previous next

B.--Theocritus' Verse and Style, and Dialect.

Idylls xxviii-xxx are written in lyric measures. Idyll viii includes seven quatrains in elegiacs. Otherwise the verse used throughout the idylls is the hexameter, and one of peculiar gracefulness.

The dialect used in i-xv (excepting xii) is Doric, but it is a Doric that was never spoken in one single part of Greece, though it approaches most nearly to the dialect of the Dorian islands. Theocritus introduces moreover--even in the mouths of his roughest countrymen--long obsolete Homeric forms1 (v. 95; v. 27; v. 143ὅττι”; xi. 74ἄρνεσσι”; iv. 38σέθεν”; iv. 27ηράσσαο”, etc.). 'Theocritus has not chosen a popular dialect, his language is the Homeric which prevails in the epic and lyric poetry of Greece, only with a somewhat stronger admixture of Dorisms than is found in Pindar; this Doric colouring varies in degree according to the character of each idyll' (J. A. Hartung, p. xliii).

Even in the bucolic idylls there is not only an admixture of Homeric forms, but a not infrequent reminiscence of Homeric phrase (xi. 22; iv. 7, 8; i. 31 sqq.; xv. 79).

Is this to be accounted a fault in a poet who brings on the stage rough characters straight from the sheep farms of Italy, Sicily, and Cos, or from the harvest field? Are we to say that Theocritus commits the error of making his characters talk like fine folks without regard to actual reality?

To some degree realism is sacrificed to artistic literary form; but there is one realism of detail, another of general tone and spirit. Modern travellers have recognized Lacon and Comatas (Id. v) in the shepherds of Southern Italy: “Le pâtre qui les garde a l'air aussi sauvage qu'elles (his sheep), avec la peau de mouton, ou de chèvre, jetée sur les épaules, et sa longue houlette dont la forme est celle de la crosse de nos évêques; on croirait voir le Lacon ou le Comatas de Théocrite” (Lenormand, quoted by Conat, p. 420). The singing-match, which forms so prominent a feature in the pastorals, is still to be heard in Greece and Sicily at any country gathering, just as in the old Highlands piper vied with piper. Whether the poetic fancies of the singer in Idyll iii and Idyll x are too delicate for the character, may be judged from the specimens of popular song collected in M. Legrand's Chansons populaires grecques (see on iii. 13, vi. 7). Theocritus neither seeks out the coarse side, nor is he blind to it, but taking the happier side of Greek country life, its sunshine, its easy poverty, its native love of singing, he represents these as they are, but with an additional charm of setting of his own, which may not be actually there in the same form, but is not immeasurably removed from the real. After all his poems are idylls, εἰδύλλια, each a 'little picture' of some country scene, they do not pretend to be a study of Greek country life in all its sides.

Those who ask for more realism in Theocritus must ask him to write more--not to rewrite what he has written. The idylls, as we have them, are true pictures of one side of Greek rustic character, with glimpses of the coarser.

So much for the general tone of realism; and this being granted, it is of little moment that the rustics use genitives in -οιο and epic aorists, and do not elide all their vowels.

More important, however, is the use of the hexameter. Sophron, the originator of the mime, used only a metrical prose; Epicharmus apparently trochaic measure. Comedy (old and new) uses an iambic which approaches closely to every day speech; Herondas uses the scazon, and makes that uncouth verse still more uncouth by harshness of elision and synizesis.

The reason for Theocritus' choice is partly explained by the character of his realism; he does not sketch the mean and sordid, as does Herondas, but the cheerful, humorous side of life. The sordid scazon suits the mean streets of Herondas, not the country side. All the pastorals but one (iv) contain songs, and for this three of the recognized regular metres were possible, the hexameter, the elegiac couplet (as in Id. viii), and the trochaic tetrameter. So far as the fragments of old popular songs go, they show no regular form of popular melody, which Theocritus could have used; but show a wide prevalence of dactylic rhythm. Cf.

λὶψ ἄνεμος ταχὺ μὲν νεφέλας, ταχὺ δ᾽ αἰθέρα ποιεῖ
     ᾿Αργέστῃ δ᾽ ἀνέμῳ πᾶσ᾽ ἕπεται νεφέλη.

