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Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Complete by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Part 11 out of 13

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formerly acted upon in England, to which many political philosophers
now incline, and which is yet adopted in the practice of a great and
enlightened portion of the world, that the members of the legislative
assembly should receive salaries. This principle was now applied in
Athens [294]. But there the people themselves were the legislative
assembly, and thus a principle, perhaps sound in itself, became
vitiated to the absurdity of the people as sovereign paying the people
as legislative. Yet even this might have been necessary to the
preservation of the constitution, as meetings became numerous and
business complicated; for if the people had not been tempted and even
driven to assemble in large masses, the business of the state would
have been jobbed away by active minorities, and the life of a
democracy been lost [295]. The payment was first one obolus--
afterward increased to three. Nor must we suppose, as the ignorance
or effrontery of certain modern historians has strangely asserted,
that in the new system of payments the people were munificent only to
themselves. The senate was paid--the public advocates and orators
were paid--so were the ambassadors, the inspectors of the youths in
the trading schools, the nomothetae or law-commissioners, the
physicians, the singers, even the poets; all the servants of the
different officers received salaries. And now, as is the inevitable
consequence of that civilization in a commercial society which
multiplies and strongly demarcates the divisions of labour, the safety
of the state no longer rested solely upon the unpurchased arms and
hearts of its citizens--but not only were the Athenians themselves who
served as soldiers paid, but foreign mercenaries were engaged--a
measure in consonance with the characteristic policy of Pericles,
which was especially frugal of the lives of the citizens. But
peculiar to the Athenians of all the Grecian states was the humane and
beautiful provision for the poor, commenced under Solon or
Pisistratus. At this happy and brilliant period few were in need of
it--war and disaster, while they increased the number of the
destitute, widened the charity of the state.

XVI. Thus, then, that general system of payment which grew up under
Pericles, and produced many abuses under his successors, was, after
all, but the necessary result of the increased civilization and
opulence of the period. Nor can we wonder that the humbler or the
middle orders, who, from their common stock, lavished generosity upon
genius [296], and alone, of all contemporaneous states, gave relief to
want--who maintained the children of all who died in war--who awarded
remunerations for every service, should have deemed it no grasping
exaction to require for their own attendance on offices forced on them
by the constitution a compensation for the desertion of their private
affairs, little exceeding that which was conferred upon the very
paupers of the state. [297]

XVII. But there was another abuse which sprang out of the wealth of
the people, and that love for spectacles and exhibitions which was
natural to the lively Ionic imagination, and could not but increase as
leisure and refinement became boons extended to the bulk of the
population--an abuse trifling in itself--fatal in the precedent it
set. While the theatre was of wood, free admissions were found to
produce too vast a concourse for the stability of the building; and
once, indeed, the seats gave way. It was, therefore, long before the
present period, deemed advisable to limit the number of the audience
by a small payment of two obols for each seat; and this continued
after a stately edifice of stone replaced the wooden temple of the
earlier drama.

But as riches flowed into the treasury, and as the drama became more
and more the most splendid and popular of the national exhibitions, it
seemed but just to return to the ancient mode of gratuitous
admissions. It was found, however, convenient, partly, perhaps, for
greater order and for the better allotment of the seats--partly, also,
for the payment of several expenses which fell not on the state, but
individuals--and partly, no doubt, to preserve the distinctions
between the citizens and the strangers, to maintain the prices, but to
allow to those whose names were enrolled in the book of the citizens
the admittance money from the public treasury. This fund was called
the THEORICON. But the example once set, Theorica were extended to
other festivals besides those of the drama [298], and finally, under
the plausible and popular pretext of admitting the poorer classes to
those national or religious festivals, from which, as forming the bulk
of the nation, it was against the theory of the constitution to
exclude them, paved the way to lavish distributions of the public
money, which at once tended to exhaust the wealth of the state, and to
render effeminate and frivolous the spirit of the people. But these
abuses were not yet visible: on the contrary, under Pericles, the
results of the Theoricon were highly favourable to the manners and
genius of the people. Art was thus rendered the universal right, and
while refinement of taste became diffused, the patriotism of the
citizens was increased by the consciousness that they were the common
and legitimate arbiters of all which augmented the splendour and
renown of Athens.

