Among the remaining pieces of Aeschylus, we have what is highly deserving of our attention—a complete Trilogy. The antiquarian account of the trilogies is this: that in the more early times the poet did not contend for the prize with a single piece, but with three, which, however, were not always connected together in their subjects, and that to these was added a fourth,—namely, a satiric drama. All were acted in one day, one after another. The idea which, in relation to the tragic art, we must form of the trilogy, is this: a tragedy cannot be indefinitely lengthened and continued, like the Homeric Epos for instance, to which whole rhapsodies have been appended; tragedy is too independent and complete within itself for this; nevertheless, several tragedies may be connected together in one great cycle by means of a common destiny running through the actions of all. Hence the restriction to the number three admits of a satisfactory explanation. It is the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. The advantage of this conjunction was that, by the consideration of the connected fables, a more complete gratification was furnished than could possibly be obtained from a single action. The subjects of the three tragedies might be separated by a wide interval of time, or follow close upon one another.
The three pieces which form the trilogy of Aeschylus, are the Agamemnon, the Choephorae or, we should call it, Electra, and the Eumenides or Furies. The subject of the first is the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, on his return from Troy. In the second, Orestes avenges his father by killing his mother: facto pius et sceleratus eodem. This deed, although enjoined by the most powerful motives, is, however, repugnant to the natural and moral order of things. Orestes, as a prince, was, it is true, called upon to exercise justice, even on the members of his own family; but we behold him here under the necessity of stealing in disguise into the dwelling of the tyrannical usurper of his throne, and of going to work like an assassin. The memory of his father pleads his excuse; but however much Clytemnestra may have deserved her death, the voice of blood cries from within. This conflict of natural duties is represented in the Eumenides in the form of a contention among the gods, some of whom approve of the deed of Orestes, while others persecute him, till at last Divine Wisdom, in the persona of Minerva, balances the opposite claims, establishes peace, and puts an end to the long series of crime and punishment which have desolated the royal house of Atreus.
A considerable interval takes place between the period of the first and second pieces, during which Orestes grows up to manhood. The second and third are connected together immediately in order of time. Upon the murder of his mother, Orestes flees forthwith to Delphi, where we find him at the commencement of the Eumenides.
In each of the two first pieces, there is a visible reference to the one which follows. In Agamemnon, Cassandra and the chorus, at the close, predict to the haughty Clytemnestra and her paramour, Aegisthus, the punishment which awaits them at the hands of Orestes. In the Choephorae, Orestes, upon the execution of the deed of retribution, finds that all peace is gone: the furies of his mother begin to persecute him, and he announces his resolution of taking refuge in Delphi.
The connexion is therefore evident throughout; and we may consider the three pieces, which were connected together even in the representation, as so many acts of one great and entire drama. I mention this as a preliminary justification of the practice of Shakspeare and other modern poets, to connect together in one representation a larger circle of human destinies, as we can produce to the critics who object to this the supposed example of the ancients.
In Agamemnon, it was the intention of Aeschylus to exhibit to us a sudden fall from the highest pinnacle of prosperity and renown into the abyss of ruin. The prince, the hero, the general of the combined forces of the Greeks, in the very moment of success and the glorious achievement of the destruction of Troy, the fame of which is to be re-echoed from the mouths of the greatest poets of all ages, in the very act of crossing the threshold of his home, after which he had so long sighed, and amidst the fearless security of preparations for a festival, is butchered, according to the expression of Homer, "like an ox in the stall," slain by his faithless wife, his throne usurped by her worthless seducer, and his children consigned to banishment or to hopeless servitude.
With the view of giving greater effect to this dreadful reverse of fortune, the poet endeavours to throw a greater splendour over the destruction of Troy. He has done this in the first half of the piece in a manner peculiar to himself, which, however singular, must be allowed to be impressive in the extreme, and well fitted to lay fast hold of the imagination. It is of importance to Clytemnestra that she should not be surprised by the sudden arrival of her husband; she has therefore arranged an uninterrupted series of signal fires from Troy to Mycenae, to announce to her that great event. The piece commences with the speech of a watchman, who supplicates the gods for a deliverance from his labours, as for ten long years he has been exposed to the cold dews of night, has witnessed the changeful course of the stars, while looking in vain for the expected signal; at the same time he sighs in secret over the corruption which reigns within the royal house. At this moment he sees the long- wished-for beacon blazing up, and hastens to announce it to his mistress. A chorus of aged persons appears, and in their songs they go through the whole history of the Trojan War, through all its eventful fluctuations of fortune, from its origin, and recount all the prophecies relating to it, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia, by which the sailing of the Greeks was purchased. Clytemnestra explains to the chorus the joyful cause of the sacrifice which she orders; and the herald Talthybius immediately makes his appearance, who, as an eye-witness, relates the drama of the conquered and plundered city, consigned as a prey to the flames, the joy of the victors, and the glory of their leader. With reluctance, as if unwilling to check their congratulatory prayers, he recounts to them the subsequent misfortunes of the Greeks, their dispersion, and the shipwreck suffered by many of them, an immediate symptom of the wrath of the gods. It is obvious how little the unity of time was observed by the poet,—how much, on the contrary, he avails himself of the prerogative of his mental dominion over the powers of nature, to give wings to the circling hours in their course towards the dreadful goal. Agamemnon now arrives, borne in a sort of triumphal car; and seated on another, laden with booty, follows Cassandra, his prisoner of war, and concubine also, according to the customary privilege of heroes. Clytemnestra greets him with hypocritical joy and veneration; she orders her slaves to cover the ground with the most costly embroideries of purple, that it might not be touched by the foot of the conqueror. Agamemnon, with wise moderation, refuses to accept an honour due only to the gods; at last he yields to her solicitations, and enters the palace. The chorus then begins to utter its dark forebodings. Clytemnestra returns to allure, by friendly speeches, Cassandra also to destruction. The latter is silent and unmoved, but the queen is hardly gone, when, seized with prophetic furor, she breaks out into the most confused and obscure lamentations, but presently unfolds her prophecies more distinctly to the chorus; in spirit she beholds all the enormities which have been perpetrated within that house—the repast of Thyestes, which the sun refused to look upon; the ghosts of the mangled children appear to her on the battlements of the palace. She also sees the death which is preparing for her lord; and, though shuddering at the reek of death, as if seized with madness, she rushes into the house to meet her own inevitable doom, while from behind the scene we hear the groans of the dying Agamemnon. The palace opens; Clytemnestra stands beside the body of her king and husband; like an insolent criminal, she not only confesses the deed, but boasts of and justifies it, as a righteous requital for Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia to his own ambition. Her jealousy of Cassandra, and criminal connexion with the worthless Aegisthus, who does not appear till after the completion of the murder and towards the conclusion of the piece, are motives which she hardly touches on, and throws entirely into the background. This was necessary to preserve the dignity of the subject; for, indeed, Clytemnestra could not with propriety have been portrayed as a frail seduced woman—she must appear with the features of that heroic age, so rich in bloody catastrophes, in which all passions were violent, and men, both in good and evil, surpassed the ordinary standard of later and more degenerated ages. What is more revolting—what proves a deeper degeneracy of human nature, than horrid crimes conceived in the bosom of cowardly effeminacy? If such crimes are to be portrayed by the poet, he must neither seek to palliate them, nor to mitigate our horror and aversion of them. Moreover, by bringing the sacrifice of Iphigenia thus immediately before us, the poet has succeeded in lessening the indignation which otherwise the foul and painful fate of Agamemnon is calculated to awaken. He cannot be pronounced wholly innocent; a former crime recoils on his own head: besides, according to the religious idea of the ancients, an old curse hung over his house. Aegisthus, the author of his destruction, is a son of that very Thyestes on whom his father Atreus took such an unnatural revenge; and this fateful connexion is vividly brought before our minds by the chorus, and more especially by the prophecies of Cassandra.
I pass over the subsequent piece of the Choephorae for the present; I shall speak of it when I come to institute a comparison between the manner in which the three poets have handled the same subject.
The fable of the Eumenides is, as I have already said, the justification of Orestes, and his absolution from blood-guiltiness: it is a trial, but a trial where the accusers and the defenders and the presiding judges are gods. And the manner in which the subject is treated corresponds with its majesty and importance. The scene itself brought before the eyes of the Greeks all the highest objects of veneration that they acknowledged.
