Theocritus is the originator of pastoral poetry, that form which displays to us the labors, the songs and loves, and the sufferings of more or less simple shepherds. In Western literature it is a poetic tradition that is as deathless as it is—or has become—conventional. When Marie Antoinette and her court played at the simple life in the village near Le Petit Trianon, they were reviving modes of sensibility to which the Hellenistic poet first gave expression. Indeed, it would be possible to say that no society can produce pastoral poetry until it has become keenly aware that it is non-pastoral in actuality, old and sophisticated and worldly.
Although Theocritus composed forms of poetry that fit other classifications, he is best remembered for his idealization in verse of the simple, rustic life of the Sicilian shepherds. In his idyls he tells us of herdsmen and their loves; he writes of country singing contests on a mountain hillside, for which the prize is a new set of pipes; he surrounds the occasions his poems celebrate with pastoral grace and occasional rural crudity. Among the best of his pastoral poems is the elegy THYRSIS, a lament for Daphnis, traditional hero of shepherds.
It is highly likely that Theocritus’ audiences included very few real country people. The bare facts of his life suggest that his ambition led him to courts and not to the country hillsides or gatherings of his verse. He was probably born in Syracuse in Sicily, and some of his poems were written in Alexandria, at the Egyptian court of Ptolemy Philadelphus; fulsome poems of praise to this ruler as well as to Hiero II of Syracuse suggest that Theocritus knew how to finger courtly instruments as well as oaten pipes. His tales of shepherds—their bucolic existence, simple fare, unsophisticated hopes in love, and rude sports and games—were never destined for country ears at all. Rather might a ruler like Ptolemy Philadelphus, after he had had his considerable fill of praise from the poet, command a song about Daphnis or Theugenus, drawn from Theocritus’ recollections of his native Sicilian countryside.
Theocritus’ poetry, in short, is one of the chief representatives of the Alexandrian period of Greek poetry. This was a time generally regarded as an era when the direct, authentic utterances of poets like Homer, Hesiod, and Sappho had given away to more self-conscious...
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