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What Is an Idyll?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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An idyll is a poem that idealizes the lives of rural peasants. These idealized poems, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poem Idylls of the King, were particularly popular during the Romantic Period. The term can also refer to pictures and music romanticizing the lives of farmers and shepherds.

Theocritus, a Greek writer in the third century B.C., wrote some of the earliest recorded idylls. The term is an abbreviation of the Greek word eidyllion, which means “little picture.” Every idyll paints an image of simple, pleasurable peasant life.

Idylls are often called pastoral or bucolic literature because the most common subject is a shepherd. A pastoral may be a poem, drama, work of art, or musical composition, while the large majority of idylls are poems. In Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, published in 1599, the speaker is a shepherd who entreats his beloved to live with him, with rocks for chairs and flowers for a bed.

Pastoral works were common throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, due to the popularity of Romanticism. Many writings showcased the concept of the “noble savage.” Although most often used to describe tribal people in North America and Africa, the term refers to anyone who is close to nature, and therefore more noble than city dwellers. This type of noble savage is the primary subject of most idylls.

Some famous writers of the idyll include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Giacomo Leopardi, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Goethe wrote Hermann and Dorothea in Germany the late 1700s, concerning the romance between Hermann, a townsman, and Dorothea, a compassionate refugee. In 1816, the Italian writer Leopardi wrote Inno a Nettuno in ancient Greek, imitating the idylls of Theocritus.

In 1866, American poet John Greenleaf Whittier published Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll, in which a family spends three days sharing stories around a fireplace while they wait for a blizzard to pass. Around the same time, Alfred, Lord Tennyson published twelve narrative poems called Idylls of the King in England. These poems concerned the idealized life at King Arthur’s legendary court at Camelot.

The term idyll occasionally refers to bucolic paintings, such as The Shepherdess by William-Adolphe Bouguereau and The Cornfield by John Constable. These paintings typically feature a serene peasant at work or a happy gathering set against a beautiful country background of farm fields, creeks, or trees. Similarly themed music compositions, such as Edward MacDowell’s "Forest Idylls" or Jean-Baptiste "Lully’s L’Idylle sur la Paix" can be called idylls as well.

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