It opens in front of the celebrated temple at Delphi, which occupies the background; the aged Pythia enters in sacerdotal pomp, addresses her prayers to all the gods who at any time presided, or still preside, over the oracle, harangues the assembled people (represented by the actual audience), and goes into the temple to seat herself on the tripod. She returns full of consternation, and describes what she has seen in the temple: a man, stained with blood, supplicating protection, surrounded by sleeping women with snaky hair; she then makes her exit by the same entrance as she came in by. Apollo now appears with Orestes, who is in a traveller's garb, and carries a sword and olive-branch in his hands. He promises him his farther protection, enjoins him to flee to Athens, and commends him to the care of the present but invisible Mercury, to whose safeguard travellers, and especially those who were under the necessity of journeying by stealth, were usually consigned.
Orestes goes off at the side which was supposed to lead to foreign lands; Apollo re-enters his temple, which remains open, and the Furies are seen in the interior, sleeping on the benches. Clytemnestra's ghost now ascends by the charonic stairs, and, passing through the orchestra, appears on the stage. We are not to imagine it a haggard skeleton, but a figure with the appearance of life, though paler, with the wound still open in her breast, and shrouded in ethereal-coloured vestments. She calls on the Furies, in the language of vehement reproach, and then disappears, probably through a trap-door. The Furies awake, and not finding Orestes, they dance in wild commotion round the stage, while they sing the choral song. Apollo again comes out of the temple, and drives them away, as profaning his sanctuary. We may imagine him appearing with the sublime displeasure of the Apollo of the Vatican, with bow and quiver, but also clad with tunic and chlamys.
The scene now changes; but as the Greeks on such occasions were fond of going the shortest way to work, the background probably remained unchanged, and was now supposed to represent the temple of Minerva, on the Areopagus, while the lateral decorations were converted into Athens and its surrounding landscape. Orestes now enters, as from foreign land, and, as a suppliant, embraces the statue of Pallas standing before the temple. The chorus (who, according to the poet's own description, were clothed in black, with purple girdles, and serpents in their hair, in masks having perhaps something of the terrific beauty of Medusa-heads, and marking too their great age on the principles of sculpture) follows close on his steps, but for the rest of the piece remains below in the orchestra. The Furies had at first behaved themselves like beasts of prey, furious at the escape of their booty, but now, hymning with tranquil dignity the high and terrible office they had among mortals, they claim the head of Orestes, as forfeited to them, and devote it with mysterious charms to endless torment. At the intercession of the suppliant, Pallas, the warrior-virgin, appears in a chariot drawn by four horses. She inquires the cause of his invocation, and listens with calm dignity to the mutual complaints of Orestes and his adversaries, and, at the solicitation of the two parties, finally undertakes, after due reflection, the office of umpire. The assembled judges take their seats on the steps of the temple—the herald commands silence among the people by sound of trumpet, just as in a real trial. Apollo advances to advocate the cause of his suppliant, the Furies in vain protest against his interference, and the arguments for and against the deed are debated between them in short speeches. The judges cast their ballots into the urn, Pallas throws in a white one; all is wrought up to the highest pitch of expectation; Orestes, in agony of suspense, exclaims to his protector—
O Phoebus Apollo, how will the cause be decided?
The Furies on the other hand:
O Night, black Mother, seest thou these doings?
Upon counting the black and white pebbles, they are found equal in number, and the accused, therefore, by the decision of Pallas, is acquitted. He breaks out into joyful thanksgiving, while the Furies on the other hand declaim against the overbearing arrogance of these younger gods, who take such liberties with those of Titanic race. Pallas bears their rage with equanimity, addresses them in the language of kindness, and even of veneration; and these so indomitable beings are unable to withstand the charms of her mild eloquence. They promise to bless the land which is under her tutelary protection, while on her part Pallas assigns them a sanctuary in the Attic domain, where they are to be called the Eumenides, that is, "the Benevolent Goddesses." The whole ends with a solemn procession round the theatre, with hymns of blessing, while bands of children, women, and old men, in purple robes and with torches in their hands, accompany the Furies in their exit.
Let us now take a retrospective view of the whole trilogy. In the Agamemnon we have a predominance of free-will both in the plan and execution of the deed: the principal character is a great criminal, and the piece ends with the revolting impressions produced by the sight of triumphant tyranny and crime. I have already pointed out the allusions it contains to a preceding destiny.
The deed committed in the Choephorae is partly enjoined by Apollo as the appointment of fate, and partly originates in natural motives: Orestes' desire of avenging his father, and his brotherly love for the oppressed Electra. It is only after the execution of the deed that the struggle between the most sacred feelings becomes manifest, and here again the sympathies of the spectators are excited without being fully appeased.
From its very commencement, the Eumenides stands on the very summit of tragical elevation: all the past is here, as it were, concentrated into a focus. Orestes has become the mere passive instrument of fate; and free agency is transferred to the more elevated sphere of the gods. Pallas is properly the principal character. That opposition between the most sacred relations, which often occurs in life as a problem not to be solved by man, is here represented as a contention in the world of the gods.
And this brings me to the pregnant meaning of the whole. The ancient mythology is in general symbolical, although not allegorical; for the two are certainly distinct. Allegory is the personification of an idea, a poetic story invented solely with such a view; but that is symbolical which, created by the imagination for other purposes, or possessing an independent reality of its own, is at the same time easily susceptible of an emblematical explanation; and even of itself suggests it.
The Titans in general symbolize the dark and mysterious powers of primaeval nature and mind; the younger gods, whatsoever enters more immediately within the circle of consciousness. The former are more nearly allied to original chaos, the latter belong to a world already reduced to order. The Furies denote the dreadful powers of conscience, in so far as it rests on obscure feelings and forebodings, and yields to no principles of reason. In vain Orestes dwells on the just motives which urged him to the deed, the cry of blood still sounds in his ear. Apollo is the god of youth, of the noble ebullition of passionate indignation, of bold and daring action. Accordingly this deed was commanded by him. Pallas is thoughtful wisdom, justice, and moderation, which alone can allay the conflict of reason and passion.
Even the sleep of the Furies in the temple is symbolical; for only in the sanctuary, in the bosom of religion, can the fugitive find rest from the torments of conscience. Scarcely, however, has he ventured forth again into the world, when the image of his murdered mother appears, and again awakes them. The very speech of Clytemnestra betrays its symbolical import, as much as the attributes of the Furies, the serpents, and their sucking of blood. The same may be said of Apollo's aversion for them; in fact, this symbolical character runs through the whole. The equal cogency of the motives for and against the deed is denoted by the equally divided votes of the judges. And if at last a sanctuary within the Athenian territory is offered to the softened Furies, this is as much as to say that reason is not everywhere to enforce its principles against involuntary instinct, that there are in the human mind certain boundaries which are not to be passed, and all contact with which even every person possessed of a true sentiment of reverence will cautiously avoid, if he would preserve peace within.
So much for the deep philosophical meaning which we need not wonder to find in this poet, who, according to the testimony of Cicero, was a Pythagorean. Aeschylus had also political views. Foremost of these was the design of rendering Athens illustrious. Delphi was the religious centre of Greece, and yet how far it is thrown into the shade by him! It can shelter Orestes, indeed, from the first onset of persecution, but not afford him a complete liberation; this is reserved for the land of law and humanity. But, a further, and in truth, his principal object was to recommend as essential to the welfare of Athens the Areopagus [Footnote: I do not find that this aim has ever been expressly ascribed to Aeschylus by any ancient writer. It is, however, too plain to be mistaken, and is revealed especially in the speech of Pallas, beginning with the 680th verse. It agrees, moreover, with the account, that in the very year when the piece was represented, (Olymp. lxxx. 1.) a certain Ephialtes excited the people against the Areopagus, which was the best guardian of the old and more austere constitution, and kept democratic extravagance in check. This Ephialtes was murdered one night by an unknown hand. Aeschylus received the first prize in the theatrical games, but we know that he left Athens immediately afterwards, and passed his remaining years in Sicily. It is possible that, although the theatrical judges did him justice, he might be held in aversion by the populace, and that this induced him, without any express sentence of banishment, to leave his native city. The story of the sight of the terrible chorus of Furies having thrown children into mortal convulsions, and caused women to miscarry, appears to be fabulous. A poet would hardly have been crowned, who had been the occasion of profaning the festival by such occurrences.], an uncorruptible yet mild tribunal, in which the white ballot of Pallas given in favour of the accused is an invention which does honour to the humanity of the Athenians. The poet shows how a portentous series of crimes led to an institution fraught with blessings to humanity.
But it will be asked, are not extrinsic aims of this kind prejudicial to the pure poetical impressions which the composition ought to produce? Most undoubtedly, if pursued in the manner in which other poets, and especially Euripides, have followed them out. But in Aeschylus the aim is subservient to the poetry, rather than the poetry to the aim. He does not lower himself to a circumscribed reality, but, on the contrary, elevates it to a higher sphere, and connects it with the most sublime conceptions.
