The chaste girl Daphne sings a hymn of praise to nature. She loves the sunlight as trees and flowers do, but she has no interest in human romance. She cannot return the love of her childhood friend Leukippos, and she refuses to put on the ceremonial clothes for the coming festival of Dionysos, leaving Leukippos with the dress she has rejected.
Daphne's father Peneios tells his friends he is certain that the gods will soon return among men. He advises preparing a feast to welcome Apollo. Just then a mysterious herdsman appears. Peneios sends for Daphne to care for the visitor.
The strange herdsman tells Daphne that he has watched her from his chariot, and repeats to her phrases from the hymn to nature she sang earlier. He promises her that she need never be parted from the sun, and she accepts his embrace. But when he begins to speak of love she becomes fearful and runs out.
At the festival of Dionysos, Leukippos is among the women wearing Daphne's dress, and he invites her to dance. Believing him to be a woman she agrees, but the strange herdsman stops the dance with a thunderclap and says she has been deceived. Daphne answers that both Leukippos and the stranger are in disguise, and the stranger reveals himself as the sun-god Apollo. Daphne refuses both her suitors, and Apollo pierces Leukippos with an arrow.
Daphne mourns with the dying Leukippos. Apollo is filled with regret. He asks Zeus to give Daphne new life in the form of one of the trees she loves. Daphne is transformed, and she rejoices in her union with nature. This transformation scene, the (metamorphosis), is opulently silvery in the string section.