Life and Political Character of Sophocles-Character of his different



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 Æschylus, 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 foundar tion. 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 educa tion 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 wisdonı; 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 com



position 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 imper-
ceptibly change one immortality for another, the long dura-
tion 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 Æschylus fought,
and which he has so nobly described), executed the Pwan
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 in-
creasing 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 Ş 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 (Edipus at Colonos, which he had then just composé d (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
Edipus 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, lie breathed out his life in song. The story also of the Lacedemonian 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 Æschylus, 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 Æschylus 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 Eschylus 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 Æschylus 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*. As Æschylus delights in transporting us to the convulsions of the primary world of the Titans, Sophocles, on the other hand, never avails himself of divine interposition except where it is absolutely necessary; he formed men, according to the general confession of antiquity, better, that is, not more moral and exempt from error, but more beautiful and noble than they really are; and while he took every thing in the most human sense, he was at the same time open to its higher significance. According to all appearance he was also more temperate than Æschylus in his use of scenic ornaments; displaying perhaps more of taste and chastened beauty, but not attempting the same colossal magnificence.

To characterize the native sweetness and gracefulness so eminent in this poet, the ancients gave him the appellation of the Attic bee. Whoever is thoroughly imbued with the feeling of this peculiarity may flatter himself that a sense for ancient art has arisen within him; for the affected sentimen

* This idea has been so happily expressed by the greatest genius per. haps 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 watched every means of information to sce how much ground I occupied as a man and as a poet; I studied assiduous nature's design in my formation-where the lights

and shades in my character were intended."-Letter from Burns to Dr. Moore, in Currie's Life.-Trans.


tality of the present day, far from coinciding with the ancients in this opinion, would in the tragedies of Sophocles, both in respect of the representation of bodily sufferings, and in the sentiments and structure, find much that is insupportably austere.

When we consider the great fertility of Sophocles, for according to some he wrote a hundred and thirty pieces (of which, however, seventeen were pronounced spurious by Aristophanes the grammarian), and eighty according to the most moderate account, little, it must be owned, has come down to us, for we have only seven of them. Chance, however, has so far favoured us, that in these seven pieces we find several which were held by the ancients as his greatest works, the Antigone, for example, the Electra, and the two on the subject of Edipus; and these have also come down to us tolerably free from mutilation and corruption in their text. The Edipus Tyrannus, and the Philoctetes, have been generally, but without good reason, preferred by modern critics to all the others: the first on account of the artifice of the plot, in which the dreadful catastrophe, which so powerfully excites the curiosity (a rare case in the Greek tragedies), is inevitably brought about by a succession of connected causes; the latter on account of the masterly display of character, the beautiful contrast observable in those of the three leading personages, and the simple structure of the piece, in which, with so few persons, everything proceeds from the truest and most adequate motives. But the whole of the tragedies of Sophocles are separately resplendent with peculiar excellencies. In Antigone we have the purest display of feminine heroism; in Ajax the sense of manly honour in its full force; in the Trachinice (or, as we should rather name it, the Dying Hercules), the female levity of Dejanira is beautifully atoned for by her death, and the sufferings of Hercules are portrayed with suitable dignity;] Electra is distinguished by energy and pathos; in Edipus Coloneus there prevails a mild and gentle emotion, and over the whole piece is diffused the sweetest gracefulness. I will not undertake to weigh the respective merits of these pieces against each other: but I own I entertain a singular predilection for the last of them, because it appears to me the most expressive of the personal feelings of the poet himself.

« VorigeDoorgaan »