Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Theocritus

THEOCRITUS, of Syracuse, the foremost Greek pastoral poet, lived a life of which nothing is known except from allusions in his own works. The epigram appended to his poems makes him say, "I am a Syracusan, a man of the people, a son of Praxagoras and Philinna." He must have been born early in the 3d century, among a Dorian people, whose Dorian speech survives in his rural idyls. These "little pictures" chiefly represent the life of shepherds, neat-herds, and fishermen in the woods and on the shores of Sicily. They are doubtless inspired by the popular poetry of his time, and have much in common with the Romaic chants of the modern Greek shepherds. The first idyl is a song on Daphnis, the ideal herdsman, sung by the shepherd Thyrsis to a goatherd. The second is the magical chant which Simaetha pours forth to the magic moon, in the hope of recovering her lover. In the third a goatherd sings to his love, Amaryllis. The fourth is an interchange of rude banter between two country fellows; and the fifth is of the same kind. The scenes are in southern Italy. The sixth is a Sicilian singing match between two ideal herdsmen, not contemporary rustics, but poets of nobler themes. The scene of the seventh is in Cos, where the poet introduces himself at a singing match. He may have been attached to the Asclepian medical school in Cos; his friend Nicias was a physician. Sicily and rival minstrels occupy the ninth idyl. The tenth contains probably some real popular ditties, chanted by the reapers. The eleventh, addressed to Nicias, is a piece of artificial mythological genre, "The Cyclops in Love." The twelfth is a lyric, almost of passionate affection. The thirteenth is another idyl on a mythical topic, the adventures of Hercules and Hylas. The fourteenth and fifteenth are sketches of military and urban life, the mercenary soldier in love, and the gathering at the Adonis feast in Alexandria. Theo critus had wandered to the court of Ptolemy, and joined the literary society of his court. The sixteenth is a patriotic piece: the poet urges Hiero to assail the Carthaginians in Sicily. The seventeenth is a conven tional hymn to Ptolemy Philadelphus on his marriage with his sister. The eighteenth is an epithalamium; the nineteenth a tiny picture of Eros stung by a bee; the twentieth is the complaint of a herdsman rejected by a girl of the town; the twenty-first an idyl of fisher life: two poor old fishermen recount their dreams. The twenty-second idyl is a piece of heroic myth, the adven tures of Castor and Polydeuces; and the twenty-fourth is a tiny epic on the infancy of Hercules. The twenty-third is an amorous complaint. The twenty-fifth describes the slaughter by Hercules of the Nemean lion. The twentysixth justifies, in the interests of the ritual of Dionysus, the murder of the curious Pentheus. The twenty-seventh is the "Wooing of Daphnis," or "Oaristys," an amorous discourse between a girl and a swain. The twenty-eighth is a graceful piece of vers de societe, sent to a lady with the gift of an ivory distaff. The twenty-ninth is amorous; and there remain an imperfect and a spurious piece, and a set of twenty-three epigrams.

On a general view, Theocritus's surviving poems turn out to be (1) rural idyls, the patterns of Virgil's eclogues, and of all later pastoral poetry; (2) minute epics, or cabinet pictures from mythology; (3) sketches of contemporary life in verse; (4) courtly compositions; and (5) expressions of personal kindliness and attachment. The first category and the third are those on which the fame of Theocritus depends. His verse has a wonderful Doric melody; his shepherds are natural Southern people: it is not his fault that what he wrote truly of them has become a false commonplace in the pastoral poetry of the North.

Of Theocritus's own life we only know what has been recorded, that he lived in Syracuse, Cos, and Alexandria, and that he was acquainted with Nicias, with Aratus, the astronomical writer, and with Philinus, head of a school or sect of physicians. The rest is silence or conjecture. Suidas says that, in addition to the surviving poems, the Prcetidx, the Hopes, Hymns, the Heroines, Dirges, Elegies, and Iambics were attributed to him.

The charm of Theocritus can only be tasted in his original Doric, but the best English version is by Mr C. S. Calverley. M. Couat's book on the Alexandrine school of poetry may be re commended. J. Hauler, De Theoc. Vita et Carminibus (Freiburg, 1855), Hempel, Qusest. Theoc. (Kiel, 1881), and Rannow, Studio, Tfieocritea (Berlin, 1886), may also be found useful. The best Eng lish edition of the poems is that of Bishop Wordsworth.(A. L.)