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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsAthens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 5 - Chapter 4
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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 5 - Chapter 4 Post by :dwooding Category :Nonfictions Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :2918

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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 5 - Chapter 4

VOL II BOOK V CHAPTER IV

The Tragedies of Sophocles.


I. It was in the very nature of the Athenian drama, that, when once established, it should concentrate and absorb almost every variety of the poetical genius. The old lyrical poetry, never much cultivated in Athens, ceased in a great measure when tragedy arose, or rather tragedy was the complete development, the new and perfected consummation of the Dithyrambic ode. Lyrical poetry transmigrated into the choral song, as the epic merged into the dialogue and plot, of the drama. Thus, when we speak of Athenian poetry, we speak of dramatic poetry--they were one and the same. As Helvetius has so luminously shown (332), genius ever turns towards that quarter in which fame shines brightest, and hence, in every age, there will be a sympathetic connexion between the taste of the public and the direction of the talent.

Now in Athens, where audiences were numerous and readers few, every man who felt within himself the inspiration of the poet would necessarily desire to see his poetry put into action--assisted with all the pomp of spectacle and music, hallowed by the solemnity of a religious festival, and breathed by artists elaborately trained to heighten the eloquence of words into the reverent ear of assembled Greece.

Hence the multitude of dramatic poets, hence the mighty fertility of each; hence the life and activity of this--the comparative torpor and barrenness of every other--species of poetry. To add to the pre-eminence of the art, the applauses of the many were sanctioned by the critical canons of the few. The drama was not only the most alluring form which the Divine Spirit could assume--but it was also deemed the loftiest and the purest; and when Aristotle ranked (333) the tragic higher than even the epic muse, he probably did but explain the reasons for a preference which the generality of critics were disposed to accord to her. (334)

II. The career of the most majestic of the Greek poets was eminently felicitous. His birth was noble, his fortune affluent; his natural gifts were the rarest which nature bestows on man, genius and beauty. All the care which the age permitted was lavished on his education. For his feet even the ordinary obstacles in the path of distinction were smoothed away. He entered life under auspices the most propitious and poetical. At the age of sixteen he headed the youths who performed the triumphant paean round the trophy of Salamis. At twenty-five, when the bones of Theseus were borne back to Athens in the galley of the victorious Cimon, he exhibited his first play, and won the prize from Aeschylus. That haughty genius, whether indignant at the success of a younger rival, or at a trial for impiety before the Areopagus, to which (though acquitted) he was subjected, or at the rapid ascendency of a popular party, that he seems to have scorned with the disdain at once of an eupatrid and a Pythagorean, soon after retired from Athens to the Syracusan court; and though he thence sent some of his dramas to the Athenian stage (335), the absent veteran could not but excite less enthusiasm than the young aspirant, whose artful and polished genius was more in harmony with the reigning taste than the vast but rugged grandeur of Aeschylus, who, perhaps from the impossibility tangibly and visibly to body forth his shadowy Titans and obscure sublimity of design, does not appear to have obtained a popularity on the stage equal to his celebrity as a poet (336). For three-and-sixty years did Sophocles continue to exhibit; twenty times he obtained the first prize, and he is said never to have been degraded to the third. The ordinary persecutions of envy itself seem to have spared this fortunate poet. Although his moral character was far from pure (337), and even in extreme old age he sought after the pleasures of his youth (339), yet his excesses apparently met with a remarkable indulgence from his contemporaries. To him were known neither the mortifications of Aeschylus nor the relentless mockery heaped upon Euripides. On his fair name the terrible Aristophanes himself affixes no brand (339). The sweetness of his genius extended indeed to his temper, and personal popularity assisted his public triumphs. Nor does he appear to have keenly shared the party animosities of his day; his serenity, like that of Goethe, has in it something of enviable rather than honourable indifference. He owed his first distinction to Cimon, and he served afterward under Pericles; on his entrance into life, he led the youths that circled the trophy of Grecian freedom--and on the verge of death, we shall hereafter see him calmly assent to the surrender of Athenian liberties. In short, Aristophanes perhaps mingled more truth than usual with his wit, when even in the shades below he says of Sophocles, "He was contented here--he's contented there." A disposition thus facile, united with an admirable genius, will, not unoften, effect a miracle, and reconcile prosperity with fame. (340)

At the age of fifty-seven, Sophocles was appointed, as I before said (341), to a command, as one of the ten generals in the Samian war; but history is silent as to his military genius (342). In later life we shall again have occasion to refer to him, condemned as he was to illustrate (after a career of unprecedented brilliancy--nor ever subjected to the caprice of the common public) the melancholy moral inculcated by himself (343), and so often obtruded upon us by the dramatists of his country, "never to deem a man happy till death itself denies the hazard of reverses." Out of the vast, though not accurately known, number of the dramas of Sophocles, seven remain.

III. A great error has been committed by those who class Aeschylus and Sophocles together as belonging to the same era, and refer both to the age of Pericles, because each was living while Pericles was in power. We may as well class Dr. Johnson and Lord Byron in the same age, because both lived in the reign of George III. The Athenian rivals were formed under the influences of very different generations; and if Aeschylus lived through a considerable portion of the career of the younger Sophocles, the accident of longevity by no means warrants us to consider then the children of the same age--the creatures of the same influences. Aeschylus belonged to the race and the period from which emerged Themistocles and Aristides--Sophocles to those which produced Phidias and Pericles. Sophocles indeed, in the calmness of his disposition, and the symmetry and stateliness of his genius, might almost be entitled the Pericles of poetry. And as the statesman was called the Olympian, not from the headlong vehemence, but the serene majesty of his strength; so of Sophocles also it may be said, that his power is visible in his repose, and his thunders roll from the depth of a clear sky.

IV. The age of Pericles is the age of art (344). It was not Sophocles alone that was an artist in that time; he was but one of the many who, in every department, sought, in study and in science, the secrets of the wise or the beautiful. Pericles and Phidias were in their several paths of fame what Sophocles was in his. But it was not the art of an emasculate or effeminate period--it grew out of the example of a previous generation of men astonishingly great. It was art still fresh from the wells of nature. Art with a vast field yet unexplored, and in all its youthful vigour and maiden enthusiasm. There was, it is true, at a period a little later than that in which the genius of Sophocles was formed, one class of students among whom a false taste and a spurious refinement were already visible--the class of rhetoricians and philosophical speculators. For, in fact, the art which belongs to the imagination is often purest in an early age; but that which appertains to the reason and intellect is slow before it attains mature strength and manly judgment, Among these students was early trained and tutored the thoughtful mind of Euripides; and hence that art which in Sophocles was learned in more miscellaneous and active circles, and moulded by a more powerful imagination, in Euripides often sickens us with the tricks of a pleader, the quibbles of a schoolman, or the dullness of a moralizing declaimer. But as, in the peculiar attributes and character of his writings, Euripides somewhat forestalled his age--as his example had a very important influence upon his successors--as he did not exhibit till the fame of Sophocles was already confirmed--and as his name is intimately associated with the later age of Aristophanes and Socrates--it may be more convenient to confine our critical examination at present to the tragedies of Sophocles.

Although the three plays of the "Oedipus Tyrannus," the "Oedipus at Coloneus," and the "Antigone," were composed and exhibited at very wide intervals of time, yet, from their connexion with each other, they may almost be said to form one poem. The "Antigone," which concludes the story, was the one earliest written; and there are passages in either "Oedipus" which seem composed to lead up, as it were, to the catastrophe of the "Antigone," and form a harmonious link between the several dramas. These three plays constitute, on the whole, the greatest performance of Sophocles, though in detached parts they are equalled by passages in the "Ajax" and the "Philoctetes."

V. The "Oedipus Tyrannus" opens thus. An awful pestilence devastates Thebes. Oedipus, the king, is introduced to us, powerful and beloved; to him whose wisdom had placed him on the throne, look up the priest and the suppliants for a remedy even amid the terrors of the plague. Oedipus informs them that he has despatched Creon (the brother of his wife Jocasta) to the Pythian god to know by what expiatory deed the city might be delivered from its curse. Scarce has he concluded, when Creon himself enters, and announces "glad tidings" in the explicit answer of the oracle. The god has declared--that a pollution had been bred in the land, and must be expelled the city--that Laius, the former king, had been murdered--and that his blood must be avenged. Laius had left the city never to return; of his train but one man escaped to announce his death by assassins. Oedipus instantly resolves to prosecute the inquiry into the murder, and orders the people to be summoned. The suppliants arise from the altar, and a solemn chorus of the senators of Thebes (in one of the most splendid lyrics of Sophocles) chant the terrors of the plague--"that unarmed Mars"--and implore the protection of the divine averters of destruction. Oedipus then, addressing the chorus, demands their aid to discover the murderer, whom he solemnly excommunicates, and dooms, deprived of aid and intercourse, to waste slowly out a miserable existence; nay, if the assassin should have sought refuge in the royal halls, there too shall the vengeance be wreaked and the curse fall.

"For I," continued Oedipus,


"I, who the sceptre which he wielded wield;
I, who have mounted to his marriage bed;
I, in whose children (had he issue known)
His would have claimed a common brotherhood;
Now that the evil fate bath fallen o'er him--
I am the heir of that dead king's revenge,
Not less than if these lips had hailed him 'father!'"


