Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral: Essays on Theocritus and Virgil

Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral: Essays on Theocritus and Virgil

by Charles Segal

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Collected in this volume are fifteen essays, previously published in a wide variety of journals, on the pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Virgil.

Originally published in 1981.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton

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Collected in this volume are fifteen essays, previously published in a wide variety of journals, on the pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Virgil.

Originally published in 1981.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral

Essays on Theocritus and Virgil

By Charles Segal


Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06475-8


«Since Daphnis Dies»: The Meaning of Theocritus' First Idyll

By Charles Segal, Providence, R.I.


The first Idyll of Theocritus is an extraordinarily closely knit and carefully constructed poem. Most of its second half consists of Thyrsis' song about 'the sorrows of Daphnis' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 19), a cowherd-singer (cf. 128–129) who is 'wasting away' because of an unexplained struggle with love. Attempts to find reasons for Daphnis' death have, on the whole, suffered from considering Daphnis apart from the rest of the poem. The present paper seeks to place Daphnis' death in the perspective of the poem's total structure and thereby to offer an interpretation of the Idyll as a whole. In so doing, it draws heavily on the symbolism attaching to the elements of the pastoral world depicted in the Idyll, especially the symbolism of water.

The exact nature 'of Daphnis' death is itself a perplexing problem. Theocritus is brief and elusive (138-141):


'Him Aphrodite wished to raise up, but all the thread had run out from the Fates (Moirai), and Daphnis came to a stream. The eddy washed over the man dear to the Muses, one not hated of the Nymphs.'

The scholiasts thought that the 'stream' of 140 is Acheron, but there is no evidence that Theocritus ever refers to Acheron in such terms, nor should it 'wash over' its victim. Others have suggested that Daphnis is metamorphosed into a spring, a view which has even less support from the text or from what is known of the myth of Daphnis. Of the traditional, apparently Sicilian myth of Daphnis, a herdsman punished with blindness for his infidelity to a Nymph to whom he pledged his love, there are, at best, only hints (see 88–91 and infra). A number of recent interpreters, however, maintain that Theocritus is following the traditional legend.

The most likely interpretation is that the 'stream' of 140 is a real stream and not a metaphor for death. On this view Daphnis dies by drowning. Yet his death is no ordinary event. The water which washes over him is akin to the mysterious water which adorns other dangerous places in the Theocritean corpus, notably in Idylls XIII, XXII, and in the spurious XXIII. The poet gives Daphnis a deliberately mysterious, archetypal death by water in order to enhance the range and suggestiveness of his tale. Such a fate is of a piece with the remote and mythical atmosphere of the tale as a whole: the appearance of gods, the Nymphs in the background, the conversation with Aphrodite.

At the same time water is an important unifying symbol throughout the poem. Inviting, refreshing, joyful at the beginning (1–8), the haunt of Nymphs of Sicily's rivers and streams in the song of Daphnis (68–69. 118), ominous and mysterious at Daphnis' death (140),, and then finally benign and evocative of a fanciful Olympian mythology near the very end (150), water symbolizes opposing elements in Theocritus' pastoral world and in his art. The association of water and poetry goes back to the proem of Hesiod's Theogony, a passage which Theocritus perhaps has in mind in the opening of his Idyll (1–8). It is implicit also in the connection of the 'springs of the Seasons' (150) with the cup, the elaborately adorned artifact and prize of song which itself as a work of art symbolizes poetry and especially pastoral poetry.


Idyll I falls into three parts, each of which has its own distinctive geography. First comes the meeting between the two rustics at the beginning, with its quiet, beautiful, but not entirely secure pastoral locus (1–23). To this bucolic frame we return at the very end of the poem (143–152). Second stand the scenes on the cup. These belong to a more realistic workaday world (29–56), a pastoral version of the Homeric Shield of Achilles. This locus bears the imprint of human cultivation and habitation: there is a well-planted vineyard (46) and a rubble wall (47). Here nature is fenced in, demarcated for human use and not left to its spontaneous whisperings and gurglings, as in Thyrsis' world (cf. 1–8). Even the sheer rock by the sea serves human work: it is the place from which the muscular old fisherman casts his net (39–40). There is a certain aggressiveness between nature and man here. Foxes prowl around the intent boy of the third scene, looking for a chance to get at the grapes or his lunch. Musing and wrapt absorption may here bring their penalty. The concentrated weaving of the 'beautiful' [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 52) cage for the grasshopper is a palpable symbol of poetry. Yet even this scene is, in a way, connected with the theme of food-getting through the presence of the hungry and designing foxes. The making of the cage too implies fencing in, control, the containment of nature for human purposes.

Third and last is the setting of Daphnis' death. Its real geography shades off into the realm of myth and imagination. There are real Sicilian rivers and mountains, to be sure (68–69): «These points describe an area in western Sicily of about 60 kilometers from north to south», as one commentator notes. But Pan, Priapus, Hermes, Aphrodite and the Nymphs are at home here and pass to and fro easily in converse with mortals. Jackals and lions, not very likely inhabitants of Theocritus' Sicily, dwell in Daphnis' mountains and lament his death (71–72. 115).

Each of these three loci is, in a sense, unreal and artificial; but there are gradations of unreality. The realm of Daphnis, despite its actual place names, stands at the furthest remove from reality. The workaday world of the cup is the closest. In between stands the shepherd world of Thyrsis and the Goatherd. For them nature is free, generous, unmarked by boundaries or tillage. Rustic gods haunt their glades. Yet work is not entirely absent: Thyrsis still has to attend to the pasturing of his companion's goats (14).

A complex pattern of parallel motifs and verbal repetitions relates these three locales to one another. Furthermore, the closing dialogue between the two rustics holds all three settings present simultaneously for a final, synoptic moment.

The character of each locus also appears through the kind of water it contains. The water of the rustics' world is gentle, beautiful, songful, in close sympathy with art and leisure (1–8. 150). It is felt to be the haunt of the forest divinities, the Nymphs (12 and 22). In the scenes on the cup water appears only indirectly and secondarily: the sea is implied in the description of the fisherman casting his net (39–40), but only the rock itself is actually mentioned. This locus belongs primarily to earth and dry land rather than to water. As the poem once more moves farther from reality in the song of Daphnis' death, water too becomes less realistic, more magical. The nymphs, who appeared only briefly and obliquely in the pastoral locus of the beginning (12. 22) are now much in evidence (68–69. 117–118). The water of this realm is 'sacred water', [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (69), or 'lovely water', [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (118). It becomes, finally, the deadly, mysterious eddy which closes over the cowherd (139–140).

'Sacred water' partakes of the ambiguity of this mythicized natural world. As the haunt of Nymphs, it is life-giving and points back to the refreshing springs by which Thyrsis and the Goatherd sing (12. 22). But to the herdsman embattled against Aphrodite it shows its destructive side. To that ambiguity of water corresponds an ambiguity within this mythical world as a whole. Aphrodite's 'secret laughter' and 'heavy anger' (95–96) may be playful, as Zuntz has convincingly argued. Yet to cross the powers of love is dangerous; and Daphnis, for all the goddess' wish to 'raise him up' (139), does, in fact, perish. This tension between life and death is also hinted at in Daphnis' own scornful reference to Adonis. Indeed, the hunting motif of 110 suggests the circumstances of Adonis' death. Since Theocritus was interested in the myth of Adonis' death and resurrection (Idyll XV), there may be a further irony in Daphnis' quarrel with Aphrodite. He taunts her with her paramour in terms which evoke the myth of Adonis' death and resurrection. Yet the herdsman who scorns the love-goddess cannot participate in the cycle of death and renewal. She cannot 'raise him up'. The 'sacred water' shows only its destructive power.

To the three geographical realms of the poem correspond three levels of art. The least 'real' is the most emotionally intense and involving. The song of Daphnis' sufferings is pervaded by a rhetoric and pathos that set a lofty and artificial tone, far from 'realistic' representation (cf. 66–69. 80–86. 132–136). The procession of gods and pastoral figures, the dialogue between Daphnis and Aphrodite, the apostrophe to the Nymphs all serve to keep the narrative on a plane of remote, self-conscious mythicality. Of this atmosphere Daphnis' mysterious death by water is an integral part.

There is obviously a strong contrast between the fresh setting of the bucolic locus amoenus in the first part of the Idyll (1–23) and the mythical world of Daphnis at the end. This contrast, in turn, creates an ironic interplay between the serious and the playful, between gaiety and sorrow. The rustic gods, Priapus and the Nymphs, who occur in the bucolic frame in close association with water (12. 21–22, and cf. Pan in 3), recur, more dolefully, in the lament for Daphnis, where they again stand in close association with water (66–69. 81–83). The song of Daphnis, in fact, ends with Nymphs as it began with Nymphs (66 and 141). The symmetry is reinforced by the recurrence of the important word, 'stream' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in 68 and 140; and we may also recall the related [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of the opening (5). Springs, though remote and mythical, recur in the bucolic frame that ends the Idyll (150), thus reminding us once more of the happier aqueous setting which enframes Daphnis' death. The rivers and springs which earlier invited the rustics to song (cf. 2. 8. 22) are now incorporated into the sorrows of Daphnis: they are a part of the strange, fleeting landscape of his tormented love (cf. 83). He himself bids farewell to 'Arethusa and the rivers that pour (their) lovely water down the Thybris' (117–118). If one were to seek a specific stream for Daphnis' death, as some interpreters have done, one would be tempted to look for it in the vicinity of these rivers. What is significant, however, is precisely the fact that the 'stream' where Daphnis perishes is nameless. It is thus set apart from the 'great stream' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the Anapus or the 'sacred water' of the Acis in 68–69. Its reality stands on an entirely different plane; it is not of the sort to be verified on the map.

