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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book III. - 5/24 -


The mighty mass of mighty Heaven, And the whirling cataracts roar, With a chime to the Titan's groans, And the depth that receives them moans; And from vaults that the earth are under, Black Hades is heard in thunder; While from the founts of white-waved rivers flow Melodious sorrows, wailing with his wo."

Prometheus, in his answer, still farther details the benefits he had conferred on men--he arrogates to himself their elevation to intellect and reason [20]. He proceeds darkly to dwell on the power of Necessity, guided by "the triform fates and the unforgetful Furies," whom he asserts to be sovereign over Jupiter himself. He declares that Jupiter cannot escape his doom: "His doom," ask the daughters of Ocean, "is it not evermore to reign?"--"That thou mayst not learn," replies the prophet; "and in the preservation of this secret depends my future freedom."

The rejoinder of the chorus is singularly beautiful, and it is with a pathos not common to Aeschylus that they contrast their present mournful strain with that which they poured

"What time the silence, erst was broken, Around the baths, and o'er the bed To which, won well by many a soft love-token, And hymn'd by all the music of delight, Our Ocean-sister, bright Hesione, was led!"

At the end of this choral song appears Io, performing her mystic pilgrimage [21]. The utter wo and despair of Io are finely contrasted with the stern spirit of Prometheus. Her introduction gives rise to those ancestral and traditionary allusions to which the Greeks were so attached. In prophesying her fate, Prometheus enters into much beautiful descriptive poetry, and commemorates the lineage of the Argive kings. After Io's departure, Prometheus renews his defiance to Jupiter, and his stern prophecies, that the son of Saturn shall be "hurled from his realm, a forgotten king." In the midst of these weird denunciations, Mercury arrives, charged by Jupiter to learn the nature of that danger which Prometheus predicts to him. The Titan bitterly and haughtily defies the threats and warnings of the herald, and exults, that whatever be his tortures, he is at least immortal,-- to be afflicted, but not to die. Mercury at length departs--the menace of Jupiter is fulfilled--the punishment is consummated--and, amid storm and earthquake, both rock and prisoner are struck by the lightnings of the god into the deep abyss.

"The earth is made to reel, and rumbling by, Bellowing it rolls, the thunder's gathering wrath! And the fierce fires glare livid; and along The rocks the eddies of the sands whirl high, Borne by the hurricane, and all the blasts Of all the winds leap forth, each hurtling each Met in the wildness of a ghastly war, The dark floods blended with the swooping heaven. It comes--it comes! on me it speeds--the storm, The rushing onslaught of the thunder-god; Oh, majesty of earth, my solemn mother! And thou that through the universal void, Circlest sweet light, all blessing; EARTH AND ETHER, YE I invoke, to know the wrongs I suffer."

IX. Such is the conclusion of this unequalled drama, epitomized somewhat at undue length, in order to show the reader how much the philosophy that had awakened in the age of Solon now actuated the creations of poetry. Not that Aeschylus, like Euripides, deals in didactic sentences and oracular aphorisms. He rightly held such pedantries of the closet foreign to the tragic genius [22]. His philosophy is in the spirit, and not in the diction of his works--in vast conceptions, not laconic maxims. He does not preach, but he inspires. The "Prometheus" is perhaps the greatest moral poem in the world--sternly and loftily intellectual--and, amid its darker and less palpable allegories, presenting to us the superiority of an immortal being to all mortal sufferings. Regarded merely as poetry, the conception of the Titan of Aeschylus has no parallel except in the Fiend of Milton. But perhaps the representation of a benevolent spirit, afflicted, but not accursed--conquered, but not subdued by a power, than which it is elder, and wiser, and loftier, is yet more sublime than that of an evil demon writhing under the penance deservedly incurred from an irresistible God. The one is intensely moral--at once the more moral and the more tragic, because the sufferings are not deserved, and therefore the defiance commands our sympathy as well as our awe; but the other is but the picture of a righteous doom, borne by a despairing though stubborn will; it affords no excitement to our courage, and forbids at once our admiration and our pity.

