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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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or IDYLL (Gr. €16 AAcov, a descriptive piece, from €ISos, a shape or style; Lat. idyllium), a short poem of a pastoral or rural character, in which something of the element of landscape is preserved or felt. The earliest commentators of antiquity used the term to designate a great variety of brief and homely poems, in which the description of natural objects was introduced, but the pastoral idea came into existence in connexion with the Alexandrian school, and particularly with Theocritus, Bion and Moschus, in the 3rd century before Christ. It appears, however, that €16 XXtov was not, even then, used consciously as the name of a form of verse, but as a diminutive of eiSos, and merely signified "a little piece in the style of" whatever adjective might follow. Thus the idyls of the pastoral poets were fib AMA ailroXlth, little pieces in the goatherd style. We possess ten of the so-called "Idyls" of Theocritus, and these are the type from which the popular idea of this kind of poem is taken. But it is observable that there is nothing in the technical character of these ten very diverse pieces which leads us to suppose that the poet intended them to be regarded as typical. In fact, if he had been asked whether a poem was or was not an idyl he would doubtless have been unable to comprehend the question. As a matter of fact, the first of his poems, the celebrated "Dirge for Daphnis," has become the prototype, not of the modern idyl, but of the modern elegy, and the not less famous "Festival of Adonis" is a realistic mime. It was the six little epical romances, if they may be so called, which started the conception of the idyl of Theocritus. It must be remembered, however, that there is nothing in ancient literature which justifies the notion of a form of verse recognized as an "idyl." In the 4th century after Christ the word seems to have become accepted in Latin as covering short descriptive poems of very diverse characters, for the -early MSS. of Ausonius contain a section of "Edyllia," which embraces some of the most admirable of the miscellaneous pieces of that writer. But that Ausonius himself called his poems "idyls" is highly doubtful. Indeed, it is not certain that the heading is not a mistake for "Epyllia." The word was revived at the Renaissance and applied rather vaguely to Latin and Greek imitations of Theocritus and of Virgil. It was also applied to modern poems of a romantic and pastoral character published by such writers as Tasso in Italy, Montemayor in Portugal and Ronsard in French. In 1658 the English critic, Edward Phillips, defined an "idyl" as "a kind of eclogue," but it was seldom used to describe a modern poem. Mme Deshoulieres published a series of seven Idylles in 1675, and Boileau makes a vague reference to the form. The sentimental German idyls of Salomon Gessner (in prose, 1758) and Voss (in hexameters, 1800) were modelled on Theocritus. Goethe's Alexis and Dora is an idyl. It appears that the very general use, or abuse, of the word in the second half of the 19th century, both in English and French, arises from the popularity of two works, curiously enough almost identical in ,date, by two eminent and popular poets. The Idylles herotiques (1858) of Victor de Laprade and the Idylls of the King (1859) of Tennyson enjoyed a success in either country which led to a wide imitation of the title among those who had, perhaps, a very inexact idea of its meaning. Among modern Germans, Berthold Auerbach and Jeremias Gotthelf have been prominent as the composers of sentimental idyls founded on anecdotes of village-life. On the whole, it is impossible to admit that the idyl has a place among definite literary forms. Its character is vague and has often been purely sentimental, and our conception of it is further obscured by the fact that though the noun carries no bucolic idea with it in English, the adjective ("idyllic") has come to be synonymous with pastoral and rustic. (E. G.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Idyl'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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