The Idylls by Theocritus (trans. Robert Wells)

(Originally read this work and wrote this post in 2009)

“Now I know love as he is, an angry god
Suckled by a lioness, reared in a wild wood,
A smouldering fire that burns to the very bone” – From Idylls 3: “The Lovesongs.” 

As the back of my edition states, “European literature would be unimaginable without Theocritus.” Yet I imagine most readers are wondering who the heck is Theocritus? He is hardly a common literary name like Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy, nor–to turn to the ancient literary world from which he belongs–does his name have the same reputation as Sophocles, Aristophanes, Homer, Virgil, or Ovid. So who is this guy?

Well, Theocritus invented the pastoral poem–a form that would be adopted by such luminaries as Virgil in his Eclogues, Edmund Spenser in The Shepheardes Calender, and John Milton in Lycidas. The pastoral form — also known as bucolic poetry — features a highly idealized lifestyle where lazy shepherds lounge about in lush mountain abodes, while watching their sheep, they pine over women, and compete with each other in poetic contests.

Theocritus’s work offers a mix bag of themes and topics. Idylls 1 opens with two bored shepherds deciding to engage in a song contest, and anteing up prizes for the winner. Thrysis, one of the shepherds in the competition, sings the tale of Daphnis, a boy withering away from unrequited love as a punishment inflicted on him by Aphrodite. Idylls 2 stars a jealous witch in the vein of Medea who casts a spell on her boyfriend as punishment for replacing her with a new lover. She explains to the reader what each element of the spell will inflict on him, and also recounts the day she first met and fell in love with him. Idylls 3 is a slice-of-life piece about being a cowherd. Two cowherders talk about a friend who went off to the Olympic games, shirking his responsibilities and whose cows they are now responsible for watching. They fear all his cattle will die and he will come to ruin. They also talk casually about their sex lives and beautiful women they know. Idylls 4 pits two shepherds from different countries against each other, both accusing the other of thievery. Idylls 11 is a reworking of Polyphemus the cyclops–from the Odyssey–now cast in the role of a love-sick shepherd.

Besides the bucolic poems, there are other slice-of-life poems devoid of the pastoral setting—one such poem in the collection is about two urban women going to see a play in the bustling city of Alexandria. Other poems are short epigrams honoring the great Greek lyric poets of the past; there is even a longer poem praising King Ptolemy, now in charge of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great.  

The pastoral poetry serves as a kind of evasion from the changing world of Theocritus’ time where the traditional boundaries that once separated Greek from non-Greek has come crashing down with the success of Alexander’s military campaigns. In many ways the experience must have been a lot like our own changing world, growing smaller because of the internet, globalization, and new technologies both productive and destructive that can cross country and artificial borders. The pastoral settings of these poems possess a kind of nostalgia as if almost saying: “Remember those Golden days when the world wasn’t so complex and big, when all we had to worry about was tending our sheep, sharing poems, and pining over beautiful women?” The grandiose themes of the past found in works like Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus have been toned down and replaced with local every day concerns. Old myths and mythical tropes are reworked into this mold. Yet, for all the idealistic evasiveness I detect in the genre, there are many points when Theocritus also confronts this changing world. One such example occurs in his poem about the two women in Alexandria weaving their way through traffic and soldiers so they can make it to the opening of a play on time. Another poem that confronts this world is the one with the two xenophobic shepherds from different countries who believe the other to be a thief and see each other as competition. Indeed, how much like our own world in many subtle ways.

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