Idyll: Definition, Examples & Meaning

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      Idyll, as also spelled IDYL comes from Greek eidyllion, meaning ‘little picture’. It is a short poem of a pastoral or rural character in which something of the element of landscape is depicted or suggested. The term was used in Greco-Roman antiquity to designate a variety of brief poems on simple subjects in which the description of natural objects was introduced. The conventions of the pastoral were developed by the Alexandrian school of poetry, particularly by Theocritus (270 BC), Bion (280 BC or 100 BC), and Moschus (150 BC), in the 3rd century BC, and the Idylls of Theocritus are the source of the popular idea of this type of poem. The word was revived during the Renaissance, when some poets employed it to distinguish narrative pastorals from those in dialogue. The general use, or misuse, of the word arose in the 19th century from the popularity of two works, the Idylles Heroiques (1858) of Victor-Richard de Laprade and the Idylls of the King (1859) of Lord Alfred Tennyson, neither of which was related to the pastoral tradition. Thereafter the word was used indiscriminately to refer to works on a variety of subjects.

      Lycidas, John Milton’s idyll, is a very conscious reflection of the work of Theocritus. When we read the poem we may 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 favor my destin’d urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud!

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