A few more sentences introduce to us the old soothsayer Tiresias--for whom, at the instigation of Creon, Oedipus had sent. The seer answers the adjuration of the king with a thrilling and ominous burst--


"Wo--wo!--how fearful is the gift of wisdom,
When to the wise it bears no blessing!--wo!"


The haughty spirit of Oedipus breaks forth at the gloomy and obscure warnings of the prophet. His remonstrances grow into threats. In his blindness he even accuses Tiresias himself of the murder of Laius--and out speaks the terrible diviner:


"Ay--is it so? Abide then by thy curse
And solemn edict--never from this day
Hold human commune with these men or me;
Lo, where thou standest--lo, the land's polluter!"


A dialogue of great dramatic power ensues. Oedipus accuses Tiresias of abetting his kinsman, Creon, by whom he had been persuaded to send for the soothsayer, in a plot against his throne--and the seer, who explains nothing and threatens all things, departs with a dim and fearful prophecy.

After a song from the chorus, in which are imbodied the doubt, the trouble, the terror which the audience may begin to feel--and here it may be observed, that with Sophocles the chorus always carries on, not the physical, but the moral, progress of the drama (345)--Creon enters, informed of the suspicion against himself which Oedipus had expressed. Oedipus, whose whole spirit is disturbed by the weird and dark threats of Tiresias, repeats the accusation, but wildly and feebly. His vain worldly wisdom suggests to him that Creon would scarcely have asked him to consult Tiresias, nor Tiresias have ventured on denunciations so tremendous, had not the two conspired against him: yet a mysterious awe invades him--he presses questions on Creon relative to the murder of Laius, and seems more anxious to acquit himself than accuse another.

While the princes contend, the queen, Jocasta, enters. She chides their quarrel, learns from Oedipus that Tiresias had accused him of the murder of the deceased king, and, to convince him of the falseness of prophetic lore, reveals to him, that long since it was predicted that Laius should be murdered by his son joint offspring of Jocasta and himself. Yet, in order to frustrate the prophecy, the only son of Laius had been exposed to perish upon solitary and untrodden mountains, while, in after years, Laius himself had fallen, in a spot where three roads met, by the hand of a stranger; so that the prophecy had not come to pass.

At this declaration terror seizes upon Oedipus. He questions Jocasta eagerly and rapidly--the place where the murder happened, the time in which it occurred, the age and personal appearance of Laius--and when he learns all, his previous arrogant conviction of innocence deserts him; and as he utters a horrid exclamation, Jocasta fixes her eyes upon him, and "shudders as she gazes." (346) He inquires what train accompanied Laius--learns that there were five persons; that but one escaped; that on his return to Thebes, seeing Oedipus on the throne, the surviver had besought the favour to retire from the city. Oedipus orders this witness of the murder to be sent for, and then proceeds to relate his own history. He has been taught to believe that Polybus of Corinth and Merope of Doris were his parents. But once at a banquet he was charged with being a supposititious child; the insult galled him, and he went to Delphi to consult the oracle. It was predicted to him that he should commit incest with his mother, and that his father should fall by his hand. Appalled and horror-stricken, he resolves to fly the possible fulfilment of the prophecy, and return no more to Corinth. In his flight by the triple road described by Jocasta he meets an old man in a chariot, with a guide or herald, and other servitors. They attempt to thrust him from the road--a contest ensues--he slays the old man and his train. Could this be Laius? Can it be to the marriage couch of the man he slew that he has ascended? No, his fears are too credulous! he clings to a straw; the herdsman who had escaped the slaughter of Laius and his attendants may prove that it was _not the king whom he encountered. Jocasta sustains this hope--she cannot believe a prophecy--for it had been foretold that Laius should fall by the hand of his son, and that son had long since perished on the mountains. The queen and Oedipus retire within their palace; the chorus resume their strains; after which, Jocasta reappears on her way to the temple of Apollo, to offer sacrifice and prayer. At this time a messenger arrives to announce to Oedipus the death of Polybus, and the wish of the Corinthians to elect Oedipus to the throne! At these tidings Jocasta is overjoyed.


"Predictions of the gods, where are ye now?
Lest by the son's doomed hand the sire should fall,
The son became a wanderer on the earth,
Lo, not the son, but Nature, gives the blow!"


Oedipus, summoned to the messenger, learns the news of his supposed father's death! It is a dread and tragic thought, but the pious Oedipus is glad that his father is no more, since he himself is thus saved from parricide; yet the other part of the prediction haunts him. His mother!--she yet lives. He reveals to the messenger the prophecy and his terror. To cheer him, the messenger now informs him that he is not the son of Merope and Polybus. A babe had been found in the entangled forest-dells of Cithaeron by a herdsman and slave of Laius --he had given the infant to another--that other, the messenger who now tells the tale. Transferred to the care of Polybus and Merope, the babe became to them as a son, for they were childless. Jocasta hears--stunned and speechless--till Oedipus, yet unconscious of the horrors still to come, turns to demand of her if she knew the herdsman who had found the child. Then she gasps wildly out--


"Whom speaks he of? Be silent--heed it not--
Blot it out from thy memory!--it is evil!
Oedipus. It cannot be--the clew is here; and I
Will trace it through that labyrinth--my birth.
Jocasta. By all the gods I warn thee; for the sake
Of thine own life beware; it is enough
For me to hear and madden!"


Oedipus (suspecting only that the pride of his queen revolts from the thought of her husband's birth being proved base and servile) replies,


"Nay, nay, cheer thee!
Were I through three descents threefold a slave,
My shame would not touch thee.
Jocasta. I do implore thee,
This once obey me--this once.
Oedipus I will not!
To truth I grope my way.
Jocasta. And yet what love
Speaks in my voice! Thine ignorance is thy bliss.
Oedipus. A bliss that tortures!
Jocasta. Miserable man!
Oh couldst thou never learn the thing thou art!
Oedipus. Will no one quicken this slow herdsman's steps
The unquestioned birthright of a royal name
Let this proud queen possess!
Jocasta. Wo! wo! thou wretch!
Wo! my last word!--words are no more for me!"


With this Jocasta rushes from the scene. Still Oedipus misconstrues her warning; he ascribes her fears to the royalty of her spirit. For himself, Fortune was his mother, and had blessed him; nor could the accident of birth destroy his inheritance from nature. The chorus give way to their hopes! their wise, their glorious Oedipus might have been born a Theban! The herdsman enters: like Tiresias, he is loath to speak. The fiery king extorts his secret. Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta--at his birth the terrible prophecies of the Pythian induced his own mother to expose him on the mountains--the compassion of the herdsman saved him--saved him to become the bridegroom of his mother, the assassin of his sire. The astonishing art with which, from step to step, the audience and the victim are led to the climax of the discovery, is productive of an interest of pathos and of terror which is not equalled by the greatest masterpieces of the modern stage (347), and possesses that species of anxious excitement which is wholly unparalleled in the ancient. The discovery is a true catastrophe--the physical denouement is but an adjunct to the moral one. Jocasta, on quitting the scene, had passed straight to the bridal-chamber, and there, by the couch from which had sprung a double and accursed progeny, perished by her own hands. Meanwhile, the predestined parricide, bursting into the chamber, beheld, as the last object on earth, the corpse of his wife and mother! Once more Oedipus reappears, barred for ever from the light of day. In the fury of his remorse, he "had smote the balls of his own eyes," and the wise baffler of the sphinx, Oedipus, the haughty, the insolent, the illustrious, is a forlorn and despairing outcast. But amid all the horror of the concluding scene, a beautiful and softening light breaks forth. Blind, powerless, excommunicated, Creon, whom Oedipus accused of murder, has now become his judge and his master. The great spirit, crushed beneath its intolerable woes, is humbled to the dust; and the "wisest of mankind" implores but two favours--to be thrust from the land an exile, and once more to embrace his children. Even in translation the exquisite tenderness of this passage cannot altogether fail of its effect.


"For my fate, let it pass! My children, Creon!
My sons--nay, they the bitter wants of life
May master--they are MEN?--my girls--my darlings--
Why, never sat I at my household board
Without their blessed looks--our very bread
We brake together; thou'lt be kind to them
For my sake, Creon--and (oh, latest prayer!)
Let me but touch them--feel them with these hands,
And pour such sorrow as may speak farewell
O'er ills that must be theirs! By thy pure line--
For thin is pure--do this, sweet prince. Methinks
I should not miss these eyes, could I but touch them.
What shall I say to move thee?
Sobs! And do I,
Oh do I hear my sweet ones? Hast thou sent,
In mercy sent, my children to my arms?
Speak--speak--I do not dream!
Creon. They are thy children;
I would not shut thee from the dear delight
In the old time they gave thee.
Oedipus. Blessings on thee
For this one mercy mayst thou find above
A kinder God than I have. Ye--where are ye?
My children--come!--nearer and nearer yet," etc.


The pathos of this scene is continued to the end; and the very last words Oedipus utters as his children cling to him, implore that they at least may not be torn away.

