(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

From the range of poetic types which Theocritus essayed, this analysis will concentrate on the three most typical: the pastoral idylls (numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11), the mimes (numbers 2, 10, 14, 15), and the epyllia (numbers 13, 22, 24). Except for the epigrams, which are mostly in the elegiac couplets customary for fictive inscriptions in the Hellenistic Age, Theocritus’s poems are set in the same dactylic hexameter that Homer used. In English, they are called “idylls,” a somewhat misleading generic term suggesting peace, tranquillity, and an Arcadian pleasantness—associations relevant only to the pastoral idylls. Even the Greek eidullion was not Theocritus’s word; a diminutive of eidos (form), it means something like “little form,” or “short separate poem.” It is sometimes explained as meaning “little picture”; although Theocritean poetry is not especially pictorial, the poet did excel in drawing vignettes, and vivid presentation is a special Theocritean talent.

The pastoral, or bucolic (from boukolos, “cowherder”), idylls are not written in accordance with strict rules; consequently, idylls 4 and 10 may or may not be considered strictly pastoral, the former because it has no song recited within it, the latter because the singers are agricultural workers, not herdsmen. In any case, the herdsman-poet is the hallmark of the genre, and some kind of poetic recitation usually occurs in the course of the poem. Exceptions are sometimes called rustic mimes, in accordance with the convention that poetry set in the country is not pastoral without the herdsman-poet and the song within the song. An early ancestor of pastoral song may be the Linos song performed in the vineyard on the shield of Achilles in book 18 of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). Closer to the literary beginnings of pastoral is the legendary Sicilian cowherd-poet Daphnis, whose death on the slopes of Mt. Etna is the subject of Thyrsis’s song in Idyll 1. Another source of pastoral is the singing matches observed in ancient and modern times in Sicily, southern Italy, and Greece. It is still sometimes said, on the weakest of evidence, that pastoral has ritual origins connected with a Sicilian cult of Daphnis, but such speculations have little to do with what Theocritus wrote.

The rustic setting on which pastoral depends has moral overtones even in Theocritus, although they were given more explicit emphasis by Vergil and his successors. Theocritean shepherds do not moralize on the superiority of country to city life, but they are creatures of instinct whose fluency in describing their restful surroundings gave rise to a literary topos: the locus amoenus, or pleasant spot, where a spreading tree provides shelter from the noonday sun, cicadas chirp in the background, cool waters babble nearby, and grasses offer a natural couch in the shade. The locale is otherwise left to the reader’s imagination; Vergil placed his shepherds in Arcadia for its remoteness from Italy,...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)