Idylls by Theocritus.

Aldus Manutius’ first edition of Theocritus’ Idylls,
illustrated by Albrecht Dürer (1496-97).
Idylls (Εἰδύλλια) is a collection of poetry either by or, in some cases, attributed to the Greek poet Theocritus who in the 3rd Century B.C. essentially invented the bucolic genre that would go on to be imitated by Virgil and Catullus, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Petrarch, John Milton, and a great many other poets. It's a fairly short collection: thirty poems and about eighty pages.

One of my favourites is actually the first: Idyll I, or 'The Passion of Daphnis'. Daphnis was a shepherd, a mortal, and the son of Hermes and a nymph, and in this poem Theocritus describes how a goatherd asked Thyrsis to sing a song about Daphnis, who was lovesick. I'll quote the section of the song of Thyrsis:
Muses, sing for a herdsman, sing me your song.
Thyrsis from Etna asks you. Listen to his voice.
Where were you, Nymphs, when Daphis came to grief?
What distant valley or mountain gave you delight?
You could not be found beside Anapus, the great river,
Nor by the water of Acis, nor Etna's height.
Muses, sing for a herdsman, sing me your song.
Jackals and wolves howled their lament for Daphnis.
The lion wept in its forest-bound retreat.
Many the cattle that watched about him dying,
The bulls and cows and calves couched at his feet.
Muses, sing for a herdsman, sing me your song.
Hermes came from the mountain, said to him, "Daphis,
Tell me what passion hurts you. Who is to blame?"
The cowherds, shepherds and goatherds gathered round him,
"Tell us your trouble," they asked. Old Priapus came.
Muses, sing for a herdsman, sing me your song.
"Daphnis," he said, "an unhappy girl goes searching
Each glade and spring for the one on whom she dotes.
Are you her lover, incompetent and feeble-hearted?
You should change your cattle and take a flock of goats;
You are no better than a goatherd, watching and pining
While the billy does his work and the nanny bleats.
Muses, sing for a herdsman, sing me your song.
"In tears you watch the girls, you hear their laughter;
Poor hobbledehoy, you long to join their dance."
But the cowherd drew near the limit of his passion,
Deaf to taunts, absorbed in a bitter trance.
Muses, sing for a herdsman, repeat your song.
Next came Cypris, her sweet smile and empty;
Her heart was heavy, her cheerfulness a pretence.
"You boasted you were a match for Love in wrestling;
You lie there overthrown for your offence."
Muses, sing for a herdsman, sing me your song.
Daphnis answered her, "Tormenting Cypris,
Hateful to all men, goddess of jealous pride,
Do you think my last sun is sinking? Even in Hades
Daphnis will be the thorn in Love's sleek side.
Muses, sing for a herdsman, repeat your song.
"They say that a certain cowherd... Hurry to Ida,
Anchises lies there on a bed of galingale;
The oaks will screen you, the humming bees tell no tale.
Muses, sing for a herdsman, repeat your song.
"Adonis the shepherd-boy needs to take a lover..
He hunts the hare and chases all kinds of prey.
Go set yourself before Diomede, and tell him
'Daphnis paid for his boldness. You too must pay.'
Muses, sing for a herdsman, repeat your song.
"Goodbye, you wolves and jackals, you skulking bears.
The forest-glades and thickets where you hide
Shall never see me again. Goodbye, Arethusa,
Goodbye, you streams that pour down Etna's side.
Here Daphnis fed his cattle, here he watered them:
Remember him in the place where he lived and died.
Muses, sing for a herdsman, repeat your song.
"O Pan, are you ranging the long hills of Lycaeus
Or the heights of Maenalus? Leave your ground and come
Too Sicily. Leave Helice's peak and the mountain,
Cherished by the gods, where Arcas has his tomb.
Goodbye to the herdsman, Muses, goodbye to the song.
"Come, master, and take this pipe of mine, sweet-smelling,
Fastened with wax, the lip-piece delicately bound.
Love drags me into the darkness where no songs sound.
Goodbye to the herdsman, Muses, goodbye to the song.
"Bear violets now, you bramble-bushes and thorntrees,
Let the world turn cross-natured, since Daphnis dies.
Let the prickly juniper bloom with soft narcissus,
The pine be weighed with pears. Let the stag hunt the hounds,
Let the nightingale attend to the screech-owl's cries!
Goodbye to the herdsman, Muses, goodbye to the song.
He said nothing more. Aphrodite struggled to raise him,
But the thread allowed by the Fates had run to its end.
Daphnis drew near the water and the current took him,
Unhappy child of the Muses, the Nymphs' lost friend.
Goodbye to the herdsman, Muses, goodbye to the song.
Illustration of Theocritus' Idyll 1
(Θύρσις ἢ ᾠδή) by Barent de Bakker (1779).
There are, as I say, quite a few others, telling stories of shepherds and goatherds, and their encounters with the gods. Another favourite is Idyll VII, 'The Harvest Festival', which begins,
Eucritus and I were walking over to Haleis
From town that day. We had taken Amynatas with us.
Demeter was to be given the first-fruits of harvest
By Antigenes and Phrasidamus, Lycopeus' sons,
The best of an old family, Clytia's descendants
And Chalcon's, beneath whose foot the spring of Bourina
Welled up as he braced his knee against the rock:
Elms and black poplars make a shady place there,
Its green freshness roofed in by unkempt leaves.
We had not yet gone half-way - the tomb of Brasilas
Was still out of view - when we met another traveller.
The Muses fix such meetings. He was a good man,
A Cydonian called Lycidas; he worked as a goatherd.
You could not mistake him, he so looked the part.
C coarse-haired, shaggy goatskin, the colour of rust,
Smelling of milky rennet, hung from his shoulders.
Beneath lay a threadbare smock, done up with twine
About the waist, and he carried an olivewood crook
In his right hand. He stopped, smiled, challenged me
With his friendly eyes and a laugh playing on his lips.
"Simichidas, what are you hurrying for in this heat?
Now even the lizard lies asleep in its cranny
And the tomb-haunting larks have gone to ground.
Are you off to treat yourself at some townsman's winepress
Or to look for a free dinner? What else could stir you
To set the stones singing under those boots of yours?" 
What I loved about these poems was the glimpse into rural life in 3rd Century B.C. Greece. There's something very soothing and timeless about the poems, and they made me ache a little to read them. Also after reading so much of the histories and philosophy of late it was so good to return to the ancient Greek poetry. I'll certainly read it again, and no doubt again and again!


  1. i've heard about Theocritus for years - i even have a collection of his poetry - but have never read it; it's quite unexpectedly delightful; i'm going into the back room now to see if i can find it... tx, O, for the post...


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