Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

156

ARISTOPHANES : PLATO'S TESTIMONY.

language of conversation contracted a certain coarseness, as is always the case under similar circumstances. In modern Europe, since the origin of chivalry, women have given the tone to social life, and to the respectful homage which we yield to them, we owe the prevalence of a nobler morality in conversation, in the fine arts, and in poetry. Besides, the ancient comic writers, who took the world as they found it, had before their eyes a very great degree of corruption of morals.

The most honourable testimony in favour of Aristophanes is that of the sage Plato, who in an epigram says, that the Graces chose his soul for their abode, who was constantly reading him, and transmitted the Clouds, (this very play, in which, with the meshes of the sophists, philosophy itself, and even his master Socrates, was attacked), to Dionysius the elder, with the remark, that from it he would be best able to understand the state of things at Athens. He could hardly mean merely that the play was a proof of the unbridled democratic freedom which prevailed in Athens; but must have intended it as an acknowledgment of the poet's profound knowledge of the world, and his insight into the whole machinery of the civil constitution. Plato has also admirably characterised him in his Symposium, where he puts into his mouth a speech on love, which Aristophanes, far from every thing like high enthusiasm, considers merely in a sensual view. His description of it is, however, equally bold and ingenious.

We might apply to the pieces of Aristophanes the motto of a pleasant and acute adventurer in Goëthe:

'Mad, but clever.” In them we are best enabled to conceive why the Dramatic Art in general was consecrated to Bacchus: it is the intoxication of poetry, the Bacchanalia of fun. This faculty will at times assert its rights as well as others; and hence several nations have set apart certain festivals, such as Saturnalia, Carnivals, &c., in which the people may give themselves altogether up to frolicsome follies, that when once the fit is over, they may for the rest of the year remain quiet, and apply themselves to serious business. The Old Comedy is a general masquerade of the world, during which much passes that is not authorised by the ordinary rules of propriety; but during which much also that is diverting, witty, and even in

[ocr errors]

1

[ocr errors]

ARISTOPHANES: STRUCTURE OF HIS VERSIFICATION. 157 structive, is manifested, which would never be heard of without this momentary breaking up of the barricades of precision.

However vulgar and even corrupt Aristophanes may have been in his own personal propensities, and however offensive his jokes are to good manners and good taste, we cannot deny to him, both in the general plan and execution of his poems, the praise of carefulness, and the masterly skill of a finished artist. His language is extremely polished, the purest Atticism reigns in it throughout, and with the greatest dexterity he adapts it to every tone, from the most familiar dialogue up to the high elevation of the Dithyrambic ode. We cannot doubt that he would have been eminently successful in grave poetry, when we see how at times with capricious wantonness he lavishes it only to destroy at the next moment the impression he has made. The elegant choice of the language becomes only the more attractive from the contrast in which it is occasionally displayed by him; for he not only indulges at times in the rudest expressions of the people, the different dialects, and even in the broken Greek of barbarians, but he extends the same arbitrary power which he exercised over nature and human affairs, to language itself, and by composition, allusion to names of persons, or imitation of particular sounds, coins the strangest words imaginable. The structure of his versification is not less artificial than that of the tragedians; he uses the same forms, but differently modified: his object is ease and variety, instead of gravity and dignity; but amidst all this apparent irregularity, he still adheres with great accuracy to the laws of metrical composition. As Aristophanes, in the exercise of his separate but infinitely varied and versatile art, appears to me to have displayed the richest development of almost every poetical talent, so also whenever I read his works I am no less astonished at the extraordinary capacity of his hearers, which the very nature of them presupposes. We might, indeed, expect from the citizens of a popular government an intimate acquaintance with the history and constitution of their country, with public events and transactions, with the personal circumstance of all their contemporaries of any note or consequence. But besides all this, Aristophanes required of his auditory a cultivated poetical taste; to understand his parodies, they must have almost every word of the tragical master-pieces by heart. And what quick

158

ARISTOPHANES: THE ATHENIANS.

ness of perception was requisite to catch in passing the lightest and most covert irony, the most unexpected sallies and strangest allusions, which are frequently denoted by the mere twisting of a syllable! We may boldly affirm, that notwithstanding all the explanations which have come down to 118– notwithstanding the accumulation of learning which has been spent upon it, one-half of the wit of Aristophanes is altogether lost to the moderns. Nothing but the incredible acuteness and vivacity of the Athenian intellect could make it conceivable that these comedies which, with all their farcical drolleries, do, nevertheless, all the while bear upon the most grave interests of human life, could ever have formed a source of popular amusement. We may envy the poet who could reckon on so clever and accomplished a public; but this was in truth a very dangerous advantage. Spectators whose understandings were so quick, would not be easily pleased. Thus Aristophanes complains of the too fastidious taste of the Athenians, with whom the most admired of his predecessors were immediately out of favour as soon as the slightest trace of a falling off in their mental powers was perceivable. On the other hand, he allows that the other Greeks could not bear the slightest comparison with them in a knowledge of the Dramatic Art. Even genius in this department strove to excel at Athens, and here, too, the competition was confined within the narrow period of a few festivals, during which the people always expected to see something new, of which there was always a plentiful supply. The prizes (on which all depended, there being no other means of gaining publicity) were distributed after a single representation. We may easily imagine, therefore, the state of perfection to which this would be carried under the directing care of the poet. If we also take into consideration the high state of the co-operating arts, the utmost distinctness of delivery (both in speaking and singing,) of the most finished poetry, as well as the magnificence and vast size of the theatre, we shall then have some idea of a theatrical treat, the like of which has never since been offered to the world.

