BMCR 2024.04.03

Theocritus and things: material agency in the Idylls

, Theocritus and things: material agency in the Idylls. Ancient cultures, new materialisms. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023. Pp. 240. ISBN 9781399517492.

Open access


This book is rooted in the vast field of transdisciplinary research on the (often destructive) interactions between man and nature. It aims at enlarging this trend of Material Ecocriticism to ancient literature, claiming to be “the first to apply it to Classics”, namely to Theocritean (and pseudo-Theocritean) Poetry. Conceiving it as a tool (a pretext?) for exploring the interaction between things and humans, Lilah Canevaro is paving the way to how materiality—of the object, of the world, of the literature—has an existence and a sensibility of its own. With “new-materialist models”, anthropocentrism is deconstructed, “the human (is displaced) from centre stage, from assumptions of supreme power”, giving “us new ways of looking at material agency without eliding the human” (p. 21). With this subtle balance between “human and nonhuman; both animate and material” (p. 22), the author tries to decipher the language of nature, body, and objects in Theocritus’ poetry. Indeed, if “Theocritus is not uniquely suited to a material-ecocritical reading, he still does stand in a unique position, between imitation and imagination, between the real world and story” (p. 5), an assumption that can apply to many pastoral writers and especially to bucolic nature. Either way, it is a matter of reading Theocritus’ poetry “from below” (p. XI).

The book is constructed around the Goatherd’s cup in Theocritus’ Idyll 1. The vitality of its decoration, with its living ivy and its twining tendrils, is a way to define, in Part 1, the key notions previously presented in the introduction, raising questions not on Theocritus’ poetry but on our world: “the cup leads into an introduction of this book’s core theoretical underpinning: that of Material Ecocriticism. A nascent field, Material Ecocriticism can provide a way into big questions—about the Anthropocene, about countering human narcissism” (p. 6). It is conceived of as “an exercise in listening”, a fundamental notion for Hellenistic and Theocritean poetry (independently from Material Ecocriticism), as Gutzwiller has shown.[1] It is indeed through listening—but also viewing, and feeling…– that the boundaries between human and nonhuman, author and genre fade away in a “pessimistic tone”, which the author labels “dark ecology”, defined as “essentially an aesthetic response to difficult and entangled environments, a pessimistic reading of the human condition. It is a way of expressing the porousness of boundaries” (p. 40). In Part 2, the author analyses the first scene on the cup—that of an indifferent woman between two men competing for her love—through the lens of Material Feminism, regardless of the dichotomy between male and female, and linking it with Material Ecocriticism, and with Hesiod’s poetry (Pandora and her jar).[2] She thus explores the link between materiality and ekphrasis. She draws parallels with Simaitha’s body, her love story, and her magic in Idyll 2 and with the female domestic world and the royal tapestries in Idyll 15.[3] The second scene, the old fisherman on the rock, is at the core of Part 3. Exploring “lithic agency” (p. 113) in the cup but also in Idyll 7 (the sound of Simichidas’ shoes on the stones, the “idealized landscape” at the end), in Idyll 21 (the fishermen “anchored in the environment”, p. 105) and Idyll 23 (the stone-hearted young man, his heartbroken lover, the murderous statue), the author aims at showing the sensibility of stones, in connection with San Sperate, Sardinia, “home to the artist Pinuccio Sciola” where “we are surrounded by art, by beauty, by imagination—and by stone” (p. 140, illustrated with pictures p. 141-144). The final scene on the Goatherd’s cup is addressed in Part 4, from the view point of oiko-criticism, showing “multiple entanglements between person, object and song” (p. 150); it is connected with the distaff of Idyll 28, where “the equation of material object and poetry takes centre stage” (p. 155) and with the it-narrative “in eighteenth-century Britain (and soon after this in France)”, concerned with the secret life of objects and living things (p. 171).[4] Thus, we do not know where art begins and where life ends since art is conceived of “not only (as) imitating life but (also as) becoming it” (p. 177). The last part goes “beyond the cup”, in the field of dark ecology through the lens of monstrosity and “(ontological, interpretational, generic) borders” (p. 179), with the figure of Polyphemus in Idylls 6 and 11, the hideous Cyclops but also the pipe player, an important theme in the Idylls 1, 4, 7, 8 and in the Syrinx, which is more a technopaignion than an epigram. This part ends with an analysis of the Goatherd’s cup as crafted in 1811-1813 by the silversmith Paul Storr on a design of John Flaxman (now in the National Museums Liverpool and reproduced p. 196, fig. 5.1). The book finishes with “a concluding excursus” on Marsden, on the coast of northeast England (figures 6.1 and 6.2). Finally, there is a bibliography, mostly in English (of the 207 references, only 1 is Italian, 1 German, and 3 French, just mentioned in passing).[5] At the end of Canevaro’s book, we find an Index Locorum, in which Theocritus 1.128-129, quoted p.186, does not appear, and a Subject Index.