It is in this concluding scene that the art of the play is consummated; the horrors of the catastrophe, which, if a last impression, would have left behind a too painful and gloomy feeling, are softened down by this beautiful resort to the tenderest and holiest sources of emotion. And the pathos is rendered doubly effective, not only from the immediate contrast of the terror that preceded it, but from the masterly skill with which all display of the softer features in the character of Oedipus is reserved to the close. In the breaking up of the strong mind and the daring spirit, when empire, honour, name, are all annihilated, the heart is seen, as it were, surviving the wrecks around it, and clinging for support to the affections.

VII. In the "Oedipus at Coloneus," the blind king is presented to us, after the lapse of years, a wanderer over the earth, unconsciously taking his refuge in the grove of the furies (348)--"the awful goddesses, daughters of Earth and Darkness." His young daughter, Antigone, one of the most lovely creations of poetry, is his companion and guide; he is afterward joined by his other daughter, Ismene, whose weak and selfish character is drawn in strong contrast to the heroism and devotion of Antigone. The ancient prophecies that foretold his woes had foretold also his release. His last shelter and resting-place were to be obtained from the dread deities, and a sign of thunder, or earthquake, or lightning was to announce his parting hour. Learning the spot to which his steps had been guided, Oedipus solemnly feels that his doom approaches: thus, at the very opening of the poem, he stands before us on the verge of a mysterious grave.

The sufferings which have bowed the parricide to a premature old age (349) have not crushed his spirit; the softness and self-humiliation which were the first results of his awful affliction are passed away. He is grown once more vehement and passionate, from the sense of wrong; remorse still visits him, but is alternated with the yet more human feeling of resentment at the unjust severity of his doom (350). His sons, who, "by a word," might have saved him from the expulsion, penury, and wanderings he has undergone, had deserted his cause--had looked with indifferent eyes on his awful woes--had joined with Creon to expel him from the Theban land. They are the Goneril and Regan of the classic Lear, as Antigone is the Cordelia on whom he leans--a Cordelia he has never thrust from him. "When," says Oedipus, in stern bitterness of soul,


"When my soul boiled within me--when 'to die'
Was all my prayer--and death was sweetness, yea,
Had they but stoned me like a dog, I'd blessed them;
Then no man rose against me--but when time
Brought its slow comfort--when my wounds were scarred--
All my griefs mellow'd, and remorse itself
Judged my self-penance mightier than my sins,
Thebes thrust me from her breast, and they, my sons,
My blood, mine offspring, from their father shrunk:
A word of theirs had saved me--one small word--
They said it not--and lo! the wandering beggar!"


In the mean while, during the exile of Oedipus, strife had broken out between the brothers: Eteocles, here represented as the younger, drove out Polynices, and seized the throne; Polynices takes refuge at Argos, where he prepares war against the usurper: an oracle declares that success shall be with that party which Oedipus joins, and a mysterious blessing is pronounced on the land which contains his bones. Thus, the possession of this wild tool of fate--raised up in age to a dread and ghastly consequence--becomes the argument of the play, as his death must become the catastrophe. It is the deep and fierce revenge of Oedipus that makes the passion of the whole. According to a sublime conception, we see before us the physical Oedipus in the lowest state of destitution and misery--in rags, blindness, beggary, utter and abject impotence. But in the moral, Oedipus is all the majesty of a power still royal. The oracle has invested one, so fallen and so wretched in himself, with the power of a god--the power to confer victory on the cause he adopts, prosperity on the land that becomes his tomb. With all the revenge of age, all the grand malignity of hatred, he clings to this shadow and relic of a sceptre. Creon, aware of the oracle, comes to recall him to Thebes. The treacherous kinsman humbles himself before his victim--he is the suppliant of the beggar, who defies and spurns him. Creon avenges himself by seizing on Antigone and Ismene. Nothing can be more dramatically effective than the scene in which these last props of his age are torn from the desolate old man. They are ultimately restored to him by Theseus, whose amiable and lofty character is painted with all the partial glow of colouring which an Athenian poet would naturally lavish on the Athenian Alfred. We are next introduced to Polynices. He, like Creon, has sought Oedipus with the selfish motive of recovering his throne by means of an ally to whom the oracle promises victory. But there is in Polynices the appearance of a true penitence, and a mingled gentleness and majesty in his bearing which interests us in his fate despite his faults, and which were possibly intended by Sophocles to give a new interest to the plot of the "Antigone," composed and exhibited long before. Oedipus is persuaded by the benevolence of Theseus, and the sweet intercession of Antigone, to admit his son. After a chant from the chorus on the ills of old age (351), Polynices enters. He is struck with the wasted and miserable appearance of the old man, and bitterly reproaches his own desertion.

"But since," he says, with almost a Christian sentiment--

"Since o'er each deed, upon the Olympian throne,
Mercy sits joint presider with great Jove,
Let her, oh father, also take her stand
Within thy soul--and judge me! The past sins
Yet have their cure--ah, would they had recall!
Why are you voiceless? Speak to me, my father?
Turn not away--will you not answer me?" etc.


Oedipus retains his silence in spite of the prayers of his beloved Antigone, and Polynices proceeds to narrate the wrongs he has undergone from Eteocles, and, warming with a young warrior's ardour, paints the array that he has mustered on his behalf--promises to restore Oedipus to his palace--and, alluding to the oracle, throws himself on his father's pardon.

Then, at last, outspeaks Oedipus, and from reproach bursts into curses.


"And now you weep; you wept not at these woes
Until you wept your own. But I--I weep not.
These things are not for tears, but for Endurance.
My son is like his sire--a parricide!
Toil, exile, beggary--daily bread doled out
From stranger hands--these are your gifts, my son!
My nurses, guardians--they who share the want,
Or earn the bread, are daughters; call them not
Women, for they to me are men. Go to!
Thou art not mine--I do disclaim such issue.
Behold, the eyes of the avenging God
Are o'er thee! but their ominous light delays
To blast thee yet. March on--march on--to Thebes!
Not--not for thee, the city and the throne;
The earth shall first be reddened with thy blood--
Thy blood and his, thy foe--thy brother! Curses!
Not for the first time summoned to my wrongs--
Curses! I call ye back, and make ye now
Allies with this old man!

* * * * * *

Yea, curses shall possess thy seat and throne,
If antique Justice o'er the laws of earth
Reign with the thunder-god. March on to ruin!
Spurned and disowned--the basest of the base--
And with thee bear this burden: o'er thine head
I pour a prophet's doom; nor throne nor home
Waits on the sharpness of the levelled spear:
Thy very land of refuge hath no welcome;
Thine eyes have looked their last on hollow Argos.
Death by a brother's hand--dark fratricide,
Murdering thyself a brother--shall be thine.
Yea, while I curse thee, on the murky deep
Of the primeval hell I call! Prepare
These men their home, dread Tartarus! Goddesses,
Whose shrines are round me--ye avenging Furies!
And thou, oh Lord of Battle, who hast stirred
Hate in the souls of brethren, hear me--hear me!--
And now, 'tis past!--enough!--depart and tell
The Theban people, and thy fond allies,
What blessings, from his refuge with the Furies,
The blind old Oedipus awards his sons!" (352)


As is usual with Sophocles, the terrific strength of these execrations is immediately followed by a soft and pathetic scene between Antigone and her brother. Though crushed at first by the paternal curse, the spirit of Polynices so far recovers its native courage that he will not listen to the prayer of his sister to desist from the expedition to Thebes, and to turn his armies back to Argos. "What," he says,

"Lead back an army that could deem I trembled!"

Yet he feels the mournful persuasion that his death is doomed; and a glimpse of the plot of the "Antigone" is opened upon us by his prayer to his sister, that if he perish, they should lay him with due honours in the tomb. The exquisite loveliness of Antigone's character touches even Polynices, and he departs, saying,


"With the gods rests the balance of our fate;
But thee, at least--oh never upon thee
May evil fall! Thou art too good for sorrow!"


The chorus resume their strains, when suddenly thunder is heard, and Oedipus hails the sign that heralds him to the shades. Nothing can be conceived more appalling than this omen. It seems as if Oedipus had been spared but to curse his children and to die. He summons Theseus, tells him that his fate is at hand, and that without a guide he himself will point out the spot where he shall rest. Never may that spot be told--that secret and solemn grave shall be the charm of the land and a defence against its foes. Oedipus then turns round, and the instinct within guides him as he gropes along. His daughters and Theseus follow the blind man, amazed and awed. "Hither," he says,


"Hither--by this way come--for this way leads
The unseen conductor of the dead (353)--and she
Whom shadows call their queen! (354) Oh light, sweet light,
Rayless to me--mine once, and even now
I feel thee palpable, round this worn form,
Clinging in last embrace--I go to shroud
The waning life in the eternal Hades!"


Thus the stage is left to the chorus, and the mysterious fate of Oedipus is recited by the Nuntius, in verses which Longinus has not extolled too highly. Oedipus had led the way to a cavern, well known in legendary lore as the spot where Perithous and Theseus had pledged their faith, by the brazen steps which make one of the entrances to the infernal realms;


"Between which place and the Thorician stone--
The hollow thorn, and the sepulchral pile
He sat him down."


And when he had performed libations from the stream, and laved, and decked himself in the funeral robes, Jove thundered beneath the earth, and the old man's daughters, aghast with horror, fell at his knees with sobs and groans.


