The Hexameter of Theocritus’ Idyll 11

Theocritus is widely regarded as the poet who invented bucolic, a genre of literature which focuses on the activities of simple country folk such as shepherds and shepherdesses. Typically produced for urban audiences, bucolic literature presents an idealized portrait of the simple virtues of outdoorsmen.  Romanticism in 19th-century literature, seen as a reaction to the rapid industrialization throughout Europe during that century, mirrors the work of Theocritus and his contemporaries during an earlier period of rapid urban development.

Theocritus is most famous for his collection of Idylls, short pastoral poems usually on the topic of love. Stylistically, Theocritus’ Idylls do not veer far from the metrical trends introduced by Callimachus, an earlier Hellenistic poet. In dactylic hexameter, the form employed by Theocritus in the Idylls, lines consist of six feet, each of which is either a dactyl (one long syllable followed by two short syllables) or a spondee (two long syllables). Callimachus’ hexameter lines were long and elegant, largely eschewing spondees in every place other than the second foot. Dactyls were preferred to spondees in Ancient Greek verse because an overuse of the latter was seen as lazy or amateurish.

In one of the assigned discussion questions for the seventh week of class in the Sunoikesis Hellenistic Literature course, students were asked to compare the meter of Theocritus Idyll 11 with several selections from Homer. Having read Idyll 1 and Idyll 3 the previous week, we expected to find the same metrical rigor and expertise in this poem. Idyll 11, however departs in many ways from the norms of Theocritus’ more “serious” poems.

In their book  Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry, Fantuzzi and Hunter observe the following:

Theocritus is a particularly important witness to this Hellenistic metrical project, for on the one hand he pursues an almost ‘Callimachean’ rigour in the ‘serious’ bucolic idylls (I, 3-7), and, on the other, he can be radically anti-Callimachean in Idyll 11, when he clearly wishes to mark metrically the clumsiness of the Cyclops song, and again in Idyll 10, which is no longer ‘bucolic’ but rather agricultural and Hesiodic in content, and also in the epic-mythological poems, which return to the technique of the Homeric and Hesiodic hexameter.

Idyll 11 comically presents the Cyclops Polyphemus as a smitten lover singing to his beloved. It is tempting to read Theocritus’ Polyphemus as merely a sympathetic, bucolic idealization of a character who appears in most other sources as a monster. The epic Polyphemus is distinct from Theocritus’ Polyphemus in important ways, and the latter does indeed reflect an overall Bucolic theme and setting. Idyll 11, which focuses on the Cyclops’ unrequited love, is not, however, a serious, straightforward Bucolic–it is a satirical one.

Not only is the content of Idyll 11 intended to be hilarious–take, for example, the idea of an ugly giant asking a sea nymph to abandon her watery abode and come to live with him in a cave–but the hexameter itself also reflects Polyphemus’ bumbling, clumsy personality. One factor in particular is the excessive use of spondees:

“φοιτῇς δ᾽ αὖθ᾽ οὑτῶς, ὅκκα γλυκὺςὕπνος ἔχῃ με, ” (23)

“Would you come near when sweet sleep holds me?”

“αἴκά τις σὺν ναῒ πλέων ξένος ὧδ᾽ἀφίκηται” (62)

“If only some foreigner would arrive sailing in a ship”

“πολλαὶ συμπαίσδέν με κόραι τὰν νύκτα κέλονται” (78)

“Many girls call out to me in the night ‘play with me!'”

These lines produce a droning effect that completely skews the epic cadence of proper hexameter. Lines with spondees in both the first two feet appear also very often: 38, 39, 46, 52, 60, 61, 67, 73.

Other features that occur  frequently in Idyll 11 are repetitive and amateurish diction and trite metaphors and descriptions. Theocritus artfully employs these poetical faux pas to craft a very strong and unique voice for his character.

This week’s assignment provoked a lively discussion about the peculiarities of this particular Idyll of Theocritus against the backdrop of other pastoral works from both antiquity and modernity, which led to a deeper and richer understanding of what constitutes  the “bucolic genre.”