Idyll in Poetry: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Confessions of a City…
  • 1:33 Example: Milton's 'Lycidas'
  • 2:27 Example: Blake's 'The…
  • 3:07 Example: Tennyson's…
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at the idyll, which is a type of poetry dealing with pastoral settings. Learn more about these scenic poems and what has motivated people to write them for over two millennia.

Confessions of a City Mouse: Idyll Defined

Alexandria, Egypt, of the 4th century B.C. was full to bursting with scholars and intellectuals. It was a sprawling, crowded metropolis. While many seemed content with the advantages of living in the city—which included access to its legendary library—there were some who desperately desired to retreat to the countryside. Theocritus was one who longed for quiet simplicity. He may not have been the first to have this desire, but he was the first to express it poetically with the idyll. Here's an excerpt from the very first pastoral poem ever penned by Theocritus, in order to get a feel for what an idyll was to him:

Begin, O Muses, begin once more the bucolic songs!
O wolves, O jackals, O bears who in their season haunt the caves,
Fare thee well! I Daphnis the cowherd will come no longer to thee in thy wood,
No more to thine oak thickets, to thy groves. Farewell, Arethusa,
And the rivers who pour down the Thybris thy beauteous waters!

You may have noticed that Theocritus did not originally call his poems 'idylls.' Instead, he termed them bucolic (from the Greek boukolikos, meaning 'pertaining to cow herds') since he wished to chronicle the lives and surroundings of herding folk. The word idyll was later coined to refer to the short, highly wrought descriptive poems on pastoral subjects that characterized the work of Theocritus and those who followed in his footsteps, such as the authors of the following examples: John Milton's 'Lycidas,' William Blake's 'The Shepherd,' and Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'The Passing of Arthur.'

Example: Milton's 'Lycidas'

'Lycidas,' John Milton's idyll, is a very conscious reflection of the work of Theocritus. When we read the poem you will notice how the muses are invoked by Milton in an even more prolonged and exaggerated fashion in an effort to emulate some of the archaic scholarly fervor represented in Theocritus' work. This poem also centers on the tragic passing of the shepherd Lycidas, as the very first idyll focuses on the death of Daphnis. The deaths of the young herders Lycidas and Daphnis are used in idylls as a metaphor for the loss of innocence experienced through aging or leaving nature:

Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring;
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain and coy excuse!
So may some gentle muse
With lucky words favour my destin'd urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud!

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