"Then o'er them as they wept, his hands he clasped,
And 'Oh my children,' said he, 'from this day
Ye have no more a father--all of me
Withers away--the burden and the toil
Of mine old age fall on ye nevermore.
Sad travail have ye home for me, and yet
Let one thought breathe a balm when I am gone--
The thought that none upon the desolate world
Loved you as I did; and in death I leave
A happier life to you!'

Thus movingly,
With clinging arms and passionate sobs, the three
Wept out aloud, until the sorrow grew
Into a deadly hush--nor cry nor wail
Starts the drear silence of the solitude.
Then suddenly a bodiless voice is heard
And fear came cold on all. They shook with awe,
And horror, like a wind, stirred up their hair.
Again, the voice--again--'Ho! Oedipus, Why linger we so long?
Come--hither--come.'"


Oedipus then solemnly consigns his children to Theseus, dismisses them, and Theseus alone is left with the old man.


"So groaning we depart--and when once more
We turned our eyes to gaze, behold, the place
Knew not the man! The king alone was there,
Holding his spread hands o'er averted brows
As if to shut from out the quailing gaze
The horrid aspect of some ghastly thing
That nature durst not look on. So we paused
Until the king awakened from the terror,
And to the mother Earth, and high Olympus,
Seat of the gods, he breathed awe--stricken prayer
But, how the old man perished, save the king,
Mortal can ne'er divine; for bolt, nor levin,
Nor blasting tempest from the ocean borne,
Was heard or seen; but either was he rapt
Aloft by wings divine, or else the shades,
Whose darkness never looked upon the sun,
Yawned in grim mercy, and the rent abyss
Ingulf'd the wanderer from the living world."


Such, sublime in its wondrous power, its appalling mystery, its dim, religious terror, is the catastrophe of the "Oedipus at Coloneus." The lines that follow are devoted to the lamentations of the daughters, and appear wholly superfluous, unless we can consider that Sophocles desired to indicate the connexion of the "Oedipus" with the "Antigone," by informing us that the daughters of Oedipus are to be sent to Thebes at the request of Antigone herself, who hopes, in the tender courage of her nature, that she may perhaps prevent the predicted slaughter of her brothers.

VII. Coming now to the tragedy of "Antigone," we find the prophecy of Oedipus has been fulfilled--the brothers have fallen by the hand of each other--the Argive army has been defeated--Creon has obtained the tyranny, and interdicts, on the penalty of death, the burial of Polynices, whose corpse remains guarded and unhonoured. Antigone, mindful of her brother's request to her in their last interview, resolves to brave the edict, and perform those rites so indispensably sacred in the eyes of a Greek. She communicates her resolution to her sister Ismene, whose character, still feeble and commonplace, is a perpetual foil to the heroism of Antigone. She acts upon her resolutions, baffles the vigilant guards, buries the corpse. Creon, on learning that his edict has been secretly disobeyed, orders the remains to be disinterred, and in a second attempt Antigone is discovered, brought before him, and condemned to death. Haemon, the son of Creon, had been affianced to Antigone. On the news of her sentence he seeks Creon, and after a violent scene between the two, which has neither the power nor the dignity common to Sophocles, departs with vague menaces. A short but most exquisite invocation to love from the chorus succeeds, and in this, it may be observed, the chorus express much left not represented in the action--they serve to impress on the spectator all the irresistible effects of the passion which the modern artist would seek to represent in some moving scene between Antigone and Haemon. The heroine herself now passes across the stage on her way to her dreadful doom, which is that of living burial in "the cavern of a rock." She thus addresses the chorus--


"Ye, of the land wherein my fathers dwelt,
Behold me journeying to my latest bourne!
Time hath no morrow for these eyes. Black Orcus,
Whose court hath room for all, leads my lone steps,
E'en while I live, to shadows. Not for me
The nuptial blessing or the marriage hymn:
Acheron, receive thy bride!
(Chorus.) Honoured and mourned
Nor struck by slow disease or violent hand,
Thy steps glide to the grave! Self-judged, like Freedom, (355)
Thou, above mortals gifted, shalt descend
All living to the shades.
Antigone. Methinks I have heard--
So legends go--how Phrygian Niobe
(Poor stranger) on the heights of Sipylus
Mournfully died. The hard rock, like the tendrils
O' the ivy, clung and crept unto her heart--
Her, nevermore, dissolving into showers,
Pale snows desert; and from her sorrowful eyes,
As from unfailing founts adown the cliffs,
Fall the eternal dews. Like her, the god
Lulls me to sleep, and into stone!"


Afterward she adds in her beautiful lament, "That she has one comfort --that she shall go to the grave dear to her parents and her brother."

The grief of Antigone is in perfect harmony with her character--it betrays no repentance, no weakness--it is but the natural sorrow, of youth and womanhood, going down to that grave which had so little of hope in the old Greek religion. In an Antigone on our stage we might have demanded more reference to her lover; but the Grecian heroine names him not, and alludes rather to the loss of the woman's lot of wedlock than the loss of the individual bridegroom. But it is not for that reason that we are to conclude, with M. Schlegel and others, that the Greek women knew not the sentiment of love. Such a notion, that has obtained an unaccountable belief, I shall hereafter show to be at variance with all the poetry of the Greeks--with their drama itself-- with their modes of life--and with the very elements of that human nature, which is everywhere the same. But Sophocles, in the character of Antigone, personifies duty, not passion. It is to this, her leading individuality, that whatever might weaken the pure and statue-like effect of the creation is sacrificed. As she was to her father, so is she to her brother. The sorrows and calamities of her family have so endeared them to her heart that she has room for little else. "Formed," as she exquisitely says of herself, "to love, not to hate," (356) she lives but to devote affections the most sacred to sad and pious tasks, and the last fulfilled, she has done with earth.

When Antigone is borne away, an august personage is presented to us, whose very name to us, who usually read the Oedipus Tyrannus before the Antigone, is the foreteller of omen and doom. As in the Oedipus Tyrannus, Tiresias the soothsayer appears to announce all the terrors that ensue--so now, at the crowning desolation of that fated house, he, the solemn and mysterious surviver of such dark tragedies, is again brought upon the stage. The auguries have been evil--birds battle with each other in the air--the flame will not mount from the sacrificial victim--and the altars and hearths are full of birds and dogs, gathering to their feast on the corpse of Polynices. The soothsayer enjoins Creon not to war against the dead, and to accord the rites of burial to the prince's body. On the obstinate refusal of Creon, Tiresias utters prophetic maledictions and departs. Creon, whose vehemence of temper is combined with a feeble character, and strongly contrasts the mighty spirit of Oedipus, repents, and is persuaded by the chorus to release Antigone from her living prison, as well as to revoke the edict which denies sepulture to Polynices. He quits the stage for that purpose, and the chorus burst into one of their most picturesque odes, an Invocation to Bacchus, thus inadequately presented to the English reader.

"Oh thou, whom earth by many a title hails,
Son of the thunder-god, and wild delight
Of the wild Theban maid!
Whether on far Italia's shores obey'd,
Or where Eleusis joins thy solemn rites
With the great mother's (357), in mysterious vales--
Bacchus in Bacchic Thebes best known,
Thy Thebes, who claims the Thyads as her daughters;
Fast by the fields with warriors dragon-sown,
And where Ismenus rolls his rapid waters.
It saw thee, the smoke,
On the horned height--(358)
It saw thee, and broke
With a leap into light;
Where roam Corycian nymphs the glorious mountain,
And all melodious flows the old Castalian fountain
Vocal with echoes wildly glad,
The Nysian steeps with ivy clad,
And shores with vineyards greenly blooming,
Proclaiming, steep to shore,
That Bacchus evermore
Is guardian of the race,
Where he holds his dwelling-place
With her (359), beneath the breath
Of the thunder's glowing death,
In the glare of her glory consuming.

Oh now with healing steps along the slope
Of loved Parnassus, or in gliding motion,
O'er the far-sounding deep Euboean ocean--
Come! for we perish--come!--our Lord and hope!
Leader of the stately choir
Of the great stars, whose very breath is light,
Who dost with hymns inspire
Voices, oh youngest god, that sound by night;
Come, with thy Maenad throng,
Come with the maidens of thy Naxian isle,
Who chant their Lord Bacchus--all the while
Maddening, with mystic dance, the solemn midnight long!"


At the close of the chorus the Nuntius enters to announce the catastrophe, and Eurydice, the wife of Creon, disturbed by rumours within her palace, is made an auditor of the narration. Creon and his train, after burying Polynices, repair to the cavern in which Antigone had been immured. They hear loud wailings within "that unconsecrated chamber"--it is the voice of Haemon. Creon recoils--the attendants enter--within the cavern they behold Antigone, who, in the horror of that deathlike solitude, had strangled herself with the zone of her robe; and there was her lover lying beside, his arms clasped around her waist. Creon at length advances, perceives his son, and conjures him to come forth.


"Then, glaring on his father with wild eyes,
The son stood dumb, and spat upon his face,
And clutched the unnatural sword--the father fled,
And, wroth, as with the arm that missed a parent,
The wretched man drove home unto his breast
The abhorrent steel; yet ever, while dim sense
Struggled within the fast-expiring soul--
Feebler, and feebler still, his stiffening arms
Clung to that virgin form--and every gasp
Of his last breath with bloody dews distained
The cold white cheek that was his pillow. So
Lies death embracing death!" (360)


In the midst of this description, by a fine stroke of art, Euridice, the mother of Haemon, abruptly and silently quits the stage (361). When next we hear of her, she has destroyed herself, with her last breath cursing her husband as the murderer of her child. The end of the play leaves Creon the surviver. He himself does not perish, for he himself has never excited our sympathies (362). He is punished through his son and wife--they dead, our interest ceases in him, and to add his death to theirs and to that of Antigone would be bathos.

VIII. In the tragedy of "Electra," the character of the heroine stands out in the boldest contrast to the creation of the Antigone; both are endowed with surpassing majesty and strength of nature--they are loftier than the daughters of men, their very loveliness is of an age when gods were no distant ancestors of kings--when, as in the early sculptors of Pallas, or even of Aphrodite, something of the severe and stern was deemed necessary to the realization of the divine; and the beautiful had not lost the colossal proportions of the sublime. But the strength and heroism of Antigone is derived from love--love, sober, serene, august--but still love. Electra, on the contrary, is supported and exalted above her sex by the might of her hatred. Her father, "the king of men," foully murdered in his palace --herself compelled to consort with his assassins--to receive from their hands both charity and insult--the adulterous murderer on her father's throne, and lord of her father's marriage bed (363)--her brother a wanderer and an outcast. Such are the thoughts unceasingly before her!--her heart and soul have for years fed upon the bitterness of a resentment, at once impotent and intense, and nature itself has turned to gall. She sees not in Clytemnestra a mother, but the murderess of a father. The doubt and the compunction of the modern Hamlet are unknown to her more masculine spirit. She lives on but in the hope of her brother's return and of revenge. The play opens with the appearance of Orestes, Pylades, and an old attendant--arrived at break of day at the habitation of the Pelopidae--"reeking with blood" --the seats of Agamemnon. Orestes, who had been saved in childhood by his sister from the designs of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, has now returned in manhood. It is agreed that, in order to lull all suspicion in the royal adulterers, a false account of the death of Orestes by an accident in the Pythian Games shall be given to Clytemnestra; and Orestes and Pylades themselves are afterward to be introduced in the character of Phocians, bearing the ashes of the supposed dead. Meanwhile the two friends repair to the sepulchre of Agamemnon to offer libations, etc. Electra then appears, indulges her indignant lamentations at her lot, and consoles herself with the hope of her brother's speedy return.

She is joined by her sister Chrysothemis, who is bearing sepulchral offerings to the tomb of Agamemnon; and in this interview Sophocles, with extraordinary skill and deep knowledge of human nature, contrives to excite our admiration and sympathy for the vehement Electra by contrasting her with the weak and selfish Chrysothemis. Her very bitterness against her mother is made to assume the guise of a solemn duty to her father. Her unfeminine qualities rise into courage and magnanimity--she glories in the unkindness and persecution she meets with from Clytemnestra and Aegisthus--they are proofs of her reverence to the dead. Woman as she is, she is yet the daughter of a king--she cannot submit to a usurper--"she will not, add cowardice to misery." Chrysothemis informs Electra that on the return of Aegisthus it is resolved to consign her to a vault "where she may chant her woes unheard." Electra learns the meditated sentence undismayed--she will not moderate her unwelcome wo--"she will not be a traitoress to those she loves." But a dream has appalled Clytemnestra--Agamemnon has appeared to her as in life. In the vision he seemed to her to fix his sceptre on the soil, whence it sprouted up into a tree that overshadowed the whole land. Disquieted and conscience-stricken, she now sends Chrysothemis with libations to appease the manes of the dead. Electra adjures Chrysothemis not to render such expiations to scatter them to the winds or on the dust--to let them not approach the resting-place of the murdered king. Chrysothemis promises to obey the injunction, and departs. A violent and powerful scene between Clytemnestra and Electra ensues, when the attendant enters (as was agreed on) to announce the death of Orestes. In this recital he portrays the ceremony of the Pythian races in lines justly celebrated, and which, as an animated and faithful picture of an exhibition so renowned, the reader may be pleased to see, even in a feeble and cold translation. Orestes had obtained five victories in the first day--in the second he starts with nine competitors in the chariot-race--an Achaean, a Spartan, two Libyans--he himself with Thessalian steeds--a sixth from Aetolia, a Magnesian, an Enian, an Athenian, and a Boeotian complete the number.


"They took their stand where the appointed judges
Had cast their lots, and ranged the rival cars;
Rang out the brazen trump! Away they bound,
Cheer the hot steeds and shake the slackened reins
As with a body the large space is filled
With the huge clangour of the rattling cars:
High whirl aloft the dust-clouds; blent together
Each presses each--and the lash rings--and loud
Snort the wild steeds, and from their fiery breath,
Along their manes and down the circling wheels,
Scatter the flaking foam. Orestes still,
Ay, as he swept around the perilous pillar
Last in the course, wheel'd in the rushing axle,
The left rein curbed--that on the dexter hand
Flung loose. So on erect the chariots rolled!
Sudden the Aenian's fierce and headlong steeds
Broke from the bit--and, as the seventh time now
The course was circled, on the Libyan car
Dash'd their wild fronts: then order changed to ruin:
Car crashed on car--the wide Crissaean plain
Was, sealike, strewn with wrecks: the Athenian saw,
Slackened his speed, and, wheeling round the marge,
Unscathed and skilful, in the midmost space,
Left the wild tumult of that tossing storm.
Behind, Orestes, hitherto the last,
Had yet kept back his coursers for the close;
Now one sole rival left--on, on he flew,
And the sharp sound of the impelling scourge
Rang in the keen ears of the flying steeds.
He nears--he reaches--they are side by side
Now one--the other--by a length the victor.
The courses all are past--the wheels erect
All safe--when as the hurrying coursers round
The fatal pillar dash'd, the wretched boy
Slackened the left rein; on the column's edge
Crash'd the frail axle--headlong from the car,
Caught and all meshed within the reins he fell;
And masterless, the mad steeds raged along!

Loud from that mighty multitude arose
A shriek--a shout! But yesterday such deeds
To-day such doom! Now whirled upon the earth,
Now his limbs dash'd aloft, they dragged him--those
Wild horses--till all gory from the wheels
Released--and no man, not his nearest friends,
Could in that mangled corpse have traced Orestes.
They laid the body on the funeral pyre,
And while we speak, the Phocian strangers bear,
In a small, brazen, melancholy urn,
That handful of cold ashes to which all
The grandeur of the beautiful hath shrunk.
Hither they bear him--in his father's land
To find that heritage--a tomb!"


It is much to be regretted that this passage, so fine in the original, is liable to one great objection--it has no interest as connected with the play, because the audience know that Orestes is not dead; and though the description of the race retains its animation, the report of the catastrophe loses the terror of reality, and appears but a highly-coloured and elaborate falsehood.

The reader will conceive the lamentations of Electra and the fearful joy of Clytemnestra at a narrative by which the one appears to lose a brother and a friend--the other a son and an avenging foe.

Chrysothemis joyfully returns to announce, that by the tomb of Agamemnon she discovers a lock of hair; libations yet moisten the summit of the mound, and flowers of every hue are scattered over the grave. "These," she thinks, "are signs that Orestes is returned." Electra, informing her of the fatal news, proposes that they, women as they are, shall attempt the terrible revenge which their brother can no longer execute. When Chrysothemis recoils and refuses, Electra still nurses the fell design. The poet has more than once, and now again with judgment, made us sensible of the mature years of Electra (364); she is no passionate, wavering, and inexperienced girl, but the eldest born of the house; the guardian of the childhood of its male heir; unwedded and unloving, no soft matron cares, no tender maiden affections, have unbent the nerves of her stern, fiery, and concentrated soul. Year after year has rolled on to sharpen her hatred--to disgust her with the present--to root her to one bloody memory of the past--to sour and freeze up the gentle thoughts of womanhood--to unsex


"And fill her from the crown to the toe, topful
Of direst cruelty--make thick her blood
Stop up the access and passage to remorse," (365)


and fit her for one crowning deed, for which alone the daughter of the king of men lives on.

At length the pretended Phocians enter, bearing the supposed ashes of Orestes; the chief of the train addresses himself to Electra, and this is the most dramatic and touching scene in the whole tragedy. When the urn containing, as she believes, the dust of her brother, is placed in the hands of Electra, we can well overleap time and space, and see before us the great actor who brought the relics of his own son upon the stage, and shed no mimic sorrows (366)--we can well picture the emotions that circle round the vast audience--pity itself being mingled with the consciousness to which the audience alone are admitted, that lamentation will soon be replaced by joy, and that the living Orestes is before his sister. It is by a most subtle and delicate art that Sophocles permits this struggle between present pain and anticipated pleasure, and carries on the passion of the spectators to wait breathlessly the moment when Orestes shall be discovered. We now perceive why the poet at once, in the opening of the play, announced to us the existence and return of Orestes--why he disdained the vulgar source of interest, the gross suspense we should have felt, if we had shared the ignorance of Electra, and not been admitted to the secret we impatiently long to be communicated to her. In this scene, our superiority to Electra, in the knowledge we possess, refines and softens our compassion, blending it with hope. And most beautifully here does Sophocles remove far from us the thought of the hard hatred that hitherto animates the mourner--the strong, proud spirit is melted away--the woman and the sister alone appear. He whom she had loved more dearly than a mother--whom she had nursed, and saved, and prayed for, is "a nothing" in her hands; and the last rites it had not been hers to pay. He had been

"By strangers honoured and by strangers mourned."