In the Oresteia (for so the trilogy or three connected pieces was called,) we certainly possess one of the sublimest poems that ever was conceived by the imagination of man, and, probably, the ripest and most perfect of all the productions of his genius. The date of the composition of them confirms this supposition: for Aeschylus was at least sixty years of age when he brought these dramas on the stage, the last with which he ever competed for the prize at Athens. But, indeed, every one of his pieces that has come down to us, is remarkable either for displaying some peculiar property of the poet, or, as indicative of the step in art at which he stood at the date of its composition.
I am disposed to consider the Suppliants one of his more early works. It probably belonged to a trilogy, and stood between two other tragedies on the same subject, the names of which are still preserved, namely the Egyptians and the Danaidae. The first, we may suppose, described the flight of the Danaidae from Egypt to avoid the detested marriage with their cousins; the second depicts the protection which they sought and obtained in Argos; while the third would contain the murder of the husbands who were forced upon them. We are disposed to view the two first pieces as single acts, introductory to the tragical action which properly commences in the last. But the tragedy of the Suppliants, while it is complete in itself, and forms a whole, is yet, when viewed in this position, defective, since it is altogether without reference to or connexion with what precedes and what follows. In the Suppliants the chorus not only takes a part in the action, as in the Eumenides, but it is even the principal character that attracts and commands our interest. This cast of the tragedy is neither favourable for the display of peculiarity of character, nor the exciting emotion by the play of powerful passions; or, to speak in the language of Grecian art, it is unfavourable both to ethos and to pathos. The chorus has but one voice and one soul: to have marked the disposition common to fifty young women (for the chorus of Danaidae certainly amounted to this number,) by any exclusive peculiarities, would have been absurd in the very nature of things: over and above the common features of humanity such a multitude could only be painted with those common to their sex, their age, and, perhaps, those of their nation. In respect to the last, the intention of Aeschylus is more conspicuous than his success: he lays a great stress on the foreign descent of the Danaidae; but this he does but assert of them, without allowing the foreign character to be discovered in their words and discourse. The sentiments, resolutions, and actions of a multitude, and yet manifested with such uniformity, and conceived and executed like the movements of a regular army, have scarcely the appearance of proceeding freely and directly from the inmost being. And, on the other hand, we take a much stronger interest in the situations and fortunes of a single individual with whose whole character we have become intimately acquainted, than in a multitude of uniformly repeated impressions massed as it were together. We have more than reason to doubt whether Aeschylus treated the fable of the third piece in such a way that Hypermnestra, the only one of the Danaidae who is allowed to form an exception from the rest, became, with her compassion or her love, the principal object of the dramatic interest: here, again, probably, his chief object was by expressing, in majestic choral songs, the complaints, the wishes, the cares, and supplications of the whole sisterhood, to exhibit a kind of social solemnity of action and suffering.
In the same manner, in the Seven before Thebes, the king and the messenger, whose speeches occupy the greatest part of the piece, speak more in virtue of their office than as interpreters of their own personal feelings. The description of the assault with which the city is threatened, and of the seven leaders who, like heaven-storming giants, have sworn its destruction, and who, in the emblems borne on their shields, display their arrogance, is an epic subject clothed in the pomp of tragedy. This long and ascending series of preparation is every way worthy the one agitating moment at which Eteocles, who has hitherto displayed the utmost degree of prudence and firmness, and stationed, at each gate, a patriotic hero to confront each of the insolent foes; when the seventh is described to him as no other than Polynices, the author of the whole threatened calamity, hurried away by the Erinnys of a father's curse, insists on becoming himself his antagonist, and, notwithstanding all the entreaties of the chorus, with the clear consciousness of inevitable death, rushes headlong to the fratricidal strife. War, in itself, is no subject for tragedy, and the poet hurries us rapidly from the ominous preparation to the fatal moment of decision: the city is saved, the two competitors for the throne fall by each other's hands, and the whole is closed by their funeral dirge, sung conjointly by the sisters and a chorus of Theban virgins. It is worthy of remark that Antigone's determination to inter her brother, notwithstanding the prohibition with which Sophocles opens his own piece, which he names after her, is interwoven with the conclusion of this play, a circumstance which, as in the case of the Choephorae, immediately connects it with a new and further development of the tragic story.
I wish I could persuade myself that Aeschylus composed the Persians to comply with the wish of Hiero, King of Syracuse, who was desirous vividly to realize the great events of the Persian war. Such is the substance of one tradition; but according to another, the piece had been previously exhibited in Athens. We have already alluded to this drama, which, both in point of choice of subject, and the manner of handling it, is undoubtedly the most imperfect of all the tragedies of this poet that we possess. Scarcely has the vision of Atossa raised our expectation in the commencement, when the whole catastrophe immediately opens on us with the arrival of the first messenger, and no further progress is even imaginable. But although not a legitimate drama, we may still consider it as a proud triumphal hymn of liberty, clothed in soft and unceasing lamentations of kindred and subjects over the fallen majesty of the ambitious despot. With great judgment, both here and in the Seven before Thebes, the poet describes the issue of the war, not as accidental, which is almost always the case in Homer, but (for in tragedy there is no place for accident,) as the result of overweening infatuation on the one hand, and wise moderation on the other.
The Prometheus Bound, held also a middle place between two others— the Fire-bringing Prometheus and the Prometheus Unbound, if we dare reckon the first, which, without question, was a satiric drama, a part of a trilogy. A considerable fragment of the Prometheus Unbound has been preserved to us in a Latin translation by Attius.
The Prometheus Bound is the representation of constancy under suffering, and that the never-ending suffering of a god. Exiled in its scene to a naked rock on the shore of the earth-encircling ocean, this drama still embraces the world, the Olympus of the gods, and the earth, the abode of mortals; all as yet scarcely reposing in security above the dread abyss of the dark primaeval powers—the Titans. The idea of a self-devoting divinity has been mysteriously inculcated in many religions, in dim foreboding of the true; here, however, it appears in most fearful contrast to the consolations of Revelation. For Prometheus does not suffer from any understanding with the power which rules the world, but in atonement for his disobedience to that power, and his disobedience consists in nothing but the attempt to give perfection to the human race. He is thus an image of human nature itself; endowed with an unblessed foresight and riveted to a narrow existence, without a friend or ally, and with nothing to oppose to the combined and inexorable powers of nature, but an unshaken will and the consciousness of her own lofty aspirations. The other productions of the Greek Tragedians are so many tragedies; but this I might say is Tragedy herself: her purest spirit revealed with all the annihilating and overpowering force of its first, and as yet unmitigated, austerity.
There is little of external action in this piece. Prometheus merely suffers and resolves from the beginning to the end; and his sufferings and resolutions are always the same. But the poet has, in a masterly manner, contrived to introduce variety and progress into that which in itself was determinately fixed, and has in the objects with which he has surrounded him, given us a scale for the measurement of the matchless power of his sublime Titan. First the silence of Prometheus, while he is chained down under the harsh inspection of Strength and Force, whose threats serve only to excite a useless compassion in Vulcan, who is nevertheless forced to carry them into execution; then his solitary complainings, the arrival of the womanly tender ocean nymphs, whose kind but disheartening sympathy stimulates him to give freer vent to his feelings, to relate the causes of his fall, and to reveal the future, though with prudent reserve he reveals it only in part; the visit of the ancient Oceanus, a kindred god of the Titanian race, who, under the pretext of a zealous attachment to his cause, counsels submission to Jupiter, and is therefore dismissed with proud contempt; next comes Io, the frenzy-driven wanderer, a victim of the same tyranny as Prometheus himself suffers under: to her he predicts the wanderings to which she is still doomed, and the fate which at last awaits her, which, in some degree, is connected with his own, as from her blood, after the lapse of many ages, his deliverer is to spring; then the appearance of Mercury, as the messenger of the universal tyrant, who, with haughty menaces, commands him to disclose the secret which is to ensure the safety of Jupiter's throne against all the malice of fate and fortune; and, lastly, before Prometheus has well declared his refusal, the yawning of the earth, which, amidst thunder and lightning, storms and earthquake, engulfs both him and the rock to which he is chained in the abyss of the nether world. The triumph of subjection was never perhaps more gloriously celebrated, and we have difficulty in conceiving how the poet in the Prometheus Unbound could have sustained himself on the same height of elevation.
In the dramas of Aeschylus we have one of many examples that, in art as well as in nature, gigantic productions precede those that evince regularity of proportion, which again in their turn decline gradually into littleness and insignificance, and that poetry in her earliest appearance attaches itself closely to the sanctities of religion, whatever may be the form which the latter assumes among the various races of men.