Although, among the remaining works of Aristophanes, we have several of his earliest pieces, they all bear the stamp of equal maturity. He had, in fact, been long labouring in silence to perfect himself in the exercise of an art which he

a

ARISTOPHANES: CHARACTER OF HIS WORKS.

159

conceived to be of all others the most difficult; nay, from diffidence in his own power, (or, to use his own words, like a young girl who consigns to the care of others the child of her secret love,) he even brought out his earliest pieces under others' names. He appeared for the first time without this disguise with the Knights, and here he displayed the undaunted resolution of a comedian, by an open assault on popular opinion. His object was nothing less than the overthrow of Cleon, who, after the death of Pericles, was at the head of all state affairs, a promoter of war, and a worthless man of very ordinary abilities, but at the same time the idol of an infatuated people. The only opponents of Cleon were the rich proprietors, who constituted the class of horsemen or knights: these Aristophanes in the strongest manner made of his party, by forming the chorus of them. He had the prudence never to name Cleon, though he portrayed him in such a way that it was impossible to mistake him. Yet such was the dread entertained of Cleon and his faction, that no maskmaker would venture to execute his likeness: the poet, therefore, resolved to act the part himself, merely painting his face. We may easily imagine the storms and tumults which this representation must have excited among the assembled crowd; however, the bold and well-concerted efforts of the poet were crowned with success: his piece gained the prize. He was proud of this feat of theatrical heroism, and often alludes with a feeling of satisfaction to the Herculean valour with which he first combated the mighty monster. No one of his plays, perhaps, is more historical and political; and its rhetorical power in exciting our indignation is almost irresistible: it is a true dramatic Philippic. However, in point of amusement and invention, it does not appear to me the most fortunate. The thought of the serious danger which he was incurring may possibly have disposed him to a more serious tone than was suitable to comedy, or stung, perhaps, by the persecution he had already suffered from Cleon, he may, perhaps, have vented his rage in too Archilochean a style. When the storm of cutting invective has somewhat spent itself, we have then several droll scenes, such us that where the two demagogues, the leather-dealer (that is, Cleon) and the sausage-seller, vie with each other by adulation, by oraclequoting, and by dainty tit-bits, to gain the favour of Demos,

160

ARISTOPHANES: HIS PLAYS OF PEACE.

[ocr errors]

a personification of the people, who has becoine childish through age, a scene humorous in the highest degree; and the piece ends with a triumphal rejoicing, which may almost be said to be affecting, when the scene changes from the Pnyx, the place where the people assembled, to the majestic Propy. læa, when Demos, who has been wonderfully restored to second youth, comes forward in the garb of an ancient Athenian, and shows that with his youthful vigour, he has also recovered the olden sentiments of the days of Marathon.

With the exception of this attack on Cleon, and with the exception also of the attacks on Euripides, whom he seems to have pursued with the most unrelenting perseverance, the other pieces of Aristophanes are not so exclusively pointed against individuals. They have always a general, and for the most part a very important aim, which the poet, with all his turnings, digressions, and odd medleys, never loses sight of. The Peace, the Acharnæ, and the Lysistrata, with many turns, still all recommend peace; and one object of the Ecclesiazusce, or Women in Parliament, of the Thesmophoriazuse, or Women keeping the Festival of the Thesmophoriæ, and of Lysistrata, is to throw ridicule on the relations and the manners of the female sex. In the Clouds he laughs at the metaphysics of the Sophists, in the Wasps at the mania of the Athenians for hearing and determining law-suits; the subject of the Frogs is the decline of the tragic art, and Plutus is an allegory on the unjust distribution of wealth. The Birds are, of all his pieces, the one of which the aim is the least apparent, and it is on that very account one of the most diverting.

Peace begins in the most spirited and lively manner; the peace-loving Trygæus rides on a dung-beetle to heaven in the manner of Bellerophon; War, a desolating giant, with his comrade Riot, alone, in place of all the other gods, inhabits Olympus, and there pounds the cities of men in a great mortar, making use of the most celebrated generals for pestles. The Goddess Peace lies buried in a deep well, out of which she is hauled up by ropes, through the united exertions of all the states of Greece: all these ingenious and fanciful inventions are calculated to produce the most ludicrous effect. Afterwards, however, the play is not sustained at an equal elevation; nothing remains but to sacrifice, and to carouse in honour of the

[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »