Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

To Theocritus

'Sweet, methinks, is the whispering sound of yonder pine-tree,' so,
Theocritus, with that sweet word _ade_*, didst thou begin and strike the
keynote of thy songs. 'Sweet,' and didst thou find aught of sweet, when thou,
like thy Daphnis, didst 'go down the stream, when the whirling wave closed
over the man the Muses loved, the man not hated of the Nymphs?' Perchance
below those waters of death thou didst find, like thine own Hylas, the lovely
Nereids waiting thee, Eunice, and Malis, and Nycheia with her April eyes. In
the House of Hades, Theocritus, doth there dwell aught that is fair, and can
the low light on the fields of asphodel make thee forget thy Sicily? Nay,
methinks thou hast not forgotten, and perchance for poets dead there is
prepared a place more beautiful than their dreams. It was well for the later
minstrels of another day, it was well for Ronsard and Du Bellay to desire a
dim Elysium of their own, where the sunlight comes faintly through the shadow
of the earth, where the poplars are duskier, and the waters more pale than in
the meadows of Anjou.

* Transliterated.

There, in that restful twilight, far remote from war and plot, from sword and
fire, and from religions that sharpened the steel and lit the torch, there
these learned singers would fain have wandered with their learned ladies,
satiated with life and in love with an unearthly quiet. But to thee,
Theocritus, no twilight of the Hollow Land was dear, but the high suns of
Sicily and the brown cheeks of the country maidens were happiness enough. For
thee, therefore, methinks, surely is reserved an Elysium beneath the summer of
a far-off system, with stars not ours and alien seasons. There, as Bion
prayed, shall Spring, the thrice desirable, be with thee the whole year
through, where there is neither frost, nor is the heat so heavy on men, but
all is fruitful, and all sweet things blossom, and evenly meted are darkness
and dawn. Space is wide, and there be many worlds, and suns enow, and the
Sun-god surely has had a care of his own. Little didst thou need, in thy
native land, the isle of the three capes, little didst thou need but sunlight
on land and sea. Death can have shown thee naught dearer than the fragrant
shadow of the pines, where the dry needles of the fir are strewn, or glades
where feathered ferns make 'a couch more soft than Sleep.' The short grass of
the cliffs, too, thou didst love, where thou wouldst lie, and watch, with the
tunny watcher till the deep blue sea was broken by the burnished sides of the
tunny shoal, and afoam with their gambols in the brine. There the Muses met
thee, and the Nymphs, and there Apollo, remembering his old thraldom with
Admetus, would lead once more a mortal's flocks, and listen and learn,
Theocritus, while thou, like thine own Comatas, 'didst sweetly sing.'

There, methinks, I see thee as in thy happy days, 'reclined on deep beds of
fragrant lentisk, lowly strewn, and rejoicing in new stript leaves of the
vine, while far above thy head waved many a poplar, many an elm-tree, and
close at hand the sacred waters sang from the mouth of the cavern of the
nymphs.' And when night came, methinks thou wouldst flee from the merry
company and the dancing girls, from the fading crowds of roses or white
violets, from the cottabos, and the minstrelsy, and the Bibline wine, from
these thou wouldst slip away into the summer night. Then the beauty of life
and of the summer would keep thee from thy couch, and wandering away from
Syracuse by the sandhills and the sea, thou wouldst watch the low cabin,
roofed with grass, where the fishing-rods of reed were leaning against the
door, while the Mediterranean floated up her waves, and filled the waste with
sound. There didst thou see thine ancient fishermen rising ere the dawn from
their bed of dry sea-weed, and heardst them stirring, drowsy, among their
fishing gear, and heardst them tell their dreams.

