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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsAthens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 3 - Chapter 2
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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 3 - Chapter 2 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Nonfictions Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :2441

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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 3 - Chapter 2

VOL II BOOK III CHAPTER II

The Athenian Tragedy.--Its Origin.--Thespis.--Phrynichus.--Aeschylus. --Analysis of the Tragedies of Aeschylus.


I. From the melancholy fate of Miltiades, we are now invited to a subject no less connected with this important period in the history of Athens. The interval of repose which followed the battle of Marathon allows us to pause, and notice the intellectual state to which the Athenians had progressed since the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons.

We have remarked the more familiar acquaintance with the poems of Homer which resulted from the labours and example of Pisistratus. This event (for event it was), combined with other causes,--the foundation of a public library, the erection of public buildings, and the institution of public gardens--to create with apparent suddenness, among a susceptible and lively population, a general cultivation of taste. The citizens were brought together in their hours of relaxation (6), by the urbane and social manner of life, under porticoes and in gardens, which it was the policy of a graceful and benignant tyrant to inculcate; and the native genius, hitherto dormant, of the quick Ionian race, once awakened to literary and intellectual objects, created an audience even before it found expression in a poet. The elegant effeminacy of Hipparchus contributed to foster the taste of the people--for the example of the great is nowhere more potent over the multitude than in the cultivation of the arts. Patronage may not produce poets, but it multiplies critics. Anacreon and Simonides, introduced among the Athenians by Hipparchus, and enjoying his friendship, no doubt added largely to the influence which poetry began to assume. The peculiar sweetness of those poets imbued with harmonious contagion the genius of the first of the Athenian dramatists, whose works, alas! are lost to us, though evidence of their character is preserved. About the same time the Athenians must necessarily have been made more intimately acquainted with the various wealth of the lyric poets of Ionia and the isles. Thus it happened that their models in poetry were of two kinds, the epic and the lyric; and, in the natural connexion of art, it was but the next step to accomplish a species of poetry which should attempt to unite the two. Happily, at this time, Athens possessed a man of true genius, whose attention early circumstances had directed to a rude and primitive order of histrionic recitation:--Phrynichus, the poet, was a disciple of Thespis, the mime: to him belongs this honour, that out of the elements of the broadest farce he conceived the first grand combinations of the tragic drama.

II. From time immemorial--as far back, perhaps, as the grove possessed an altar, and the waters supplied a reed for the pastoral pipe--Poetry and Music had been dedicated to the worship of the gods of Greece. At the appointed season of festival to each several deity, his praises were sung, his traditionary achievements were recited. One of the divinities last introduced into Greece--the mystic and enigmatical Dionysos, or Bacchus, received the popular and enthusiastic adoration naturally due to the God of the Vineyard, and the "Unbinder of galling cares." His festival, celebrated at the most joyous of agricultural seasons (7), was associated also with the most exhilarating associations. Dithyrambs, or wild and exulting songs, at first extemporaneous, celebrated the triumphs of the god. By degrees, the rude hymn swelled into prepared and artful measures, performed by a chorus that danced circling round the altar; and the dithyramb assumed a lofty and solemn strain, adapted to the sanctity of sacrifice and the emblematic majesty of the god. At the same time, another band (connected with the Phallic procession, which, however outwardly obscene, betokened only, at its origin, the symbol of fertility, and betrays the philosophy of some alien and eastern creed (8)) implored in more lively and homely strains the blessing of the prodigal and jovial deity. These ceremonial songs received a wanton and wild addition, as, in order, perhaps, more closely to represent and personify the motley march of the Liber Pater, the chorus-singers borrowed from the vine-browsing goat which they sacrificed the hides and horns, which furnished forth the merry mimicry of the satyr and the faun. Under license of this disguise, the songs became more obscene and grotesque, and the mummers vied with each other in obtaining the applause of the rural audience by wild buffoonery and unrestricted jest. Whether as the prize of the winner or as the object of sacrifice, the goat (tragos in the Greek) was a sufficiently important personage to bestow upon the exhibition the homely name of TRAGEDY, or GOATSONG, destined afterward to be exalted by association with the proudest efforts of human genius. And while the DITHYRAMB, yet amid the Dorian tribes, retained the fire and dignity of its hereditary character--while in Sicyon it rose in stately and mournful measures to the memory of Adrastus, the Argive hero--while in Corinth, under the polished rule of Periander, Arion imparted to the antique hymn a new character and a more scientific music (9),--gradually, in Attica, it gave way before the familiar and fantastic humours of the satyrs, sometimes abridged to afford greater scope to their exhibitions--sometimes contracting the contagion of their burlesque. Still, however, the reader will observe, that the tragedy, or goatsong, consisted of two parts--first, the exhibition of the mummers, and, secondly, the dithyrambic chorus, moving in a circle round the altar of Bacchus. It appears on the whole most probable, though it is a question of fierce dispute and great uncertainty, that not only this festive ceremonial, but also its ancient name of tragedy, or goatsong, had long been familiar in Attica (10), when, about B. C. 535, during the third tyranny of Pisistratus, a skilful and ingenious native of Icaria, an Attic village in which the Eleutheria, or Bacchic rites, were celebrated with peculiar care, surpassed all competitors in the exhibition of these rustic entertainments. He relieved the monotonous pleasantries of the satyric chorus by introducing, usually in his own person, a histrionic tale-teller, who, from an elevated platform, and with the lively gesticulations common still to the popular narrators of romance on the Mole of Naples, or in the bazars of the East, entertain the audience with some mythological legend. It was so clear that during this recital the chorus remained unnecessarily idle and superfluous, that the next improvement was as natural in itself, as it was important in its consequences. This was to make the chorus assist the narrator by occasional question or remark.