The book is very well produced.[6] The analyses are nuanced and stimulating, with a desire to convince the reader and an enthusiastic approach to Theocritus’ poetry through the lens of Material Ecocriticism and the credo of “object for object’s sake”; the author even speaks of her sons (p. ix and 144) and features her eldest son Layton (at the age of one and a half) “on the book’s cover, surrounded by singing stones” (p. IX). I particularly appreciated the study of Idyll 28 and the symbolism of spinning and weaving, the entanglements of objects, persons and lands. About the productive process, as analysed on p. 163-164, I wonder if there is not also a touch of humour by Theocritus, veiling reality and inviting to multileveled analyses, just as Lycidas’ smile to Simichidas in Idyll 7 and the metapoetical play on Homer, characteristic of Theocritus’ poetry (about Polyphemus and the “monstrous materials”, see p. 178-179 and the analyses of Halperin and Kossaifi).[7]

However, some aspects require further investigation, such as the symbolism of trees; for example, about the cedar chest which “received” Comatas in 7.78-85 (analysed p. 99-101), the fact that the chest is made of cedar wood is important not only because it attracts bees, the traditional image of poetic inspiration, but also because it is reminiscent of Osiris’ myth, his death and divine resurrection[8] and functions as an inverted echo of the Comatas of Idyll 5 (surprisingly neglected by the author, who never mentions it, not even about cicadas (5.110-111); cicadas are dealt with p. 102, on Idyll 7; 148, in keeping with Hesiod and Plato; 151, on Idyll 1). Polyphemus’ dog is also worth mentioning; the author sees it as a male but it may be a female as shown by Antje Kolde.[9] This example shows how the blurring of boundaries works and can deceive even the attentive reader. The spring of Idyll 13 is also missing, though it is an important element linked with nymphs (see p. 95, n. 6), and also shedding light on Daphnis’ water death (p. 42, 130-131) and on “dark-ecological readings of water” (p. 131, n. 90). Finally, I also wonder why there is no mention of Daphnis’ epigram engraved in Thyrsis song (1.120-121), and its functioning as a “model of memory” (p. 175) in a song which is a counterpart of the Goatherd’s cup;[10] it would have broadened the analysis of feminine epigram as “memory creation” in Idyll 28. The weaving network of themes, objects, and animate things could be expanded, especially if we consider the artificiality of the Bucolic nature. Indeed, this nature is a constructed object, an object of art, as Harry Berger, Junior, puts it: “The songs, contests, debates, and discussions are in no sense ‘realistic’ representation of logocentric experience. They are not the signified ‘content’ of bucolics. Rather they […] become the signifiers of the art that represents them. This inversion is the basis of metapastoral effect”, and he “recalls that in Castiglione’s famous discussion of sprezzatura the art of dissembling is to be noted and praised: the dissembler does not want his audience to say, ‘look how natural he is!’ but rather ‘look how artfully he pretends to be natural!’ […] the ‘natural’ is already a woven artifice dissociated from rustic actuality”.[11] Again, the boundaries blur…

Overall, the book offers some interesting insights, but at times gets lost in questionable technicalities that obscures the qualities of the analysis. The author diligently explores material ecocriticism as a lens for interpreting Theocritus’ poetry, though, as she says on pages 114 and 134, there is “nothing new under the sun”; indeed, it is worth remembering that there is a vast, yet often uncharted, field of interpretative studies surrounding Theocritus’ subtle and elusive poetry. But none of them exhausts its depth, and that is its beauty.



[1] The analyses of Kathryn J. Gutzwiller are numerous and worth more than one single quotation in this book (a 1986 analysis of the cup); see, for example, Theocritus’ Pastoral Analogies. The Formation of a Genre, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991; “Literary Criticism”, in J. J. Clauss & M. Cuypers, eds, A Companion to Hellenistic Literature, Malden/Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, p. 337-365, reviewed in BMCR 2011.03.05; “Female Practices as Models for Hellenistic Poetry”, in C. Cusset, P. Belenfant, C.-E. Nardone, eds, Féminités hellénistiques : voix, genre, représentations, actes du colloque de Lyon, septembre 2017, Hellenistica Groningana, 25, Peeters, Leuven-Paris-Bristol, CT, 2020, p. 9-24. To be noted that, in this collection, one can read a very interesting piece on “Le ‘portrait en objets’ d’Arsinoé II dans l’Idylle xv de Théocrite. Vers une poétique littéraire et politique des objets dans l’Idylle xv de Théocrite”, written by Myrtille Rémond, p. 85-110; see the review in BMCR 2023.02.47).