Thus, in fact, the after evils that resulted from the more popular
part of the internal policy of Pericles, it was impossible to foresee;
they originated not in a single statement, but in the very nature of
civilization. And as in despotisms, a coarse and sensual luxury, once
established, rots away the vigour and manhood of a conquering people,
so in this intellectual republic it was the luxury of the intellect
which gradually enervated the great spirit of the victor race of
Marathon and Salamis, and called up generations of eloquent talkers
and philosophical dreamers from the earlier age of active freemen,
restless adventurers, and hardy warriors. The spirit of poetry, or
the pampered indulgence of certain faculties to the prejudice of
others, produced in a whole people what it never fails to produce in
the individual: it unfitted them just as they grew up into a manhood
exposed to severer struggles than their youth had undergone--for the
stern and practical demands of life; and suffered the love of the
beautiful to subjugate or soften away the common knowledge of the
useful. Genius itself became a disease, and poetry assisted towards
the euthanasia of the Athenians.

XVIII. As all the measures of Pericles were directed towards
consolidating the Athenian empire, so under his administration was not
omitted the politic expedient of colonization. Of late years, states
having become confirmed and tribes settled, the Grecian migrations
were far less frequent than of old; and one principal cause of
colonization, in the violent feud of parties, and the expulsion of a
considerable number of citizens, arose from the disasters of infant
communities, and was no longer in force under the free but strong
government of Athens. As with the liberties fell the commerce of
Miletus and Ionia, so also another principal source of the old
colonization became comparatively languid and inert. But now, under
the name of Cleruchi [299], a new description of colonists arose--
colonists by whom the mother country not only draughted off a
redundant population, or rid herself of restless adventurers, but
struck the roots of her empire in the various places that came under
her control. In the classic as in the feudal age, conquest gave the
right to the lands of the conquered country. Thus had arisen, and
thus still existed, upon the plundered lands of Laconia, the
commonwealth of Sparta--thus were maintained the wealthy and luxurious
nobles of Thessaly--and thus, in fine, were created all the ancient
Dorian oligarchies. After the return of the Heraclidae, this mode of
consummating conquest fell into disuse, not from any moral conviction
of its injustice, but because the wars between the various states
rarely terminated in victories so complete as to permit the seizure of
the land and the subjugation of the inhabitants. And it must be ever
remembered, that the old Grecian tribes made war to procure a
settlement, and not to increase dominion. The smallness of their
population rendered human life too valuable to risk its waste in the
expeditions that characterized the ambition of the leaders of oriental
hordes. But previous to the Persian wars, the fertile meadows of
Euboea presented to the Athenians a temptation it could scarcely be
expected that victorious neighbours would have the abstinence to
forego; and we have seen that they bestowed the lands of the
Hippobotae on Athenian settlers. These colonists evacuated their
possessions during the Persian war: the Hippobotae returned, and seem
to have held quiet, but probably tributary, possession of their
ancient estates, until after the recent retreat of the Peloponnesians.
Pericles defeated and displaced them; their lands fell once more to
Athenian colonists; and the north of Euboea was protected and
garrisoned by the erection of Oreus, a new town that supplanted the
old Histiaea. Territories in Scyros, Lemnos, and Imbros had been also
bestowed on Athenian settlers during the earlier successes of the
Athenian arms--and the precedent thus set, examples became more
numerous, under the profound and systematic policy of Pericles. This
mode of colonization, besides the ordinary advantages of all
colonization, proffered two peculiar to itself. In the first place,
it supplied the deficiency of land, which was one of the main
inconveniences of Attica, and rewarded the meritorious or appeased the
avaricious citizens, with estates which it did not impoverish the
mother country to grant. 2dly. It secured the conquests of the state
by planting garrisons which it cost little to maintain [300]. Thus
were despatched by Pericles a thousand men to the valuable possessions
in the Chersonese, two hundred and fifty to Andros, five hundred to
Naxos, a thousand to Thrace. At another period, the date of which is
uncertain, but probably shortly subsequent to the truce with the
Peloponnesians, a large fleet, commanded by Pericles, swept the
Euxine, in order to awe and impress the various states and nations
along the adjacent coasts, whether Greek or barbarian, with the
display of the Athenian power; and the city of Sinope, being at that
time divided with contentions for and against its tyrant Timesilaus,
the republican party applied to the head of the Greek democracies for
aid. Lamachus, a warrior to whose gallant name, afterward
distinguished in the Peloponnesian war, Aristophanes has accorded the
equal honour of his ridicule and his praise, was intrusted with
thirteen galleys and a competent force for the expulsion of the tyrant
and his adherents. The object effected, the new government of Sinope
rewarded six hundred Athenians with the freedom of the city and the
estates of the defeated faction.