The choruses themselves were improved in their professional art by Thespis. He invented dances, which for centuries, retained their popularity on the stage, and is said to have given histrionic disguise to his reciter--at first, by the application of pigments to the face; and afterward, by the construction of a rude linen mask.

III. These improvements, chiefly mechanical, form the boundary to the achievements of Thespis. He did much to create a stage--little to create tragedy, in the proper acceptation of the word. His performances were still of a ludicrous and homely character, and much more akin to the comic than the tragic. Of that which makes the essence of the solemn drama of Athens--its stately plot, its gigantic images, its prodigal and sumptuous poetry, Thespis was not in any way the inventor. But PHRYNICHUS, the disciple of Thespis, was a poet; he saw, though perhaps dimly and imperfectly, the new career opened to the art, and he may be said to have breathed the immortal spirit into the mere mechanical forms, when he introduced poetry into the bursts of the chorus and the monologue of the actor. Whatever else Phrynichus effected is uncertain. The developed plot--the introduction of regular dialogue through the medium of a second actor --the pomp and circumstance--the symmetry and climax of the drama--do not appear to have appertained to his earlier efforts; and the great artistical improvements which raised the simple incident to an elaborate structure of depicted narrative and awful catastrophe, are ascribed, not to Phrynichus, but Aeschylus. If the later works of Phrynichus betrayed these excellences, it is because Aeschylus had then become his rival, and he caught the heavenly light from the new star which was destined to eclipse him. But every thing essential was done for the Athenian tragedy when Phrynichus took it from the satyr and placed it under the protection of the muse--when, forsaking the humours of the rustic farce, he selected a solemn subject from the serious legends of the most vivid of all mythologies--when he breathed into the familiar measures of the chorus the grandeur and sweetness of the lyric ode--when, in a word, taking nothing from Thespis but the stage and the performers, he borrowed his tale from Homer and his melody from Anacreon. We must not, then, suppose, misled by the vulgar accounts of the Athenian drama, that the contest for the goat, and the buffooneries of Thespis, were its real origin; born of the epic and the lyric song, Homer gave it character, and the lyrists language. Thespis and his predecessors only suggested the form to which the new-born poetry should be applied.

IV. Thus, under Phrynichus, the Thespian drama rose into poetry, worthy to exercise its influence upon poetical emulation, when a young man of noble family and sublime genius, rendered perhaps more thoughtful and profound by the cultivation of a mystical philosophy (11), which had lately emerged from the primitive schools of Ionian wisdom, brought to the rising art the united dignity of rank, philosophy, and genius. Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, born at Eleusis B. C. 525, early saturated a spirit naturally fiery and exalted with the vivid poetry of Homer. While yet a boy, and probably about the time when Phrynichus first elevated the Thespian drama, he is said to have been inspired by a dream with the ambition to excel in the dramatic art. But in Homer he found no visionary revelation to assure him of those ends, august and undeveloped, which the actor and the chorus might be made the instruments to effect. For when the idea of scenic representation was once familiar, the epics of Homer suggested the true nature of the drama. The great characteristic of that poet is individuality. Gods or men alike have their separate, unmistakeable attributes and distinctions--they converse in dialogue-- they act towards an appointed end. Bring Homer on the stage, and introduce two actors instead of a narrator, and a drama is at once effected. If Phrynichus from the first borrowed his story from Homer, Aeschylus, with more creative genius and more meditative intellect, saw that there was even a richer mine in the vitality of the Homeric spirit--the unity of the Homeric designs. Nor was Homer, perhaps, his sole though his guiding inspiration. The noble birth of Aeschylus no doubt gave him those advantages of general acquaintance with the poetry of the rest of Greece, which an education formed under the lettered dynasty of the Pisistratidae would naturally confer on the well-born. We have seen that the dithyramb, debased in Attica to the Thespian chorus, was in the Dorian states already devoted to sublime themes, and enriched by elaborate art; and Simonides, whose elegies, peculiar for their sweetness, might have inspired the "ambrosial" Phrynichus, perhaps gave to the stern soul of Aeschylus, as to his own pupil Pindar, the model of a loftier music, in his dithyrambic odes.

