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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book III. - 6/24 -


return, amid the pomp and joy that welcome the "king of men," is seized with the prophetic inspiration, and shrieks out those ominous warnings, fated ever to be heard in vain. It is she who recalls to the chorus, to the shuddering audience, that it is the house of the long-fated Atridae, to which their descendant has returned--"that human shamble-house--that bloody floor--that dwelling, abhorred by Heaven, privy to so many horrors against the most sacred ties;" the doom yet hangs over the inexpiable threshold; the curse passes from generation to generation; Agamemnon is the victim of his sires.

Recalling the inhuman banquet served by Atreus to Thyestes of his own murdered children, she starts from the mangled spectres on the threshold:

"See ye those infants crouching by the floor, Like phantom dreams, pale nurslings, that have perish'd By kindred hands."

Gradually her ravings become clear and clearer, until at last she scents the "blood-dripping slaughter within;" a vapour rises to her nostrils as from a charnel house--her own fate, which she foresees at hand, begins to overpower her--her mood softens, and she enters the palace, about to become her tomb, with thoughts in which frantic terror has yielded to solemn and pathetic resignation:

"Alas for mortals!--what their power and pride? A little shadow sweeps it from the earth! And if they suffer--why, the fatal hour Comes o'er the record like a moistened sponge, And blots it out; _methinks this latter lot Affects me deepest--Well! 'tis pitiful!"_ [27]

Scarcely has the prophetess withdrawn than we hear behind the scene the groans of the murdered king, the palace behind is opened, and Clytemnestra is standing, stern and lofty, by the dead body of her lord. The critics have dwelt too much on the character of Clytemnestra--it is that of Cassandra which is the masterpiece of the tragedy.

XI. The story, which is spread throughout three plays (forming a complete trilogy), continues in the opening of the Choephori, with Orestes mourning over his father's tomb. If Clytemnestra has furnished would-be critics with a comparison with Lady Macbeth, for no other reason than that one murdered her husband, and the other persuaded her husband to murder somebody else, so Orestes may with more justice be called the Hamlet of the Greeks; but though the character itself of Orestes is not so complex and profound as that of Hamlet, nor the play so full of philosophical beauties as the modern tragedy, yet it has passages equally pathetic, and more sternly and terribly sublime. The vague horror which in the commencement of the play prepares us for the catastrophe by the dream of Clytemnestra--how a serpent lay in swaddling-clothes like an infant, and she placed it in her breast, and it drew blood; the brief and solemn answer of Orestes--

"Man's visions never come to him in vain;"

the manner in which the avenging parricide interrupts the dream, so that (as in Macbeth) the prediction inspires the deed that it foretells; the dauntless resolution of Clytemnestra, when she hears, in the dark sayings of her servant, that "the dead are slaying the living" (i. e., that through the sword of Orestes Agamemnon is avenged on Aegisthus), calls for a weapon, royal to the last, wishing only to

"Know which shall be the victor or the vanquished-- Since that the crisis of the present horror;"

the sudden change from fierce to tender as Orestes bursts in, and, thinking only of her guilty lover, she shrieks forth,

"Ah! thou art then no more, beloved Aegisthus;"

the advance of the threatening son, the soft apostrophe of the mother as she bares her bosom--

"Hold! and revere this breast on which so oft Thy young cheek nestled--cradle of thy sleep, And fountain of thy being;"

the recoil of Orestes--the remonstrance of Pylades--the renewed passion of the avenger--the sudden recollection of her dream, which the murderess scarcely utters than it seems to confirm Orestes to its fulfilment, and he pursues and slays her by the side of the adulterer; all these passages are full of so noble a poetry, that I do not think the parallel situations in Hamlet equal their sustained and solemn grandeur. But the sublimest effort of the imagination is in the conclusion. While Orestes is yet justifying the deed that avenged a father, strange and confused thoughts gradually creep over him. No eyes see them but his own--there they are, "the Gorgons, in vestments of sable, their eyes dropping loathly blood!" Slowly they multiply, they approach, still invisible but to their prey--"the angry hell- hounds of his mother." He flies, the fresh blood yet dripping from his hands. This catastrophe--the sudden apparition of the Furies ideally imaged forth to the parricide alone--seems to me greater in conception than the supernatural agency in Hamlet. The visible ghost is less awful than the unseen Furies.

