Most idylls are concerned with intimate moments in small communities of farmers and laborers. These poems might describe the tasks a single person completes in a day or focus on one such task, such as caring for farm animals, walking in a field, or getting water from a well.
These poems are written in the style of or were inspired by Theocritus’ Idylls. He was a Greek poet who died in 260 BC and is regarded as the creator of the pastoral poem. There is little known about the poet besides what can be ascertained or inferred from his writing. In the first Idyll Theocritus wrote, he describes Thyrsis singing to a goatherd about Daphnis. Several other divine figures come into the poem to speak to Thyrsis about his love.
Various poets from Greece, Roman, and beyond took up similar forms of poetry. This includes writers like Virgil and Catullus.
Explore Idyll in Poetry
An idyll is a short pastoral poem that evokes rural life. Writers may have experience with the subject matter themselves or be considering what it would be like to live that kind of life.
In visual art, an idyll works in a similar way. It is used to describe pastoral paintings that depict the same sort of rural subject matter. Often, this includes peasants and laborers. This kind of painting dates back to the early 15th century but it didn’t become widely popular until centuries later. One good example is The Shepherdess by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1889). It is one of several paintings he completed of similar women.
Idyll Poetry Examples
Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Idylls of the King was published between 1859 and 1885. It is a series of twelve poems by Tennyson that retell the story of King Arthur. They detail popular characters like Guinevere and King Arthur’s knights.
Broadly, the group of poems describes Arthur’s attempts to create an idealized kingdom. He eventually fails but the story is a multilayered and engaging one. Here is a quote from the 12-poem cycle:
I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I mark’d Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find Him not.
I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.
O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
The entire work is written in blank verse and utilizes elements from epics and elegies. Sometimes, scholars and readers interpret this work as an allegory, representing Britain during the mid-19th century. These poems are written in blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Read more Alfred Lord Tennyson poems.
Hermann and Dorothea by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Goethe’s ‘Hermann and Dorothea’ is an epic idyll written between 1796 and 1797. The poem is set in the French Revolutionary Wars and follows Hermann, a young man from a small town who is sent to bring clothes and food to refugees. He meets Dorothea, a young maid, there. He intends to marry her, despite his family’s protestations. Here are the first few lines, as translated by Ellen Frothingham:
“Truly, I never have seen the market and street so deserted!
How as if it were swept looks the town, or had perished! Not fifty
Are there, methinks, of all our inhabitants in it remaining,
What will not curiosity do! here is every one running,
Hurrying to gaze on the sad procession of pitiful exiles.
Lycidas by John Milton
‘Lycidas’ is a famous idyll by John Milton. In it, Milton alludes to the works of Theocritus. He evokes the muses in the first lines, something the Greek poet often did. Within the poem, Milton tells the story of the death of Lycidas, a character from Theocritus’ idylls, as described above. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem:
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
This poem was first published in 1638 in Justa Edouardo King Naufrago, a collection dedicated to one of Milton’s close friends who passed away. It is a total of 193 lines in length and does not follow a consistent rhyme scheme.
Explore more John Milton poems.
Other Poems Inspired by Idylls
- ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ by Christopher Marlowe
- ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- ‘Ode to Psyche’ by John Keats
An idyll is a simple, descriptive poem that focuses on the everyday lives of rural people. They are usually peaceful poems.
The idyll has its roots in the Greek poetry of Theocritus. He is usually cited as the progenitor of the idyll and pastoral.
One might describe a situation, poem, environment, or even a person as an idyll. The term is more commonly used in a literary sense, but it can be found in reading about art as well.
Related Literary Terms
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Pastoral: a genre or mode of poetry that refers to works that idealize country life and the landscape they take place in.
- Arcadia: a term that refers to an idealized, unspoiled natural landscape. It is a utopia and perfect in every way.
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.