V. At the age of twenty-five, the son of Euphorion produced his first tragedy. This appears to have been exhibited in the year after the appearance of Aristagoras at Athens,--in that very year so eventful and important, when the Athenians lighted the flames of the Persian war amid the blazing capital of Sardis. He had two competitors in Pratinas and Choerilus. The last, indeed, preceded Phrynichus, but merely in the burlesques of the rude Thespian stage; the example of Phrynichus had now directed his attention to the new species of drama, but without any remarkable talent for its cultivation. Pratinas, the contemporary of Aeschylus, did not long attempt to vie with his mighty rival in his own line (12). Recurring to the old satyr-chorus, he reduced its unmeasured buffooneries into a regular and systematic form; he preserved the mythological tale, and converted it into an artistical burlesque. This invention, delighting the multitude, as it adapted an ancient entertainment to the new and more critical taste, became so popular that it was usually associated with the graver tragedy; when the last becoming a solemn and gorgeous spectacle, the poet exhibited a trilogy (or three tragedies) to his mighty audience, while the satyric invention of Pratinas closed the whole, and answered the purpose of our modern farce (13). Of this class of the Grecian drama but one specimen remains, in the Cyclops of Euripides. It is probable that the birth, no less than the genius of Aeschylus, enabled him with greater facility to make the imposing and costly additions to the exhibition, which the nature of the poetry demanded--since, while these improvements were rapidly proceeding, the poetical fame of Aeschylus was still uncrowned. Nor was it till the fifteenth year after his first exhibition that the sublimest of the Greek poets obtained the ivy chaplet, which had succeeded to the goat and the ox, as the prize of the tragic contests. In the course of a few years, a regular stage, appropriate scenery and costume, mechanical inventions and complicated stage machinery, gave fitting illusion to the representation of gods and men. To the monologue of Phrynichus, Aeschylus added a second actor (14); he curtailed the choruses, connected them with the main story, and, more important than all else, reduced to simple but systematic rules the progress and development of a poem, which no longer had for its utmost object to please the ear or divert the fancy, but swept on its mighty and irresistible march, to besiege passion after passion, and spread its empire over the whole soul.

An itinerant platform was succeeded by a regular theatre of wood--the theatre of wood by a splendid edifice, which is said to have held no less an audience than thirty thousand persons (15). Theatrical contests became a matter of national and universal interest. These contests occurred thrice a year, at three several festivals of Bacchus (16). But it was at the great Dionysia, held at the end of March and commencement of April, that the principal tragic contests took place. At that period, as the Athenian drama increased in celebrity, and Athens herself in renown, the city was filled with visiters, not only from all parts of Greece, but almost from every land in which the Greek civilization was known. The state took the theatre under its protection, as a solemn and sacred institution. So anxious were the people to consecrate wholly to the Athenian name the glory of the spectacle, that at the great Dionysia no foreigner, nor even any metoecus (or alien settler), was permitted to dance in the choruses. The chief archon presided, over the performances; to him was awarded the selection of the candidates for the prize. Those chosen were allowed three actors (17) by lot and a chorus, the expense of which was undertaken by the state, and imposed upon one of the principal persons of each tribe, called choragus. Thus, on one occasion, Themistocles was the choragus to a tragedy by Phrynichus. The immense theatre, crowded by thousands, tier above tier, bench upon bench, was open to the heavens, and commanded, from the sloping hill on which it was situated, both land and sea. The actor apostrophized no mimic pasteboard, but the wide expanse of Nature herself--the living sun, the mountain air, the wide and visible Aegaean. All was proportioned to the gigantic scale of the theatre, and the mighty range of the audience. The form was artificially enlarged and heightened; masks of exquisite art and beauty brought before the audience the ideal images of their sculptured gods and heroes, while (most probably) mechanical inventions carried the tones of the voice throughout the various tiers of the theatre. The exhibitions took place in the open day, and the limited length of the plays permitted the performance of probably no less than ten or twelve before the setting of the sun. The sanctity of their origin, and the mythological nature of their stories, added something of religious solemnity to these spectacles, which were opened by ceremonial sacrifice. Dramatic exhibitions, at least for a considerable period, were not, as with us, made hackneyed by constant repetition. They were as rare in their recurrence as they were imposing in their effect; nor was a drama, whether tragic or comic, that had gained the prize, permitted a second time to be exhibited. A special exemption was made in favour of Aeschylus, afterward extended to Sophocles and Euripides. The general rule was necessarily stimulant of renewed and unceasing exertion, and was, perhaps, the principal cause of the almost miraculous fertility of the Athenian dramatists.

