[ocr errors]

Dante and Shakespeare, but the order and beauty of his compositions are marred, by the frequency of his rugged compounds, by an overloading of epithets, and by the great entanglement and consequent obscurity of his constructions. Euripides, again, is as much distinguished by the characteristics of softness and smoothness of style, as Æschylus by the very opposite qualities. His excellencies and defects are judiciously and fairly thus described by Augustus Von Schlegel : “If we look at Euripides by himself, uncompared with his predecessors, if we select several of his better pieces, and single passages in others, we must allow him extraordinary praise. On the other hand, if we place him in connection with the history of art, if, in his pieces, we always

look to the whole, and again to his general aims, as they appear • in the works which have come down to us, we cannot avoid subjecting him to much and severe reproof. Of few authors is it possible to say, with truth, so much good and so much evil. He was a genius of boundless talents, well practised in the most varied arts of mind ; but in him a superabundance of splendid

. and amiable qualities was not regulated by that lofty earnestness of thought, and that severe wisdom of the artist, which we venerate in Æschylus and Sopbocles. His constant endeavor is merely to please, without caring by what means. Therefore he is so unlike himself; often he has patsages of ravishing beauty, at other times he sinks into mere commonplace. With all his defects he possesses a wonderful lightness and a certain insinuating charm." There are some other and more serious charges that we might bring against Euripides, which exceed the negative culpability of a weak desire to please. His morality was far from sound in more respects than one—vice, and sensuality, and falsehood are countenanced, if not encouraged, in his writings, and he has ever at too ready a command that seductive sophistry of the passions, which can shed a light of attraction around the darkest vice. Illustrative of this, an amusing story is recorded of his introducing Bellerophon with a base encomium upon wealth, as being preferable to all domestic joys, the speech concluding thus, "If Aphrodite be indeed glittering as gold, she well deserves the love of mortals ;" at which, it is said, the spectators raised an outcry of indignation, and were on the point of stoning both actor and poet, when Euripides, starting forward, shouted out, only wait for the end and he will get his deserts !" On another occasion,


[ocr errors]

when reproached for the horrid and blasphemous language put by him into the mouth of Ixion, his defence was, “Did I not end, however, by binding him upon the wheel ?” But even this equivocating substitute for poetical justice, is not to be found in many of the dramas of Euripides, in which wantonness is countenanced and wickedness allowed to pass scot-free, while meanness and deception are openly protested by the desecrated defence of some assumed noble motive. Cognate to this last fault is his frequent indulgence in that perverted special pleading which so readily and adroitly lends a semblance of right to what is wrong,—which equivocates and tampers with truth, and casuistically justifies bad acts by laying claim to good motives. One of these sophistical utterances of Euripides has become the conduct rule of many an Austrian and Italian tyrant, since the time when Julius Cæsar used to quote it with such zest and unction.

For sovereignty's sake, it is worth while to do wrong ; in other cases one ought to be just ;" and another, for which he was severely assailed, by Aristophanes, though modified in meaning by the context, is, after all, nothing more or less than a defence of perjury. But another charge, in some respects even more fatal to' a poet's fame, has been too well established against this dramatist—a charge which adds an overwhelming weight against him, in the balance of comparison with Æschylus or Sophoclesnamely, his open and persistent disrespect of woman. We know, from history, that he was only too ready to yield to the baser kind of female attractions, but it is plain that his mind and heart mistook sensual lust for soul-elevating love, and that his own familiarity with frailty made him believe all women to be false and frail.

Before we discuss the poetic characteristics of Sophocles, we will glance briefly at the incidents of his life, which helped to mould and fashion his genius into that form of grace and beauty, by which it attracted such enthusiastic, and yet enduring admiration. Our prince of Attic poets was born at the lovely little village of Colonus, about a mile from Athens, in the year 495, B. C., being thus thirty years junior to Æschylus, and fifteen senior to Euripides. His father, a man of opulence and good position, bestowed upon him a careful education in all the literary and personal accomplishments of his age and country. Thus, the powers. of the future dramatist were developed, strengthened, and refined

[ocr errors]

