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."[1] 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.

From a carbon print by Braun, Clément & 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.

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 age.

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. Geneviève. 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. Geneviève. 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."[2]


Like the watchdog described in Longfellow's Evangeline, Part II.


In Modern Painters, in chapter on "Infinity," from which also the other quotations are drawn.