but rather by the hand of a pupil of Bion from Magna Graecia. In the lament the poet calls Bion’s work Dorian and invokes the Sicilian Muses as if Bion were from Sicily. This detail, however, may be entirely conventional, for in the same poem Bion is called a shepherd and we know this detail to be simply an assumption customary to such writing which in no way reflects historical reality. According to the lament, Bion drank poison and in the next several lines the poet suggests darkly that justice will be done. If we can take these lines literally, what was the fate of Bion—suicide, murder, political execution? There is no way of knowing.
Probably the most important extant work of Bion is the pastoral elegy, “Lament for Adonis.” Adonis, the youth beloved by Venus the goddess of love, has been slain by a wild boar and this poem laments his death. The structure of the poem is extremely conventional, inviting comparison with other pastoral elegies such as Milton’s LYCIDAS. The poem begins with two lines which state, “I cry for Adonis, the beautiful boy lies dead and the Divinities of Love cry out that darling Adonis dies.” These lines provide a kind of loose refrain or wail of lament recurring periodically throughout the poem and dividing the work into sections. The subject matter of these sections is as follows: 1. Love wakes the sleeping Venus, tells her that Adonis is dead, and advises her to dress in mourning clothes and tell the world of her loss. 2. Adonis lies dying in the hills. The boar’s tusk has pierced his thigh and his blood drips on his snow white flesh. The color departs from his lips and he will never kiss Venus again. 3. The wound in the heart of...
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