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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Theocritus (fl. Third Century B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John William Mackail (1859–1945)
THE GREAT age of Greek poetry had drawn to an end long before the extinction of Greek freedom by the Macedonian conquest. The epic, the lyric, and the drama had been successively brought to perfection before the close of the period which is famous in history as the age of Pericles. A century followed in which intellectual interest was absorbed in the conquest of the new and fascinating art of prose. But an age of great prose has to pay the price of being prosaic. In the hundred years between Pericles and Alexander, poetry dried up at its fountains, and became more and more an academic art based on older models. Fifty years later, when prose itself had been struck with the same academic languor, Greek poetry put forth its last and not its least lovely and delicate blossom in the pastorals of Theocritus.  1
  The time was one of great learning and refined luxury. Greek culture, following the conquests of Alexander, had spread in a broad shallow tide over the whole of the countries fringing the Eastern Mediterranean. The wealth of the East flowed into Europe through Egypt and Syria. At the other end of the Greek world, the States of the larger Greece across the seas were in fierce competition with Carthage for the control of the immense commerce of Sicily. The guidance of public affairs had, in the new epoch of trained professional armies, passed into the hands of a small hierarchy of military administrators. Politics, for so long the single absorbing passion of the Greek cities, were ceasing to exist. Relieved from the long strain of political excitement, men’s minds fell back on Nature and Art as the two great springs of life. They had hardly realized till then what treasures each had to offer; nor perhaps is it easy for us to realize how entirely the life of ancient Greece is colored, to our eyes, by a sentiment which only arose when that life was becoming absorbed in other forms. To see the beauty of nature afresh through a medium of enriched artistic tradition was the last task achieved by the Alexandrian poets; when, with a pathetic insincerity, they turned back to the simple life they had left so long behind, sought a new refinement in rusticity, and lavished all their ornament on the portraiture of the plowmen, shepherds, or fishermen, who were already well on their way towards becoming the serf-population of the Roman Empire.  2
  As to the life of Theocritus, the first and by far the most eminent of the Greek pastoral poets, nothing is known beyond what may be gathered from the allusions in his poems. He was a Syracusan by birth. The idyls show intimate knowledge not only of Eastern Sicily, but of the fringe of Greek States on the coast of southern Italy. But his literary education was acquired, and a considerable part of his life spent, at the court of Alexandria, which then, under the enlightened despotism of Ptolemy II., was the intellectual and artistic center of the Greek world. In later life he probably returned to Syracuse; and the sixteenth idyl, addressed to King Hiero soon after his accession to the throne in B.C. 270, gives the only approximately certain date among his poems. Before Hiero’s long reign ended, the axis of the world had shifted, and Ennius and Plautus were writing at Rome.  3
  The poems,—which have come down to us in substantial integrity from a collection of the pastoral poets formed some fifty years after the death of Theocritus,—while they vary much in subject and manner, have a common quality which was well understood by the critics who gave them the name of Idyllia. The name, which seems to have been coined for this specific purpose, is a diminutive formed from a word which, originally signifying visible form or shape, took in later Greek (like its Latin equivalent species) the senses of physical beauty, of particular form, and (by a curious late reversion from the abstract to the concrete) of any rare and costly kind of merchandise,—the sense preserved to the present day in the English word spices. The book of idyls might be thought of, then, as a collection of select masterpieces of workmanship on a small scale; a casket of finely wrought jewels, one might say (like the “Émaux et Camées” of a modern poet), or of spices remarkable for their rarity and richness. They were sharply distinguished on the one hand, by their small scale, from the larger traditional forms of poetry headed by the epic; on the other by their lavish and intricate ornament, from the class of minor poetry known as the epigram, the essence of which was a studied and grave simplicity. The pastoral is only one form out of several which the idyl may take; and in fact the Theocritean idyls include, besides the pastorals, specimens of at least four other manners: the epic idyl, in which a single incident or episode from one of the heroic subjects is told separately and with great elaboration; the dramatic idyl, in which the same method of treatment is applied to a scene from a comedy; the lyric idyl, where (as in Shakespeare’s sonnets) the poet speaks in his own person, but in the enriched idyllic manner; and the occasional idyl, of which one charming specimen survives in the poem Theocritus wrote to go with the present of an ivory spindle to his friend Theugenis,—the wife of a celebrated physician of the time, and the happy mistress of one of those lovely and peaceful Greek homes which gathered up in themselves all that was best in the ancient world.  4
  It is however on the pure pastoral that the main fame of Theocritus rests: and his shepherds, fishermen, and country girls, studied directly from nature and yet moving in an atmosphere of highly idealized art, have remained ever since the model for pastoral poets; for his own successors in Greek poetry, for Virgil and the Latins, and through Virgil for the literature of more modern Europe. To trace, even in bare outline, the history of the pastoral since Theocritus, would be out of place here; but it is important to remember that Theocritus not only invented but perfected it, and that later variations on his method involved no substantial change,—with the exception of that unhappy craze for allegory from which Virgil is not wholly free, and which deforms so much of the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  5