All things had vanished with him--"vanished in a day"--"vanished as by a hurricane"--she is left with her foes alone. "Admit me" (she cries), "to thy refuge--make room for me in thy home."

In these lamentations, the cold, classic drama seems to warm into actual life. Art, exquisite because invisible, unites us at once with imperishable nature--we are no longer delighted with Poetry--we are weeping with Truth.

At length Orestes reveals himself, and now the plot draws to its catastrophe. Clytemnestra is alone in her house, preparing a caldron for the burial; Electra and the chorus are on the stage; the son--the avenger, is within; suddenly the cries of Clytemnestra are heard. Again--again! Orestes re-enters a parricide! (367) He retires as Aegisthus is seen approaching; and the adulterous usurper is now presented to us for the first and last time--the crowning victim of the sacrifice. He comes flushed with joy and triumph. He has heard that the dreaded Orestes is no more. Electra entertains him a few moments with words darkly and exultingly ambiguous. He orders the doors to be thrown open, that all Argos and Mycenae may see the remains of his sole rival for the throne. The scene opens. On the threshold (where, with the Greeks, the corpse of the dead was usually set out to view) lies a body covered with a veil or pall. Orestes (the supposed Phocian) stands beside.


"Aegisthus. Great Jove! a grateful spectacle!--if thus
May it be said unsinning; yet if she,
The awful Nemesis, be nigh and hear,
I do recall the sentence! Raise the pall.
The dead was kindred to me, and shall know
A kinsman's sorrow.
Orestes. Lift thyself the pall;
Not mine, but thine, the office to survey
That which lies mute beneath, and to salute,
Lovingly sad, the dead one.
Aegisthus. Be it so--
It is well said. Go thou and call the queen:
Is she within?
Orestes. Look not around for her--
She is beside thee!"


Aegisthus lifts the pall, and beholds the body of Clytemnestra! He knows his fate at once. He knows that Orestes is before him. He attempts to speak. The fierce Electra cuts him short, and Orestes, with stern solemnity, conducts him from the stage to the spot on which Aegisthus had slain Agamemnon, so that the murderer might die by the son's hand in the place where the father fell. Thus artistically is the catastrophe not lessened in effect, but heightened, by removing the deed of death from the scene--the poetical justice, in the calm and premeditated selection of the place of slaughter, elevates what on the modern stage would be but a spectacle of physical horror into the deeper terror and sublimer gloom of a moral awe; and vindictive murder, losing its aspect, is idealized and hallowed into religious sacrifice.

IX. Of the seven plays left to us, "The Trachiniae" is usually considered the least imbued with the genius of Sophocles; and Schlegel has even ventured on the conjecture, singularly destitute of even plausible testimony, that Sophocles himself may not be the author. The plot is soon told. The play is opened by Deianira, the wife of Hercules, who indulges in melancholy reflections on the misfortunes of her youth, and the continual absence of her husband, of whom no tidings have been heard for months. She soon learns from her son, Hyllus, that Hercules is said to be leading an expedition into Euboea; and our interest is immediately excited by Deianira's reply, which informs us that oracles had foretold that this was to be the crisis (368) in the life of Hercules--that he was now to enjoy rest from his labours, either in a peaceful home or in the grave; and she sends Hyllus to join his father, share his enterprise and fate. The chorus touchingly paint the anxious love of Deianira in the following lines:


"Thou, whom the starry-spangled Night did lull
Into the sleep from which--her journey done
Her parting steps awake thee--beautiful
Fountain of flame, oh Sun!
Say, on what seagirt strand, or inland shore
(For earth is bared before thy solemn gaze),
In orient Asia, or where milder rays
Tremble on western waters, wandereth he
Whom bright Alcmena bore?
Ah! as some bird within a lonely nest
The desolate wife puts sleep away with tears;
And ever ills to be
Haunting the absence with dim hosts of fears,
Fond fancy shapes from air dark prophets of the breast."


In her answer to the virgin chorus, Deianira weaves a beautiful picture of maiden youth as a contrast to the cares and anxieties of wedded life:


"Youth pastures in a valley of its own;
The scorching sun, the rains and winds of Heaven,
Mar not the calm--yet virgin of all care;
But ever with sweet joys it buildeth up
The airy halls of life."


Deianira afterward receives fresh news of Hercules. She gives way to her joy. Lichas, the herald, enters, and confides to her charge some maidens whom the hero had captured. Deianira is struck with compassion for their lot, and with admiration of the noble bearing of one of them, Iole. She is about to busy herself in preparation for their comfort, when she learns that Iole is her rival--the beloved mistress of Hercules. The jealousy evinced by Deianira is beautifully soft and womanly (369). Even in uttering a reproach on Hercules, she says she cannot feel anger with him, yet how can she dwell in the same house with a younger and fairer rival;


"She in whose years the flower that fades in mine
Opens the leaves of beauty."


Her affection, her desire to retain the love of the hero, suggests to her remembrance a gift she had once received from a centaur who had fallen by the shaft of Hercules. The centaur had assured her that the blood from his wound, if preserved, would exercise the charm of a filter over the heart of Hercules, and would ever recall and fix upon her his affection. She had preserved the supposed charm--she steeps with it a robe that she purposes to send to Hercules as a gift; but Deianira, in this fatal resolve, shows all the timidity and sweetness of her nature; she even questions if it be a crime to regain the heart of her husband; she consults the chorus, who advise the experiment (and here, it may be observed, that this is skilfully done, for it conveys the excuse of Deianira, the chorus being, as it were, the representative of the audience). Accordingly, she sends the garment by Lichas. Scarce has the herald gone, ere Deianira is terrified by a strange phenomenon: a part of the wool with which the supposed filter had been applied to the garment was thrown into the sunlight, upon which it withered away--"crumbling like sawdust"--while on the spot where it fell a sort of venomous foam froths up. While relating this phenomenon to the chorus, her son, Hyllus, returns (370), and relates the agonies of his father under the poisoned garment: he had indued the robe on the occasion of solemn sacrifice, and all was rejoicing, when,


"As from the sacred offering and the pile
The flame broke forth,"


the poison began to work, the tunic clung to the limbs of the hero, glued as if by the artificer, and, in his agony and madness, Hercules dashes Lichas, who brought him the fatal gift, down the rock, and is now on his way home. On hearing these news and the reproaches of her son, Deianira steals silently away, and destroys herself upon the bridal-bed. The remainder of the play is very feeble. Hercules is represented in his anguish, which is but the mere raving of physical pain; and after enjoining his son to marry Iole (the innocent cause of his own sufferings), and to place him yet living upon his funeral pyre, the play ends.

The beauty of the "Trachiniae" is in detached passages, in some exquisite bursts by the chorus, and in the character of Deianira, whose artifice to regain the love of her consort, unhappily as it terminates, is redeemed by a meekness of nature, a delicacy of sentiment, and an anxious, earnest, unreproachful devotion of conjugal love, which might alone suffice to show the absurdity of modern declamations on the debasement of women, and the absence of pure and true love in that land from which Sophocles drew his experience.

X. The "Ajax" is far superior to the "Trachiniae." The subject is one that none but a Greek poet could have thought of or a Greek audience have admired. The master-passion of a Greek was emulation-- the subject of the "Ajax" is emulation defeated. He has lost to Ulysses the prize of the arms of Achilles, and the shame of being vanquished has deprived him of his senses.

In the fury of madness he sallies from his tent at night--slaughters the flocks, in which his insanity sees the Greeks, whose award has galled and humbled him--and supposes he has slain the Atridae and captured Ulysses. It is in this play that Sophocles has, to a certain extent, attempted that most effective of all combinations in the hands of a master--the combination of the ludicrous and the terrible (371): as the chorus implies, "it is to laugh and to weep." But when the scene, opening, discovers Ajax sitting amid the slaughtered victims-- when that haughty hero awakens from his delirium--when he is aware that he has exposed himself to the mockery and derision of his foes-- the effect is almost too painful even for tragedy. In contrast to Ajax is the soothing and tender Tecmessa. The women of Sophocles are, indeed, gifted with an astonishing mixture of majesty and sweetness. After a very pathetic farewell with his young son, Ajax affects to be reconciled to his lot, disguises the resolution he has formed, and by one of those artful transitions of emotion which at once vary and heighten interest on the stage, the chorus, before lamenting, bursts into a strain of congratulation and joy. The heavy affliction has passed away--Ajax is restored. The Nuntius arrives from the camp. Calchas, the soothsayer, has besought Teucer, the hero's brother, not to permit Ajax to quit his tent that day, for on that day only Minerva persecutes him; and if he survive it, he may yet be preserved and prosper. But Ajax has already wandered away, none know whither. Tecmessa hastens in search of him, and, by a very rare departure from the customs of the Greek stage, the chorus follow.