X. I do not propose to conduct the reader at length through the other tragedies of Aeschylus; seven are left to us, to afford the most striking examples which modern or ancient literature can produce of what perhaps is the true theory of the SUBLIME, viz., the elevating the imagination by means of the passions, for a moral end.

Nothing can be more grand and impressive than the opening of the "Agamemnon," with the solitary watchman on the tower, who, for ten long years, has watched nightly for the beacon-fires that are to announce the fall of Ilion, and who now beholds them blaze at last. The description which Clytemnestra gives of the progress of these beacon-fires from Troy to Argos is, for its picturesque animation, one of the most celebrated in Aeschylus. The following lines will convey to the general reader a very inadequate reflection, though not an unfaithful paraphrase, of this splendid passage [23]. Clytemnestra has announced to the chorus the capture of Troy. The chorus, half incredulous, demand what messenger conveyed the intelligence. Clytemnestra replies:--

"A gleam--a gleam--from Ida's height, By the fire--god sent, it came; From watch to watch it leap'd that light, As a rider rode the flame! It shot through the startled sky; And the torch of that blazing glory Old Lemnos caught on high, On its holy promontory, And sent it on, the jocund sign, To Athos, mount of Jove divine. Wildly the while it rose from the isle, So that the might of the journeying light Skimm'd over the back of the gleaming brine! Farther and faster speeds it on, Till the watch that keep Macistus steep-- See it burst like a blazing sun! Doth Macistus sleep On his tower--clad steep? No! rapid and red doth the wild-fire sweep It flashes afar, on the wayward stream Of the wild Euripus, the rushing beam! It rouses the light on Messapion's height, And they feed its breath with the withered heath. But it may not stay! And away--away It bounds in its freshening might. Silent and soon, Like a broadened moon, It passes in sheen, Asopus green, [24] And bursts on Cithaeron gray. The warder wakes to the signal rays, And it swoops from the hill with a broader blaze, On--on the fiery glory rode-- Thy lonely lake, Gorgopis, glowed-- To Megara's Mount it came; They feed it again, And it streams amain A giant beard of flame! The headland cliffs that darkly down O'er the Saronic waters frown, Are pass'd with the swift one's lurid stride, And the huge rock glares on the glaring tide, With mightier march and fiercer power It gain'd Arachne's neighbouring tower-- Thence on our Argive roof its rest it won, Of Ida's fire the long-descended son Bright harbinger of glory and of joy! So first and last with equal honour crown'd, In solemn feasts the race-torch circles round. And these my heralds! this my SIGN OF PEACE! Lo! while we breathe, the victor lords of Greece, Stalk, in stern tumult, through the halls of Troy!" [25]

In one of the earlier choruses, in which is introduced an episodical allusion to the abduction of Helen, occurs one of those soft passages so rare in Aeschylus, nor less exquisite than rare. The chorus suppose the minstrels of Menelaus thus to lament the loss of Helen:--

"And wo the halls, and wo the chiefs, And wo the bridal bed! And we her steps--for once she loved The lord whose love she fled! Lo! where, dishonour yet unknown, He sits--nor deems his Helen flown, Tearless and voiceless on the spot; All desert, but he feels it not! Ah! soon alive, to miss and mourn The form beyond the ocean borne Shall start the lonely king! And thought shall fill the lost one's room, And darkly through the palace gloom Shall stalk a ghostly thing. [26] Her statues meet, as round they rise, The leaden stare of lifeless eyes. Where is their ancient beauty gone?-- Why loathe his looks the breathing stone? Alas! the foulness of disgrace Hath swept the Venus from her face! And visions in the mournful night Shall dupe the heart to false delight, A false and melancholy; For naught with sadder joy is fraught, Than things at night by dreaming brought, The wish'd for and the holy. Swift from the solitary side, The vision and the blessing glide, Scarce welcomed ere they sweep, Pale, bloodless, dreams, aloft On wings unseen and soft, Lost wanderers gliding through the paths of sleep."

But the master-terror of this tragedy is in the introduction of Cassandra, who accompanies Agamemnon, and who, in the very hour of his


Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book III. - 5/24

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