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Letters to Dead Poets: To Theocritus

by Andrew Lang

“Sweet, methinks, is the whispering sound of yonder pine-tree,” so, Theocritus, with that sweet word ?δ?, 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.

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 crowns 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 seaweed, 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, saying “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 altered, 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 thy 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 Amaryllis 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 sow 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 parched 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 thy 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.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things