by sound instruction in the principles of poetry and music-music, not as taught among modern accomplishments, but in the full, grand, and comprehensive sense of the term, so well understood by the æsthetic Athenians—whilst the natural graces of a person eminently handsome derived fresh elegance and a loftier and more commanding beauty from the manly exercises of the Palæstra. As the result of this judicious training, it was but natural that his earliest triumphs were those of the wrestler and the athlete, and that the victor garlands of the Palæstra preceded and heralded the winning of the richer wreaths of tragic poetry. Of his subsequent career we shall let Schlegel speak, for though his remarks may seem somewhat too much in the tone of what he styles the "Old Religion," they are no less critically just and true, than happy in their generous and appreciative eloquence. “With both these poets he was contemporary through the greater part of his life. With Æschylus he often contended for the ivy wreath of tragedy, and Euripides he outlived, though that poet also reached an advanced age. It would seem, to speak in the spirit of the old religion, as if a gracious Providence had purposed to reveal to the human race, in the example of this one man, the dignity and the blessedness of its lot, by conferring upon him, in addition to all that can adorn and elevate the mind and heart, all conceivable blessings of life besides. To have been born of wealthy and respected parentage, as a free citizen of the most polished community in Greece, was but the first preliminary to his felicity. Beauty of person, and of mind, and the uninterrupted enjoyment of both in perfect soundness to the very extreme term of 'human life-a most select and complete education in the gymnastic and musical arts, the one of which was so mighty to impart energy, the other, harmony to exquisite natural abilities; the sweet bloom of youth, and the mature fruit of age; the possession and uninterrupted enjoyment of poetry and art, and the exercise of serene wisdom ; love and esteem among his fellow-citizens ; renown abroad, and the favor of the well-pleased gods; these are the most general features of this pious and holy poet. It is as though the gods—among whom he early devoted himself to Dionysius in particular, as the giver of all gladness, and the civilizer of rude mankind, by the exhibition of tragedy at his festivals—had wished to make him immortal, so long did they defer his death;

; and, as this might not be, they loosened his life from him as




gently and softly as possible, that he might imperceptibly exchange one immortality for another—the long duration of his earthly existence for an imperishable name.”

Our limits will not admit of our entering upon a full, critica! analysis of the style and works of Sophocles, but we shall presently mark some of these characteristics, which entitle him to so high a place among the poets, not only of his own, but of every age and land, and which more especially demand for his dramas a prominent position in the classical studies of such a country as

A brief comparison, however, of his subjects and style with those of the greater and nobler of his two contemporary rivals, may not be out of place, and in instituting this comparison we shall do little more than endorse the substance of the observations of an able ard very impartial critic, Professor Philip Smith. And, first, we may observe that the style and subjects of Æschylus are essentially heroic, in the old Greek sense of the term, while those of Sophocles are no less emphatically and essentially human, in which respect, as well as in not a few others, there exists a marked and close affinity between him and the great poet of humanity, Shakespeare. The characters and scenes of Æschylus excite terror, pity, and admiration ; while those of Sophocles bring the same feelings home to the heart, with sympathy and self-application. “No human being," observes Professor Smith, “can imagine himself in the position of Prometheus, or derive a personal warning from the crimes and fate of Clytemnestra ; but every one can in feeling share the self-devotion of Antigone, in giving up her life at the call of fraternal piety, and the calmness which comes over the spirit of Edipus, when he is reconciled to the gods. In Æschylus, moreover, the sufferers are the victims of an inexorable destiny ; but Sophocles brings more prominently into view those

; faults of their own, which form one element of the ämn_the retribution-of which they are the victims, and is more intent upon inculcating, as the lesson taught by their woes, that wise calmness and moderation in desires and actions, in prosperity and adversity, which the Greek poets and philosophers celebrate under the name of owopoyújn. On the other hand, he never descends to that level to which Euripides brought down the art, by the exhibition of human passion and suffering for the mere purpose of exciting emotion in the spectators, apart from any moral end. The great distinction between these two poets is ably defined by


Aristotle, in that passage of the “Poetic" (vi. 12), which may be called the great text of asthetic philosophy, and in which, though the names of Sophocles and Euripides are not mentioned, there can be no doubt that the statement that “the tragedies of most of the more recent poets are unethical," is meant to apply to Euripides, and that the contrast, which he proceeds to illustrate by a comparison of Polygnotus and Zeuxis in the art of painting, is intended to describe the difference between the two poets ; for, in another passage of the same work (xxvi. 11), he quotes, with admiration, the saying of Sophocles, that he himself represented men as they ought to be, but Euripides exhibited them as they are,' a remark which, by the bye, as coming from the mouth of Sophocles himself, exposes the absurdity of those opponents of æsthetic science, who sneer at it, as if it ascribed to the great poets of antiquity moral and artistic purposes, of which they themselves never dreamt. It is quite true that the earliest and some of the mightiest efforts of genius are, to a great extent, though never, we believe, entirely, unconscious ; and even such productions are governed by laws, written in the human mind and instinctively followed by the poets-laws, which it is the task and glory of æsthetic science to trace out in the works of those writers, who thus followed them unconsciously. But such productions, however magnificent they may be, are never so perfect in every respect, as those of the poet, who, possessing equal genius, consciously and laboriously works out the great principles of his art. It is in this respect that Sophocles surpasses Æschylus. His works are perhaps not greater, but they are more perfect, and this for the very reason now stated, and which Sophocles himself explained, when he said "Æschylus does what is right, but without knowing it.”

The distinguishing characteristics of this great poet, then, in our opinion, and those upon which we rest our recommendation of the study of his works, as well as the justice of the place we have assigned him as the “ Prince of Attic Poets," are his piety and reverence for holy things, as these alone were known to him-his patriotism and strong love of liberty—his Shakesperian knowledge of the human heart and sympathy with the joys and sorrows of humanity—and his reverential respect for woman ; and surely any one of these characteristics must be sufficient of itself to conciliate for him the regard and admiration of the scholars and students of America.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »