Fred Beake: Theocritus and Spenser

I came to Greek late, when I was nearly forty. Theocritus was one of the best discoveries. From the translations I had imagined something rather formal and artificial, something not that far from the Eclogues of Virgil, which I had known since my early teens, and which I knew were supposed to be modelled upon Theocritus. I found in fact a poetry that is very colloquial, and full of odd sounds and word plays, and rather wonderful in its rhythms. And I found myself impelled to translation. But I had an immediate gut reaction that was hard to account for. I had fallen in love with Edmund Spenser's Shepheards Calendar when I was in my middle teens, and somehow I sensed a strong connection. This did not seem very likely, but the feeling stayed, and when the opportunity came to present a paper at this conference, it seemed worth exploring.

The pastoral tradition in European poetry is very long. It extends from Theocritus and his followers, Bion and Moschus, in the second quarter of the third century B.C., till Arnold's poems, the Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis, in the middle of the nineteenth century A.D.. It could be argued that the tradition is actually older, if one considers the presence of the Shepherds in Hesiod's Theogony, or the quasi pastoral role that the Countryfolk play in Aristophanes' fine neglected play The Peace of 421 B.C.; or more recent, if one considers William Carlos Williams' fascination with Theocritus, or Frost's bold stories of countryfolk in such poems as the Witch of Coos. Nevertheless (as one would expect in something of such length) The Pastoral Tradition has distinct phases, and the two authors under comparison in this paper belong to two very different periods of it. Theocritus, writing in the third century B.C. is regarded as the origin of the tradition. He adopted a length of poem of about fifty to two hundred lines, that is new: the Greeks had previously tended to short lyrics (such as those by Sappho and Alcaeus) of perhaps twenty to forty lines, Homeric Epics, plays, choral odes, and excellent short poems of a few lines, which, though we call them epigrams or epitaphs, had a wider range than that . The new Pastoral form had the advantage of having enough space to say a good deal, while not taxing the reader (or listener) with excessive length, and often had the variety more than one voice gives a poem. It was also a wide form, that could contain, equally well, a boy having trouble with his girlfriend, somebody getting ready for the Olympic Games, women friends at a religious festival, or the Cyclops lamenting. And it allowed for a meeting of the spoken (often extremely colloquial) with Lyric.

Spenser by contrast wrote in a Renaissance tradition, that went back certainly to Petrarch, of poems that deal in a subtle allegorical way with contemporary themes. Much as in the Communist States of the second half of the twentieth century it was not altogether wise to say too much too openly under the benevolent tyrannies of the Renaissance (even of Elizabeth Tudor), but much could be implied. His Aeglogues are combinations of colloquial exchanges with song. There is however an obvious and important difference with the Greek tradition (and indeed the Latin), for Spenser's pastorals rhyme. It sometimes startles people who know little or no Latin or Greek, but even the most elaborate song in the classical languages is not rhymed. The result is a completely different sound to the Renaissance or Medieval. Secondly the pastoral idiom may be the same as Theocritus used, but the range of subject is much less. Indeed it is not I think irrelevant that Spenser goes out of his way to call his poems by the rather curious name of Aeglogue. He (or just possibly his friend E.K.) glosses this in the general introduction as "Goteheards tales", which he justifies from Theocritus "the first head and welspring" [of the pastoral], who "maketh goteheards the persons and authors of his tales." This is odd because in fact a good deal of Theocritus has nothing to do with goat herds, but also because Spenser's own Shepherds generally seem to be caring for sheep, when they are not conducting their little moments of joy and sorrow in the poems. By implication he thus limits himself to Goatheards's (or Shepherds'!) tales. Theocritus by contrast, who calls his poems "eidullion" or idyll (i.e. simply a short piece) covers a far wider range of subjects, including one fine sketch of town life. And yet, despite this, I would contend that that these two authors do have a strong relationship.

However at this point we hit a conundrum. E.K., who contributed the introduction and notes to the Shepheards Calendar, either also thought that Theocritus was important to Spenser, or in the intellectual atmosphere of a very Classical time wished to give that impression. Thus, he points out of August, that the Shepherd's singing match is in imitation of Theocritus, but more particularly of Virgil. This seems slight, but he says much more definitely of the March Aeglogue "This Aeglogue seemeth somewhat to resemble that of Theocritus, wherein the boy likewise telling the old man, that he had shot at a winged boy in a tree, was by him warned, to beware of mischief to come". And he says more unequivocally still of October "This Aeglogue is made in imitation of Theocritus his xvi Idilion, wherein hee reproued The Tyranne Hiero of Syracuse for his nigardise towarde Poetes, in whom is the power to make men immortal for theyr good dedes, or shameful for their naughty life...". The second two at least sound promising.