VI. On the lower benches of the semicircle sat the archons and magistrates, the senators and priests; while apart, but in seats equally honoured, the gaze of the audience was attracted, from time to time, to the illustrious strangers whom the fame of their poets and their city had brought to the Dionysia of the Athenians. The youths and women (18) had their separate divisions; the rest of the audience were ranged according to their tribes, while the upper galleries were filled by the miscellaneous and impatient populace.

In the orchestra (a space left by the semicircular benches, with wings stretching to the right and left before the scene), a small square platform served as the altar, to which moved the choral dances, still retaining the attributes of their ancient sanctity. The coryphaeus, or leader of the chorus, took part in the dialogue as the representative of the rest, and, occasionally, even several of the number were excited into exclamations by the passion of the piece. But the principal duty of the chorus was to diversify the dialogue by hymns and dirges, to the music of flutes, while, in dances far more artful than those now existent, they represented by their movements the emotions that they sung (19),--thus bringing, as it were, into harmony of action the poetry of language. Architectural embellishments of stone, representing a palace, with three entrances, the centre one appropriated to royalty, the others to subordinate rank, usually served for the scene. But at times, when the plot demanded a different locality, scenes painted with the utmost art and cost were easily substituted; nor were wanting the modern contrivances of artificial lightning and thunder--the clouds for the gods--a variety of inventions for the sudden apparition of demon agents, whether from above or below--and all the adventitious and effective aid which mechanism lends to genius.

VII. Thus summoning before us the external character of the Athenian drama, the vast audience, the unroofed and enormous theatre, the actors themselves enlarged by art above the ordinary proportions of men, the solemn and sacred subjects from which its form and spirit were derived, we turn to Aeschylus, and behold at once the fitting creator of its grand and ideal personifications. I have said that Homer was his original; but a more intellectual age than that of the Grecian epic had arrived, and with Aeschylus, philosophy passed into poetry. The dark doctrine of fatality imparted its stern and awful interest to the narration of events--men were delineated, not as mere self-acting and self-willed mortals, but as the agents of a destiny inevitable and unseen--the gods themselves are no longer the gods of Homer, entering into the sphere of human action for petty motives and for individual purposes--drawing their grandeur, not from the part they perform, but from the descriptions of the poet;--they appear now as the oracles or the agents of fate--they are visiters from another world, terrible and ominous from the warnings which they convey. Homer is the creator of the material poetry, Aeschylus of the intellectual. The corporeal and animal sufferings of the Titan in the epic hell become exalted by tragedy into the portrait of moral fortitude defying physical anguish. The Prometheus of Aeschylus is the spirit of a god disdainfully subjected to the misfortunes of a man. In reading this wonderful performance, which in pure and sustained sublimity is perhaps unrivalled in the literature of the world, we lose sight entirely of the cheerful Hellenic worship; and yet it is in vain that the learned attempt to trace its vague and mysterious metaphysics to any old symbolical religion of the East. More probably, whatever theological system it shadows forth, was rather the gigantic conception of the poet himself, than the imperfect revival of any forgotten creed, or the poetical disguise of any existent philosophy. However this be, it would certainly seem, that, in this majestic picture of the dauntless enemy of Jupiter, punished only for his benefits to man, and attracting all our sympathies by his courage and his benevolence, is conveyed something of disbelief or defiance of the creed of the populace--a suspicion from which Aeschylus was not free in the judgment of his contemporaries, and which is by no means inconsonant with the doctrines of Pythagoras.