A saying of the poet, which has been recorded, proves that he endeavoured to maintain this elevation, and purposely avoided all artificial polish, which might lower him from this godlike sublimity. His brothers urged him to write a new Paean. He answered: "The old one of Tynnichus is the best, and his compared with this, fare as the new statues do beside the old; for the latter, with all their simplicity, are considered divine; while the new, with all the care bestowed on their execution, are indeed admired, but bear much less of the impression of divinity." In religion, as in everything else, he carried his boldness to the utmost limits; and thus he even came to be accused of having in one of his pieces disclosed the Eleusinean mysteries, and was only acquitted on the intercession of his brother Aminias, who bared in sight of the judges the wounds which he had received in the battle of Salamis. He perhaps believed that in the communication of the poetic feeling was contained the initiation into the mysteries, and that nothing was in this way revealed to any one who was not worthy of it.
In Aeschylus the tragic style is as yet imperfect, and not unfrequently runs into either unmixed epic or lyric. It is often abrupt, irregular, and harsh. To compose more regular and skilful tragedies than those of Aeschylus was by no means difficult; but in the more than mortal grandeur which he displayed, it was impossible that he should ever be surpassed; and even Sophocles, his younger and more fortunate rival, did not in this respect equal him. The latter, in speaking of Aeschylus, gave a proof that he was himself a thoughtful artist: "Aeschylus does what is right without knowing it." These few simple words exhaust the whole of what we understand by the phrase, powerful genius working unconsciously.
Life and Political Character of Sophocles—Character of his different Tragedies.
The birth of Sophocles was nearly at an equal distance between that of his predecessor and that of Euripides, so that he was about half a life-time from each: but on this point all the authorities do not coincide. He was, however, during the greatest part of his life the contemporary of both. He frequently contended for the ivy-wreath of tragedy with Aeschylus, and he outlived Euripides, who, however, also attained to a good old age. To speak in the spirit of the ancient religion, it seems that a beneficent Providence wished in this individual to evince to the human race the dignity and blessedness of its lot, by endowing him with every divine gift, with all that can adorn and elevate the mind and the heart, and crowning him with every imaginable blessing of this life. Descended from rich and honourable parents, and born a free citizen of the most enlightened state of Greece;—there were birth, necessary condition, and foundation. Beauty of person and of mind, and the uninterruped enjoyment of both in the utmost perfection, to the extreme term of human existence; a most choice and finished education in gymnastics and the musical arts, the former so important in the development of the bodily powers, and the latter in the communication of harmony; the sweet bloom of youth, and the ripe fruit of age; the possession of and unbroken enjoyment of poetry and art, and the exercise of serene wisdom; love and respect among his fellow citizens, renown abroad, and the countenance and favour of the gods: these are the general features of the life of this pious and virtuous poet. It would seem as if the gods, to whom, and to Bacchus in particular, as the giver of all joy, and the civilizer of the human race, he devoted himself at an early age by the composition of tragical dramas for his festivals, had wished to confer immortality on him, so long did they delay the hour of his death; but as this could not be, they loosened him from life as gently as was possible, that he might imperceptibly change one immortality for another, the long duration of his earthly existence for the imperishable vitality of his name. When a youth of sixteen, he was selected, on account of his beauty, to dance (playing the while, after the Greek manner, on the lyre) at the head of the chorus of youths who, after the battle of Salamis (in which Aeschylus fought, and which he has so nobly described), executed the Paean round the trophy erected on that occasion. Thus then the beautiful season of his youthful bloom coincided with the most glorious epoch of the Athenian people. He held the rank of general as colleague with Pericles and Thucydides, and, when arrived at a more advanced age, was elected to the priesthood of a native hero. In his twenty-fifth year he began to exhibit tragedies; twenty times was he victorious; he often gained the second place, but never was he ranked so low as in the third. In this career he proceeded with increasing success till he had passed his ninetieth year; and some of his greatest works were even the fruit of a still later period. There is a story of an accusation being brought against him by one or more of his elder sons, of having become childish from age, and of being incapable of managing his own affairs. An alleged partiality for a grandson by a second wife is said to have been the motive of the charge. In his defence he contented himself with reading to his judges his Oedipus at Colonos, which he had then just composed (or, according to others, only the magnificent chorus in it, wherein he sings the praises of Colonos, his birth-place,) and the astonished judges, without farther consultation, conducted him in triumph to his house. If it be true that the second Oedipus was written at so late an age, as from its mature serenity and total freedom from the impetuosity and violence of youth we have good reason to conclude that it actually was, it affords us a pleasing picture of an old age at once amiable and venerable. Although the varying accounts of his death have a fabulous look, they all coincide in this, and alike convey this same purport, that he departed life without a struggle, while employed in his art, or something connected with it, and that, like an old swan of Apollo, he breathed out his life in song. The story also of the Lacedaemonian general, who having entrenched the burying-ground of the poet's ancestors, and being twice warned by Bacchus in a vision to allow Sophocles to be there interred, dispatched a herald to the Athenians on the subject, I consider as true, as well as a number of other circumstances, which serve to set in a strong light the illustrious reverence in which his name was held. In calling him virtuous and pious, I used the words in his own sense; for although his works breathe the real character of ancient grandeur, gracefulness, and simplicity, he, of all the Grecian poets, is also the one whose feelings bear the strongest affinity to the spirit of our religion.
One gift alone was denied to him by nature: a voice attuned to song. He could only call forth and direct the harmonious effusions of other voices; he was therefore compelled to depart from the hitherto established practice for the poet to act a part in his own pieces. Once only did he make his appearance on the stage in the character of the blind singer Thamyris (a very characteristic trait) playing on the cithara.
As Aeschylus, who raised tragic poetry from its rude beginnings to the dignity of the Cothurnus, was his predecessor; the historical relation in which he stood to him enabled Sophocles to profit by the essays of that original master, so that Aeschylus appears as the rough designer, and Sophocles as the finisher and successor. The more artificial construction of Sophocles' dramas is easily perceived: the greater limitation of the chorus in proportion to the dialogue, the smoother polish of the rhythm, and the purer Attic diction, the introduction of a greater number of characters, the richer complication of the fable, the multiplication of incidents, a higher degree of development, the more tranquil dwelling upon all the momenta of the action, and the more striking theatrical effect allowed to decisive ones, the more perfect rounding off of the whole, even considered from a merely external point of view. But he excelled Aeschylus in something still more essential, and proved himself deserving of the good fortune of having such a preceptor, and of being allowed to enter into competition in the same field with him: I mean the harmonious perfection of his mind, which enabled him spontaneously to satisfy every requisition of the laws of beauty, a mind whose free impulse was accompanied by the most clear consciousness. To surpass Aeschylus in boldness of conception was perhaps impossible: I am inclined, however, to believe that is only because of his wisdom and moderation that Sophocles appears less bold, since he always goes to work with the greatest energy, and perhaps with even a more sustained earnestness, like a man who knows the extent of his powers, and is determined, when he does not exceed them, to stand up with the greater confidence for his rights [Footnote: This idea has been so happily expressed by the greatest genius perhaps of the last century, that the translator hopes he will be forgiven for here transcribing the passage: "I can truly say that, poor and unknown as I then was, I had pretty nearly as high an idea of myself and of my works, as I have at this moment, when the public has decided in their favour. It ever was my opinion, that the mistakes and blunders both in a rational and religious point of view, of which we see thousands daily guilty, are owing to their ignorance of themselves. To know myself, had been all along my constant study. I weighed myself alone; I balanced myself with others; I watched every means of information to see how much ground I occupied as a man and as a poet; I studied assiduously nature's design in my formation— where the lights and shades in my character were intended."—Letter from Burns to Dr. Moore, in Currie's Life.—TRANS.]. As Aeschylus delights in transporting us to the convulsions of the primary world of the Titans, Sophocles, on the other hand, never avails himself of divine interposition except where it is absolutely necessary; he formed men, according to the general confession of antiquity, better, that is, not more moral and exempt from error, but more beautiful and noble than they really are; and while he took every thing in the most human sense, he was at the same time open to its higher significance. According to all appearance he was also more temperate than Aeschylus in his use of scenic ornaments; displaying perhaps more of taste and chastened beauty, but not attempting the same colossal magnificence.
To characterize the native sweetness and gracefulness so eminent in this poet, the ancients gave him the appellation of the Attic bee. Whoever is thoroughly imbued with the feeling of this peculiarity may flatter himself that a sense for ancient art has arisen within him; for the affected sentimentality of the present day, far from coinciding with the ancients in this opinion, would in the tragedies of Sophocles, both in respect of the representation of bodily sufferings, and in the sentiments and structure, find much that is insupportably austere.