[2] On this, see Nathalie Haynes, Pandora’s Jar. Women in the Greek Myths, Picador, London, 2020, p. 5-31, in which the ambiguity of Pandora and her jar is well analysed.

[3] On this, see Rémond (op. cit., note 1), and her analysis of the objects on display at the Adonia, showing that “les objets sont au cœur de la poétique de Théocrite” (p. 85).

[4] This idea of living objects (in a broad sense) is in fashion nowadays: our societies are sensitive to plant and even mineral lives, as shown by the notion of “vital stone” (p. 113) and by singing stones in the Giardino Sonoro, Sardinia (p. 143-145) in this book and by the already older one from Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World, Greystone Books, First English Language Edition, 2016, in which the author shows that trees can even walk… as felt by Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings…

[5] Missing are two important references. First, the fine (though dated) analysis of the Goatherd’s cup by Flora Manakidou, in Beschreibung von Kunstwerken in der hellenistischen Dichtung: Ein Beitrag zur hellenistischen Poetik (Beiträge zum Altertumskunde, 36), Stuttgard, Teubner Verlag, 1993, mostly part B: Die “bukolische” Art der Beschreibung, p. 51-101. Second, Christophe Cusset, Christine Kossaifi, Rémy Poignault (eds), Présence de Théocrite, Clermont-Ferrand, « Caesarodunum—Présence de l’Antiquité », 2017 (Proceedings of the international conference, held 14th-17th October 2015, in Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand), reviewed in BMCR 2019.05.05. This overall synthesis of Theocritus’ work and influence sheds light on many points addressed to by the author, along with relevant references. In particular, it offers analyses of “the art of listening” and the living matrix of Theocritus’ bucolic world, its “economic exchange grounds” (p. 154) and inner vitality (Christine Kossaifi, “La houlette de Mnémosyne. Écouter et recueillir le chant dans les  Idylles  de Théocrite”, p. 41-62); the cup and its decoration (Évelyne Prioux, “L’enargeia chez Théocrite : du modèle homérique à la réception des Idylles”, p. 193-218, with a reconstruction proposal for the first scene, p. 207); Polyphemus in Theocritus and Ovid (Hélène Vial et Christine Kossaifi, “ De Théocrite à Virgile. Permanence et transformations dans un passage des Métamorphoses (XIII, 738-898) ”, p. 467-482); women dress, tapestries and textiles (Maria Papadopoulou, “Poems from the world of wool: Dress and identity in Theocritus’ Idylls”, p. 163-179); magic (Valeria Pace, “Singing women in Theocritus: magic, genre and gender in Idylls 2 and 15”, p. 63-90; Tiziana Ragno, “The sorceress’ song. Theocritus’ text on the operatic stage: the case of Antonio Cipollini’s Simeta (1889)”, p. 569-592) and so on…

[6] The only typesetting error I encountered was in the quotation of 1.32, τι θεῶν δαίδαλμα, correctly written in the quotation, p. 48, but afterward, the indefinite τι becomes an interrogative τί (p. 50, 57, 86).

[7] Humour is an important component in Theocritus’ Idylls, as shown by D. M. Halperin, Before Pastoral. Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry, New Haven and London, 1983 (hardly mentioned by the author) and by Christine Kossaifi, “Érudition et humour dans les Idylles bucoliques de Théocrite”, Antiquité Classique, 77, 2008, p. 41-59. It veils and alters the reality of things, animate and material, to offer another level of analysis. About what we might call the Russian dolls of fictionalization, see Mark Payne, Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 (an author that Canevaro presents in the Acknowledgements as a “cornerstone of (her) research for this book”).

[8] On cedar’s symbolism, in connection with Osiris, see Jacques Brosse, Mythologie des arbres, Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 2001, p. 205-207.

[9] “La chienne de Polyphème : Théocrite, Idylle 6”. In: Bulletin de l’Association Guillaume Budé, n°1, 2005. pp. 95-112.

[10] On this, see Kossaifi, “La houlette de Mnémosyne”, op. cit., p. 46-48.

[11] H. Berger Jr, “The Origins of Bucolic Representation. Disenchantment and Revision in Theocritus’ Seventh Idyll”, p. 34 (with reference to Il libro del Cortegiano, 1.26-27, 2.38), Classical Antiquity, III, 1, p. 1-39.