While thus Athens fixed her footing on remoter lands, gradually her
grasp extended over the more near and necessary demesnes of Euboea,
until the lands of more than two thirds of that island were in the
possession of Athenians [301]. At a later period, new opportunities
gave rise to new cleruchiae. [302]

XIX. Besides these cleruchiae, in the second year of the supreme
administration of Pericles a colony, properly so called, was
established in Western Italy--interesting alike from the great names
of its early adventurers, the beauty of its site, and from the
circumstance of its being, besides that at Amphipolis, the only pure
and legitimate colony [303], in contradistinction to the cleruchiae,
founded by Athens, since her ancient migrations to Ionia and the
Cyclades. Two centuries before, some Achaeans, mingled with
Troezenians, had established, in the fertile garden of Magna Graecia,
the state of Sybaris. Placed between two rivers, the Crathis and the
Sybaris--possessing extraordinary advantages of site and climate, this
celebrated colony rose with unparalleled rapidity to eminence in war
and luxury in peace. So great were its population and resources, that
it is said by Diodorus to have brought at one time three hundred
thousand men into the field--an army which doubled that which all
Greece could assemble at Plataea! The exaggeration is evident; but it
still attests the belief of a populousness and power which must have
rested upon no fabulous foundation. The state of Sybaris had
prospered for a time by the adoption of a principle which is ever apt
to force civilization to premature development, and not unfrequently
to end in the destruction of national character and internal
stability--viz., it opened its arms to strangers of every tribe and
class. Thronged by mercantile adventurers, its trade, like that of
Agrigentum, doubtless derived its sources from the oil and wine which
it poured into the harbours of Africa and Gaul. As with individuals,
so with states, wealth easily obtained is prodigally spent, and the
effeminate and voluptuous ostentation of Sybaris passed into a proverb
more enduring than her prosperity. Her greatness, acquired by a
tempered and active democracy, received a mortal blow by the
usurpation of a tyrant named Telys, who, in 510 B. C., expelled five
hundred of the principal citizens. Croton received the exiles, a war
broke out, and in the same year, or shortly afterward, the
Crotoniates, under Milo, defeated the Sybarites with prodigious
slaughter, and the city was abandoned to pillage, and left desolate
and ruined. Those who survived fled to Laos and Scidrus. Fifty-eight
years afterward, aided by some Thessalians, the exiled Sybarites again
sought possession of their former settlement, but were speedily
expelled by the Crotoniates. It was now that they applied to Sparta
and Athens for assistance. The former state had neither population to
spare, nor commerce to strengthen, nor ambition to gratify, and
rejected the overtures of the Sybarite envoys. But a different
success awaited the exiles at Athens. Their proposition, timed in a
period when it was acceptable to the Athenian policy (B. C. 443), was
enforced by Pericles. Adventurers from all parts of Greece, but
invited especially from the Peloponnesus, swelled the miscellaneous
band: eminent among the rest were Lysias, afterward so celebrated as a
rhetorician [304], and Herodotus, the historian.