Ajax appears again. His passions are now calm and concentrated, but they lead him on to death. He has been shamed, dishonoured--he has made himself a mockery to his foes. Nobly to live or nobly to die is the sole choice of a brave man. It is characteristic of the Greek temperament, that the personages of the Greek poetry ever bid a last lingering and half-reluctant farewell to the sun. There is a magnificent fulness of life in those children of the beautiful West; the sun is to them as a familiar friend--the affliction or the terror of Hades is in the thought that its fields are sunless. The orb which animated their temperate heaven, which ripened their fertile earth, in which they saw the type of eternal youth, of surpassing beauty, of incarnate poetry--human in its associations, and yet divine in its nature--is equally beloved and equally to be mourned by the maiden tenderness of Antigone or the sullen majesty of Ajax. In a Chaldaean poem the hero would have bid farewell to the stars!

It is thus that Ajax concludes his celebrated soliloquy.


"And thou that mak'st high heaven thy chariot-course,
Oh sun--when gazing on my father-land,
Draw back thy golden rein, and tell my woes
To the old man, my father--and to her
Who nursed me at her bosom--my poor mother!
There will be wailing through the echoing walls
When--but away with thoughts like these!--the hour
Brings on the ripening deed. Death, death, look on me!
Did I say death?--it was a waste of words;
We shall be friends hereafter.
'Tis the DAY,
Present and breathing round me, and the car
Of the sweet sun, that never shall again
Receive my greeting!--henceforth time is sunless,
And day a thing that is not! Beautiful light,
My Salamis--my country--and the floor
Of my dear household hearth--and thou, bright Athens,
Thou--for thy sons and I were boys together--
Fountains and rivers, and ye Trojan plains,
I loved ye as my fosterers--fare ye well!
Take in these words, the last earth hears from Ajax--
All else unspoken, in a spectre land
I'll whisper to the dead!"


Ajax perishes on his sword--but the interest of the play survives him. For with the Greeks, burial rather than death made the great close of life. Teucer is introduced to us; the protector of the hero's remains and his character, at once fierce and tender, is a sketch of extraordinary power. Agamemnon, on the contrary--also not presented to us till after the death of Ajax--is but a boisterous tyrant (372). Finally, by the generous intercession of Ulysses, who redeems his character from the unfavourable conception we formed of him at the commencement of the play, the funeral rites are accorded, and a didactic and solemn moral from the chorus concludes the whole.

XI. The "Philoctetes" has always been ranked by critics among the most elaborate and polished of the tragedies of Sophocles. In some respects it deserves the eulogies bestowed on it. But one great fault in the conception will, I think, be apparent on the simple statement of the plot.

Philoctetes, the friend and armour-bearer of Hercules, and the heir of that hero's unerring shafts and bow, had, while the Grecian fleet anchored at Chryse (a small isle in the Aegaean), been bitten in the foot by a serpent; the pain of the wound was insufferable--the shrieks and groans of Philoctetes disturbed the libations and sacrifices of the Greeks. And Ulysses and Diomed, when the fleet proceeded, left him, while asleep, on the wild and rocky solitudes of Lemnos. There, till the tenth year of the Trojan siege, he dragged out an agonizing life. The soothsayer, Helenus, then declared that Troy could not fall till Philoctetes appeared in the Grecian camp with the arrows and bow of Hercules. Ulysses undertakes to effect this object, and, with Neoptolemus (son of Achilles), departs for Lemnos. Here the play opens. A wild and desolate shore--a cavern with two mouths (so that in winter there might be a double place to catch the sunshine, and in summer a twofold entrance for the breeze), and a little fountain of pure water, designate the abode of Philoctetes.

Agreeably to his character, it is by deceit and stratagem that Ulysses is to gain his object. Neoptolemus is to dupe him whom he has never seen with professions of friendship and offers of services, and to snare away the consecrated weapons. Neoptolemus--whose character is a sketch which Shakspeare alone could have bodied out--has all the generous ardour and honesty of youth, but he has also its timid irresolution--its docile submission to the great--its fear of the censure of the world. He recoils from the base task proposed to him; he would prefer violence to fraud; yet he dreads lest, having undertaken the enterprise, his refusal to act should be considered treachery to his coadjutor. It is with a deep and melancholy wisdom that Ulysses, who seems to comtemplate his struggles with compassionate and not displeased superiority, thus attempts to reconcile the young man:


"Son of a noble sire! I too, in youth,
Had thy plain speech and thine impatient arm:
But a stern test is time! I have lived to see
That among men the tools of power and empire
Are subtle words--not deeds."


Neoptolemus is overruled. Ulysses withdraws, Philoctetes appears. The delight of the lonely wretch on hearing his native language; on seeing the son of Achilles--his description of his feelings when he first found himself abandoned in the desert--his relation of the hardships he has since undergone, are highly pathetic. He implores Neoptolemus to bear him away, and when the youth consents, he bursts into an exclamation of joy, which, to the audience, in the secret of the perfidy to be practised on him, must have excited the most lively emotions. The characteristic excellence of Sophocles is, that in his most majestic creations he always contrives to introduce the sweetest touches of humanity.--Philoctetes will not even quit his miserable desert until he has returned to his cave to bid it farewell--to kiss the only shelter that did not deny a refuge to his woes. In the joy of his heart he thinks, poor dupe, that he has found faith in man--in youth. He trusts the arrows and the bow to the hand of Neoptolemus. Then, as he attempts to crawl along, the sharp agony of his wound completely overmasters him. He endeavours in vain to stifle his groans; the body conquers the mind. This seems to me, as I shall presently again observe, the blot of the play; it is a mere exhibition of physical pain. The torture exhausts, till insensibility or sleep comes over him. He lies down to rest, and the young man watches over him. The picture is striking. Neoptolemus, at war with himself, does not seize the occasion. Philoctetes wakes. He is ready to go on board; he implores and urges instant departure. Neoptolemus recoils-- the suspicions of Philoctetes are awakened; he thinks that this stranger, too, will abandon him. At length the young man, by a violent effort, speaks abruptly out, "Thou must sail to Troy--to the Greeks--the Atridae."

"The Greeks--the Atridae!" the betrayers of Philoctetes--those beyond pardon--those whom for ten years he has pursued with the curses of a wronged, and deserted, and solitary spirit. "Give me back," he cries, "my bow and arrows." And when Neoptolemus refuses, he pours forth a torrent of reproach. The son of the truth--telling Achilles can withstand no longer. He is about to restore the weapons, when Ulysses rushes on the stage and prevents him.

At length, the sufferer is to be left--left once more alone in the desert. He cannot go with his betrayers--he cannot give glory and conquest to his inhuman foes; in the wrath of his indignant heart even the desert is sweeter than the Grecian camp. And how is he to sustain himself without his shafts! Famine adds a new horror to his dreary solitude, and the wild beasts may now pierce into his cavern: but their cruelty would be mercy! His contradictory and tempestuous emotions, as the sailors that compose the chorus are about to depart, are thus told.

The chorus entreat him to accompany them.


Phil. Begone.
Chor. It is a friendly bidding--we obey--
Come, let us go. To ship, my comrades.
Phil. No--
No, do not go--by the great Jove, who hears
Men's curses--do not go.
Chor. Be calm.
Phil. Sweet strangers!
In mercy, leave me not.

* * * * * *

Chor. But now you bade us!
Phil. Ay--meet cause for chiding,
That a poor desperate wretch, maddened with pain,
Should talk as madmen do!
Chor. Come, then, with us.
Phil. Never! oh--never! Hear me--not if all
The lightnings of the thunder-god were made
Allies with you, to blast me! Perish Troy,
And all beleaguered round its walls--yea; all
Who had the heart to spurn a wounded wretch;
But, but--nay--yes--one prayer, one boon accord me.
Chor. What wouldst thou have?
Phil. A sword, an axe, a something;
So it can strike, no matter!
Chor. Nay--for what?
Phil. What! for this hand to hew me off this head--
These limbs! To death, to solemn death, at last
My spirit calls me.
Chor. Why?
Phil. To seek my father.
Chor. On earth?
Phil. In Hades.