When we consider the great fertility of Sophocles, for according to some he wrote a hundred and thirty pieces (of which, however, seventeen were pronounced spurious by Aristophanes the grammarian), and eighty according to the most moderate account, little, it must be owned, has come down to us, for we have only seven of them. Chance, however, has so far favoured us, that in these seven pieces we find several which were held by the ancients as his greatest works, the Antigone, for example, the Electra, and the two on the subject of Oedipus; and these have also come down to us tolerably free from mutilation and corruption in their text. The Oedipus Tyrannus, and the Philoctetes, have been generally, but without good reason, preferred by modern critics to all the others: the first on account of the artifice of the plot, in which the dreadful catastrophe, which so powerfully excites the curiosity (a rare case in the Greek tragedies), is inevitably brought about by a succession of connected causes; the latter on account of the masterly display of character, the beautiful contrast observable in those of the three leading personages, and the simple structure of the piece, in which, with so few persons, everything proceeds from the truest and most adequate motives. But the whole of the tragedies of Sophocles are separately resplendent with peculiar excellencies. In Antigone we have the purest display of feminine heroism; in Ajax the sense of manly honour in its full force; in the Trachiniae (or, as we should rather name it, the Dying Hercules), the female levity of Dejanira is beautifully atoned for by her death, and the sufferings of Hercules are portrayed with suitable dignity; Electra is distinguished by energy and pathos; in Oedipus Coloneus there prevails a mild and gentle emotion, and over the whole piece is diffused the sweetest gracefulness. I will not undertake to weigh the respective merits of these pieces against each other: but I own I entertain a singular predilection for the last of them, because it appears to me the most expressive of the personal feelings of the poet himself. As this piece was written for the very purpose of throwing a lustre on Athens, and his own birth-place more particularly, he appears to have laboured on it with a special love and affection.
Ajax and Antigone are usually the least understood. We cannot conceive how these pieces should run on so long after what we usually call the catastrophe. On this subject I shall hereafter offer a remark or two.
Of all the fables of ancient mythology in which fate is made to play a conspicuous part, the story of Oedipus is perhaps the most ingenious; but still many others, as, for instance, that of Niobe, which, without any complication of incidents, simply exhibit on a scale of colossal dimensions both of human arrogance, and its impending punishment from the gods, appear to me to be conceived in a grander style. The very intrigue which is involved in that of Oedipus detracts from its loftiness of character. Intrigue in the dramatic sense is a complication arising from the crossing of purposes and events, and this is found in a high degree in the fate of Oedipus, as all that is done by his parents or himself in order to evade the predicted horrors, serves only to bring them on the more surely. But that which gives so grand and terrible a character to this drama, is the circumstance which, however, is for the most part overlooked; that to the very Oedipus who solved the riddle of the Sphinx relating to human life, his own life should remain so long an inextricable riddle, to be so awfully cleared up, when all was irretrievably lost. A striking picture of the arrogant pretension of human wisdom, which is ever right enough in its general principles, but does not enable the possessor to make the proper application to himself.
Notwithstanding the severe conclusion of the first Oedipus we are so far reconciled to it by the violence, suspicion, and haughtiness in the character of Oedipus, that our feelings do not absolutely revolt at so horrible a fate. For this end, it was necessary thus far to sacrifice the character of Oedipus, who, however, raises himself in our estimation by his fatherly care and heroic zeal for the welfare of his people, that occasion him, by his honest search for the author of the crime, to accelerate his own destruction. It was also necessary, for the sake of contrast with his future misery, to exhibit him in his treatment of Tiresias and Creon, in all the haughtiness of regal dignity. And, indeed, all his earlier proceedings evince, in some measure, the same suspiciousness and violence of character; the former, in his refusing to be quieted by the assurances of Polybos, when taunted with being a suppositious child, and the latter, in his bloody quarrel with Laius. The latter character he seems to have inherited from both his parents. The arrogant levity of Jocasta, which induces her to deride the oracle as not confirmed by the event, the penalty of which she is so soon afterwards to inflict upon herself, was not indeed inherited by her son; he is, on the contrary, conspicuous throughout for the purity of his intentions; and his care and anxiety to escape from the predicted crime, added naturally to the poignancy of his despair, when he found that he had nevertheless been overtaken by it. Awful indeed is his blindness in not perceiving the truth when it was, as it were, brought directly home to him; as, for instance, when he puts the question to Jocasta, How did Laius look? and she answers he had become gray-haired, otherwise in appearance he was not unlike Oedipus. This is also another feature of her levity, that she should not have been struck with the resemblance to her husband, a circumstance that might have led her to recognize him as her son. Thus a close analysis of the piece will evince the utmost propriety and significance of every portion of it. As, however, it is customary to extol the correctness of Sophocles, and to boast more especially of the strict observance of probability which, prevails throughout this Oedipus, I must here remark that this very piece is a proof how, on this subject, the ancient artists followed very different principles from those of modern critics. For, according to our way of thinking, nothing could be more improbable than that Oedipus should, so long, have forborne to inquire into the circumstances of the death of Laius, and that the scars on his feet, and even the name which he bore, should never have excited the curiosity of Jocasta, &c. But the ancients did not produce their works of art for calculating and prosaic understandings; and an improbability which, to be found out, required dissection, and did not exist within the matters of the representation itself, was to them none at all.
The diversity of character of Aeschylus and Sophocles is nowhere more conspicuous than in the Eumenides and the Oedipus Coloneus, as both these pieces were composed with the same aim. This aim was to glorify Athens as the sacred abode of law and humanity, on whose soil the crimes of the hero families of other countries might, by a higher mediation, be at last propitiated; while an ever-during prosperity was predicted to the Athenian people. The patriotic and liberty-breathing Aeschylus has recourse to a judicial, and the pious Sophocles to a religious, procedure; even the consecration of Oedipus in death. Bent down by the consciousness of inevitable crimes, and lengthened misery, his honour is, as it were, cleared up by the gods themselves, as if desirous of showing that, in the terrible example which they made of him, they had no intention of visiting him in particular, but merely wished to give a solemn lesson to the whole human race. Sophocles, to whom the whole of life was one continued worship of the gods, delighted to throw all possible honour on its last moments as if a more solemn festival; and associated it with emotions very different from what the thought of mortality is in general calculated to excite. That the tortured and exhausted Oedipus should at last find peace and repose in the grove of the Furies, in the very spot from which all other mortals fled with aversion and horror, he whose misfortune consisted in having done a deed at which all men shudder, unconsciously and without warning of any inward feeling; in this there is a profound and mysterious meaning.
Aeschylus has given us in the person of Pallas a more majestic representation of the Attic cultivation, prudence, moderation, mildness, and magnanimity; but Sophocles, who delighted to draw all that is godlike within the sphere of humanity, has, in his Theseus, given a more delicate development of all these same things. Whoever is desirous of gaining an accurate idea of Grecian heroism, as contrasted with the Barbarian, would do well to consider this character with attention.
In Aeschylus, before the victim of persecution can be delivered, and the land can participate in blessings, the infernal horror of the Furies congeals the spectators' blood, and makes his hair stand on end, and the whole rancour of these goddesses of rage is exhausted: after this the transition to their peaceful retreat is the more wonderful; the whole human race seems, as it were, delivered from their power. In Sophocles, however, they do not ever appear, but are kept altogether in the background; and they are never mentioned by their own name, but always alluded to by some softening euphemism. But this very obscurity, so exactly befitting these daughters of night, and the very distance at which they are kept, are calculated to excite a silent horror in which the bodily senses have no part. The clothing the grove of the Furies with all the charms of a southern spring completes the sweetness of the poem; and were I to select from his own tragedies an emblem of the poetry of Sophocles, I should describe it as a sacred grove of the dark goddesses of fate, in which the laurel, the olive, and the vine, are always green, and the song of the nightingale is for ever heard.
Two of the pieces of Sophocles refer, to what in the Greek way of thinking, are the sacred rights of the dead, and the solemn importance of burial; in Antigone the whole of the action hinges on this, and in Ajax it forms the only satisfactory conclusion of the piece.
The ideal of the female character in Antigone is characterized by great austerity, and it is sufficient of itself to put an end to all the seductive representations of Grecian softness, which of late have been so universally current. Her indignation at Ismene's refusal to take part in her daring resolution; the manner in which she afterwards repulses Ismene, when repenting of her former weakness, she begs to be allowed to share her heroic sister's death, borders on harshness; both her silence, and then her invectives against Creon, by which she provokes him to execute his tyrannical threats, display the immovable energy of manly courage. The poet has, however, discovered the secret of painting the loving heart of woman in a single line, when to the assertion of Creon, that Polynices was an enemy to his country, she replies:
My love shall go with thine, but not my hate. [Footnote: This is the version of Franklin, but it does not convey the meaning of the original, and I am not aware that the English language is sufficiently flexible to admit of an exact translation. The German, which, though far inferior to the Greek in harmony, is little behind in flexibility, has in this respect great advantage over the English; and Schlegel's "nicht mitzuhassen, mitzulieben bin ich da," represents exactly Outoi synechthein alla symphilein ephyn.—TRANS.]