As in the political code of Greece the religious character of the
people made a prevailing principle, so in colonization the deity of
the parent state transplanted his worship with his votaries, and the
relation between the new and the old country was expressed and
perpetuated by the touching symbol of taking fire from the Prytaneum
of the native city. A renowned diviner, named Lampon [305], whose
sacred pretensions did not preserve him from the ridicule of the comic
poets [306], accompanied the emigrants (B. C. 440), and an oracle
dictated the site of the new colony near the ancient city, and by the
fountain of Thurium. The Sybarites, with the common vanity of men
whose ancestors have been greater than themselves, increased their
pretensions in proportion as they lost their power; they affected
superiority over their companions, by whose swords alone they again
existed as a people; claimed the exclusive monopoly of the principal
offices of government, and the first choice of lands; and were finally
cut off by the very allies whose aid they had sought, and whose
resentment they provoked. New adventurers from Greece replaced the
Sybarites, and the colonists of Thurium, divided into ten tribes
(four, the representatives of the united Ionians, Euboeans, Islanders,
and Athenians; three of the Peloponnesians; and three of the settlers
from Northern Greece)--retained peaceable possession of their
delightful territory, and harmonized their motley numbers by the
adoption of the enlightened laws and tranquil institutions of
Charondas. Such was the home of Herodotus, the historian.

CHAPTER III.

Revision of the Census.--Samian War.--Sketch of the Rise and Progress
of the Athenian Comedy to the Time of Aristophanes.

I. In proportion as it had become matter of honourable pride and
lucrative advantage to be a citizen of Athens, it was natural that the
laws defining and limiting the freedom of the city should increase in
strictness. Even before the time of Themistocles, those only were
considered legitimate [307] who, on either side, derived parentage
from Athenian citizens. But though illegitimate, they were not
therefore deprived of the rights of citizenship; nor had the stain
upon his birth been a serious obstacle to the career of Themistocles
himself. Under Pericles, the law became more severe, and a decree was
passed (apparently in the earlier period of his rising power), which
excluded from the freedom of the city those whose parents were not
both Athenian. In the very year in which he attained the supreme
administration of affairs, occasion for enforcing the law occurred:
Psammetichus, the pretender to the Egyptian throne, sent a present of
corn to the Athenian people (B. C. 444); the claimants for a share in
the gift underwent the ordeal of scrutiny as to their titles to
citizenship, and no less than five thousand persons were convicted of
having fraudulently foisted themselves into rights which were now
tantamount to property; they were disfranchised [308]; and the whole
list of the free citizens was reduced to little more than fourteen
thousand. [309]

II. While under this brilliant and energetic administration Athens
was daily more and more concentrating on herself the reluctant
admiration and the growing fears of Greece, her policy towards her
dependant allies involved her in a war which ultimately gave, if not a
legal, at least an acknowledged, title to the pretensions she assumed.
Hostilities between the new population of Miletus and the oligarchic
government of Samos had been for some time carried on; the object of
contention was the city of Priene--united, apparently, with rival
claims upon Anaea, a town on the coast opposite Samos. The Milesians,
unsuccessful in the war, applied to Athens for assistance. As the
Samians were among the dependant allies, Pericles, in the name of the
Athenian people, ordered them to refer to Athens the decision of the
dispute; on their refusal an expedition of forty galleys was conducted
against them by Pericles in person. A still more plausible colour
than that of the right of dictation was given to this interference;
for the prayer of the Milesians was backed and sanctioned by many of
the Samians themselves, oppressed by the oligarchic government which
presided over them. A ridiculous assertion was made by the libellers
of the comic drama and the enemies of Pericles, that the war was
undertaken at the instigation of Aspasia, with whom that minister had
formed the closest connexion; but the expedition was the necessary and
unavoidable result of the twofold policy by which the Athenian
government invariably directed its actions; 1st, to enforce the right
of ascendency over its allies; 2dly, to replace oligarchic by
democratic institutions. Nor, on this occasion, could Athens have
remained neutral or supine without materially weakening her hold upon
all the states she aspired at once to democratize and to govern.

