An Idyll is neither a lyric nor a narrative but partakes of the qualities of both. It derives its name from the Greek word meaning, “a little picture”, and so two of its essential characteristics are (a) its brevity, and (b) pictorial effect. An Idyll keeps relatively close to the ordinary world of action and experience, though it may give idealised pictures of that world. More often than not an Idyll gives us idealised, poetic pictures of the life and doings of rural folk in rural setting. It sheds a romantic poetic glow on what may otherwise be commonplace, dull, prosaic, and dreary. It deals with simple like, and so its language is also simple.
Indeed, the actual name is best known to us by Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Robert Browning’s Dramatic Idylls. It is characterized by simplicity both in theme and treatment. We get such an idealised picture of rural life in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale with Perdita distributing flowers to her guests, and there are a number of such idylls scattered all up and down the novels of Thomas Hardy.
Commenting on the characteristics of an Idyll, Hudson writes, “This kind of narrative poetry often finds its themes and characters in the present; and even when it goes back into the past for them, it seeks them still, as in Longfellow’s Evageline, mind commonplace people and surroundings and not in heroic legend, or romantic achievements, or among the great movements and figures of history. Sometimes it may take the form of a humorous transcript from contemporary manners, especially the manners of “low” life, as in several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and in the delightful character-studies loosely set in the economic argument of Oliver Goldesmith’s Deserted Village. But the greatest interest belongs to two subdivisions of it, both of comparatively recent growth, the first of these comprises such poems as derive their material from “the short and simple annals of the poor,” or from the lives of the humble and obscure, like Wordsworth’s Michael and Tennyson’s Enoch Arden and Dora. To the second we may assign all such poetic narratives as, Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House, and Robert Browning’s Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country, which are to all intent and purpose novels in verse. The former class has a special historical significance as marking the influx into narrative poetry of that ever-broadening sympathy with “all sorts and conditions of men.” Which is one aspect of the modern democratic movement. The latter is manifestly the result of that same complex of forces, social and literary, which produced the modern novel.”