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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 15/97 -

The comparison with ancient tragedy is the more apposite here, as we know that both Aeschylus and Sophocles produced a Niobe, and that Sophocles was also the author of a Laocoon. In the group of the Laocoon the efforts of the body in enduring, and of the mind in resisting, are balanced in admirable equipoise. The children calling for help, tender objects of compassion, not of admiration, recal our eyes to the father, who seems to be in vain uplifting his eyes to the gods. The wreathed serpents represent to us that inevitable destiny which often involves all the parties of an action in one common ruin. And yet the beauty of proportion, the agreeable flow of the outline, are not lost in this violent struggle; and a representation, the most appalling to the senses, is yet managed with forbearance, while a mild breath of gracefulness is diffused over the whole.

In the group of Niobe there is the same perfect mixture of terror and pity. The upturned looks of the mother, and the mouth half open in supplication, seem yet to accuse the invisible wrath of heaven. The daughter, clinging in the agonies of death to the bosom of her mother, in her childish innocence has no fear but for herself: the innate impulse of self-preservation was never more tenderly and affectingly expressed. On the other hand, can there be a more beautiful image of self-devoting, heroic magnanimity than Niobe, as she bends forward to receive, if possible, in her own body the deadly shaft? Pride and defiance dissolve in the depths of maternal love. The more than earthly dignity of the features are the less marred by the agony, as under the rapid accumulation of blow upon blow she seems, as in the deeply significant fable, already petrifying into the stony torpor. But before this figure, thus _twice_ struck into stone, and yet so full of life and soul,--before this stony terminus of the limits of human endurance, the spectator melts into tears.

Amid all the agitating emotions which these groups give rise to, there is still a something in their aspect which attracts the mind and gives rise to manifold contemplation; so the ancient tragedy leads us forward to the highest reflections involved in the very sphere of things it sets before us--reflections on the nature and the inexplicable mystery of man's being.


Progress of the Tragic Art among the Greeks--Various styles of Tragic Art --Aeschylus--Connexion in a Trilogy of Aeschylus--His remaining Works.

Of the inexhaustible stores possessed by the Greeks in the department of tragedy, which the public competition at the Athenian festivals called into being (as the rival poets always contended for a prize), very little indeed has come down to us. We only possess works of three of their numerous tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and of these but a few in proportion to the whole number of their compositions. The extant dramas are such as were selected by the Alexandrian critics as the foundation for the study of the older Grecian literature, not because they alone were deserving of estimation, but because they afforded the best illustration of the various styles of tragic art. Of each of the two older poets, we have seven pieces remaining; in these, however, we have, according to the testimony of the ancients, several of their most distinguished productions. Of Euripides we have a much greater number, and we might well exchange many of them for other works which are now lost; for example, for the satirical dramas of Achaeus, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, or, for the sake of comparison with Aeschylus, for some of Phrynichus' pieces, or of Agathon's, whom Plato describes as effeminate, but sweet and affecting, and who was a contemporary of Euripides, though somewhat his junior.

Leaving to antiquarians to sift the stories about the waggon of the strolling Thespis, the contests for the prize of a he-goat, from which the name of tragedy is said to be derived, and the lees of wine with which the first improvisatory actors smeared over their visages, from which rude beginnings, it is pretended, Aeschylus, by one gigantic stride, gave to tragedy that dignified form under which it appears in his works, we shall proceed immediately to the consideration of the poets themselves.

The tragic style of Aeschylus (I use the word "style" in the sense it receives in sculpture, and not in the exclusive signification of the manner of writing,) is grand, severe, and not unfrequently hard: that of Sophocles is marked by the most finished symmetry and harmonious gracefulness: that of Euripides is soft and luxuriant; overflowing in his easy copiousness, he often sacrifices the general effect to brilliant passages. The analogies which the undisturbed development of the fine arts among the Greeks everywhere furnishes, will enable us, throughout to compare the epochs of tragic art with those of sculpture. Aeschylus is the Phidias of Tragedy, Sophocles her Polycletus, and Euripides her Lysippus. Phidias formed sublime images of the gods, but lent them an extrinsic magnificence of material, and surrounded their majestic repose with images of the most violent struggles in strong relief. Polycletus carried his art to perfection of proportion, and hence one of his statues was called the Standard of Beauty. Lysippus distinguished himself by the fire of his works; but in his time Sculpture had deviated from its original destination, and was much more desirous of expressing the charm of motion and life than of adhering to ideality of form.

Aeschylus is to be considered as the creator of Tragedy: in full panoply she sprung from his head, like Pallas from the head of Jupiter. He clad her with dignity, and gave her an appropriate stage; he was the inventor of scenic pomp, and not only instructed the chorus in singing and dancing, but appeared himself as an actor. He was the first that expanded the dialogue, and set limits to the lyrical part of tragedy, which, however, still occupies too much space in his pieces. His characters are sketched with a few bold and strong touches. His plots are simple in the extreme: he did not understand the art of enriching and varying an action, and of giving a measured march and progress to the complication and denouement. Hence his action often stands still; a circumstance which becomes yet more apparent, from the undue extension of his choral songs. But all his poetry evinces a sublime and earnest mind. Terror is his element, and not the softer affections, he holds up a head of Medusa before the petrified spectators. In his handling Destiny appears austere in the extreme; she hovers over the heads of mortals in all her gloomy majesty. The cothurnus of Aeschylus has, as it were, the weight of iron: gigantic figures stalk in upon it. It seems as if it required an effort for him to condescend to paint mere men; he is ever bringing in gods, but especially the Titans, those elder divinities who typify the gloomy powers of primaeval nature, and who had been driven long ago into Tartarus before the presence of a new and better order of things. He endeavours to swell out his language to a gigantic sublimity, corresponding to the vast dimensions of his personages. Hence he abounds in harsh compounds and over-strained epithets, and the lyrical parts of his pieces are often, from their involved construction, extremely obscure. In the singular strangeness of his images and expressions he resembles Dante and Shakspeare. Yet in these images there is no want of that terrific grace which almost all the writers of antiquity commend in Aeschylus.

Aeschylus flourished in the very freshness and vigour of Grecian freedom, and a proud sense of the glorious struggle by which it was won, seems to have animated him and his poetry. He had been an eye-witness of the greatest and most glorious event in the history of Greece, the overthrow and annihilation of the Persian hosts under Darius and Xerxes, and had fought with distinguished bravery in the memorable battles of Marathon and Salamis. In the _Persians_ he has, in an indirect manner, sung the triumph which he contributed to obtain, while he paints the downfall of the Persian ascendancy, and the ignominious return of the despot, with difficulty escaping with his life, to his royal residence. The battle of Salamis he describes in the most vivid and glowing colours. Through the whole of this piece, and the _Seven before Thebes_, there gushes forth a warlike vein; the personal inclination of the poet for a soldier's life, shines throughout with the most dazzling lustre. It was well remarked by Gorgias, the sophist, that Mars, instead of Bacchus, had inspired this last drama; for Bacchus, and not Apollo, was the tutelary deity of tragic poets, which, on a first view of the matter, appears somewhat singular, but then we must recollect that Bacchus was not merely the god of wine and joy, but also the god of all higher kinds of inspiration.

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

Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 15/97

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