At Delos in the Grecian islands of the Cyclades, Acontius encounters the beautiful Cydippe in verdant groves sacred to Diana, and composes a bittersweet song of yearning and unfulfilled love. Cydippe seems smitten, but turns away when voices approach, and he watches for her in subsequent nighttime vigils.
He finally finds refuge with an elderly fisher, who tells him that Cydippe's parents have consecrated her to become one of Diana's vestals, in whose service she will become "shrunk as time goes on / Into a sour-hearted crone" (11. 595-96). Shortly before Cydippe must take her vow of chastity, however, Venus appears, moved by Acontius's persistence, and gives him an apple, which he leaves on Diana's altar with the message "Acontius will I wed today" carved on its surface.
Cydippe reads the apple's message aloud when she sees it (silent reading was rare in antiquity), and the people outside enthusiastically agree that "love willeth it!" (l. 1035). Diana's priests admonish the pair about potential limitations of the state in which "two are one, /And neither now can be alone" (ll. 1077-78) but finally give their consent, and the newly-married Acontius and Cydippe await nightfall at the poem's end.
According to May Morris, Morris elaborated "The Story of Acontius and Cydippe" from a brief entry in Lemprière's Dictionary. If so, he infused into the tale a characteristic preoccupation with the Greek islands' overwhelming beauty, and invented all of its more significant psychological nuances and events--Cydippe's reciprocal attachment and the tyranny of her parents, for example; and Acontius's expressive depth of character, long sojourn and growing friendship with the kindly fisher. Cydippe was also betrothed to another suitor in earlier versions of the tale, but Morris ignores these potential complications, and made Acontius a rather timid counterpart of Milanion, Perseus, Pygmalion and other rescuers in the larger narrative sequence.
The Alexandrian poet Callimachus (305-240 B. C.) indited the first known version of this tale, but Morris may also have used Epistle X of Aristaenetus (translated into English by R. Brinsley Sheridan and N. B. Halhed, 1771). Another possible source is Ovid's account of the rather peripheral Acontius-legend in the Heroides, one of his sources for "The Death of Paris." Heroides XX and XXI include a long and rather plaintive love-letter from Acontius to Cydippe, along with an ambivalent reply in which Cydippe finally gives her consent.
Such epistles were set-pieces of worldly detachment and rhetorical dexterity (compare Browning's monologues). Ovid's Acontius is possessive and self-absorbed, and his tough-minded Cydippe accepts only when Diana's wrath makes her gravely ill. Morris's extensive changes and additions effectively transformed Ovid's cynical heroine into a sweetly responsive woman, and the assertive Acontius into her languishing introspective lover.
"The Story of Acontius and Cydippe" embodied several strengths of Morris's style in this period--its modulated lyrical power, its sensuous evocations of landscape, and its intense faith in unpossessive romantic love. Despite all these qualities and a full panoply of organic metaphors, it is not one of the cycle's better tales, for it lacks dramatic conflict, and the fugitive and solitary nature of Acontius's romantic fantasies are incongruent with its ostensible plot and allegorical purpose.
Morris composed "Acontius and Cydippe" during the unhappy trip to Europe with Jane Morris in the summer of 1869, and his disarmingly honest remark that "Acontius I know is a 'spoony, nothing less, and the worst of it is that if I did him over a dozen times, I know I should make him just the same" suggested an identification with certain aspects of his character's predicament. In some moods, Morris chose to represent his reactions directly and without inhibition. Here, for whatever reason, he displaced them within assuaging and balancing narrative frames.
Autobiographical resonances may also have given rise to other incongruities in the tale. Several of Morris's heroines in the sequence are alternately heedless and devoted, and unmotivated in their departures and reappearances, but Acontius seems unusually fearful of rejection and hostility. It is never quite clear, for example, why he begins his courtship of a lovely woman who shows mild interest in him in such a hopelessly anxious state; why he does not seek to communicate with her more directly; or why the elderly priests' unusually dour observation that "Great things are granted unto those /That love not' (ll. 1067-68) so overshadows the tale's ostensibly joyful conclusion.
Moreover, nothing in the tale itself seems to warrant its passing remark that "0ftenest the well-beloved! Shall pay the kiss back with a blow ...." (11. 746-47). The tale's ambiguities make more sense when one interprets it as a frame for resigned juxtaposition of past aspirations, present frustrations, and qualified future hopes.
Above all, "The Story of Acontius and Cydippe"'s inset songs, choral lyrics and visual tableaux are beautifully written short compositions. They add resonance to its conflicts between old and young, and their interspersed reflections and warnings of love's transience echo the collapsing frames of "The Land East of the Sun." As is appropriate in a tale of night-vigils, moreover, their imagery and descriptions are often aural, tactile and even olfactory, as well as quietly visual.
Most readers associate such effects with lyric rather than narrative poetry, and there is a tendency to skim over the tale's evocations of dawn and twilight suspensiveness, but Morris described the concomitant mind-states and consciousness of the tale's reclusive protagonist with remarkable attention to nuance and detail. As other incidents fade, we gradually come to see the tale's protagonists as victims/participants in a single emotion, and few Victorian poets attended to that emotion's frustrations with such acuity and descriptive care.
Other, less ambivalent aspects of the tale include its warm democratic touches--the kindly fisher, for example, and the people's wholehearted support of the lovers--and the luxuriant details of its symbolic landscapes--flowers, apple-trees, blackbirds, and dawn and moonlit settings over water. Morris's early autumn classical and medieval tales unfolded their best qualities in a magical-realist world of quasi-historical folktale and spiritual exploration.
Other critical discussions are found in Boos, 129-33; Calhoun, 124, 178, 183; Kirchhoff, 191-92; Oberg, 65; and Silver, 67-69.
An early draft exists in British Library Add. M. S. 45,299. Morris drafted the tale in tetrameter, the meter of several early tales such as "The Man Born to Be King," "The Watching of the Falcon," and "The Writing on the Image." There is no external evidence, however, that he composed this tale before 1869.