You are here

Poets and lovers: the remedy for love in Theocritus’ Idyll 11 and Hermesianax’s fr. 7 P

Maria Gaki

University of Cincinnati

In scholarly discussions of Theocritus’ Idyll 11 (Payne 2007, Hordern 2004, Hunter 1999, Far 1991) Philoxenus’ lost dithyramb on the Cyclops is seen as the model of Theocritus’ poem (fr. 9 Page). It remains unnoticed, however, that the topos of poetry as both a remedy for and a product of painful love, as influenced by Philoxenus, is also the main theme of a preserved fragment from Hermesianax’s elegiac Leontion (fr 7 Powell), which narrates the love stories of famous poets. There, love appears both as an inspirational force and a form of physical pain alleviated by poetic composition. In this paper I argue that Theocritus’ Idyll 11 alludes also to Hermesianax’s treatment of the symbiotic relationship between love and poetry. Testimonial evidence about Hermesianax’s relationship with Philitas as well as internal evidence from his work, point to a slightly earlier date of composition than Theocritus’ (Bing 1993).

Hermesianax’s elegiac fragment addressed to his mistress, Leontion, narrates the stories of poets who, like himself, were inspired by painful love affairs and are often represented substituting for characters from their own poems, so that poetic inspiration becomes rooted in the experience of love. In Theocritus too, Polyphemus assumes the role of a poet inspired by unrequited love for Galatea, described as “sheer madness” (Id.11.11, Gutzwiller 1991), and composes a bucolic song addressed to her. Polyphemus also claims to be the most qualified pipe player in his Cyclopean community, comically alluding to his bucolic poetic identity (Id.11.38).

Moreover, the poets in Hermesianax and the Theocritus’ poetic Cyclops soothe their love-induced pain by composing poetry in their respective genres. Parallels to Theocritus’ Cyclops, called the “fellow citizen of the poet” (Id.11.7), are found in the stories about Hermesianax’s elegiac predecessors and fellow citizens (Farrell 2012, Caspers 2006), Antimachus and Mimnermus. These poets were in love with Nanno and Lyde, the title characters in their own poetry. Importantly, Antimachus’ production of many elegiac books soothes the pain of love like the bucolic song of Polyphemus to Galatea in Idyll 11 (fr.7.45-46P, Id.11.13-18). Moreover, Mimnermus becomes the inventor of the pentameter’s sweet sound after enduring multiple amorous sufferings (fr.7.35-36P). His love inspires elegiac composition, the sweetness of which counterbalances his suffering. Theocritus, in language suggesting poetic inventio (Hunter 1999), narrates Polyphemus’ discovery of “light and sweet” poetry as a remedy for love (Id.11.1-4,17), evoking Mimnermus’ inventio in Hermesianax.

Despite the representation of the comic Cyclops as a bucolic poet, Theocritus describes his love in elegiac imagery, the type Hermesianax employs to emphasize the seriousness of the poets’ torture. In Hermesianax, Philoxenus appears as the elegiac lover in place of his character Polyphemus (Bing 1993) singing passionately about Galatea to his sheep, just as the Cyclops in Theocritus’ poem (Fr.7.71-74 P, Id.11.38-40). Antimachus grieves in front of the river Pactolus, “wounded” by love for the dead Lyde, like Theocritus’ Cyclops does before the sea, “wounded” by love for Galatea (Fr.7.41-42, Id.11.14-15). Mimnermus’ love for Nanno is presented as fire, like the love of Polyphemus for Galateia (Fr.7.37, Id.11.51-52). However, in Theocritus the playful tone of Polyphemus’ song and his self-reflections implying new but hopeless love enterprises (Id.11.72-79), are ultimately humorous (Holtsmark 1966).

Theocritus in Idyll 11 transfers the persona of a serious elegiac lover, such as the one described by Hermesianax, to the bucolic “poet” Polyphemus. In doing so, I argue, he defines bucolic as the proper genre for soothing love’s pain as found in Philoxenus (Schol. in Theocr. XI.1-3), whereas elegy merely represents the poet’s torture. Love is treated playfully rather than seriously and its alleviation occurs from the bucolic song of the comic lover Polyphemus. Thus, I argue, both Philoxenus and Hermesianax are important sources for Theocritus’ portrayal of love and its remedy in Idyll 11, where serious elegy and comic dithyramb are creatively intertwined.

Session/Panel Title

Hellenistic Poetry

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy