Newly Discovered Bucolic Hypotheses

[Note: This morning, for the first time in years, I powered on my old IBook laptop. I found this file that I wrote back in 2005 as a first-year Classics grad student in Berkeley. At the time I’d been translating a lot of Italian scholarship on Greek pastoral into English; it had clearly got into my head.]

Léon Bakst (1866–1924), The Shepherds, Daphins, and Chloe

After careful reexamination of a long-forgotten manuscript of an ancient treatise on nail polish removal (spuriously ascribed to the celebrated Boeotian courtesan Phryne), Cambridge classical scholars have now brought to light a small collection of anonymous hypotheses to previously unknown bucolic poems. These are their working translations.

Odilon Redon, The Cyclops, c. 1914

[Theocritus] The Cyclops reprises ‘shepherding’ his love for the nymph Galatea, again offering her a selection of his finest cream cheeses. When, citing lactose intolerance, she continues to refuse him, he persists by suggesting a number of alternative erotic dairy products, each sure to arouse her passion more than the last. The beautiful sea-nymph finally settles on two pounds of Havarti and a six-pack of Chobani yogurt snack cups; the two shake hands and call it a day. Their love is interrupted, however, when the Cyclops is hit with the realization that pharmakon is just a post-modern buzzword, and not a specialty cookie as he’d always assumed. Recognition of his own existential paradox incites an acute case of vertigo, and he falls from the top of a rocky crag into the briny sea. The finest sheep in his herd lament, singing in rounds the traditional Klagelied for Sicilian milkmen, though they are confused as to why all the words are in German.

[Theocritus] A narrator, whose name we are not told, sings the songs from a singing competition he had once heard two herdsmen sing on a way to a contest of sung song. But midway through the performance this narrator manages somehow to insult the narratee, and both the poetic ‘I’ and the proverbial Scythian are forced to choose sides in what devolves into a contest of bloody knucklebones. The competition ends when the Scythian realizes he is really just a Soviet and is needed at home to stand in line. The setting of the idyll is Sicily, but the flora and fauna depicted are clearly those of the Cincinnati suburbs.

[Theocritus] The cowherd Daphnis re-encounters the shepherd Menalcas, but this time Menalcas is accompanied by two ‘city-dwellers’ who call themselves Lefty and Bruno. Daphnis is suspicious but agrees to Menalcas’ challenge to a rematch of the singing contest depicted in another poem. As Daphnis begins to sing of his unrequited desire for an ephebic, snow-white calf, Lefty holds his hands behind his back while Bruno breaks his kneecaps with a baseball bat [or shepherd’s staff? the text is unclear]. Daphnis rejoices and Menalcas mourns, but the two quickly realize it ought to be the other way around. From this point on Menalcas is the most revered singing shepherd in Sicily. He signs with a major record label and his first two albums go platinum within months; swept up in his fame the once-humble herdsman no longer returns calls from his mother and buys a gold necklace of his name written in cursive. The nymphs dance around him in a circle.

[Moschus] A pupil sings a dirge for Bion who had died singing a lament for Adonis who had died shortly after eating some bad Thai. The dialect is uncertain, but the peculiar formation of temporal adverbs evokes the language of certain Boeotian divebars. The poem is ninth-rate.

Illustration from the Vergilius Romanus

[Bion] The speaker is Lycidas the cowherd, the setting is the office holiday party. Lycidas sings of his love of the countryside, addressing his song to the vegetable spread. Suddenly a stranger arrives and offers mythological exempla of herdsmen whom the gods loved in spite of their tendency to spit on the audience when they sang. Lycidas responds, singing in turn of the time Zeus fell madly in love with a pair of cufflinks and, his advances denied, punished them by turning each one into a beautiful young woman. Lycidas is pronounced the winner, and the nymphs dance around him in a circle.