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 such errands.
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 to escape.
[Illustration: From a carbon print by Braun, Clement & Co. John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE SHEPHERDESS]
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 in nature.