  From this allegorical tendency the Greek temper—and Theocritus, though a Sicilian writing in Egypt, is still a Greek—was instinctively averse. The Greek purity of line is as dominant in him as in Homer or Sophocles; and it is this quality which gives the idyls poetical value even when their subject is coarse or trifling. For the full appreciation of what is meant by the Greek pastoral, the first idyl, the ‘Thyrsis,’ may be taken as a canon. It includes in itself the whole range of the idyllic feeling, in language whose movement and grace are without a fault. Though it is the first known instance of a pastoral poem, the “bucolic Muse” is spoken of as already a familiar thing; and indeed long preparation must have been required before the note struck in the first line—nay, in the first word—could be struck with such clear certainty. “Sweet and low” (so we may render the effect of that untranslatable opening cadence), the new Muse, with flushed serious face and bright blown hair, comes from the abandoned haunts of an older world in Thessaly or Arcadia; and on the slopes of Ætna, among pine and oak, where the Dorian water gushes through rocky lawns, finds a new and lovelier home. The morning freshness of the mountains mingles with the clear sad vision that she brings with her from older Greece. “To-morrow I will sing to you still sweeter,” are the last words of Thyrsis: so Greek poetry might have said when yet in its youth; but the goatherd bids him sing, with the melancholy encouragement, “since thou wilt not keep a song where the Dark Realm brings forgetfulness.”  6
  This graver note however only comes as an undertone; while the delicate beauty of the world to still unclouded senses fills the idyls throughout. “Light and sweet,” says Theocritus once of poetry in his own person,—“light and sweet it is, but not easy to find.” More especially is this so when the idyls touch on the deeper emotions. In two instances Theocritus, keeping all the while this light sweet touch, has given to love in two of its most intense phases an expression all but unequaled in the ancient world. The story of the fiery growth of love, told by the deserted girl of the second idyl all alone in the flooding moonlight, still comes as fresh to us as a tale of to-day; and even more remarkable is the strange half-mystical passion of the twelfth idyl (called ‘Aïtes,’ or ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’ as we might render the word into Elizabethan English),—with its extraordinary likenesses in thought and expression to the Shakespearean sonnets, and the sense throughout it, as in the sonnets, of the immortality that verse alone gives.  7
  These two poems are the type of one side of the Theocritean idyl; the other, and one equally permanent in its truth and beauty, is represented by the descriptive poems of country life, with their frank realism and keen delight in simple country pleasures. In the stifling streets of Alexandria, Theocritus must have turned back with a sort of passion to the fresh hill-pastures he had known as a boy, with the blue sea gleaming far down through the chestnut woods. There lay his true home; and in one idyl, by a beautiful intricacy of imagination, he heightens the remembrance of a summer day spent in that beautiful country-side by a dream of two wanderers,—one among polar snows, one far among the rocks of the burning Soudan, where the Nile lies sunk beyond the northern horizon. The songs of the reapers in the eleventh idyl are genuine folk-poetry,—such as was already sung in Greek harvest-fields in the heroic age, and continues to this day in the less sophisticated parts of modern Greece. The rustic banter of the fourth, where the scene is in southern Italy, has in it the germs not only of the artificial Latin eclogue, but of the provincial comedy native to all parts of Italy. The fourteenth—even more remarkable in its truth to nature—is, with all its poetical charm, almost a literal transcript of a piece of that dull life of the Greek peasant-proprietary which kept driving its young men into drink or into the army; while the speech and manners of the same social class in the great towns are drawn with as light and sure a touch in the fifteenth idyl, the celebrated ‘Adoniazusæ,’—the brilliant sketch of the “bank holiday” spent by two Syracusan women settled in Alexandria.  8
  Such was the external world in which Theocritus moved. The inner world of his poetry, by which his final value has to be estimated, can only reveal itself through the poems themselves; but a few notes of his style may be pointed out to indicate his relation on the one hand to the earlier Greek classics, on the other to a more modern and romantic art. Amid all the richness of his ornament, it retains the inimitable Greek simplicity,—that quality which so often makes translations from the Greek seem bare and cold. But the romantic sense of beauty, in which he is the precursor of Virgil and the Latins, is something which on the whole is new: and new too is a certain keenness of perception towards delicate or evanescent phases of nature, shown sometimes in single phrases like the “sea-green dawn,” in which he anticipates Shelley; sometimes in a wonderfully expanded Tennysonian simile; and habitually in the remarkable faculty of composition and selection which give a perennial freshness and charm to his landscapes. And together with this natural romanticism, as we may call it, is the literary romanticism which he shares with the other Alexandrian poets. The idyls addressed to Hiero and Ptolemy give a vivid picture of the position which literature held at this period, in the enormously enlarged world where “the rain from heaven makes the wheat-fields grow on ten thousand continents.” Satiety had followed over-production: “Homer is enough,” became the cry of critics; and to many it seemed better (in the phrase Tennyson borrowed from Theocritus) “to be born to labor and the mattock-hardened hand” than to woo further the Muses, who sat now “with heads sunk on chill nerveless knees.” To bring a new flush into these worn faces; to renew, if but for a little, the brightness of poetry and the joy of song; to kindle a light at which Virgil should fire the torch for the world to follow,—this was the achievement of Theocritus: nor is it without fitness that the bucolic hexameter, the lovely and fragile metre of the idyls, should be a modification of the same verse in which Homer had embodied the morning glory of the Greek spirit. “With a backward look even of five hundred courses of the sun,” the idyls close, in lingering cadences, the golden age of poetry which opened with the Iliad.  9
  The selections which follow are chosen with the view of giving the spirit of the idyls in its most heightened form. The ‘Adoniazusæ,’ one of the most interesting and certainly the most unique in its realism, is omitted, as easily accessible to modern readers in the essay on ‘Pagan and Mediæval Religious Sentiment,’ in Matthew Arnold’s ‘Essays in Criticism’; and a few of the most characteristic of the Theocritean epigrams are added to show his mastery of a peculiarly Greek form of poetry which is distinct from the idyllic.  10

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