However, closer examination reveals, that March in fact is quite closely related to the fourth idyll of Bion, Theocritus's disciple. Possibly E.K. (or Spenser's) memory slipped, possibly some contemporary edition did attribute the Bion to Theocritus, perhaps one of them thought it better to bring in the well known Theocritus, rather than his less well known disciple.

At all events we have a comparison worth making, but it is a surprising one. The Bion has a single narrator. The Spenser, in a way which is much more reminiscent of Theocritus, has two speakers Willye and Thomalin, who are "shephearde boyes". The Bion tells how a boy, who is in the process of becoming a fowler, tries to catch Love, and becoming exasperated because he cannot do it, goes to the old man who teaches him his craft. The old man tells him to leave off till he is a man, when the bird that now runs away will come uncalled and settle on his head. The Spenser is altogether more playful. The shepherd boys look forward to the Spring. Willye sees it as a time when Love will awake "That now sleepeth in Lethe Lake". Thomalin insists Love is already about, and Willye demands to know why. Thomalin is at first uneasy about not watching his sheep, but says eventually

It was upon a holiday,
When shepheardes groomes han leave to play,
    I cast to go ashooting.
Long wandring up and downe the land,
With bowes and bolts in either hand,
    For birds in bushes tooting:
At length within an Yvie todde
(There shrouded was the little God)
    I heard a busy bussling.
I bent my bolt against the bush,
Listening if any thing did rush,
    But then heard no more rustling.
Though peeping close into the thicke,
Might see the mouing of some quicke,
    Whose shape appeared not:
But were it faerie, feend, or snake,
My courage earned it to awake,
    And manfully thereat shotte.
With that sprong forth a naked swayne,
With spotted winges like Peacock's trayne,
    And laughing lope to a tree.
His gylden quiver at his backe,
And silver bowe, which was but slacke,
    Which lightly he bent at me.
That seeing, I leuelde againe,
And shott at him with might and maine,
    As thicke, as it had hayled.
So long I shotte, that al was spent:
The pumie stones I hastly hent,
    And threwe: but nought availed:
He was so wimble and so wight,
From bough to bough he lepped light,
    And oft the pumies latched.
Therewith affrayed I ranne away:
But he, that earst seemd but to playe,
    A shaft in ernest snatched,
And hit me running in the heele:
For then I little smart did feele:
    But soon it sore encreased.
And now it rankleth more and more,
And inwardly it festreth sore,
    Ne wote I, how to cease it.

Willye assures Thomalin that this is certainly Love, and tells a similar story about his father.

The poem with its rhymes is much more playful than the Greek, which seems an exercise in narrative, albeit sonorous and pleasant. Here by way of example is the speech of the old man to the boy at the end of the Bion. In English it means "Leave off your hunting, do not go after this bird. Get a long way away from him. This prey is bad. You'll be lucky as long as you don't catch him, but when you come to the height of a man he who has run away hopping will come of his own inclination, and jump on your head and sit on you." The Greek sounds like this. A very different sound I think you will agree to Spenser.

The second alleged imitation I propose to spend little time on. Apart from a common subject, the niggardliness of princes to poets, I can find little real comparison. It is clear that if Spenser's October is an Imitation it is somewhat distant. Yet is E.K.'s comment so stupid? I can just imagine Spenser saying to E.K. "Well of course I really got the idea from Theocritus". Interaction between poets is not always direct.

Nor do things get a great deal better when we start making the obvious direct comparisons. Both poets for example feature Pan, but he is a very different character in the two writers.

First of all here is Theocritus' version of Pan. A shepherd is speaking

from THEOCRITUS ONE translated F. Beake

Not the normal thing shepherd at midday, not the normal thing at all
To pipe then. We go in fear of Pan, for he leaves off the chase
For a time because he is tired. But he remains cruel
And sits there with a sharp wrath in his nose.

Here Pan has all the power of a wild godbeast, and it is clear his intentions are carnivorous.

In Spenser in his May Aeglogue it is a very different story.

When shepeheards had none inheritaunce,
Ne of land, nor fee in sufferaunce:
But what might arise of the bare sheepe,
(Were it more or less) which they did keepe.
Well ywis it was with shepheards thoe:
Naught having, naught feared they to forgoe.
For Pan himself was their inheritaunce,
And little them served for their mayntenaunce.
The shepheards' God so well them guided,
That of naught they were vnprouided,
Butter enough, honye, milke and whay,
And their flocks' fleeces them to araye

This clearly is a benevolent god, who looks after shepherds, and does not look on them as a source of food.

