Theocritean Pastoral: A Study in the Definition of Genre

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The power, therefore, of thus fully perceiving any natural object depends on our being able to group and fasten all our fancies about it as a centre, making a garland of thoughts for it in which each separate thought is subdued and shortened of its own strength, in order to fit it for harmony with others; the intensity of our enjoyment of the object depending, first, on its own beauty, and then on the richness of the garland. And men who have this habit of clustering and harmonizing their thoughts are a little too apt to look scornfully upon the harder workers who tear the bouquet to pieces to examine the stems. This was the chief narrowness of Wordsworth’s mind; he could not understand that to break a rock with a hammer in search of a crystal may sometimes be an act not disgraceful to human nature, and that to dissect a flower may sometimes be as proper as to dream over it … [John Ruskin. Modern Painters Part IV, XVII] [1]

Ruskin’s concern for the propriety of approaches to landscape may apply as well to the problem of landscape poetry, in this case Theocritean pastoral. In this instance it is not the literal bouquet which is threatened, but the “garland of thoughts” whose stems and petals may be ransacked and dissected. Are we to dream, with Wordsworth, over the Idylls, or to join the “harder workers” with their little hammers?

This dissertation was written in the spirit of a third alternative. The problems of interpreting Theocritus are many, and the discussion above has no doubt brought to light as many as it has resolved. But these problems are better identified as one aspect of the richness of the poems, both in themselves and as an experiment—successful without precedent—in the origination of genre. Dense and allusive, the Idylls employ a broad poetic legacy from the Greek past, and take their shape in the literary and political complexity of the Hellenistic world. It has been the aim of this study to give an account of one dimension of Theocritus’ inheritance—that of the archaic hexameter tradition to which bucolic poetry allies itself on as fundamental a ground as its choice of metrical form. If the formal and thematic implications of this choice have been rendered more precise and explicit for Idylls I and VII, this analysis has accomplished its goal, which was neither to dismantle the poems nor to obscure them with garlands of new thought. Rather, it has been to read the Idylls, closely and slowly, with adequate and informed attention to a facet of the poetry which we must work to recapture.

Behind this reading lies the historical fact that Theocritus found himself at a distance from Archaic Greek poetic tradition and yet looked backward to it in assembling the materials for his new genre. In the effort to comprehend this process, I have tried to bring to bear some of the perspectives of recent scholarship—above all those of Gregory Nagy and his school of investigators following Parry and Lord in the reconstruction of meaning in Homeric epic and related archaic traditions in their cultural contexts. I emphasize the word perspectives. Methodology cannot be transferred from Homer to Theocritus (for reasons which I hope have become clearer rather than more obscure in my examination of Theocritean archaizing). As to the wealth of specific facts and conclusions with which these scholars continue to enrich us, I have presented only a sample of the applications by which such work can illuminate Theocritus. These examples should inspire, and will perhaps indicate, further studies.

The second discipline present here is that of literary criticism. It is from this point of view that I have chosen to present Idylls I and VII as paradigms of Theocritean pastoral, comprising between them a range of thematic alternatives which exhaust the genre at this particular stage of its development—and no Western poetic genre has had a more particular origin. This schematic emphasis on I and VII is the result, rather than the cause, of a series of conclusions about the themes and forms which characterized the pastoral as Theocritus invents it. The evidence for these conclusions is internal, and had to be demonstrated from the poetry itself. This, in the detailed explications of the two central texts, I have sought to do. This reading of course preceded—indeed, dictated—the larger contextual study involving Theocritus’ models, by urging the definitive quality of his archaizing. I can only add that—in true Idyllic style—the digression into context has circled back to establish and refresh the literary interpretation. The usefulness of the model of pastoral genre which the Idylls posit, in my view, will prove itself in the next stage of this study: a complementary and comparative examination of Vergil’s Eclogues, through which revisionary synthesis of imitation and innovation Theocritean pastoral passes into the Western literary tradition.

In the literary dimension of this work, my model in reading Greek poetry has been John H. Finley. In this case, too, I can claim only a share in the perspective of a scholar whose learning and wisdom I could wish—with Socrates in the Symposium—were liable ‘to be infused from the fuller into the emptier man, as water runs through wool out of the fuller cup into an emptier one.’ But through his remarkable and tireless efforts as a teacher, he has succeeded in conveying elements of his unique historical and literary perspective on the Greek mind as, in its evolution, it generated the forms of its own articulation. His conviction of order in the Greek literary past underlies my attempts to make Theocritus’ position in that order intelligible.


[ back ] 1. Ruskin 1856, Modern Painters III:290-291.

[ back ] 2. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest” in Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Selection of his Poems and Prose (W.H. Gardner, ed., Baltimore 1953), p. 31.