Theocritus, Idylls

LCL 28: 16-17

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novel way. Moreover, Thyrsis has been promised not only the ivy-wood cup but also an opportunity to milk the best nanny goat. The equivalence of song, cup, and milk is typical of the limited, faux-naïf aesthetic of bucolic verse. Theocritus is probably alluding, too, to the well-known etymologizing of the word “tragedy” from tragos (billy goat) and ôdê (song): he presents a new sort of “goat song” that treats song, art, desire, and myth in a country setting.

Thyrsis’ masterpiece, which is punctuated by a refrain evocative of folk song, tells of the love and the death of Daphnis. The sixth-century Sicilian poet Stesichorus is said by one source to have sung about Daphnis, and another connects Daphnis’ death with the origins of bucolic song (Diod. Sic. 4.84, Ael. VH 10.18). Theocritus’ account is mysteriously allusive—perhaps deliberately so, but more likely because we do not know the version of the myth that he is following. His other reference to the story appears to have Daphnis dying of unrequited love for a certain Xenea (Id. 7.72‒77), but here the words of Priapus suggest that “the girl” is not reluctant (81‒94). It seems that here at any rate Daphnis has taken a vow of chastity; that would account for Aphrodite’s anger (96) and for Daphnis’ defiance (100‒103). His death, too, is mysterious: he “went to the stream,” and the “eddying water” is said to have “washed over” or “engulfed” him (140‒41). “Going to the stream” is not elsewhere a euphemism for death, and rivers in the underworld are not elsewhere said to engulf the dead; rather, they have to be crossed. It seems likely, therefore, that the allusion is to suicide in a pool, perhaps a pool belonging to a Naiad whom Daphnis loves but has forsworn. (Most other known versions of the story have him blinded as punishment for infidelity: Diod. Sic.

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and Aelian locc. citt.; Parth. Amat. narr. 29; schol. Theoc. 8.93; Serv. on Virg. Ecl. 5.20).

The lamenting of the natural world in sympathy with Daphnis’ death (the so-called pathetic fallacy) is a thematic link with the world of bucolic poetry evoked by the opening dialogue. His death, however, is not typical of the power of Eros in the bucolic poems. It contrasts pointedly with the earthy remonstrances of Priapus, and with the goats’ imminent mating with which the idyll closes. But it is out of that death that bucolic poetry seems to arise when Daphnis passes his pipes to Pan.

Criticism
  • Cairns, F. “Theocritus’ First Idyll: The Literary Programme.” WS 97 (1984): 89‒113.
  • Halperin, Before Pastoral, 161‒89.
  • Hunter, Selection, 60‒107.
  • Ogilvie, R. M. “The Song of Thyrsis.” JHS 82 (1962): 106‒10.
  • Segal, C. “Death by Water: A Narrative Pattern in Theocritus.” Hermes 102 (1974): 20‒38 = Poetry and Myth, 47‒65.
  • ———. “‘Since Daphnis Dies’: The Meaning of Theocritus’ First Idyll.” MH 31 (1974): 1‒22 = Poetry and Myth, 25‒46.
  • Williams, F. J. “Theocritus, Idyll i 81‒91.” JHS 89 (1969): 121‒23.
  • Zuntz, G. “Theocritus 1.95f.” CR 10 (1960): 37‒40.
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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.theocritus-idylls.2015