Classical Influences on English Poetry

By J. A. K. Thomson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
THE PASTORAL

THE pastoral or eclogue or bucolic poem wash--a rare circumstance in the history of literature--in all essentials the invention of a man to whom we can give a name and a date. He was Theocritus of Syracuse, and he flourished (as old scholars said) about the year 280 before Christ. The pastoral was never by the Greeks themselves considered a very important form, and the reputation of Theocritus has been largely posthumous. In some ways he appeals more directly to modern taste than the great, austere masters of the strictly 'classical' age. He is now seen for what he is--the greatest and most delightful as well as the first of the pastoral poets. But it was not always so. For centuries his fame was partly eclipsed by that of Virgil, who as a young man was stirred to admiration and then imitation of Theocritus. In this way the Eclogues of Virgil came to be written, and it was the Eclogues, not Theocritus himself, that created the furore that was excited at the renaissance for pastoral verse. The reason is simple enough. The Eclogues are in Latin, the Idylls of Theocritus in Greek, and somewhat difficult Greek at that; and the people who could read Greek easily at the renaissance were fewer than is often supposed. As for the middle ages, they hardly knew there had ever been a poet called Theocritus, whereas the fourth eclogue of Virgil was revered by them almost as a piece of Holy Writ.

We, however, must begin with Theocritus. His poems, to which the scholars of Alexandria gave the name of Idylls, are few and short. Yet they are remarkably varied in character. Although we call him a pastoral poet, they are not all pastorals. They may be divided into three main groups: the pastorals proper, certain poems that are in the nature of mimes, others that have an epic character. Yet the division between them is

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