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literature

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Theocritus (ca 308-240 B.C.E.)  

Little is known of Theocritus, the first great voice in the pastoral tradition. He appears to have been born in Sicily in the late fourth century B.C.E., and to have lived both at the court of Ptolemy Philadelphius (patron of the great poetic school of Alexandria) and in Syracuse, where he is reputed to have died around 240 B.C.E.

His significance for gay literary history resides in the fact that five of his thirty Idylls map the emotional and poetic terrains of intense--especially frustrated--homosexual desire that later poets would explore in greater detail.

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Theocritus' pastoral idylls figure the naturalness of homoerotic desire through nature itself. "The Beloved Boy" (Idyll 12), for example, compares the delight that the speaker feels at his lover's return after a two-day absence to the exuberance one experiences when spring begins budding after a long winter.

After referring to Diocles, an Athenian who died saving the life of the boy he loved and in whose honor kissing contests are held every spring at his tomb, the speaker says that he hopes likewise to be remembered 200 years after his death as a faithful lover of beautiful boys.

But if nature figures the possibility of emotional and sensual bliss, it also threatens the possibility of tempest and wintry sterility. Theocritus' other homoerotic idylls focus largely on the pain of frustrated or lost love.

"Hylas" (Idyll 13)--one of the most famous homosexual lyrics of the ancient world--subverts the traditionally heroic values of Greek poetry by noting how even Hercules could not resist loving a beautiful boy, "golden-haired Hylas," who drowned when, trying to fetch water for his lover, he was pulled down by the nymphs of the stream who fell in love with him and wanted to keep him as their own.

"The struggles and frustrations of love stand in for the mortal peril of heroic combat," notes David Halperin, as Hercules, unable to save his lover, lapses into madness in his grief. For Theocritus, love's power is stronger than the physical might of even the greatest hero.

Dominated by seasonal change, the natural world makes Theocritus' remaining pastoral speakers acutely conscious of both the transience of human affection and of the aging process that must inevitably destroy the sweet bloom of youth.

"The Lover" (Idyll 23), a dramatic lament spoken by a man moments before he kills himself for unrequited love, warns the heartless boy that as he ages his beauty will harden and he will himself "burn" and "weep" for a cruel boy.

Similarly, "For a Boy" (Idyll 29) warns a beautiful young man who scorns the speaker's love that he too will age and his beauty lose its freshness. Thus, if he does not "show more kindness" and "return the love of a man who is true" now when he is young and lovable, no one will show him any affection later when he himself is old and desperate for a beautiful young man's attention.

As this poem in particular demonstrates, the poignancy of Theocritus' Idylls lies in their assumption that no matter how painful it is to lose the boy whom one loves, or not to have one's love returned, it is impossible not to fall madly in love with a beautiful boy.

The speaker of "For Another Boy" (Idyll 30), who finds himself falling in love again after a particularly painful experience, knows full well that "as a man grows old, / he should steer himself clear of the love of young boys." Love, however, answers him that the only alternative to loving a boy is simply ceasing to exist.

Few classical poets have explored the natural realm of passion with as much psychological penetration as Theocritus, or with as lasting an influence. His Idylls are the source of a homoerotic pastoral tradition that includes Virgil's second eclogue, Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, and Barnfield's Affectionate Shepherd, as well as anticipates the homoerotic confusion in the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's As You Like It, Milton's "Lycidas," and possibly even Whitman's Calamus poems.

With the biblical Song of Songs, Theocritus' Idylls provided a model that allows for the configuration of the male body with the natural landscape, Nature herself permitting the unleashing of homoerotic desire.

But unfortunately, as so many of Theocritus' speakers learn, if homoerotic desire is as simple and effortless as Nature herself, it is just as easily disrupted or frustrated by the naturalness of aging or of changing affections.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

     

    
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   Related Entries
  
literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

social sciences >> Overview:  Greece: Ancient

The institution of pederasty (paiderastia) was a conspicuous feature of ancient Greek public and private life, but other forms of male-male sexual relations flourished in the Greco-Roman cosmopolis of the second and third centuries C.E.

literature >> Overview:  Greek Literature: Ancient

Ancient Greece holds a unique place in the heritage of homosexual literature as it was a society that openly celebrated same-sex love in its poetry and prose.

literature >> Overview:  Pastoral

Both the elegiac and the romantic pastoral have been associated with homoerotic desire from their beginnings in classical literature to their echoes in contemporary literatures.

literature >> Overview:  Poetry: Gay Male

The gay tradition in literature from ancient times to the present is primarily a tradition not of prose but of verse.

literature >> Barnfield, Richard

The English Renaissance poet Richard Barnfield wrote two volumes of homoerotic verse.

literature >> Milton, John

While Milton accepted the biblical condemnation of sodomy, some of his works suggest that his attitude toward same-sex relations was enlightened for his age.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


    Bibliography
   

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Frontain, Raymond-Jean. "Mad about the Boy: Review Essay." The James White Review 9 (Spring 1992): 18-19.

Halperin, David M. Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Hunter, Richard L. Theocritus and the Archaeology of Greek Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Mastronarde, Donald J. "Theocritus' Idyll 13: Love and the Hero." Transactions of the American Philosophical Association 99 (1968): 273-290.

Segal, Charles. Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral: Essays on Theocritus and Virgil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Sergent, Bernard. Homosexuality in Greek Myth. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Theocritus. The Idylls. Greek Pastoral Poetry. Trans. Anthony Holden. Baltimore: Penguin, 1974. 43-153.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Theocritus  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 11, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/theocritus.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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