III. The fleet arrived at Samos--the oligarchic government was
deposed--one hundred hostages (fifty men--fifty boys) from its
partisans were taken and placed at Lemnos, and a garrison was left to
secure the new constitution of the island. Some of the defeated
faction took refuge on the Asiatic continent--entered into an intrigue
with the Persian Pissuthnes, satrap of Sardis; and having, by
continued correspondence with their friends at Samos, secured
connivance at their attempt, they landed by night at Samos with a
hired force of seven hundred soldiers, and succeeded in mastering the
Athenian garrison, and securing the greater part of the chiefs of the
new administration; while, by a secret and well-contrived plot, they
regained their hostages left at Lemnos. They then openly proclaimed
their independence--restored the oligarchy--and, as a formal proof of
defiance, surrendered to Pissuthnes the Athenians they had captured.
Byzantium hastened to join the revolt. Their alliance with Pissuthnes
procured the Samians the promised aid of a Phoenician fleet, and they
now deemed themselves sufficiently strong to renew their hostilities
with Miletus. Their plans were well laid, and their boldness made a
considerable impression on the states hostile to Athens. Among the
Peloponnesian allies it was debated whether or not, despite the
treaty, the Samians should be assisted: opinions were divided, but
Corinth [310], perhaps, turned the scale, by insisting on the right of
every state to deal with its dependants. Corinth had herself colonies
over which she desired to preserve a dictatorial sway; and she was
disposed to regard the Samian revolution less as the gallantry of
freemen than the enterprise of rebels. It was fortunate, too,
perhaps, for Athens, that the Samian insurgents had sought their ally
in the Persian satrap; nor could the Peloponnesian states at that time
have decorously assisted the Persian against the Athenian arms. But
short time for deliberation was left by a government which procured
for the Athenians the character to be not more quick to contrive than
to execute--to be the only people who could simultaneously project and
acquire--and who even considered a festival but as a day on which some
necessary business could be accomplished [311]. With a fleet of sixty
sail, Pericles made for Samos; some of the vessels were stationed on
the Carian coast to watch the movements of the anticipated Phoenician
re-enforcement; others were despatched to collect aid from Chios and
Lesbos. Meanwhile, though thus reduced to forty-four sail, Pericles,
near a small island called Tragia, engaged the Samian fleet returning
from Miletus, consisting of seventy vessels, and gained a victory.
Then, re-enforced by forty galleys from Athens, and twenty-five from
Lesbos and Chios, he landed on the island, defeated the Samians in a
pitched battle, drove them into their city, invested it with a triple
line of ramparts, and simultaneously blockaded the city by sea. The
besieged were not, however, too discouraged to sally out; and, under
Melissus, who was at once a philosopher and a hero, they even obtained
advantage in a seafight. But these efforts were sufficiently
unimportant to permit Pericles to draw off sixty of his vessels, and
steer along the Carian coast to meet the expected fleet of the
Phoenicians. The besieged did not suffer the opportunity thus
afforded them to escape--they surprised the naval blockading force,
destroyed the guard-ships, and joining battle with the rest of the
fleet, obtained a decisive victory (B. C. 440), which for fourteen
days left them the mastery of the open sea, and enabled them to
introduce supplies.

IV. While lying in wait for the Phoenician squadron, which did not,
however, make its appearance, tidings of the Samian success were
brought to Pericles. He hastened back and renewed the blockade--fresh
forces were sent to his aid--from Athens, forty-eight ships, under
three generals, Thucydides [312], Agnon, and Phormio; followed by
twenty more under Tlepolemus and Anticles, while Chios and Lesbos
supplied an additional squadron of thirty. Still the besieged were
not disheartened; they ventured another engagement, which was but an
ineffectual struggle, and then, shut up within their city, stood a
siege of nine months.