Moreover, she puts a constraint on her feelings only so long as by giving vent to them, she might make her firmness of purpose appear equivocal. When, however, she is being led forth to inevitable death, she pours forth her soul in the tenderest and most touching waitings over her hard and untimely fate, and does not hesitate, she, the modest virgin, to mourn the loss of nuptials, and the unenjoyed bliss of marriage. Yet she never in a single syllable betrays any inclination for Haemon, and does not even mention the name of that amiable youth [Footnote: Barthelemy asserts the contrary; but the line to which he refers, according to the more correct manuscripts, and even according to the context, belongs to Ismene.]. After such heroic determination, to have shown that any tie still bound her to existence, would have been a weakness; but to relinquish without one sorrowful regret those common enjoyments with which the gods have enriched this life, would have ill accorded with her devout sanctity of mind.
On a first view the chorus in Antigone may appear weak, acceding, as it does, at once, without opposition to the tyrannical commands of Creon, and without even attempting to make the slightest representation in behalf of the young heroine. But to exhibit the determination and the deed of Antigone in their full glory, it was necessary that they should stand out quite alone, and that she should have no stay or support. Moreover, the very submissiveness of the chorus increases our impression of the irresistible nature of the royal commands. So, too, was it necessary for it to mingle with its concluding addresses to Antigone the most painful recollections, that she might drain the full cup of earthly sorrows. The case is very different in Electra, where the chorus appropriately takes an interest in the fate of the two principal characters, and encourages them in the execution of their design, as the moral feelings are divided as to its legitimacy, whereas there is no such conflict in Antigone's case, who had nothing to deter her from her purpose but mere external fears.
After the fulfilment of the deed, and the infliction of its penalties, the arrogance of Creon still remains to be corrected, and the death of Antigone to be avenged; nothing less than the destruction of his whole family, and his own despair, could be a sufficient atonement for the sacrifice of a life so costly. We have therefore the king's wife, who had not even been named before, brought at last on the stage, that she may hear the misfortunes of her family, and put an end to her own existence. To Grecian feelings it would have been impossible to consider the poem as properly concluding with the death of Antigone, without its penal retribution.
The case is the same in Ajax. His arrogance, which was punished with a degrading madness, is atoned for by the deep shame which at length drives him even to self-murder. The persecution of the unfortunate man must not, however, be carried farther; when, therefore, it is in contemplation to dishonour his very corpse by the refusal of interment, even Ulysses interferes. He owes the honours of burial to that Ulysses whom in life he had looked upon as his mortal enemy, and to whom, in the dreadful introductory scene, Pallas shows, in the example of the delirious Ajax, the nothingness of man. Thus Ulysses appears as the personification of moderation, which, if it had been possessed by Ajax, would have prevented his fall.
Self-murder is of frequent occurrence in ancient mythology, at least as adapted to tragedy; but it generally takes place, if not in a state of insanity, yet in a state of agitation, after some sudden calamity which leaves no room for consideration. Such self-murders as those of Jocasta, Haemon, Eurydice, and lastly of Dejanira, appear merely in the light of a subordinate appendage in the tragical pictures of Sophocles; but the suicide of Ajax is a cool determination, a free action, and of sufficient importance to become the principal subject of the piece. It is not the last fatal crisis of a slow mental malady, as is so often the case in these more effeminate modern times; still less is it that more theoretical disgust of life, founded on a conviction of its worthlessness, which induced so many of the later Romans, on Epicurean as well as Stoical principles, to put an end to their existence. It is not through any unmanly despondency that Ajax is unfaithful to his rude heroism. His delirium is over, as well as his first comfortless feelings upon awaking from it; and it is not till after the complete return of consciousness, and when he has had time to measure the depth of the abyss into which, by a divine destiny, his overweening haughtiness has plunged him, when he contemplates his situation, and feels it ruined beyond remedy:—his honour wounded by the refusal of the arms of Achilles; and the outburst of his vindictive rage wasted in his infatuation on defenceless flocks; himself, after a long and reproachless heroic career, a source of amusement to his enemies, an object of derision and abomination to the Greeks, and to his honoured father,—should he thus return to him—a disgrace: after reviewing all this, he decides agreeably to his own motto, "gloriously to live or gloriously to die," that the latter course alone remains open to him. Even the dissimulation,—the first, perhaps, that he ever practised, by which, to prevent the execution of his purpose from being disturbed, he pacifies his comrades, must be considered as the fruit of greatness of soul. He appoints Teucer guardian to his infant boy, the future consolation of his own bereaved parents; and, like Cato, dies not before he has arranged the concerns of all who belong to him. As Antigone in her womanly tenderness, so even he in his wild manner, seems in his last speech to feel the majesty of that light of the sun from which he is departing for ever. His rude courage disdains compassion, and therefore excites it the more powerfully. What a picture of awaking from the tumult of passion, when the tent opens and in the midst of the slaughtered herds he sits on the ground bewailing himself!
As Ajax, in the feeling of inextinguishable shame, forms the violent resolution of throwing away life, Philoctetes, on the other hand, bears its wearisome load during long years of misery with the most enduring patience. If Ajax is honoured by his despair, Philoctetes is equally ennobled by his constancy. When the instinct of self-preservation comes into collision with no moral impulse, it naturally exhibits itself in all its strength. Nature has armed with this instinct whatever is possessed of the breath of life, and the vigour with which every hostile attack on existence is repelled is the strongest proof of its excellence. In the presence, it is true, of that band of men by which he had been abandoned, and if he must depend on their superior power, Philoctetes would no more have wished for life than did Ajax. But he is alone with nature; he quails not before the frightful aspect which she exhibits to him, and still clings even to the maternal bosom of the all-nourishing earth. Exiled on a desert island, tortured by an incurable wound, solitary and helpless as he is, his bow procures him food from the birds of the forest, the rock yields him soothing herbs, the fountain supplies a fresh beverage, his cave affords him a cool shelter in summer, in winter he is warmed by the mid-day sun, or a fire of kindled boughs; even the raging attacks of his pain at length exhaust themselves, and leave him in a refreshing sleep. Alas! it is the artificial refinements, the oppressive burden of a relaxing and deadening superfluity which render man indifferent to the value of life: when it is stripped of all foreign appendages, though borne down with sufferings so that the naked existence alone remains, still will its sweetness flow from the heart at every pulse through all the veins. Miserable man! ten long years has he struggled; and yet he still lives, and clings to life and hope. What force of truth is there in all this! What, however, most moves us in behalf of Philoctetes is, that he, who by an abuse of power had been cast out from society, when it again approaches him is exposed by it to a second and still more dangerous evil, that of falsehood. The anxiety excited in the mind of the spectator lest Philoctetes should be deprived of his last means of subsistence, his bow, would be too painful, did he not from the beginning entertain a suspicion that the open-hearted and straight-forward Neoptolemus will not be able to maintain to the end the character which, so much against his will, he has assumed. Not without reason after this deception does Philoctetes turn away from mankind to those inanimate companions to which the instinctive craving for society had attached him. He calls on the island and its volcanoes to witness this fresh wrong; he believes that his beloved bow feels pain in being taken from him; and at length he takes a melancholy leave of his hospitable cavern, the fountains and the wave-washed cliffs, from which he so often looked in vain upon the ocean: so inclined to love is the uncorrupted mind of man.
Respecting the bodily sufferings of Philoctetes and the manner of representing them, Lessing has in his Laocoon declared himself against Winkelmann, and Herder again has in the Silvae Criticae (Kritische Walder) contradicted Lessing. Both the two last writers have made many excellent observations on the piece, although we must allow with Herder, that Winkelmann was correct in affirming that the Philoctetes of Sophocles, like Laocoon in the celebrated group, suffers with the suppressed agony of an heroic soul never altogether overcome by his pain.