VIII. The conduct of the fable is as follows: two vast demons, Strength and Force, accompanied by Vulcan, appear in a remote plain of earth--an unpeopled desert. There, on a steril and lofty rock, hard by the sea, Prometheus is chained by Vulcan--"a reward for his disposition to be tender to mankind." The date of this doom is cast far back in the earliest dawn of time, and Jupiter has but just commenced his reign. While Vulcan binds him, Prometheus utters no sound--it is Vulcan, the agent of his punishment, that alone complains. Nor is it till the dread task is done, and the ministers of Jupiter have retired, that "the god, unawed by the wrath of gods," bursts forth with his grand apostrophe--


"Oh Air divine! Oh ye swift-winged Winds--
Ye sources of the Rivers, and ye Waves,
That dimple o'er old Ocean like his smiles--
Mother of all--oh Earth! and thou the orb,
All-seeing, of the Sun, behold and witness
What I, a god, from the stern gods endure.

* * * * * *

When shall my doom be o'er?--Be o'er!--to me
The Future hides no riddle--nor can wo
Come unprepared! It fits me then to brave
That which must be: for what can turn aside
The dark course of the grim Necessity?"


While thus soliloquizing, the air becomes fragrant with odours, and faintly stirs with the rustling of approaching wings. The Daughters of Ocean, aroused from their grots below, are come to console the Titan. They utter many complaints against the dynasty of Jove. Prometheus comforts himself by the prediction that the Olympian shall hereafter require his services, and that, until himself released from his bondage, he will never reveal to his tyrant the danger that menaces his realm; for the vanquished is here described as of a mightier race than the victor, and to him are bared the mysteries of the future, which to Jupiter are denied. The triumph of Jupiter is the conquest of brute force over knowledge.

Prometheus then narrates how, by means of his counsels, Jupiter had gained his sceptre, and the ancient Saturn and his partisans been whelmed beneath the abyss of Tartarus--how he alone had interfered with Jupiter to prevent the extermination of the human race (whom alone the celestial king disregarded and condemned)--how he had imparted to them fire, the seed of all the arts, and exchanged in their breasts the terrible knowledge of the future for the beguiling flatteries of hope and hence his punishment.

At this time Ocean himself appears: he endeavours unavailingly to persuade the Titan to submission to Jupiter. The great spirit of Prometheus, and his consideration for others, are beautifully individualized in his answers to his consoler, whom he warns not to incur the wrath of the tyrant by sympathy with the afflicted. Alone again with the Oceanides, the latter burst forth in fresh strains of pity.


"The wide earth echoes wailingly,
Stately and antique were thy fallen race,
The wide earth waileth thee!
Lo! from the holy Asian dwelling-place,
Fall for a godhead's wrongs, the mortals' murmuring tears,
They mourn within the Colchian land,
The virgin and the warrior daughters,
And far remote, the Scythian band,
Around the broad Maeotian waters,
And they who hold in Caucasus their tower,
Arabia's martial flower
Hoarse-clamouring 'midst sharp rows of barbed spears.

One have I seen with equal tortures riven--
An equal god; in adamantine chains
Ever and evermore
The Titan Atlas, crush'd, sustains
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 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--
Foe against foe!--and brother against brother.
What, ho! my greaves, my spear, my armour proof
Against this storm of stones! My stand is chosen."


Eteocles and his brother both perish in the unnatural strife, and the tragedy ends with the decree of the senators to bury Eteocles with due honours, and the bold resolution of Antigone (the sister of the dead) to defy the ordinance which forbids a burial to Polynices--


"For mighty is the memory of the womb
From which alike we sprung--a wretched mother!"


The same spirit which glows through the "Seven against Thebes" is also visible in the "Persians," which, rather picturesque than dramatic, is tragedy brought back to the dithyrambic ode. It portrays the defeat of Xerxes, and contains one of the most valuable of historical descriptions, in the lines devoted to the battle of Salamis. The speech of Atossa (the mother of Xerxes), in which she enumerates the offerings to the shade of Darius, is exquisitely beautiful.


"The charms that sooth the dead:
White milk, and lucid honey, pure-distill'd
By the wild bee--that craftsman of the flowers;
The limpid droppings of the virgin fount,
And this bright liquid from its mountain mother
Born fresh--the joy of the time--hallowed vine;
The pale-green olive's odorous fruit, whose leaves
Live everlastingly--and these wreathed flowers,
The smiling infants o' the prodigal earth."


