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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 17/97 -


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


Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 17/97

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