With all the small Greek states it had ever been the policy of
necessity to shun even victories attended with great loss. This
policy was refined by Pericles into a scientific system. In the
present instance, he avoided all assaults which might weaken his
forces, and preferred the loss of time to the loss of life. The
tedious length of the blockade occasioned some murmurs among the
lively and impatient forces he commanded; but he is said to have
diverted the time by the holyday devices, which in the middle ages
often so graced and softened the rugged aspect of war. The army was
divided into eight parts, and by lot it was decided which one of the
eight divisions should, for the time, encounter the fatigues of actual
service; the remaining seven passed the day in sports and feasting
[313]. A concourse of women appear to have found their way to the
encampment [314], and a Samian writer ascribes to their piety or their
gratitude the subsequent erection of a temple to Venus. The siege,
too, gave occasion to Pericles to make experiment of military engines,
which, if invented before, probably now received mechanical
improvement. Although, in the earlier contest, mutual animosities had
been so keen that the prisoners on either side had been contumeliously
branded [315], it was, perhaps, the festive and easy manner in which
the siege was afterward carried on, that, mitigating the bitterness of
prolonged hostilities, served to procure, at last, for the Samians
articles of capitulation more than usually mild. They embraced the
conditions of demolishing their fortifications, delivering up their
ships, and paying by instalments a portion towards the cost of the
siege [316]. Byzantium, which, commanding the entrance of the Euxine,
was a most important possession to the Athenians [317], whether for
ambition or for commerce, at the same time accepted, without
resistance, the terms held out to it, and became once more subject to
the Athenian empire.

V. On his return, Pericles was received with an enthusiasm which
attested the sense entertained of the value of his conquest. He
pronounced upon those who had fallen in the war a funeral oration.
[318] When he descended from the rostrum, the women crowded round and
showered fillets and chaplets on the eloquent victor. Elpinice, the
sister of Cimon, alone shared not the general enthusiasm. "Are these
actions," she said to Pericles, "worthy of chaplets and garlands?
actions purchased by the loss of many gallant citizens--not won
against the Phoenician and the Mede, like those of Cimon, but by the
ruin of a city united with ourselves in amity and origin." The ready
minister replied to the invective of Elpinice by a line from
Archilochus, which, in alluding to the age and coquetry of the lady,
probably answered the oratorical purpose of securing the laugh on his
own side. [319]

While these events confirmed the authority of Athens and the Athenian
government, a power had grown up within the city that assumed a right,
the grave assertion of which without the walls would have been deeply
felt and bitterly resented--a power that sat in severe and derisive
judgment upon Athens herself, her laws, her liberties, her mighty
generals, her learned statesmen, her poets, her sages, and her
arrogant democracy--a power that has come down to foreign nations and
distant ages as armed with irresistible weapons--which now is
permitted to give testimony, not only against individuals, but nations
themselves, but which, in that time, was not more effective in
practical results than at this day a caricature in St. James's-street,
or a squib in a weekly newspaper--a power which exposed to relentless
ridicule, before the most susceptible and numerous tribunal, the
loftiest names in rank, in wisdom, and in genius--and which could not
have deprived a beggar of his obol or a scavenger of his office: THE
POWER OF THE COMIC MUSE.

VI. We have seen that in the early village festivals, out of which
grew the tragedy of Phrynichus and Aeschylus, there were, besides the
Dithyramb and the Satyrs, the Phallic processions, which diversified
the ceremony by the lowest jests mingled with the wildest satire. As
her tragedy had its origin in the Dithyramb--as her satyric after-
piece had its origin in the satyric buffooneries--so out of the
Phallic processions rose the Comedy of Greece (B. C. 562) [320].
Susarion is asserted by some to have been a Megarian by origin; and
while the democracy of Megara was yet in force, he appears to have
roughly shaped the disorderly merriment of the procession into a rude
farce, interspersed with the old choral songs. The close connexion
between Megara and Athens soon served to communicate to the latter the
improvements of Susarion; and these improvements obtained for the
Megarian the title of inventer of comedy, with about the same justice
as a similar degree of art conferred upon the later Thespis the
distinction of the origin of tragedy. The study of Homer's epics had
suggested its true province to tragedy; the study of the Margites,
attributed also to Homer, seems to have defined and enlarged the
domain of comedy. Eleven years after Phrynichus appeared, and just
previous to the first effort of Aeschylus (B. C. 500), Epicharmus, who
appears to have been a native of Cos [321], produced at Syracuse the
earliest symmetrical and systematic form of comic dialogue and fable.
All accounts prove him to have been a man of extraordinary genius, and
of very thoughtful and accomplished mind. Perhaps the loss of his
works is not the least to be lamented of those priceless treasures
which time has destroyed. So uncertain, after all, is the great
tribunal of posterity, which is often as little to be relied upon as
the caprice of the passing day! We have the worthless Electra of
Euripides--we have lost all, save the titles and a few sententious
fragments, of thirty-five comedies of Epicharmus! Yet if Horace
inform us rightly, that the poet of Syracuse was the model of Plautus,
perhaps in the Amphitryon we can trace the vein and genius of the
father of true comedy; and the thoughts and the plot of the lost
Epicharmus may still exist, mutilated and disguised, in the humours of
the greatest comic poet [322] of modern Europe.

