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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 18/97 -


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.

LECTURE VII.

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


Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 18/97

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