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.
Helen is perhaps the most elusive figure of Greek myth. She is both the dutiful wife and the heartless adulterer, and whichever side we might think we are looking at, her other self is never far off. This poem is no exception. Theocritus imagines the wedding song performed at Helen’s marriage to the hero Menelaus, a curious topic considering Helen is Greece’s most famous adulterer. However Theocritus’ poetry is memorable for its play with mythical figures. He looks at the human events that take place outside Greek epic, putting familiar characters into new settings.
The poem is sung by an imagined group of maidens celebrating the bride and groom. This section is about the plane-tree cult that will be established for Helen. They describe a ritual where they hang wreathes and oil on a tree that bears her name. It is known that there were Greek cults that worshipped Helen and so this can be read at face value in celebrating its origins. With Helen however things are never so simple, and as we shall see her illicit lover Paris is lurking in the shadows.
O fair, o gracious damsel, a housewife art thou now. But we at dawn to the race-course and to the flowering meads Will hasten, there to pluck and twine sweet-breathing coronals; And often longingly on thee, dear Helen, shall we think, As tender lambs yearn for the teat of the ewe that gave them birth. A garland of earth-creeping lotus will be the first To wreathe for thee, and hang it on a shady plane-tree’s boughs; And we first from a silver phial of soft-flowing oil Upon the shady plane-tree’s roots will pour it drop by drop And letters on the bark in Dorian wise shall be engraved, That passers by may read: “Worship me, I am Helen’s tree.”