VII. It was chiefly from the rich stores of mythology that Epicharmus
drew his fables; but what was sublimity with the tragic poet, was
burlesque with the comic. He parodied the august personages and
venerable adventures of the gods of the Greek Pantheon. By a singular
coincidence, like his contemporary Aeschylus [323], he was a
Pythagorean, and it is wonderful to observe how rapidly and how
powerfully the influence of the mysterious Samian operated on the most
original intellects of the age. The familiar nature of the Hellenic
religion sanctioned, even in the unphilosophical age of Homer, a
treatment of celestial persons that to our modern notions would, at
first glance, evince a disrespect for the religion itself. But
wherever homage to "dead men" be admitted, we may, even in our own
times, find that the most jocular legends are attached to names held
in the most reverential awe. And he who has listened to an Irish or
an Italian Catholic's familiar stories of some favourite saint, may
form an adequate notion of the manner in which a pious Greek could
jest upon Bacchus to-day and sacrifice to Bacchus to-morrow. With his
mythological travesties the Pythagorean mingled, apparently, many
earnest maxims of morality [324], and though not free, in the judgment
of Aristotle, from a vice of style usually common only to ages the
most refined [325]; he was yet proverbial, even in the most polished
period of Grecian letters, for the graces of his diction and the happy
choice of his expressions.

Phormis, a contemporary of Epicharmus, flourished also at Syracuse,
and though sometimes classed with Epicharmus, and selecting his
materials from the same source, his claims to reputation are
immeasurably more equivocal. Dinolochus continued the Sicilian
school, and was a contemporary of the first Athenian comic writer.

VIII. Hence it will be seen that the origin of comedy does not rest
with the Athenians; that Megara, if the birthplace of Susarion, may
fairly claim whatever merit belongs to the first rude improvement, and
that Syracuse is entitled to the higher distinction of raising humour
into art. So far is comedy the offspring of the Dorians--not the
Dorians of a sullen oligarchy, with whom to vary an air of music was a
crime--not the Dorians of Lacedaemon--but of Megara and Syracuse--of
an energetic, though irregular democracy--of a splendid, though
illegitimate monarchy. [326]

But the comedy of Epicharmus was not altogether the old comedy of
Athens. The last, as bequeathed to us by Aristophanes, has features
which bear little family resemblance to the philosophical parodies of
the Pythagorean poet. It does not confine itself to mythological
subjects--it avoids the sententious style--it does not preach, but
ridicule philosophy--it plunges amid the great practical business of
men--it breathes of the Agora and the Piraeus--it is not a laughing
sage, but a bold, boisterous, gigantic demagogue, ever in the thickest
mob of human interests, and wielding all the various humours of a
democracy with a brilliant audacity, and that reckless ease which is
the proof of its astonishing power.