Carm. Pop. (Bergk) 40 (elegiacs):

Τὸν ῾Ελλάδος ἀγαθέας
στραταγὸν ἀπ᾽ εὐρυχόρου
Σπάρτας ὑμνήσομεν
     ᾿Ιὴ Παιάν.

Carm. Pop. 45:

Δέξαι τὰν ἀγαθὰν τύχαν,
     δέξαι τὰν ὑγίειαν,
ἃν φέρομεν παρὰ τᾶς θεοῦ,
     ἃν ἐκαλέσσατο τήνα.

Carm. Pop. 42:
(a simple glyconic rhythm).

Given then the hexameter as the verse to be used, the Homeric forms at once find an excuse. Homer and Hesiod made not only the theogonies of Greece but its vocabulary and style, and whatever was written in hexameters tended toward epic diction, especially in description (cf. Theoc. i. 31 sqq., vii ad init.).

While Theocritus is full of Homeric touches, these are, as might be expected, more pronounced in the epic idylls, and in xvii, than in the pastorals2. Yet however full a passage is of Homeric reminiscence it never becomes a cento or mosaic; it rather shows a writer steeped in Homeric language, blending it with his own phrase to a harmonious whole. We might say of his characters that they are talking Homer without knowing it3; while for the reader the Homeric reminiscence suggests happily similarity or contrast of scene.

But as concerns form, the hexameter of Theocritus is a new instrument wrought to the highest delicacy, yet free from the strict formalism of the majority of the Alexandrian writers. Its elaboration varies naturally with the style of each piece. xv bears to i, ii, iii, the same relation that the iambics of Aristophanes bear to those of Sophocles; it is wholly colloquial, and art has not only hidden but banished art. The charm of the verse often escapes analysis; but the following characteristics should be noted:--

The symmetry with which his verses, or groups of verses, are constructed.

(a) Actual strophic arrangement, with refrain4 verse as in i: “ἄρχετε βουκολικᾶς Μοῖσαι φίλαι ἄρχετ᾽ ἀοιδᾶς.
” ii: “ἶυγξ, ἕλκε τὺ τῆνον ἐμὸν ποτὶ δῶμα τὸν ἄνδρα.

The refrain divides the poem into groups of lines, each group forming a completed whole (see especially first half of Id. ii).

(b) Strophic, but with no refrain:

In Idyll iii. 6-23 fall naturally into groups of twos and threes; 24 is an interruption; 25-39 falls in threes; 40-51 forms a song, also in threes; Id. x. 42-55 falls into couplets, each couplet completing one idea.

(c) Besides these correspondences, which can be measured, there is throughout the idylls a natural balance of verse or phrase not determined by numerical law, but by the judgement of the ear.

This is effected in a number of ways.

Add to these points the fact that Theocritus writes generally in short rounded periods, often by the single line, with the daintiness but not the monotony of Catullus' hexameter, and it will be seen how widely his verse differs from the old Homeric ἔπος. We get melody in each separate phrase, not a sonorous march of the whole: the verse dwells affectionately on each detail and often looks back at what it has left, whatever be the feeling it would keep before us: effective for nature's sights, sounds, or a fondly remembered name; indignation at the greed of men; sarcasm directed at another (i. 97) or envy of good fortune (xii. 28).

The loud lyre of Homer is changed for the pipe of Pan.

The same characteristic appear in some degree in Vergil's Eclogues, distinguishing their metre from the 'ocean roll of rhythm' of the Aeneid.

1 But it must be owned, much more frequently in vii, i, ii.

2 See G. Fath, De Theocriti studiis homericis, Halle, 1876; L. Genther, Über Theocr. XXV und Mosch. IV (= Megara), Luckau, 1891; Legrand, Étude, p. 355 sqq.; and see on Theocr. xiii. 32, 47, 58, 54; xvii. 64, 88; xxv. 44, 10, 17; xxii. 82, 98, 106, etc., to mention a few out of many; in pastorals, see on vii. 13; v. 10; iv. 8; xi. 22; in mimes, xv. 79; ii. 14, 112.

3 In iv. 8βίην καὶ κάρτος” is intentionally used by Battos to parody Corydon's grandiloquence.

4 See on l. 64.

hide References (15 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (15):
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 1
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 10
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 11
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 12
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 13
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 14
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 15
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 16
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 18
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 2
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 3
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 4
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 5
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 6
    • Theocritus, Idylls, 8
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: