Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sophocles (c. 496–406 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Pentland Mahaffy (1839–1919)
IF the reader should remark with surprise that I do not introduce this study with an account of the parentage, family circumstances, and descendants of so great a figure in the history of art, he will be led to consider a very interesting feature,—not unique, but very characteristic of Sophocles and his age. I do not feel bound to give the reader any idle details about him, such as the record of an obscure father or an equally obscure son,—of no use except to burden the memory with useless names, unless it be to remind us that the gift of genius is isolated and not an affair of heredity. We have not yet extorted from Nature the method, far less the secret, of its production. But were I disposed to gather all the gossip about the poet, and write a chronicle of his life such as the idler and the scandal-monger think so interesting, there are no materials extant; nor were they extant even in the generations that followed close upon his death. Living in a brilliant age,—the contemporary and probably the companion of splendid intellects in sciences, arts, politics,—he lived a life, like our own Shakespeare, only surprising us from its utter want of social importance or of social interest. If he performed public duties, it was done without exciting any comment; if he was the intimate of great men, it was as a jovial associate, not as a strong and leading personality. If he had no enemies, he probably owed it to a want of interest in aught beyond his art; if he was the favorite of the Attic theatre, he was certainly not its idol, for some of his finest works were defeated in competition with those of far inferior poets. If the fable that his ungrateful children tried to oust him from the management of his property on the ground of decrepitude have any truth to tell us, it is that he showed that indolence in practical affairs which has often kept even the most exalted genius from gaining any importance in public life.  1
  Thus Sophocles lives for us only in his works, as Shakespeare does; and very possibly it is for this very reason that both are to us the most faithful mirrors of all that was greatest and unique in their splendid epochs. The life of Sophocles was exactly conterminous with the great Athenian empire; an infant at its dawn with the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), he passed away full of years, in time to escape the downfall of his country at Ægospotami (405 B.C.). His maturity was the maturity of the most brilliant society the world has yet seen. In the Athens where he lived all his life, and where his handsome figure was familiar to every citizen, he was either the intimate or the acquaintance of Pericles, of Phidias, of Herodotus, of Thucydides, of Socrates, of Anaxagoras, of Ictinus, of Mnesicles, representing politics, history, philosophy, architecture. His rivals in the drama were Æschylus and Euripides. Nor may we doubt that among the crowd of artists, orators, men of letters of less note in our scanty annals of that day, there were many not less able and stimulating in their conversation than those who perhaps talked little because they were working for posterity. Socrates, the greatest talker of them all, left no written record behind him. Those that wrote great books or accomplished great works of art—men like Sophocles—left no personal opinions, no evidence of their private life, to posterity. Of Pericles we know hardly anything but his public acts; and were it not for Plutarch’s ‘Life,’ which gathered what could be found of tradition and of anecdote after four centuries had passed away, we should know nothing but these acts. Of Phidias and Polycletus the sculptors, of Ictinus the designer and builder of the Parthenon, of Æschylus and Euripides the great rival dramatists, we know but snatches of idle gossip, or the inventions of disappointed anecdotists. All these personages are, however, the constituents of the Periclean age; they are absorbed into its splendid life. As every citizen is exhorted in the Thucydidean paraphrases of Pericles’s eloquence, it is the greatness and the glory of Athens which makes the greatness and the happiness of all her citizens. Private affairs at such an epoch sink into utter insignificance. Each man is valued for his contribution to the public life of the city; and therefore each great artist of that day, whatever the species of his art, strives mainly to express Attic purity, Attic grace, Attic power.  2
  In the case of no member of that matchless company is this so true as in the case of Sophocles; his whole genius is essentially Attic, and even Attic of that special generation, both in its perfection and in its limitation. Never was such perfection attained, nor is it attainable, without many limitations. Sophocles, for example, is smaller than Æschylus, whose colossal conceptions outstrip the Greek horizon, and combine Hellenic force and beauty with Semitic gloom and grandeur. Sophocles is narrower than Euripides, who embraced every human sympathy in his pictures of life. But this life is often too poor and mean—even as the ideas of Æschylus are too vague, and his language too pompous—for the perfect bloom of the Attic stage. Critics ancient and modern are agreed that the intermediate attitude of Sophocles—not only in his person, but in his art—attained that highest perfection, which lasts but a moment and is marred by the smallest change. They will not allow any imperfection in the poet, the most modest right of criticism in his exponent. We have nothing but a chorus of praise. But this is no intelligent appreciation. Let us rather seek to question him as men, than to run after him like wondering children.  3