The Trachiniae appears to me so very inferior to the other pieces of Sophocles which have reached us, that I could wish there were some warrant for supposing that this tragedy was composed in the age, indeed, and in the school of Sophocles, perhaps by his son Iophon, and that it was by mistake attributed to the father. There is much both in the structure and plan, and in the style of the piece, calculated to excite suspicion; and many critics have remarked that the introductory soliloquy of Dejanira, which is wholly uncalled-for, is very unlike the general character of Sophocles' prologues: and although this poet's usual rules of art are observed on the whole, yet it is very superficially; no where can we discern in it the profound mind of Sophocles. But as no writer of antiquity appears to have doubted its authenticity, while Cicero even quotes from it the complaint of Hercules, as from an indisputable work of Sophocles, we are compelled to content ourselves with the remark, that in this one instance the tragedian has failed to reach his usual elevation.
This brings us to the consideration of a general question, which, in the examination of the works of Euripides, will still more particularly engage the attention of the critic: how far, namely, the invention and execution of a drama must belong to one man to entitle him to pass for its author. Dramatic literature affords numerous examples of plays composed by several persons conjointly. It is well known that Euripides, in the details and execution of his pieces, availed himself of the assistance of a learned servant, Cephisophon; and he perhaps also consulted with him respecting his plots. It appears, moreover, certain that in Athens schools of dramatic art had at this date been formed; such, indeed, as usually arise when poetical talents are, by public competition, called abundantly and actively into exercise: schools of art which contain scholars of such excellence and of such kindred genius, that the master may confide to them a part of the execution, and even the plan, and yet allow the whole to pass under his name without any disparagement to his fame. Such were the schools of painting of the sixteenth century, and every one knows what a remarkable degree of critical acumen is necessary to discover in many of Raphael's pictures how much really belongs to his own pencil. Sophocles had educated his son Iophon to the tragic art, and might therefore easily receive assistance from him in the actual labour of composition, especially as it was necessary that the tragedies that were to compete for the prize should be ready and got by heart by a certain day. On the other hand, he might also execute occasional passages for works originally designed by the son; and the pieces of this description, in which the hand of the master was perceptible, would be naturally attributed to the more celebrated name.
Euripides—His Merits and Defects—Decline of Tragic Poetry through him.
When we consider Euripides by himself, without any comparison with his predecessors, when we single out some of his better pieces, and particular passages in others, we cannot refuse to him an extraordinary meed of praise. But on the other hand, when we take him in his connexion with the history of art, when we look at each of his pieces as a whole, and again at the general scope of his labours, as revealed to us in the works which have come down to us, we are forced to censure him severely on many accounts. Of few writers can so much good and evil be said with truth. He was a man of boundless ingenuity and most versatile talents; but he either wanted the lofty earnestness of purpose, or the severe artistic wisdom, which we reverence in Aeschylus and Sophocles, to regulate the luxuriance of his certainly splendid and amiable qualities. His constant aim is to please, he cares not by what means; hence is he so unequal: frequently he has passages of overpowering beauty, but at other times he sinks into downright mediocrity. With all his faults he possesses an admirable ease, and a certain insinuating charm.
These preliminary observations I have judged necessary, since otherwise, on account of what follows, it might be objected to me that I am at variance with myself, having lately, in a short French essay, endeavoured to show the superiority of a piece of Euripides to Racine's imitation of it. There I fixed my attention on a single drama, and that one of the poet's best; but here I consider everything from the most general points of view, and relatively to the highest requisitions of art; and that my enthusiasm for ancient tragedy may not appear blind and extravagant, I must justify it by a keen examination into the traces of its degeneracy and decline.
We may compare perfection in art and poetry to the summit of a steep mountain, on which an uprolled load cannot long maintain its position, but immediately rolls down again the other side irresistibly. It descends according to the laws of gravity with quickness and ease, and one can calmly look on while it is descending; for the mass follows its natural tendency, while the laborious ascent is, in some degree, a painful spectacle. Hence it is, for example, that the paintings which belong to the age of declining art are much more pleasing to the unlearned eye, than those which preceded the period of its perfection. The genuine connoisseur, on the contrary, will hold the pictures of a Zuccheri and others, who gave the tone when the great schools of the sixteenth century were degenerating into empty and superficial mannerism, to be in real and essential worth, far inferior to the works of a Mantegna, Perugino, and their contemporaries. Or let us suppose the perfection of art a focus: at equal distances on either side, the collected rays occupy equal spaces, but on this side they converge towards a common effect; whereas, on the other they diverge, till at last they are totally lost.
We have, besides, a particular reason for censuring without reserve the errors of this poet; the fact, namely, that our own age is infected with the same faults with those which procured for Euripides so much favour, if not esteem, among his contemporaries. In our times we have been doomed to witness a number of plays which, though in matter and form they are far inferior to those of Euripides, bear yet in so far a resemblance to them, that while they seduce the feelings and corrupt the judgment, by means of weakly, and sometimes even tender, emotions, their general tendency is to produce a downright moral licentiousness.
What I shall say on this subject will not, for the most part, possess even the attraction of novelty. Although the moderns, attracted either by the greater affinity of his views with their own sentiments, or led astray by an ill-understood opinion of Aristotle, have not unfrequently preferred Euripides to his two predecessors, and have unquestionably read, admired, and imitated him much more; it admits of being shown, however, that many of the ancients, and some even of the contemporaries of Euripides, held the same opinion of him as myself. In Anacharsis we find this mixture of praise and censure at least alluded to, though the author softens everything for the sake of his object of showing the productions of the Greeks, in every department, under the most favourable light.
We possess some cutting sayings of Sophocles respecting Euripides, though he was so far from being actuated by anything like the jealousy of authorship, that he mourned his death, and, in a piece which he exhibited shortly after, he did not allow his actors the usual ornament of the wreath. The charge which Plato brings against the tragic poets, as tending to give men entirely up to the dominion of the passions, and to render them effeminate, by putting extravagant lamentations in the mouths of their heroes, may, I think, be justly referred to Euripides alone; for, with respect to his predecessors, the injustice of it would have been universally apparent. The derisive attacks of Aristophanes are well known, though not sufficiently understood and appreciated. Aristotle bestows on him many a severe censure, and when he calls Euripides "the most tragic poet," he by no means ascribes to him the greatest perfection in the tragic art in general, but merely alludes to the moving effect which is produced by unfortunate catastrophes; for he immediately adds, "although he does not well arrange the rest." Lastly, the Scholiast on Euripides contains many concise and stringent criticisms on particular pieces, among which perhaps are preserved the opinions of Alexandrian critics—those critics who reckoned among them that Aristarchus, who, for the solidity and acuteness of his critical powers, has had his name transmitted to posterity as the proverbial designation of a judge of art.
In Euripides we find the essence of the ancient tragedy no longer pure and unmixed; its characteristical features are already in part defaced. We have already placed this essence in the prevailing idea of Destiny, in the Ideality of the composition, and in the significance of the Chorus.
Euripides inherited, it is true, the idea of Destiny from his predecessors, and the belief of it was inculcated in him by the tragic usage; but yet in him fate is seldom the invisible spirit of the whole composition, the fundamental thought of the tragic world. We have seen that this idea may be exhibited under severer or milder aspects; that the midnight terrors of destiny may, in the courses of a whole trilogy, brighten into indications of a wise and beneficent Providence. Euripides, however, has drawn it down from the region of the infinite; and with him inevitable necessity not unfrequently degenerates into the caprice of chance. Accordingly, he can no longer apply it to its proper purpose, namely, by contrast with it, to heighten the moral liberty of man. How few of his pieces turn upon a steadfast resistance to the decrees of fate, or an equally heroic submission to them! His characters generally suffer because they must, and not because they will.
The mutual subordination, between character and passion and ideal elevation, which we find observed in the same order in Sophocles, and in the sculpture of Greece, Euripides has completely reversed. Passion with him is the first thing; his next care is for character, and when these endeavours leave him still further scope, he occasionally seeks to lay on a touch of grandeur and dignity, but more frequently a display of amiableness.
It has been already admitted that the persons in tragedy ought not to be all alike faultless, as there would then be no opposition among them, and consequently no room for a complication of plot. But (as Aristotle observes) Euripides has, without any necessity, frequently painted his characters in the blackest colours, as, for example, his Menelaus in Orestes. The traditions indeed, sanctioned by popular belief, warranted him in attributing great crimes to many of the old heroes, but he has also palmed upon them many base and paltry traits of his own arbitrary invention. It was by no means the object of Euripides to represent the race of heroes as towering in their majestic stature above the men of his own age; he rather endeavours to fill up, or to build over the chasm that yawned between his contemporaries and that wondrous olden world, and to come upon the gods and heroes in their undress, a surprise of which no greatness, it is said, can stand the test. He introduces his spectators to a sort of familiar acquaintance with them; he does not draw the supernatural and fabulous into the circle of humanity (a proceeding which we praised in Sophocles), but within the limits of the imperfect individuality. This is the meaning of Sophocles, when he said that "he drew men such as they ought to be, Euripides such as they are." Not that his own personages are always represented as irreproachable models; his expression referred merely to ideal elevation and sweetness of character and manners. It seems as if Euripides took a pleasure in being able perpetually to remind his spectators—"See! those beings were men, subject to the very same weaknesses, acting from the same motives as yourselves, and even as the meanest among you." Accordingly, he takes delight in depicting the defects and moral failings of his characters; nay, he often makes them disclose them for themselves in the most naive confession. They are frequently not merely undignified, but they even boast of their imperfections as that which ought to be.
