May 2015 Book of the Month: Theocriti, Moschi, Bionis, Simmii quæ extant (1604)

Pattern poems (10)

Title-page: Fellows’ Library K.16.19 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

This collection of the ancient Greek ‘bucolic’ or pastoral poets is open to show one of Simmias of Rhodes’ pattern-poems, that is, verses arranged in the shape of an object.

A handful of pattern-poems have survived in the collection known as the Greek Anthology. This edition reproduces, with translations into Latin, ‘The Egg’, ‘The Wings’, and ‘The Axe’, together with ‘The Panpipe’ and ‘The Altar’, which the editors also attribute to Theocritus.

Pattern poems

‘The Axe’, in ancient Greek, with a Latin translation on the left: Fellows’ Library K.16.19 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The genre has many other names, including technopaignia, figure poems, and altar poems, an allusion to George Herbert’s shaped poem ‘The Altar’. (Coincidentally, Herbert’s elder brother Edward bequeathed his books to the Fellows’ Library in the seventeenth century.) A well-known modern example is ‘The Mouse’s Tale’ in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

This book was presented in 2013 by Mr Gordon Purdy (Classics, 1954). A reader from the seventeenth century has written in the margins of the text of Theocritus to gloss several words for flowers, such as ‘sow-bread’, ‘flea-bane’, ‘windflowre’, and ‘shrub trefoile’.

Owen McKnight (Librarian)

Sources and further reading:

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