Similarly the type of poem Theocritus and Spenser use is undoubtedly the same, but the effect is often different. A lot of this is in their approach to prosodic matters, but also style.

Thus both feature dialogue leading in to very beautiful "choral" sections.

However Theocritus is much more colloquial in a lot of his dialogue, but also if anything more baroque in his lyric. Take the great Idyll XV for example. To start with there is a rugged meeting between two women friends. This is them discussing their husbands

from Theocritus Idyll XV translated by F. Beake

That birdwit the otherday - we are talking about the other day -
Having set out to get some bicarb to maintain body and soul
Came back from the market with sea salt. Man of great stature , that.

And mine's much the same. Fool with money is Diocleides.
Seven drachmas for dog skins, uncured leather with the hair scarcely off;
And five fleeces he took yesterday - absolutely filthy: work on work.

Which in Greek goes something like this. Note the absence of rhymes.

But these are not just women being bitchy. They are here to go to a religious festival, and when they get there, they are very involved.

Here is Praxinoa talking about the carvings in the temple.

Lady Athena, how did any weaver make this? How did any artist make
Such lifelike drawings? They stand so real, and they walk so real:
Marvelous, beyond weaving! What a craftsman you are Man.

And then they hear the wonderfully baroque hymn to Adonis, which I am going to give you the end of in English and Greek.

from THE HYMN TO ADONIS translated F. Beake

'Beloved Adonis you shift between this world and death's dominion
Alone so we are told of the gods who are half men. Agamenmon
Had no such permission, nor heroic Ajax for all his passion,
And no more did Hektor, eldest born of the twenty sons of Hecuba,

Not Patroclos, nor Pyrros that came back from Troy,
Or even the first comers - the Lapithae and the children of Deucalion,
Or Pelops and his sons and those in the citadel of Pelasgian Argos.
Now be kind O beloved Adonis, and bring good fate to this next year.
As you have come Adonis, so your return shall arrive my beloved.'

Spenser's April Aeglogue is similar in structure. At any rate it opens with a dialogue between two friends, and concludes with a hymn to Queen Elizabeth I. However in the opening dialogue, despite the great freshness of the language I do miss the sheer raciness of Theocritus.

Tell me good Hobbinoll, what garres thee greete?
What hath some wolfe thy tender Lambes ytorne?
Or is thy Bagpype broke, that sounds so sweete?
Or art thou of thy loued lasse forlorne?

Anyway after the fashion of Shepherds they console themselves by singing a friend's poem, which is as I say to Elizabeth the First. Here are the last three stanzas.

Ye shepheards daughters, that dwell on the greene,
    hye you there apace:
Let none come there, but that Virgins' bene,
    to adorne her grace.
And when you come, wheras she is in place,
See, that your rudeness does not you disgrace:
    Binde your fillets fast,
    And gird in your waste,
For more finesse with a tawdry lace.

Bring hether the Pinke and purple Cullambine,
    With Gelliflowres:
Bing Coronations, and Sops in wine,
    Worne of Paramoures.
Strowe me the ground with Daffadowndillies,
And Cowslips, and Kingcups, and loued Lillies:
    The pretty Pawnce,
    And the Chevisaunce,
Shall match with the fayre flowre Delice.

Now ryse vp Elisa, decked as thou art,
    in royall aray:
And now ye daintie Damsells may depart
    eacheone her way,
I fear, I have troubled your troupes to longe:
Let Dame Eliza thanke you for her song.
    And if you come hether
    When Damsines I gether,
I will part them all you among.

Now I love that just as I do the Theocritus Adonis Hymn, but, since we are in to the game of comparison, there are big differences. The sound of the Theocritus is a great succession of waves, more controlled than Whitman, but rather similar in effect to say

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,
And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night,
I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Spenser is much more graceful of movement: a gentle dance, which owes its very essence to the interaction of rhythm and rhyme. The presence of rhyme does however make for limitations to what can be successfully said. This hymn to Elizabeth is a delight, but it is a delight with limits: certainly to me it lacks the weight of the Theocritus.