Nor is there less poetry in the invocation of the chorus to the shade of Darius, which slowly rises as they conclude. But the purpose for which the monarch returns to earth is scarcely sufficient to justify his appearance, and does not seem to be in accordance with the power over our awe and terror which the poet usually commands. Darius hears the tale of his son's defeat--warns the Persians against interfering with the Athenians--tells the mother to comfort and console her son-- bids the chorus (who disregard his advice) give themselves to mirth, even though in affliction, "for to the dead riches are no advantage"-- and so returns to his repose, which seems very unnecessarily disturbed.

"The Suppliants," which Schlegel plausibly conjectures to have been the intermediate piece of a trilogy, is chiefly remarkable as a proof of the versatility of the poet. All horror has vanished from the scene; the language is soft when compared with the usual diction of Aeschylus; the action is peaceful, and the plot extremely simple, being merely the protection which the daughters of Danaus obtain at the court of Pelasgus from the pursuit of the sons of Aegyptus. The heroines of the play, the Danaides, make the chorus, and this serves to render the whole, yet more than the Persians, a lyric rather than a tragedy. The moral of the play is homely and primitive, and seems confined to the inculcation of hospitality to strangers, and the inviolable sanctity of the shrine. I do not know any passages in "The Suppliants" that equal in poetry the more striking verses of "The Persians," or "The Seven against Thebes."

XIII. Attempts have been made to convey to modern readers a more familiar notion of Aeschylus by comparisons with modern poets. One critic likens him to Dante, another to Milton--but he resembles neither. No modern language can convey a notion of the wonderful strength of his diction--no modern poet, of the stern sublimity of his conceptions. The French tragedians may give some weak reflection of Euripides or even of Sophocles, but none have ventured upon the sacred territory of the father of the tragic drama. He defies all imitation. His genius is so near the verge of bombast, that to approach his sublime is to rush into the ridiculous. (28)

Aeschylus never once, in the plays that have come down to us, delineates love, except by an expression or two as regards the passion of Clytemnestra for Aegisthus (29). It was emblematic of a new state of society when Euripides created the Phaedra and the Medea. His plots are worked out by the simplest and the fewest positions. But he had evidently his own theory of art, and studied with care such stage effects as appeared to him most striking and impressive. Thus, in the burlesque contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, in the comedy of "The Frogs," the former is censured, not for too rude a neglect, but for too elaborate a cultivation, of theatrical craft--such as introducing his principal characters, his Niobe and Achilles (30), with their faces hid, and preserving long and obstinate silence, in order by that suspense to sharpen the expectation of the audience. Aeschylus, in fact, contrary to the general criticism, was as earnest and thoughtful an artist as Sophocles himself. There was this difference, it is true; one invented the art and the other perfected.

But the first requires as intense a study as the last; and they who talk of the savage and untutored genius of Aeschylus, are no wiser than the critics who applied the phrase of "native wood-notes wild" to the consummate philosophy of "Hamlet," the anatomical correctness of "Othello," the delicate symmetry of "The Tempest." With respect to the language of Aeschylus, ancient critics unite with the modern in condemning the straining of his metaphors, and the exaggeration of his images; yet they appear to me a necessary part of his genius, and of the effect it produces. But nothing can be more unsatisfactory and inconclusive than the theory of Schlegel, that such metaphors and images, such rugged boldness and irregular fire, are the characteristics of a literature in its infancy. On the contrary, as we have already seen, Phrynichus, the predecessor of Aeschylus, was as much characterized by sweetness and harmony, as Aeschylus by grandeur and headlong animation. In our own time, we have seen the cold classic school succeeded by one full of the faults which the German, eloquent but superficial, would ascribe to the infancy of literature. The diction of Aeschylus was the distinction of himself, and not of his age; if it require an apology, let us not seek it in false pretences; if he had written after Euripides, his diction would have been equally startling, and his metaphors equally lofty. His genius was one of those which, in any age, can form an era, and not that which an era necessarily forms. He might have enriched his music from the strains of the Dorian lyres, but he required only one poet to have lived before him. The rest of the Greek dramatists required Aeschylus--Aeschylus required only Homer.

The POET is, indeed, the creator, not of images solely, but of men-- not of one race of ideas and characters, but of a vast and interminable posterity scattered over the earth. The origin of what wonderful works, in what distant regions, in what various time, may be traced, step by step, from influence to influence, till we arrive at Homer! Such is the vitality of genius. The true spiritual transmigrator--it passes through all shapes--losing identity, but not life--and kindred to the GREAT INTELLIGENCE, which is the soul of matter--departing from one form only to animate another.

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