Having thus worked us up to the utmost point of sympathy with the abandoned Philoctetes, the poet now gradually sheds a gentler and holier light over the intense gloom to which we had been led. Neoptolemus, touched with generous remorse, steals back to give the betrayed warrior his weapons--he is watched by the vigilant Ulysses-- an angry altercation takes place between them. Ulysses, finding he cannot intimidate, prudently avoids personal encounter with the son of Achilles, and departs to apprize the host of the backsliding of his comrade.--A most beautiful scene, in which Neoptolemus restores the weapons to Philoctetes--a scene which must have commanded the most exquisite tears and the most rapturous applauses of the audience, ensues; and, finally, the god so useful to the ancient poets brings all things, contrary to the general rule of Aristotle (373), to a happy close. Hercules appears and induces his former friend to accompany Neoptolemus to the Grecian camp, where his wound shall be healed.. The farewell of Philoctetes to his cavern--to the nymphs of the meadows--to the roar of the ocean, whose spray the south wind dashed through his rude abode--to the Lycian stream and the plain of Lemnos--is left to linger on the ear like a solemn hymn, in which the little that is mournful only heightens the majestic sweetness of all that is musical. The dramatic art in the several scenes of this play Sophocles has never excelled, and scarcely equalled. The contrast of character in Ulysses and Neoptolemus has in it a reality, a human strength and truth, that is more common to the modern than the ancient drama. But still the fault of the story is partly that the plot rests upon a base and ignoble fraud, and principally that our pity is appealed to by the coarse sympathy with physical pain: the rags that covered the sores, the tainted corruption of the ulcers, are brought to bear, not so much on the mind as on the nerves; and when the hero is represented as shrinking with corporeal agony--the blood oozing from his foot, the livid sweat rolling down the brow--we sicken and turn away from the spectacle; we have no longer that pleasure in our own pain which ought to be the characteristic of true tragedy. It is idle to vindicate this error by any dissimilarity between ancient and modern dramatic art. As nature, so art, always has some universal and permanent laws. Longinus rightly considers pathos a part of the sublime, for pity ought to elevate us; but there is nothing to elevate us in the noisome wounds, even of a mythical hero; our human nature is too much forced back into itself--and a proof that in this the ancient art did not differ from the modern, is in the exceeding rarity with which bodily pain is made the instrument of compassion with the Greek tragedians. The Philoctetes and the Hercules are among the exceptions that prove the rule. (374)

XII. Another drawback to our admiration of the Philoctetes is in the comparison it involuntarily courts with the Prometheus of Aeschylus. Both are examples of fortitude under suffering--of the mind's conflict with its fate. In either play a dreary waste, a savage solitude, constitute the scene. But the towering sublimity of the Prometheus dwarfs into littleness every image of hero or demigod with which we contrast it. What are the chorus of mariners, and the astute Ulysses, and the boyish generosity of Neoptolemus--what is the lonely cave on the shores of Lemnos--what the high-hearted old warrior, with his torturing wound and his sacred bow--what are all these to the vast Titan, whom the fiends chain to the rock beneath which roll the rivers of hell, for whom the daughters of Ocean are ministers, to whose primeval birth the gods of Olympus are the upstarts of a day, whose soul is the treasure-house of a secret which threatens the realm of heaven, and for whose unimaginable doom earth reels to its base, all the might of divinity is put forth, and Hades itself trembles as it receives its indomitable and awful guest! Yet, as I have before intimated, it is the very grandeur of Aeschylus that must have made his poems less attractive on the stage than those of the humane and flexible Sophocles. No visible representation can body forth his thoughts--they overpower the imagination, but they do not come home to our household and familiar feelings. In the contrast between the "Philoctetes" and the "Prometheus" is condensed the contrast between Aeschylus and Sophocles. They are both poets of the highest conceivable order; but the one seems almost above appeal to our affections--his tempestuous gloom appals the imagination, the vivid glare of his thoughts pierces the innermost recesses of the intellect, but it is only by accident that he strikes upon the heart. The other, in his grandest flights, remembers that men make his audience, and seems to feel as if art lost the breath of its life when aspiring beyond the atmosphere of human intellect and human passions. The difference between the creations of Aeschylus and Sophocles is like the difference between the Satan of Milton and the Macbeth of Shakspeare. Aeschylus is equally artful with Sophocles--it is the criticism of ignorance that has said otherwise. But there is this wide distinction--Aeschylus is artful as a dramatist to be read, Sophocles as a dramatist to be acted. If we get rid of actors, and stage, and audience, Aeschylus will thrill and move us no less than Sophocles, through a more intellectual if less passionate medium. A poem may be dramatic, yet not theatrical--may have all the effects of the drama in perusal, but by not sufficiently enlisting the skill of the actor--nay, by soaring beyond the highest reach of histrionic capacities, may lose those effects in representation. The storm in "Lear" is a highly dramatic agency when our imagination is left free to conjure up the angry elements,

"Bid the winds blow the earth into the sea,
Or swell the curled waters."

But a storm on the stage, instead of exceeding, so poorly mimics the reality, that it can never realize the effect which the poet designs, and with which the reader is impressed. So is it with supernatural and fanciful creations, especially of the more delicate and subtle kind. The Ariel of the "Tempest," the fairies of the "Midsummer Night's Dream," and the Oceanides of the "Prometheus," are not to be represented by human shapes. We cannot say that they are not dramatic, but they are not theatrical. We can sympathize with the poet, but not with the actor. For the same reason, in a lesser degree, all creations, even of human character, that very highly task the imagination, that lift the reader wholly out of actual experience, and above the common earth, are comparatively feeble when reduced to visible forms. The most metaphysical plays of Shakspeare are the least popular in representation. Thus the very genius of Aeschylus, that kindles us in the closet, must often have militated against him on the stage. But in Sophocles all--even the divinities themselves-- are touched with humanity; they are not too subtle or too lofty to be submitted to mortal gaze. We feel at once that on the stage Sophocles ought to have won the prize from Aeschylus; and, as a proof of this, if we look at the plays of each, we see that scarcely any of the great characters of Aeschylus could have called into sufficient exercise the powers of an actor. Prometheus on his rock, never changing even his position, never absent from the scene, is denied all the relief, the play and mobility, that an actor needs. His earthly representative could be but a grand reciter. In the "Persians," not only the theatrical, but the dramatic effect is wanting--it is splendid poetry put into various mouths, but there is no collision of passions, no surprise, no incident, no plot, no rapid dialogue in which words are but the types of emotions. In the "Suppliants" Garrick could have made nothing of Pelasgus. In the "Seven before Thebes" there are not above twenty or thirty lines in the part of Eteocles in which the art of the actor could greatly assist the genius of the poet. In the' trilogy of the "Agamemnon," the "Choephori," and the "Orestes," written in advanced years, we may trace the contagious innovation of Sophocles; but still, even in these tragedies, there is no part so effective in representation as those afforded by the great characters of Sophocles. In the first play the hypocrisy and power of Clytemnestra would, it is true, have partially required and elicited the talents of the player; but Agamemnon himself is but a thing of pageant, and the splendid bursts of Cassandra might have been effectively uttered by a very inferior histrionic artist. In the second play, in the scene between Orestes and his mother, and in the gathering madness of Orestes, the art of the poet would unquestionably task to the uttermost the skill of the performer. But in the last play (the Furies), perhaps the sublimest poem of the three, which opens so grandly with the parricide at the sanctuary, and the Furies sleeping around him, there is not one scene from the beginning to the end in which an eminent actor could exhibit his genius.

But when we come to the plays of Sophocles, we feel that a new era in the drama is created; we feel that the artist poet has called into full existence the artist actor. His theatrical effects (375) are tangible, actual--could be represented to-morrow in Paris--in London-- everywhere. We find, therefore, that with Sophocles has passed down to posterity the name of the great actor (376) in his principal plays. And I think the English reader, even in the general analysis and occasional translations with which I have ventured to fill so many pages, will perceive that all the exertions of subtle, delicate, and passionate power, even in a modern actor, would be absolutely requisite to do justice to the characters of Oedipus at Coloneus, Antigone, Electra, and Philoctetes.

This, then, was the distinction between Aeschylus and Sophocles--both were artists, as genius always must be, but the art of the latter adapts itself better to representation. And this distinction in art was not caused merely by precedence in time. Had Aeschylus followed Sophocles, it would equally have existed--it was the natural consequence of the distinctions in their genius--the one more sublime, the other more impassioned--the one exalting the imagination, the other appealing to the heart. Aeschylus is the Michael Angelo of the drama, Sophocles the Raffaele.

XIII. Thus have I presented to the general reader the outline of all the tragedies of Sophocles. In the great length at which I have entered in this, not the least difficult, part of my general task, I have widely innovated on the plan pursued by the writers of Grecian history. For this innovation I offer no excuse. It is her poetry at the period we now examine, as her philosophy in a later time, that makes the individuality of Athens. In Sophocles we behold the age of Pericles. The wars of that brilliant day were as pastimes to the mighty carnage of oriental or northern battle. The reduction of a single town, which, in our time, that has no Sophocles and no Pericles, a captain of artillery would demolish in a week, was the proudest exploit of the Olympian of the Agora; a little while, and one defeat wrests the diadem of the seas from the brows of "The Violet Queen;" scanty indeed the ruins that attest the glories of "The Propylaea, the Parthenon, the Porticoes, and the Docks," to which the eloquent orator appealed as the "indestructible possessions" of Athens; along the desolate site of the once tumultuous Agora the peasant drives his oxen--the champion deity (377) of Phidias, whose spectral apparition daunted the barbarian Alaric (378), and the gleam of whose spear gladdened the mariner beneath the heights of Sunium, has vanished from the Acropolis; but, happily, the age of Pericles has its stamp and effigy in an art more imperishable than that of war--in materials more durable than those of bronze and marble, of ivory and gold. In the majestic harmony, the symmetrical grace of Sophocles, we survey the true portraiture of the genius of the times, and the old man of Coloneus still celebrates the name of Athens in a sweeter song than that of the nightingale (379), and melodies that have survived the muses of Cephisus (380). Sophocles was allegorically the prophet when he declared that in the grave of Oedipus was to be found the sacred guardian and the everlasting defence of the city of Theseus.

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