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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Bion of Smyrna (fl. c. 100 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
OF Bion, the second of the Sicilian idyllists, of whom Theocritus was the first and Moschus the third and last, but little knowledge and few remains exist. He was born near Smyrna, says Suidas; and from the elegy on his death, attributed to his pupil Moschus, we infer that he lived in Sicily and died there of poison. “Say that Bion the herdsman is dead,” says the threnody, appealing to the Sicilian muses, “and that song has died with Bion, and the Dorian minstrelsy hath perished…. Poison came, Bion, to thy mouth. What mortal so cruel as to mix poison for thee!” As Theocritus is also mentioned in the idyl, Bion is supposed to have been his contemporary.  1
  Compared with Theocritus, his poetry is inferior in simplicity and naïveté, and declines from the type which Theocritus had established for the out-door, open-field idyl. With Bion, bucolics first took on the air of the study. Although at first this art and affectation were rarely discernible, they finally led to the mold of brass in which for centuries Italian and English pastorals were cast, and later to the complete devitalizing which marks English pastoral poetry in the eighteenth century, with the one exception of Allan Ramsay’s ‘Gentle Shepherd.’ Theocritus had sung with genuine feeling of trees and wandering winds, of flowers and the swift mountain stream. His poetry has atmosphere; it is vital with sunlight, color, and the beauty which is cool and calm and true. Although Bion’s poems possess elegance and sweetness, and abound in pleasing imagery, they lack the naturalness of the idyls of Theocritus. Reflection has crept into them; they are in fact love-songs, with here and there a tinge of philosophy.  2
  The most famous as well as the most powerful and original of Bion’s poems remaining to us is the threnody upon Adonis. It was doubtless composed in honor of the rites with which Greek women celebrated certain Eastern festivals; for the worship of Adonis still lingered among them, mixed with certain Syrian customs.
            “Thammuz came next behind,
Whose annual wound in Lebanon allured
The Syrian damsels to lament his fate
In amorous ditties all a summer’s day,
While smooth Adonis from his native rock
Ran purple to the sea, supposed with blood
Of Thammuz yearly wounded.”
  3
  Thammuz is identified with Adonis. “We came to a fair large river,” writes an old English traveler, “doubtless the ancient river Adonis, which at certain seasons of the year, especially about the feast of Adonis, is of a bloody color, which the heathens looked upon as proceeding from a kind of sympathy in the river for the death of Adonis, who was killed by a wild boar in the mountains out of which the stream issues. Something like this we saw actually come to pass; for the water was stained to a surprising redness, and, as we observed in traveling, had discolored the sea a great way into a reddish hue, occasioned doubtless by a sort of minium, or red earth, washed into the river by the violence of the rain.”  4
  The poem is colored by the Eastern nature of its subject, and its rapidity, vehemence, warmth, and unrestraint are greater than the strict canon of Greek art allows. It is noteworthy, aside from its varied beauties, because of its fine abandonment to grief and its appeal for recognition of the merits of the dead youth it celebrates. Bion’s threnody has undoubtedly become a criterion and given the form to some of the more famous “songs of tears.” The laudatory elegy of Moschus for his master—we say of Moschus, although Ahrens, in his recension, includes the lament under ‘Incertorum Idyllia’ at the end of ‘Moschi Reliquiæ’—follows it faithfully. Milton in his great ode of ‘Lycidas’ does not depart from the Greek lines; and Shelley, lamenting Keats in his ‘Adonaïs,’ reverts still more closely to the first master, adding perhaps an element of artificiality one does not find in other threnodies. The broken and extended form of Tennyson’s celebration of Arthur Hallam takes it out of a comparison with the Greek; but the monody of ‘Thyrsis,’ Matthew Arnold’s commemoration of Clough, approaches nearer the Greek. Yet no other lament has the energy and rapidity of Bion’s; the refrain, the insistent repetition of the words “I wail for Adonis,”—“Alas for Cypris!” full of pathos and unspoken irrepressible woe, is used only by his pupil Moschus, though hinted at by Milton.  5
  The peculiar rhythm, the passion and delicate finish of the song, have attracted a number of translators, among whose versions Mrs. Browning’s ‘The Lament for Adonis’ is considered the best. The subjoined version in the Spenserian stanza, by Anna C. Brackett, follows its model closely in its directness and fervor of expression, and has moreover in itself genuine poetic merit. The translation of a fragment of ‘Hesperos’ is that of J. A. Symonds. Bion’s fluent and elegant versification invites study, and his few idyls and fragments have at various times been turned into English by Fawkes (to be found in Chalmers’s ‘Works of English Poets’), Polwhele, Banks, Chapman, and others.  6
 
 
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