  We have only seven plays extant from the large number that he wrote. In those days a tragic poet, himself an actor, devoted his life to the drama; and apparently competed at least every second year in the trial of new tragedies. So far as we know, only three poets were admitted to each contest; but as each of them then put a group of three plays and an afterpiece upon the stage, the labor of so doing at frequent intervals must have been very arduous. (We have only one specimen of a whole group of three preserved, and that is by Æschylus. In all the rest the leading favorite play of a group has been preserved by the reading public. We are told that Sophocles so loosened the connection in his group that each play could stand by itself.) It is well, however, to observe in limitation of our estimate that each play was shorter than the average of our five-act dramas: the extant trilogy of Æschylus is not as long as the single play of ‘Hamlet.’ But if the alleged number of his tragedies—seventy, with eighteen satiric afterpieces—be correct, no great poet ever bequeathed a larger heritage to posterity. Yet perhaps the small remnant which has escaped the shipwreck of time has maintained his reputation as well as if the whole treasure had come down to us. In our own literature, Gray and Coleridge take their high rank in spite of the scantiness of their works; among the Greeks, we even recognize the greatness of Sappho in the few quotations from her lyrics that have survived. It cannot, therefore, be maintained that we have no sufficient means of judging Sophocles; very possibly a larger bequest might have disclosed to us works weaker and less characteristic than those now before us, of which several were noted in antiquity as among his noblest efforts. The first and last in order, both of which obtained the first prize,—the ‘Antigone’ and the ‘Philoctetes,’—are not superior to the rest. But even the former, brought out in 440 B.C., and numbered by the critics as his Opus 32, was the play of no youngster; for he had defeated the older master Æschylus twenty-eight years before. This was the celebrated occasion when Cimon and his victorious colleagues, just returned from their campaigns, were appointed judges by the acclamation of the people, instead of holding the usual selection by lot. The production of thirty-two plays in twenty-eight years gives us indeed cause to wonder at the poet’s fertility. But as it was the common remark of those who admired the matchless Parthenon and Propylæa, that their everlasting perfection was in no way impaired by the extraordinary rapidity of their construction, so the poets working during the very same epoch seemed to rival the architects not only in grace and strength, but in the rapid strides of their work. Nor is this quickness of production uncommon in other great moments of art. Molière could write a play in a fortnight. Händel wrote the ‘Messiah’ in twenty-one days.  4
  Let us now turn to the plays in order, and learn from them the causes of the poet’s great and permanent success in the world of letters. For even in modern times, the admiration and the imitation of him have not ceased. The ‘Antigone’ was not one of a trilogy or connected group of three plays; nor has the poet’s treatment of his heroine anything to say to his treatment of the same personage in his subsequent plays (on Œdipus) in which she appears. As soon as Sophocles adopted the practice of competing with isolated plays, he assumed the further liberty of handling the same personage quite differently in different plays. This apparent inconsistency was due to the fact that the ancients, unlike the moderns, had no unlimited field of subjects; but were restricted by the conditions of their art to a small number of legends, wherein the same heroes and heroines constantly reappeared. They therefore avoided the consequent monotony by varying the character to suit the circumstances of each play. The Antigone of the play before us is not the Antigone of the ‘Œdipus at Colonus.’  5
  The plot is very simple, and was not in any sense novel. It is completely sketched in the last seventy lines of the ‘Seven Against Thebes’ of Æschylus. Polynices, slain in his unnatural invasion of his fatherland,—and what was worse, in single combat with his own brother,—is refused burial by the new head of the State, Creon. Æschylus represents a herald as announcing this decision, at which Antigone at once rebels, while her weaker sister submits. The chorus, dividing, take sides with both; and show the conflict between the sacred claims of family affection and the social claims of the State, demanding obedience to a decree not unreasonable and issued by recognized authority. But Æschylus gives us no solution. This is the problem taken up by Sophocles, and treated with special reference to the character of Antigone. He greatly simplifies his problem; for he allows but little force to the arguments for punishing with posthumous disgrace the criminal Polynices,—the parricide, as the Greeks would call him, of his fatherland.  6
  The tyrant Creon, indeed, talks well of obedience as the first condition of public safety:—

    Creon—But praise from me that man shall never have
Who either boldly thrusts aside the law,
Or takes upon him to instruct his rulers,—
Whom, by the State empowered, he should obey
In little and in much, in right and wrong.