Or again thou wouldst wander with dusty feet through the ways that the dust
makes silent, while the breath of the kine, as they were driven forth with the
morning, came fresh to thee, and the trailing dewy branch of honeysuckle
struck sudden on thy cheek. Thou wouldst see the Dawn awake in rose and
saffron across the waters, and Etna, grey and pale against the sky, and the
setting crescent would dip strangely in the glow, on her way to the sea. Then,
methinks, thou wouldst murmur, like thine own Simaetha, the love-lorn witch,
'Farewell, Selene, bright and fair; farewell, ye other stars, that follow the
wheels of the quiet Night.' Nay, surely it was in such an hour that thou didst
behold the girl as she burned the laurel leaves and the barley grain, and
melted the waxen image, and called on Selene to bring her lover home. Even so,
even now, in the islands of Greece, the setting Moon may listen to the prayers
of maidens. 'Bright golden Moon, that now art near the waters, go thou and
salute my lover, he that stole my love, and that kissed me, sayin;g "Never
will I leave thee." And lo, he hath left me as men leave a field reaped and
gleaned, like a church where none cometh to pray, like a city desolate.'

So the girls still sing in Greece, for though the Temples have fallen, and the
wandering shepherds sleep beneath the broken columns of the god's house in
Selinus, yet these ancient fires burn still to the old divinities in the
shrines of the hearths of the peasants. It is none of the new creeds that cry,
in the dirge of the Sicilian shepherds of our time, 'Ah, light of mine eyes,
what gift shall I send thee, what offering to the other world? The apple
fadeth, the quince decayeth, and one by one they perish, the petals of the
rose. I will send thee my tears shed on a napkin, and what though it burneth
in the flame, if my tears reach thee at the last.'

Yes, little is ahered, Theocritus, on these shores beneath the sun, where thou
didst wear a tawny skin stripped from the roughest of he-goats, and about thy
breast an old cloak buckled with a plaited belt. Thou wert happier there, in
Sicily, methinks, and among vines and shadowy lime-trees of Cos, than in the
dust, and heat, and noise of Alexandria. What love of fame, what lust of gold
tempted thee away from the red cliffs, and grey olives, and wells of black
water wreathed with maidenhair?


The music of thv rustic flute
Kept not for long its happy country tone;
Lost it too soon, and learned a stormy note
Of men contention tost, of men who groan,
Which tasked thy pipe too sore, and tired thy throat--
It failed, and thou wast mute!

What hadst _thou_ to make in cities, and what could Ptolemies and Princes
give thee better than the goat-milk cheese and the Ptelean wine? Thy Muses
were meant to be the delight of peaceful men, not of tyrants and wealthy
merchants, to whom they vainly went on a begging errand. 'Who will open his
door and gladly receive our Muses within his house, who is there that will not
send them back again without a gift? And they with naked feet and looks
askance come homewards, and sorely they upbraid me when they have gone on a
vain journey, and listless again in the bottom of their empty coffer they
dwell with heads bowed over their chilly knees, where is their drear abode,
when portionless they return.' How far happier was the prisoned goat-herd,
Comatas, in the fragrant cedar chest where the blunt-faced bees from the
meadow fed him with food of tender flowers, because still the Muse dropped
sweet nectar on his lips!

Thou didst leave the neat-herds and the kine, and the oaks of Himera, the
galingale hummed over by the bees, and the pine that dropped her cones, and
Amarvllis in her cave, and Bombyca with her feet of carven ivory. Thou
soughtest the City, and strife with other singers, and the learned write still
on thy quarrels with Apollonius and Callimachus, and Antagoras of Rhodes. So
ancient are the hatreds of poets, envy, jealousy, and all unkindness.

Not to the wits of Courts couldst thou teach thy rural song, though all these
centuries, more than two thousand years, they have laboured to vie with thee.
There has come no new pastoral poet, though Virgil copied thee, and Pope, and
Phillips, and all the buckram band of the teacup time; and all the modish
swains of France have sung against thee, as the _son_challenged_Athene_. They
never knew the shepherd's life, the long' winter nights on dried heather by
the fire, the long summer days, when over the dry grass all is quiet, and only
the insects hum, and the shrunken burn whispers a silver tune. Swains in
high-heeled shoon, and lace, shepherdesses in rouge and diamonds, the world is
weary of all concerning them, save their images in porcelain, effigies how
unlike the golden figures, dedicate to Aphrodite, of Bombyca and Battus.
Somewhat, Theocritus, thou hast to answer for, thou that first of men brought
the shepherd to Court, and made courtiers wild to go a Maying with the
shepherds.


Andrew Lang