Parallel to this is Theocritus' sheer range, which is far beyond any pastoral writer who followed. We have already heard something of the Women at the Adonis festival, which is very much a town poem. But one has only to go back to the piece immediately before the Adonis to realize that Theocritus is equally capable of writing about real countryfolk. Here is the speech of the young country man in love. This is of course a common enough theme in later pastoral, but what in them is often very artificial in Theocritus is very real

from Theocritus XIV translated by Fred Beake

Had Argeios with me and that Thessalian jockey
Apis and Kleunichos for a drink (that soldier)
Out in the country at my place. I'd killed
Two chickens and a sucking pig, and opened up
Some four year old wine to make a feast.
And there was truffle and shellfish laid out by the winebut.
Such good drinking!
And as the thing got moving it was decided
That we should drink to everyone's heart's desire
In wine without water. But we each had to name names.
And so having made our toasts we drank, as had been decreed.
But she said nothing with me there. And how do you think I felt?
' Why no toast? You seen a wolf?' gibed someone
'As the wise say', and she ignited.You could have lit lamps
Easily. There's Wolf you see, Wolf - our next door neighbor Labes' boy-
Tall and upspringing , and considered pretty by most.
Anyway this was the illustrious chap for whose love she was melting.
And someone told me about this in confidence.
And I did not investigate in vain into that grown man.
By now the four of us were deep in our drinking
And the Larissan chap struck up 'The Wolf'
That Thessalian tune, with mischief in his heart.
And Cynisca cried more bitterly than a six year old girl
That wants to sit on her mummy's lap. Then I
- You know me Thyonichos - thumped her forehead
Once, twice. She grabbed up her skirts
And she was off, so quickly.
'Stupid me' I cried out ' Not good enough for you.
You've got a mate who's sweeter. Go to him.
Cherish your love. Your tears for him are big as apples!'
The swallow is quick to get back
To her kids under the roof-reeds
And give them the mouthful of life she's gone out and found.
Quicker from her soft cushions she went
Through the hall and the double doors
As her feet led. Must be what they mean by
'The bull has gone to the wood'.
Twenty days since. And then Eight. And then nine. And
Ten more.Today makes eleven. Add two. Two months
Since I was with them. And I have not shaved, even dry
Like a Thracian. I know. Wolf's got it all.For Wolf
There's a way in at night. And I am not spoken of
Or worth reckoning anymore than the men of Megara
In the place of unworthiness. And if I could cease to love
All things would slide into their proper order.
But now - as they say Thyonichus - the mouse has tasted pitch.
What remedy or solution for love there is
I do not know.Except that Simos
Who loved the copper smith's daughter
Sailed away and came back whole.
And he was my age.And I will pass there
Across the sea, neither the best nor the worst maybe
But a good average foot soldier.

Spenser can write as well. Thus this from the January Aeglogue in the voice of another lamenting lover.

Thou barrein ground, whome winters wrath hath wasted,
Art made a myrrhour, to behold my plight:
Whilome thy fresh spring flowred, and after hasted
Thy sommer prowde with Daffadillies dight.
And now is come thy wynters stormy state,
Thy mantle mard, wherein thou maskedst late.

Such rage as winters, reigneth in my heart,
My life bloud freezing with unkindly cold:
Such stormy stoures do breede my balefull smart,
As if my yeare were wast and woxen old.
And yet alas, but now my spring begonne,
And yet alas, yt is already donne.

However it is very different. The feeling is deep as Theocritus, but it is more at a distance from the world. Yet equally the feeling is such as many young men feel in every generation. It is not that unreal.

But I should also mention there is a deeply romantic side to Theocritus. Thus he wrote a marvelous poem about the Cyclops, which is almost comically different to Homer, a Hymn to Castor and Polydeuces, a narrative about the Infant Heracles, and another about him as a lion slayer, and so on. But this surely reflects the fact that Theocritus gave his creative life to this form, and therefore needed to vary it as widely as possible. Spenser (as indeed E.K. points out) was using the Pastoral as a convenient point to start a career: it was short, and did not leave you too exposed.

Yet, having gone through all these differences and comparisons I do feel there is more in common than meets the eye between Spenser and Theocritus in their treatment of Pastoral. Firstly Theocritus seems to almost be summarizing the nature of his world. We get both the town and the country, men and women, and above all with the Dioscurii, Herakles, Adonis etc, we get close to a summary of Pagan religion and its myths. This indeed extends to poems where it is less obviously present, if you remember Love is a form of religious possession. The young man in love in Idyll XIV is implicitly in the power of the God. Possession by Love was as about religion to a Greek. Indeed in the ode to Aphrodite by Sappho, the Goddess is invoked to comfort Sappho's distress for a lost girl friend, and says that the possession of love cannot be broken, the lover will return even if she does not want to i.e it is all ordained. And it is Sappho's Aeolic dialect that Theocritus uses for a variation on his normal Doric.