The worst of evils is to disobey.
Cities by this are ruined, homes of men
Made desolate by this; this in the battle
Breaks into headlong rout the wavering line;
The steadfast ranks, the many lives unhurt,
Are to obedience due. We must defend
The government and order of the State,
And not be governed by a willful girl.
We’ll yield our place up, if we must, to men:
To women that we stooped, shall not be said.
  (I quote uniformly throughout this essay from the version of Mr. Whitelaw,—London, 1883,—which upon careful examination appears to me very much the best attempt yet made at the well-nigh hopeless problem of rendering the beauties of Sophocles in English.)  8
  But Creon’s rigid ordinance carries no weight with it; and obedience is only a matter of acquiescence in the minds of the vulgar and the mean, as the chorus is represented. Antigone is accordingly sustained throughout by a clear consciousness that she is absolutely right: the whole sympathy of the spectator is with her, and the play is only of interest in bringing out her character in strong relief. This is splendidly expressed in her answer to Creon, when she is brought in prisoner by a craven guard, who has surprised her in performing the funeral rites over her brother:—

    Creon—Speak thou, who bendest on the earth thy gaze,—
Are these things which are witnessed true or false?
  Antigone—Not false, but true: that which he saw, he speaks.
  Creon  [to the guard]—So, sirrah, thou art free: go where thou wilt,
Loosed from the burden of this heavy charge.
But tell me thou,—and let thy speech be brief,—
The edict hadst thou heard which this forbade?
  Antigone—I could not choose but hear what all men heard.
  Creon—And didst thou dare to disobey the law?
  Antigone—Nowise from Zeus, methought, this edict came,
Nor Justice, that abides among the gods
In Hades, who ordained these laws for men.
Nor did I deem thine edicts of such force
That they, a mortal’s bidding, should o’erride
Unwritten laws, eternal in the heavens.
Not of to-day or yesterday are these;
But live from everlasting, and from whence
They sprang none knoweth. I would not, for the breach
Of these, through fear of any human pride,
To Heaven atone. I knew that I must die:
How else? without thine edict that were so;
And if before my time,—why, this were gain,
Compassed about with ills;—who lives as I,
Death to such life as his must needs be gain.
So is it to me to undergo this doom
No grief at all: but had I left my brother,
My mother’s child, unburied where he lay,
Then I had grieved; but now this grieves me not.
Senseless I seem to thee, so doing? Belike
A senseless judgment finds me void of sense.
  But as she consciously faces death for an idea, she may rather be enrolled in the noble army of martyrs who suffer in the broad daylight of clear conviction, than among the more deeply tried, like Orestes and Hamlet, who in doubt and darkness have striven to feel out a great mystery, and in their very failure have “purified the terror and the pity,” as Aristotle puts it, of awe-struck humanity. A martyr for a great and recognized truth, for the laws of God against the laws of man, is not the most perfect central figure for a tragedy in the highest Greek sense. Hence I regard myself justified in calling this famous play rather an exquisite dramatic poem than a very great tragedy. With consummate art, the poet makes Antigone a somewhat harsh character. She stands up before Creon; she answers his threats with bold contumacy.
  “How in the child the sternness of the sire
Shows stern, before the storm untaught to bend!”
She even despises and casts aside her more feminine sister Ismene,—who at first counseled submission, but who stands nobly by Antigone when her trial before Creon comes, and is ready to go to death for a breach of the law which she had not committed; but Antigone will have neither her companionship nor her sympathy. The fatal effects of the ancestral curse on the house of Œdipus are indeed often mentioned, and would be, to a Greek audience, a quite sufficient cause for the misfortunes of Antigone; but her character, together with that of the weak and misguided figures around her, make the plot quite independent of this deeper mystery,—the hereditary nature not only of sin and crime, but of suffering.
