Greek pastoral poetry

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For as long as peasants have tended their flocks and herds on grazing lands away from the village, song and music (esp. that of the pipe (syrinx), which is easily cut, fashioned and carried) have served as an anodyne against rustic tedium and brutality. This is esp. true of the goatherd, who ranges furthest into the wilderness of Pan in search of shrubs on which only his omnivorous charges will browse; and in these lonely wastes it is natural that two herdsmen whose paths cross should not only perform in each other's company but that their songs should be competitive. This real‐world situation provided the foundation upon which a literary genre was established by Theocritus in the 3rd cent. bc and developed by his followers in Hellenistic Greece, Rome, and the post‐Renaissance world.

Two piping herdsmen are among the figures depicted on the Shield of Achilles (in bk. 18 of Homer's Iliad), and Eumaeus the swineherd in the Odyssey reflects early literary interest in peasant characterization; even the Cyclops Polyphemus, communing with his ram, arouses a moment of sympathy which will later stimulate his re‐creation as a youthful lover. Stesichorus is credited by Aelian with having been the first to sing of the local bucolic hero Daphnis, back in the 6th cent. But the conditions needed for pastoral themes to generate a genre were not met until literary life became concentrated in Hellenistic cities, alienated from the villages in which so many Greek cultural traditions had developed. One thread in the cultural amalgam of the 3rd cent. is an understandable nostalgia for the simpler world once dominated by Daphnis, Pan, Priapus, and the nymphs; a world now largely vanished but whose continued existence could at least be fantasized in the mountains of Magna Graecia and Arcadia.

The basic form elaborated by Theocritus seems to have been essentially agonistic (see above). Theocritus 5 provides the clearest example. Two peasants meet; one proposes a contest; stakes are wagered, and a judge is sought; jockeying for the most favourable ground takes place; and after some preliminary boasting and badinage, each attempting to unsettle the other, the competition begins. This takes the form of an alternating sequence of couplets or quatrains in which the first singer, as proposer of each subject, has an inbuilt advantage, while the respondent must follow suit and if possible cap each theme. This goes some way to offset the fact that the initiator of the challenge—in this case, Lacon—has chosen the time and place. In poem 5, victory is suddenly and confidently claimed by Comatas, and immediately confirmed by the judge. Apparently, the first singer to contradict a previous statement is the loser. There is thus a limiting factor to the bucolic agon, for the longer it goes on the harder it gets.

Theocritus realized the possibilities offered by this half‐crude, half‐sophisticated model to the new style of self‐conscious urban literature. His chosen form is artificial from the start; the Doric dialect may impart a rustic flavour, but the metre is the Homeric hexameter. Each poem works its own elegant variation on the fundamental pattern. The coarse duels of the grubby, garlic‐chewing rustics are transmuted into allusive mandarin elegance, without ever quite pulling free of their roots in the vigorous Sicilian soil. The literary conventions which lead on to Virgil, Milton, and Marie‐Antoinette are all there.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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