Spenser does not summarize his world with the thoroughness of Theocritus, but I have little doubt he was doing something of the same. We have already heard his hymn to Elizabeth, and what could be more central to that world than that great Queen. Similarly the May Aeglogue, though amiable and quiet, deals with sheep being led astray, and there is little doubt the matter is religious, and therefore, in the context of the 1570s, political. Similarly July. And the Argument to September is worth quoting. "Herein Diggon Davie is devised to be a shepheard, that in hope of more gayne, drove his sheepe into a farre country. The abuses whereof, and loose living of Popish prelates, by occasion of Hobbinol's demaund, he discourseth at large." Equally that great possessing God of Love that Theocritus worships so deeply that he almost does not need to say so, is there in Spenser's January, March, April, and June Aeglogues. So despite appearances there is not perhaps such a difference between the two poets. Some kinship is there.

This feeling is strengthened when you start to examine Spenser and Theocritus' use of language. E.K. talks in his Epistle to Gabriel Harvey (that provides the Foreword to The Shepheardes Calendar) of Spenser's use of old words, many of them from Lydgate and Chaucer, and adds "but whether he [i.e. Spenser] useth them by some casualtye and custome, or of set purpose and choyse, as thinking them fittest for such rusticall rudeness of shepheards, eyther for that their rough sounde would make his rymes more ragged and rustical, or els because such olde and obsolete wordes are most vsed of country folke, sure I think, and I think I think not amisse, that they bring great grace and, as one would say, auctoritie to the verse." Clearly E.K. did not know if Spenser did it to make his Shepherds sound rusticall, or because English country dialects retained many older words. What is certain is that Spenser bends the spelling of his words to fit the manner of speech of his characters. One minor sign of this, which strikes me typing out various passages for this paper, is how much closer to modern spelling E.K.'s prose is than Spenser's poetry. Spenser undoubtedly had a sound in his head, which I approximate to the north country tongue of my childhood in Cheshire, north Staffordshire and the rural West Riding, It may well be of course that Spenser had countryside language in general in his mind. Yet he had spent time in the North according to E.K., who says specifically in his notes to June that he had this from Spenser, and indeed in the same passage finds it necessary to gloss "Dales" for his predominantly Southern audience.

However, whatever the linguistic origin of what Spenser does, his method adds a fluidity to his poetry. Thus (looking at various passages we have already heard): "Thou barrein ground", where the lengthening of the e of barren, gives a lovely windswept effect; or

The time was once, and may again retorne,
(For ought may happen, that hath bene beforne)

Here the pull of "retorne" against "beforne" adds a certain mood that "return" and "befurne", or"return" and "beforne" could not have done. There again, which is not perhaps so successful, in May we get a description of a kid's mother as"The Gate her dame". This we might have trouble with but for E.K.'s gloss "The gate) the gote: Northernely spoken to turn O into A."

In short we get a system of highly flexible spelling, that is used to create something like dialect, but also for poetic effect. Now where would Spenser have got this idea from? He could not have got it from Virgil or the other Latin pastoral poets, because they quite simply do not use this sort of dialect. He might and quite possibly did get some of the idea from the medieval English poets with their spelling by actual spoken word. However they were, I think, much less self conscious about it than Spenser seems to be. Chaucer, or even the Gawaine Poet, would probably not have played with "barren" in the way Spenser does. He could well have got it from the older Greek Poets. Homer notoriously if he cannot fit a word to his meter spells it different. However in the context of The Shepheardes Calendar my money is on Theocritus. Imagine (like me reading Theocritus' Greek) you do not know English well and are ploughing through Spenser with a dictionary. You come up against "retorne", which you do not know, gather it is a variant of"return", and vaguely note it is a question of a different vowel. You look up "beforne" and find it is similarly a variation on a known word, "before". Theocritus, I can assure you with some feeling, is full of these variations on standard words that are obvious when you have looked them up. Adu for Eedu in the second line of Idyll 1, a common word meaning sweet, or pleasant for example. Many of these variations are for dialect reasons: Theocritus's characters speak the Pelopenesian dialect, Doric, though he also experimented with the Aeolic dialect of Sappho and Alcaeus. Yet to me (and it is hard to prove in language so old) many of the variations seem to be for poetic reasons. If Spenser had read at any rate some Theocritus (even a little) he may well have soaked up the method.

So despite all the differences I contend our poets are related.

This paper (in a slightly different form) was given at the Salzburg University Conference in Elizabethan Literature in early November 1997.