  Thus she stands alone, amid the weak and selfish. The very watchman who comes with the news of her capture as she was tending the outcast corpse is so cowardly in his views and so homely in his language as to afford a contrast to the high tragic vein such as we meet in Shakespeare, but what the more ceremonious tragedy of the French would avoid as unseemly.  11
  The intention of the poet to isolate Antigone in her conflict with the ruler of the State is most strongly marked in his treatment of Hæmon, Creon’s son, who is betrothed to the princess. How can a heroine be isolated when she has the support of her lover? This is indeed the point in which the tragedy of Sophocles is most to be contrasted with any conceivable modern treatment of the subject; even, so far as we can tell from scanty allusions, contrasted with its treatment by his younger rival Euripides. Hæmon does indeed come upon the stage to plead for Antigone, but wholly upon public grounds: that her violation of Creon’s edict has the sympathy of the public, and will bring the tyrant into disrepute and danger. But though his father taunts him with having personal interests behind his arguments, and though the chorus, when he rushes away to his suicide, indicate very plainly that love is the exciting cause of his interference,—not one word of personal pleading for his betrothed as such escapes from his lips.  12
  The brief choral ode just mentioned is so famous that we quote it here entire:—

Chorus—O Love, our conqueror, matchless in might,
Thou prevailest, O Love, thou dividest the prey;
      In damask cheeks of a maiden
      Thy watch through the night is set.
      Thou roamest over the sea;
On the hills, in the shepherds’ huts, thou art;
Nor of deathless gods, nor of short-lived men,
      From thy madness any escapeth.
Unjust, through thee, are the thoughts of the just;
Thou dost bend them, O Love, to thy will, to thy spite.
      Unkindly strife thou hast kindled,
      This wrangling of son with sire.
    For great laws, throned in the heart,
    To the sway of a rival power give place,
To the love-light flashed from a fair bride’s eyes.
  Antigone, when she sings her long musical threnody or lament, as she goes to her death, does not call upon her lover to mourn her personal loss, but rather bewails her loss of the joys and dignities of the married state,—exactly what a modern heroine would have kept in the background. She quails however at the presence of death, which she had faced with contemptuous boldness at the opening of the piece; thus showing a human inconsistency very unlike that of Euripides’s great heroines,—Iphigenia in Aulis, for example, who first wails bitterly and pleads passionately for life, and then rises above all her weakness and faces her actual doom with glorious courage. But these are the independent standpoints of two great poets; both are human: and though I personally prefer the latter type, others may prefer the former.  14
  The whole play is but one instance of the subject Sophocles seems to have preferred to any other: the exhibition of a strong human will, based upon a moral conviction, dashing itself against the obstacles of fate, of human ordinance, of physical weakness, and showing its ineradicable dignity—
  “Though heated hot with burning fears,
And dipped in baths of hissing tears,
And battered with the shocks of doom.”
  Let us next consider the very kindred ‘Electra.’ Here we have the rare opportunity of comparing the handling of the same subject by the three great tragedians; the extant ‘Choephori’ of Æschylus and the ‘Electra’ of Euripides all dealing with the vengeance of Orestes upon his mother Clytemnestra, who had treacherously murdered his father Agamemnon, and was living with her paramour Ægisthus. The outline of the tragedy is therefore strikingly similar to the play of ‘Hamlet,’ in which the conflict of dread duties seems to unhinge the mind of the prince upon whom the action devolves. Æschylus alone, however, feels the gravity of the crime of matricide to be such that no guilt on the queen mother’s part can justify it; while the other two Greek poets regard it as mere lawful vengeance. These profound questions, however, are rather to be discussed in connection with Æschylus than with Sophocles; and for my part, I cannot but award the older poet the palm in this splendid competition. The Greek legend had a feature quite strange to Shakespeare: a sister of the exiled prince living in the palace, watching daily her mother’s disgrace, suffering persecution from her, and hoping against hope for the return of her brother, while at open and angry variance with the reigning king and queen. This is the character that Sophocles has chosen for his principal study. She is, like Antigone, harsh and uncompromising: rude to her weaker sister, who will not protest enough against the crimes of the house; bursting into a paroxysm of grief when she thinks her hopes annulled; and setting on her brother, when she recognizes him, to do the bloody vengeance, without the smallest compunction. In the course of the play the pretended urn of Orestes’s ashes is brought in: but this device, well conceived to lull the suspicions of the guilty pair, is made the occasion not only of a brilliant fabrication of the circumstances of his death, but also of a pathetic lament over the empty urn by Electra; splendid passages no doubt, but of no effect upon the spectator, who knows that both are the produce of a fraud.

    Electra  [holding the supposed urn of Orestes’s ashes]—
O poor last relic of Orestes’s life,—
Dearest of men to me,—with hopes how other
Than forth I sent do I receive thee back!
Now in these hands I take thee, and thou art naught;
But beautiful and bright I sent thee forth,
Child, from thy home. Oh, would that I had died
Or ever to a strange land I sent thee hence,
And stole thee in my arms and saved from death,
When on that day thou mightest have lain dead,
And of thy father’s tomb have earned a share.