IX. Chionides was the first Athenian comic writer. We find him
before the public three years after the battle of Marathon (B. C.
487), when the final defeat of Hippias confirmed the stability of the
republic; and when the improvements of Aeschylus in tragedy served to
communicate new attractions to the comic stage. Magnes, a writer of
great wit, and long popular, closely followed, and the titles of some
of the plays of these writers confirm the belief that Attic comedy,
from its commencement, took other ground than that occupied by the
mythological burlesques of Epicharmus. So great was the impetus given
to the new art, that a crowd of writers followed simultaneously, whose
very names it is wearisome to mention. Of these the most eminent were
Cratinus and Crates. The earliest _recorded_ play of Cratinus, though
he must have exhibited many before [327], appeared the year prior to
the death of Cimon (the Archilochi, B. C. 448). Plutarch quotes some
lines from this author, which allude to the liberality of Cimon with
something of that patron-loving spirit which was rather the
characteristic of a Roman than an Athenian poet. Though he himself,
despite his age, was proverbially of no very abstemious or decorous
habits, Cratinus was unsparing in his attacks upon others, and
wherever he found or suspected vice, he saw a subject worthy of his
genius. He was admired to late posterity, and by Roman critics, for
the grace and even for the grandeur of his hardy verses; and
Quintilian couples him with Eupolis and Aristophanes as models for the
formation of orators. Crates appeared (B. C. 451) two years before
the first _recorded_ play of Cratinus. He had previously been an
actor, and performed the principal characters in the plays of
Cratinus. Aristophanes bestows on him the rare honour of his praise,
while he sarcastically reminds the Athenian audience of the ill
reception that so ingenious a poet often received at their hands.
Yet, despite the excellence of the earlier comic writers, they had
hitherto at Athens very sparingly adopted the artistical graces of
Epicharmus. Crates, who did not write before the five years' truce
with Sparta, is said by Aristotle not only to have been the first who
abandoned the Iambic form of comedy, but the first Athenian who
invented systematic fable or plot--a strong argument to show how
little the Athenian borrowed from the Sicilian comedy, since, if the
last had been its source of inspiration, the invented stories of
Epicharmus (by half a century the predecessor of Crates) would
naturally have been the most striking improvement to be imitated. The
Athenian comedy did not receive the same distinctions conferred upon
tragedy. So obscure was its rise to its later eminence, that even
Aristotle could not determine when or by whom the various progressive
improvements were made: and, regarded with jealous or indifferent eyes
by the magistrature as an exhibition given by private competitors, nor
calling for the protection of the state, which it often defied, it was
long before its chorus was defrayed at the public cost.

Under Cratinus and Crates [328], however, in the year of the Samian
war, the comic drama assumed a character either so personally
scurrilous, or so politically dangerous, that a decree was passed
interdicting its exhibitions (B. C. 440). The law was repealed
three years afterward (B. C. 437) [329]. Viewing its temporary
enforcement, and the date in which it was passed, it appears highly
probable that the critical events of the Samian expedition may have
been the cause of the decree. At such a time the opposition of the
comic writers might have been considered dangerous. With the
increased stability of the state, the law was, perhaps, deemed no
longer necessary. And from the recommencement of the comic drama, we
may probably date both the improvements of Crates and the special
protection of the state; for when, for the first time, Comedy was
formally authorized by the law, it was natural that the law should
recognise the privileges it claimed in common with its sister Tragedy.
There is no authority for supposing that Pericles, whose calm temper
and long novitiate in the stormy career of public life seem to have
rendered him callous to public abuse, was the author of this decree.
It is highly probable, indeed, that he was absent at the siege of
Samos [330] when it was passed; but he was the object of such virulent
attacks by the comic poets that we might consider them actuated by
some personal feeling of revenge and spleen, were it not evident that
Cratinus at least (and probably Crates, his disciple) was attached to
the memory of Cimon, and could not fail to be hostile to the
principles and government of Cimon's successor. So far at this period
had comedy advanced; but, in the background, obscure and undreamed of,
was one, yet in childhood, destined to raise the comic to the rank of
the tragic muse; one who, perhaps, from his earliest youth, was
incited by the noisy fame of his predecessors, and the desire of that
glorious, but often perverted power, so palpable and so exultant,
which rides the stormy waves of popular applause [331]. About
thirteen years after the brief prohibition of comedy appeared that
wonderful genius, the elements and attributes of whose works it will
be a pleasing, if arduous task, in due season, to analyze and define;
matchless alike in delicacy and strength, in powers the most gigantic,
in purpose the most daring--with the invention of Shakspeare--the
playfulness of Rabelais--the malignity of Swift--need I add the name
of Aristophanes?

X. But while comedy had thus progressed to its first invidious
dignity, that of proscription, far different was the reward that
awaited the present representative and master of the tragic school.
In the year that the muse of Cratinus was silenced, Sophocles was
appointed one of the colleagues with Pericles in the Samian war.

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.

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