The plot is continued through the third piece of the trilogy (the Eumenides), and out of Aeschylus himself, no existing tragedy presents so striking an opening--one so terrible and so picturesque. It is the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The priestess, after a short invocation, enters the sacred edifice, but suddenly returns. "A man," she says, "is at the marble seat, a suppliant to the god--his bloody hands hold a drawn sword and a long branch of olive. But around the man sleep a wondrous and ghastly troop, not of women, but of things woman-like, yet fiendish; harpies they seem, but are not; black-robed and wingless, and their breath is loud and baleful, and their eyes drop venom--and their garb is neither meet for the shrines of God nor the habitations of men. Never have I seen (saith the Pythian) a nation which nurtured such a race." Cheered by Apollo, Orestes flies while the dread sisters yet sleep; and now within the temple we behold the Furies scattered around, and a pale and lofty shape, the ghost of Clytemnestra, gliding on the stage, awakens the agents of her vengeance. They break forth as they rouse themselves, "Seize--seize-- seize." They lament--they bemoan the departure of their victim, they expostulate with Apollo, who expels them from his temple. The scene changes; Orestes is at Athens,--he pleads his cause before the temple of Minerva. The contest is now shared by gods; Apollo and the Furies are the pleaders--Pallas is the umpire, the Areopagites are the judges. Pallas casts in her vote in favour of Orestes--the lots are equal--he is absolved; the Furies, at first enraged, are soothed by Minerva, and, invited to dwell in Athens, pour blessings on the land. A sacred but joyous procession crowns the whole. Thus the consummation of the trilogy is cheerful, though each of the two former pieces is tragic; and the poet artfully conduces the poem to the honour of his native Athens and the venerable Areopagus. Regarding the three as one harmonious and united performance, altogether not so long as one play of Shakspeare's, they are certainly not surpassed in greatness of thought, in loftiness of conception, and in sustained vigour of execution, by any poem in the compass of literature; nor, observing their simple but compact symmetry as a whole, shall we do right to subscribe to those who deny to Aeschylus the skill of the artist, while they grant him the faculty of the poet.

The ingenious Schlegel attributes to these tragedies symbolical interpretations, but to my judgment with signal ill-success. These four tragedies--the Prometheus, the Agamemnon, the Choephori, and the Eumenides--are in grandeur immeasurably superior to the remaining three.

XII. Of these last, the Seven against Thebes is the best. The subject was one peculiarly interesting to Greece; the War of the Seven was the earliest record of a league among the Grecian princes, and of an enterprise carried on with a regular and systematic design. The catastrophe of two brothers falling by each other's hand is terrible and tragic, and among the most national of the Grecian legends. The fierce and martial spirit of the warrior poet runs throughout the play; his descriptions are animated as with the zeal and passion of battle; the chorus of Theban virgins paint in the most glowing colours the rush of the adverse hosts--the prancing of the chargers--the sound of their hoofs, "rumbling as a torrent lashing the side of cliffs;" we hear the creak of the heavy cars--the shrill whiz of the javelins, "maddening the very air"--the showers of stones crashing over the battlements--the battering at the mighty gates--the uproar of the city--the yells of rapine--the shrieks of infants "strangled by the bubbling blood." Homer himself never accumulated more striking images of horror. The description of Tydeus is peculiarly Homeric--

"Three shadowy crests, the honours of his helm, Wave wild, and shrilly from his buckler broad The brazen bell rings terror. On the shield He bears his haughty ensign--typed by stars Gleaming athwart the sky, and in the midst Glitters the royal Moon--the Eye of Night. Fierce in the glory of his arms, his voice Roars by the river banks; and drunk with war He pants, as some wild charger, when the trump Clangs ringing, as he rushes on the foe."

The proud, dauntless, and warlike spirit of Eteocles which is designed and drawn with inconceivable power, is beautifully characterized in his reply to the above description:

"Man hath no armour, war hath no array, At which this heart can tremble; no device Nor blazonry of battle can inflict The wounds they menace; crests and clashing bells Without the spear are toothless, and the night, Wrought on yon buckler with the stars of heaven, Prophet, perchance, his doom; and if dark Death Close round his eyes, are but the ominous signs Of the black night that waits him."

The description of each warrior stationed at each gate is all in the genius of Homer, closing as it does with that of Polynices, the brother of the besieged hero, whom, when he hears his name, Eteocles himself resolves to confront. At first, indeed, the latter breaks out into exclamations which denote the awe and struggle of the abhorrent nature; forebodings of his own doom flit before him, he feels the curses of his sire are ripening to their fruit, and that the last storm is yet to break upon the house of Oedipus. Suddenly he checks the impulse, sensible of the presence of the chorus. He passes on to reason with himself, through a process of thought which Shakspeare could not have surpassed. He conjures up the image of that brother, hateful and unjust from infancy to boyhood, from boyhood up to youth-- he assures himself that justice would be forsworn if this foe should triumph--and rushes on to his dread resolve.

"'Tis I will face this warrior; who can boast A right to equal mine? Chief against chief--


Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book III. - 6/24

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