CHAPTER V - THE SHEPHERDESS
Many years ago the early English poet,
Sir Philip Sidney, wrote a book about an imaginary
country called Arcadia, noted for the sweetness of
the air and the gentle manners of the people.
As he described the beauties of the scenery there,
he told of “meadows enamelled with all sorts
of eye-pleasing flowers; each pasture stored with sheep
feeding with sober security; here a shepherd’s
boy piping as though he should never be old; there
a young shepherdess knitting and withal singing, and
it seemed that her voice comforted her hands to work,
and her hands kept time to her voice-music.”
We could easily fancy that our picture
of the Shepherdess was meant to illustrate a scene
in Arcadia. Here is the meadow “enamelled
with eye-pleasing flowers,” the sheep “feeding
with sober security,” and the young shepherdess
herself knitting. Though she is not singing with
her lips, her heart sings softly as she knits, and
her hands keep time to the dream-music.
Early in the morning she led her flock
out to the fallow pastures which make good grazing
ground. All day long the sheep have nibbled the
green herbage at their own sweet will, always under
the watchful eye of their gentle guardian. Her
hands have been busy all the time. Like patient
Griselda in Chaucer’s poem, who did her spinning
while she watched her sheep, “she would not
have been idle till she slept.” Ever since
she learned at her mother’s knee those early
lessons in knitting, she has kept the needles flying.
She can knit perfectly well now while she follows
her flock about. The work almost knits itself
while her eyes and thoughts are engaged in other occupations.
The little shepherdess has an assistant
too, who shares the responsibilities of her task.
He is a small black dog, “patient and full of
importance and grand in the pride of his instinct."
When a sheep is tempted by an enticing bit of green
in the distance to stray from its companions, the
dog quickly bounds after the runaway and drives it
back to the flock. Only the voice of the shepherdess
is needed to send him hither, thither, and yon on
Now nightfall comes, and it is time
to lead the flock home to the sheepfold. The
sheep are gathered into a compact mass, the ram in
their midst. The shepherdess leads the way, and
the dog remains at the rear, “walking from side
to side with a lordly air,” to allow no wanderer
Their way lies across the plain whose
level stretch is unbroken by fences or buildings.
In the distance men may be seen loading a wagon with
hay. The sheep still keep on nibbling as they
go, and their progress is slow. The shepherdess
takes time to stop and rest now and then, propping
her staff in front of her while she picks up a stitch
dropped in her knitting. There is a sense of perfect
stillness in the air, that calm silence of the fields,
which Millet once said was the gayest thing he knew
The chill of nightfall is beginning
to be felt, and the shepherdess wears a hood and cape.
Her face shows her to be a dreamer. These long
days in the open air give her many visions to dream
of. Her companionship with dumb creatures makes
her more thoughtful, perhaps, than many girls of her
As a good shepherdess she knows her
sheep well enough to call them all by name. From
their soft wool was woven her warm cape and hood, and
there is a genuine friendship between flock and mistress.
When she goes before them, they follow her, for they
know her voice.
Among the traditions dear to the hearts
of the French people is one of a saintly young shepherdess
of Nanterre, known as Ste. Genevieve.
Like the shepherdess of our picture, she was a dreamer,
and her strange visions and wonderful sanctity set
her apart from childhood for a great destiny.
She grew up to be the saviour of Paris, and to-day
her name is honored in a fine church dedicated to
her memory. It was the crowning honor of Millet’s
life that he was commissioned to paint on the walls
of this church scenes from the life of Ste.
Genevieve. He did not live to do the work, but
one cannot help believing that his ideals of the maiden
of Nanterre must have taken some such shape as this
picture of the Shepherdess.
In the painting from which our illustration
is reproduced, the colors are rich and glowing.
The girl’s dress is blue and her cap a bright
red. The light shining on her cloak turns it a
rich golden brown. Earth and sky are glorified
by the beautiful sunset light.
As we look across the plain, the earth
seems to stretch away on every side into infinite
distance. We are carried out of ourselves into
the boundless liberty of God’s great world.
“The still small voice of the level twilight”
speaks to us out of the “calm and luminous distance.”
Ruskin has sought to explain the strange
attractive power which luminous space has for us.
“There is one thing that it has, or suggests,”
he says, “which no other object of sight suggests
in equal degree, and that is,-Infinity.
It is of all visible things the least material, the
least finite, the farthest withdrawn from the earth
prison-house, the most typical of the nature of God,
the most suggestive of the glory of his dwelling place."