The contrast between Daphnis and the rest of the rustic world develops on several different levels. It is clearest if we compare the scene on the cup. The playful 'love' there (eros, 37) becomes the frustrated and doomed 'love' of Daphnis (eras: 78. 85. 93. 97. 104. 130). The teasing 'laughter' (36) of the flirtatious woman on the cup becomes the hidden, mocking 'laughter' of the love-goddess herself (95–96). To one embroiled in the complexities of love (cf. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 85) the 'sweet' goddess can be 'bitter' (cf. 93 and 95), and her laughter can have a sinister or at best an ambiguous quality (96).

The goatherd's plea for a song from Thyrsis ends with a playful and conventional reference to Hades: 'Come, my friend, for you won't keep your song for Hades who brings forgetfulness' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 62–63). In Daphnis' lament, however, Hades is far more ominous (cf. 103. 130), and in both of these passages it is connected with Eros. In Daphnis' world of tragic emotions, death and love go together, as they have for tragic lovers of all times. On the cup the labors of love are only mock-serious: love is treated here with the humorous exaggeration attaching to the amours of country bumpkins, as the ponderous rhythms of 38 make clear: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

The motif of 'sweetness' forms an even stronger link between the bucolic frame, the cup, and the story of Daphnis. The rustics enjoy the 'sweet' sounds of springs, rustling trees, and song (1–2. 7). The cup has been 'washed with sweet wax' (27). Thyrsis introduces the Daphnis song with a reference back to this sweet singing (65); and the Goatherd's praise in the closing frame sounds the motif for one final time, even more sensually and exuberantly than before, in the comparisons to honey and figs (146–148). But within the episode of Daphnis sweetness occurs only in the ambiguous laughter of Aphrodite (95). Instead, the cowherd 'fulfils bitter love' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 93). Here too love and death are closely associated through the symmetry of the line and the repeated verb 'fulfilled' (93): [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In the bucolic frame the Goatherd had warned of the possible 'bitterness' of Pan (16–17). But rustics can avoid the dangerous aspects of their god as Daphnis cannot avoid the dangers of 'bitter Eros'.

The rustics' respect for Pan (16) contrasts with Daphnis' confident insulting of Aphrodite (100ff.). In the rustic world of the opening section Pan is a quietly accepted presence with whom the experienced herdsman reckons as a normal part of rustic life (cf. 3. 16–18). But when Pan recurs in Daphnis' complaint, it is in more strident and emotional tones: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (123). The impassioned address and listing of his haunts in 123–126 also recalls the indignant tone of the narrator's apostrophe to the Nymphs at the very beginning of the Daphnis song (66–69). That emotionality, however, is now transferred from the narrator to the sufferer himself. Whereas the narrator, Thyrsis, addressed the absent Nymphs in terms of rivers and the 'lovely vales of Tempe' (67–69), Daphnis addresses the absent Pan in terms of the remote and rugged mountains of Arcadia, Lycaeus and Maenalus (124–126). It is as if Daphnis is blind to the gentler features of his world and little cognizant of its gentler divinities, despite their good will toward him (141).

Love and death, laughter, bitterness and sweetness thus occur in all three sections of the poem. This contraposto of emotional tones concentrates heavily on water. The mysterious 'eddy' washes over Daphnis ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 140). But the cup, where love and laughter are facile and happy, is 'washed with sweet wax' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 27). The contrasts of sweetness and water here fuse. The verb [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is not common. Theocritus uses it in these two passages and nowhere else.

In one sense the scenes on the cup and the story of Daphnis stand on the same level: both are enclosed within an artificial frame and both are incorporated into the larger rustic world within which Thyrsis and the Goatherd pasture their flock, meet, and sing. Through this frame Theocritus self-consciously juxtaposes ecphrastic art and narrative art. The one is static, distanced, ironical, unemotional. The other is full of movement, emotionally tense, pathetic. The contrast between the two kinds of narrative and between the two landscapes corresponds also to the contrast between the two aspects of the motif of water: the refreshing, inviting water of the bucolic frame and the destructive, mysterious water of Daphnis' deadly 'stream'; the fatal 'washing over' of Daphnis (140) and the figurative 'washing' of the cup with 'sweet wax' (27).


Excerpted from Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral by Charles Segal. Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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