The Chorus with him is for the most part an unessential ornament; its songs are frequently wholly episodical, without reference to the action, and more distinguished for brilliancy than for sublimity and true inspiration. "The Chorus," says Aristotle, "must be considered as one of the actors, and as a part of the whole; it must co-operate in the action— not as Euripides, but as Sophocles manages it." The older comedians enjoyed the privilege of allowing the Chorus occasionally to address the spectators in its own name; this was called a Parabasis, and, as I shall afterwards show, was in accordance with the spirit of comedy. Although the practice is by no means tragical, it was, however, according to Julius Pollux, frequently adopted by Euripides in his tragedies, who so far forgot himself on some of these occasions, that in the Danaidae, for instance, the chorus, which consisted of females, made use of grammatical inflections which belonged only to the male sex.
This poet has thus at once destroyed the internal essence of tragedy, and sinned against the laws of beauty and proportion in its external structure. He generally sacrifices the whole to the parts, and in these again he is more ambitious of foreign attractions, than of genuine poetic beauty.
In the accompanying music, he adopted all the innovations invented by Timotheus, and chose those melodies which were most in unison with the effeminacy of his own poetry. He proceeded in the same manner with his metres; his versification is luxuriant, and runs into anomaly. The same diluted and effeminate character would, on a more profound investigation, be unquestionably found in the rhythms of his choral songs likewise.
On all occasions he lays on, even to overloading, those merely corporeal charms which Winkelmann calls a "flattery of the gross external senses;" whatever is exciting, striking—in a word, all that produces a vivid effect, though without true worth for the mind and the feelings. He labours for effect to a degree which cannot be allowed even to the dramatic poet. For example, he hardly ever omits an opportunity of throwing his characters into a sudden and useless terror; his old men are everlastingly bemoaning the infirmities of age, and, in particular, are made to crawl with trembling limbs, and sighing at the fatigue, up the ascent from the orchestra to the stage, which frequently represented the slope of a hill. He is always endeavouring to move, and for the sake of emotion, he not only violates probability, but even sacrifices the coherence of the piece. He is strong in his pictures of misfortune; but he often claims our compassion not for inward agony of the soul, nor for pain which the sufferer endures with manly fortitude, but for mere bodily wretchedness. He is fond of reducing his heroes to the condition of beggars, of making them suffer hunger and want, and bringing them on the stage with all the outward signs of it, and clad in rags and tatters, for which Aristophanes, in his Acharnians, has so humorously taken him to task.
Euripides was a frequenter of the schools of the philosophers (he had been a scholar of Anaxagoras, and not, as many have erroneously stated, of Socrates, with whom he was only connected by social intercourse): and accordingly he indulges his vanity in introducing philosophical doctrines on all occasions; in my opinion, in a very imperfect manner, as we should not be able to understand these doctrines from his statements of them, if we were not previously acquainted with them. He thinks it too vulgar a thing to believe in the gods after the simple manner of the people, and he therefore seizes every opportunity of interspersing something of the allegorical interpretation of them, and carefully gives his spectators to understand that the sincerity of his own belief was very problematical. We may distinguish in him a twofold character: the poet, whose productions were consecrated to a religious solemnity, who stood under the protection of religion and who, therefore, on his part, was bound to honour it; and the sophist, with his philosophical dicta, who endeavoured to insinuate his sceptical opinions and doubts into the fabulous marvels of religion, from which he derived the subjects of his pieces. But while he is shaking the ground-works of religion, he at the same time acts the moralist; and, for the sake of popularity, he applies to the heroic life and the heroic ages maxims which could only apply to the social relations of his own times. He throws out a multitude of moral apophthegms, many of which he often repeats, and which are mostly trite, and not seldom fundamentally false. With all this parade of morality, the aim of his pieces, the general impression which they are calculated to produce is sometimes extremely immoral. A pleasant anecdote is told of his having put into the mouth of Bellerophon a silly eulogium on wealth, in which he declares it to be preferable to all domestic happiness, and ends with observing, "If Aphrodite (who bore the epithet golden) be indeed glittering as gold, she well deserves the love of Mortals:" which so offended the spectators, that they raised a great outcry, and would have stoned both actor and poet, out Euripides sprang forward, and called out, "Wait only till the end—he will be requited accordingly!" In like manner he defended himself against the objection that his Ixion expressed himself in too disgusting and abominable language, by observing that the piece concluded with his being broken on the wheel. But even this plea that the represented villany is requited by the final retribution of poetical justice, is not available in defence of all his tragedies. In some the wicked escape altogether untouched. Lying and other infamous practices are openly protected, especially when he can manage to palm them upon a supposed noble motive. He has also perfectly at command the seductive sophistry of the passions, which can lend a plausible appearance to everything. The following verse in justification of perjury, and in which the reservatio mentalis of the casuists seems to be substantially expressed, is well known:
The tongue swore, but the mind was unsworn.
Taken in its context, this verse, on account of which he was so often ridiculed by Aristophanes, may, indeed, be justified; but the formula is, nevertheless, bad, on account of the possible abuse of its application. Another verse of Euripides: "For a kingdom it is worth while to commit injustice, but in other cases it is well to be just," was frequently in the mouth of Caesar, with the like intention of making a bad use of it.
Euripides was frequently condemned even by the ancients for his seductive invitations to the enjoyment of sensual love. Every one must be disgusted when Hecuba, in order to induce Agamemnon to punish Polymestor, reminds him of the pleasures which he has enjoyed in the arms of Cassandra, his captive, and, therefore, by the laws of the heroic ages his concubine: she would purchase revenge for a murdered son with the acknowledged and permitted degradation of a living daughter. He was the first to make the unbridled passion of a Medea, and the unnatural love of a Phaedra, the main subject of his dramas, whereas from the manners of the ancients, we may easily conceive why love, which among them was much less dignified by tender feelings than among ourselves, should hold only a subordinate place in the older tragedies. With all the importance which he has assigned to his female characters, he is notorious for his hatred of women; and it is impossible to deny that he abounds in passages descanting on the frailties of the female sex, and the superior excellence of the male; together with many maxims of household wisdom: with all which he was evidently endeavouring to pay court to the men, who formed, if not the whole, certainly the most considerable portion of his audience. A cutting saying and an epigram of Sophocles, on this subject, have been preserved, in which he accounts for the (pretended) misogyny of Euripides by his experience of their seductibility in the course of his own illicit amours. In the manner in which women are painted by Euripides, we may observe, upon the whole, much sensibility even for the more noble graces of female modesty, but no genuine esteem.
The substantial freedom in treating the fables, which was one of the prerogatives of the tragic art, is frequently carried by Euripides to the extreme of licence. It is well known, that the fables of Hyginus, which differ so essentially from those generally received, were partly extracted from his pieces. As he frequently rejected all the incidents which were generally known, and to which the people were accustomed, Le was reduced to the necessity of explaining in a prologue the situation of things in his drama, and the course which they were to take. Lessing, in his Dramaturgie, has hazarded the singular opinion that it is a proof of an advance in the dramatic art, that Euripides should have trusted wholly to the effect of situations, without calculating on the excitement of curiosity. For my part I cannot see why, amidst the impressions which a dramatic poem produces, the uncertainty of expectation should not be allowed a legitimate place. The objection that a piece will only please in this respect for the first time, because on an acquaintance with it we know the result beforehand, may be easily answered: if the representation be truly energetic, it will always rivet the attention of the spectator in such a manner that he will forget what he already knew, and be again excited to the same stretch of expectation. Moreover, these prologues give to the openings of Euripides' plays a very uniform and monotonous appearance: nothing can have a more awkward effect than for a person to come forward and say, I am so and so; this and that has already happened, and what is next to come is as follows. It resembles the labels in the mouths of the figures in old paintings, which nothing but the great simplicity of style in ancient times can excuse. But then all the rest ought to correspond, which is by no means the case with Euripides, whose characters always speak in the newest mode of the day. Both in his prologues and denouements he is very lavish of unmeaning appearances of the gods, who are only elevated above men by the machine in which they are suspended, and who might certainly well be spared.