Idyll XI is the love song of the Cyclops for the sea nymph Galatea. The nymph appears to him in his dreams, but when he wakes she flees his monstrous form. To entice her the Cyclops offers cheeses, baby animals and flowers, but ultimately she is a creature of the sea and he is tied to the land; it is a doomed passion.
In this Idyll we see the Cyclops as a bumbling adolescent, clumsily attempting to woo the beautiful nymph. Most commentators have seen him as a comic figure. He clumsily compares her to cream cheese, and whereas the language of love is not concerned with reality or details, he pedantically points out his expertise in cheese-making, and labours over the point that he could not literally bring her snowdrops and poppies at the same time.
However he is not completely inept. Personally the promise of flowers and baby animals is pretty appealing, not to mention cheese! He promises her a pastoral paradise. In places his song is very similar to Sappho, the ultimate Greek love poet. But it is not too hard imagine Galatea laughing at her hairy lover, and his promise to singe off all his hair isn’t much more appealing.
He is also the victim of the poetic tradition of Homer, for one cannot read about the Cyclops without envisaging his fate at the hands of Odysseus. Polyphemus himself unwittingly reminds us of his fate when he states that he would even burn his one eye for Galatea, and that he wishes a man would come to his island in a ship to teach him how to swim. In the Odyssey Polyphemus’ isolation is marked out: unlike the other Cyclopses, Homer tells us that he never married. Is this because of his spurned love? The young Polyphemus is trapped in the Homeric story, he cannot escape references to his future that has already been written. It has even been suggested that in some way the Cyclops here brings disaster on himself. In Ancient Greece Homeric passages were used in magic spells, by unknowingly referring to Homeric events perhaps the Cyclops inadvertently ensures their occurrence.
‘Oh my white Galatea, why do you spurn your lover?
Whiter to look at than cream cheese, softer than a lamb
More playful than a calf, sleeker than the unripe grape.
Why do you only come as sweet sleep claims me,
Why do you leave me as sweet sleep lets me go,
Fleeing like a ewe at the sight of a grey wolf?
I fell in love with you, my sweet, when you first came
With my mother to gather flowers of hyacinth
On the mountain, and I was your guide. From the day
I set eyes on you up to this moment, I’ve loved you
Without a break; but you care nothing, nothing at all.
I know my beautiful girl, why you run from me:
A shaggy brow spreads right across my face
From ear to ear in one unbroken line. Below is a
Single eye, and above my lip is set a broad flat nose.
Such may be my looks, but I pasture a thousand beasts,
And I drink the best of the milk I get from them.
Cheese too I have in abundance, in summer and autumn,
And even at winter’s end; my racks are always laden.
And I can pipe better than any cyclops here,
When I sing, my sweet pippin, deep in the night
Of you and me. For you I’m rearing eleven fawns,
All marked on their necks, and four bear cubs too.
O please, come. You’ll see that life is just as good,
If you leave the grey-green sea behind to crash on the shore,
And at night you will find more joy in this cave with me.
Here there are bays, and here slender cypresses,
Here is somber ivy, and the vine’s sweet fruit;
Here there is ice-cold water which dense-wooded Etna
Sends from its white snows-a drink fit for the gods.
Who could prefer waves and the sea to all this?
But if you think I’m a touch too hairy for you,
I have oak logs here, and under the ash unflagging fire.
Burn away my life with fire-I could bear even that,
And my single eye, my one dearest possession of all.
‘I wish my mother had given me gills when I was born,
Then I could have dived down and kissed your hand,
If you denied me your mouth, and brought you white
Snowdrops or delicate poppies with their scarlet petals.
One grows in summer and the other grows in winter,
So you see I could not bring you both at once.
Its not too late, my sweet, for me to learn to swim;
If only some mariner would sail here in his ship,
Then I could fathom why you nymphs love life in the deep.
Come out, Galatea, come out and forget your home,
Just as I sit here and forget to return to mine.
Follow the shepherd’s life with me-milking,
And setting cheese with the rennet’s pungent drops.
It’s my mother who does me wrong; it’s her alone I blame.
She’s not once spoken a gentle word to you about me,
Although she sees me wasting away day by day.
I’ll see she knows how my head and feet throb with pain
So that her torment will be equal to what I suffer.’
The authority of Homer overshadows the poetry of Theocritus. He was so widespread and well-known it was near impossible for any poet to escape his influence. By giving a prequel to the story of the Cyclops Theocritus gives us a new perspective of the Homeric monster: he shows us his more human side, revealing the depth of emotion and feeling that we glimpse in the Odyssey when Polyohemus speaks to his beloved ram. But at the same time our reading of Theocritus’ Cyclops is defined by our knowledge of Homer. So who is really in control? Theocritus or Homer?
For another Idyll where Theocritus approaches the Homeric canon check out my post on Idyll XVIII, a wedding song for Helen of Troy.
Theocritus: A Selection Idylls 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 13. ed. by Hunter, R. (1999)
Translation by Anthony Verity (Theocritus/Idylls, Oxford University Press: 2002)