Now, far from home, in a strange land exiled,
A woeful end was thine, no sister near;
And woe is me, I neither laved thy limbs
And decked with loving hands, nor, as was meet,
Snatched this sad burthen from the scorching fire:
By hands of strangers tended thou art come,
A little handful in this little urn.
Alas for me my nursing long ago,—
Unprofitable care, that with sweet pain
I ofttimes spent for thee: for thou wast never
Thy mother’s darling,—rather mine; nor they
O’ the house, but I it was, whom all were wont
Sister at once to call and nurse of thee.
Now thou art dead, and all in a day these things
Have ceased to be; all with thy passing swept
As by a whirlwind hence. Thy father is gone,
And I am dead, thy sister; and thine own life
Has past from earth. Our foes laugh us to scorn,
Our mother—nay, no mother—is mad with joy:
Of whom so often thou didst send secret word
Thou’dst come to be avenged on her; but now
Hard fortune, thine and mine, robs me of this,
Sending me hither, in thy dear body’s stead,
Mere dust and shadow of thee, and good for naught.
            Ah me, alas!
Oh, piteous ashes! alas and woe is me!
            Oh, sadly, strangely—
            Alas, my brother!—
Thus journeying hither, how me thou hast undone!
Undone—undone indeed, O brother mine!
Therefore to thy dark chamber take me in;
Me, dust to dust, receive: that I may dwell
Henceforth i’ the dark with thee. For, living, I shared
With thee and shared alike; and now in death
Not to be sundered from thy tomb I crave,
For in the grave I see that grief is not.

This composing of splendid poetry for a fictitious situation seems to me the point of dramatic weakness in the piece.
  I pass to the much more interesting, though less appreciated, ‘Trachiniæ.’ It was named by the poet not after the principal character, but as was the habit of Æschylus, after the chorus; and not because that chorus occupied, as it did in Æschylus, the leading part in the play, but that the poet must have felt a difficulty in selecting his title rôle. To the ancients, as to Euripides, the death of Heracles was the real core of the story; and the conclusion of Sophocles’s play, in which this event occurs, was accordingly to them the principal moment in the action: whereas Sophocles makes the interest center in Dejanira,—perhaps an early attempt to make a heroine more important than the men of the play. Yet the character of Dejanira can only be compared with the second-rate Tecmessa in the ‘Ajax,’ and differs completely from the first-class heroines we have just considered. Nevertheless there is the deepest pathos in his drawing of a loving, patient wife, widowed afresh for weary months while the roving Heracles seeks new adventures, and now distracted by the want of all news for a full year. His enforced absence (to atone for a homicide), his careful disposition of his affairs at his departure, and the voice of vague oracles, fill her soul with dark foreboding. Her son Hyllus is sent out for news; and the chorus of the maidens of Trachis come in to cheer and encourage the anxious wife, who envies their virgin days of security, and reflects on the troubles of married life.

    Hyllus—Nay, mother, I will go; and had I known
What was foretold, I had been there long since.
Only his constant fortune suffered me not
To fear for him, nor overmuch to doubt.
Now that I know, trust me, I shall not spare
Pains in the quest until I find the truth.
  Dejanira—Go then, my son. Good news, though it come late,
So it might come at last is fraught with gain.
  Chorus—        Thee whom the starry night,
        Beneath the spoiler’s hand
        Breathing her last, brings forth,
        Whom then she lays to sleep,—
Thee, Sun-god, thee bright-burning I implore,—
        O tell me of Alcmena’s son,
O thou, whose rays are as the lightnings bright:
            Where, where he dwelleth,—
        Defiles of the Ægean threading,
Or from mid-strait beholding either continent,—
        O tell me, god of keenest sight!
For with an ever-hungry heart, they say,
Fair Dejanira, she for whom the suitors strove,
          Like some unhappy bird,
        Lulls never into tearless sleep
          That hunger of her eyes;
          But unforgetful fear
          For him, her absent lord,
          She entertaining, pines
        Upon her widowed couch of care,—
Ill-starred, foreboding all distressful chance.
For, as before the untiring blast of south or north,
          Across the boundless sea
          We watch the march of waves
          That come, and ever come,—
Even so upon this son of Cadmus’s house attends
          His hard life’s toilsomeness,
          Increasing more and more;
          Of troubles a Cretan sea.
          But from the halls of death
          Some god restrains his feet,
          Suffering them not to stray.
        Therefore I chide thee, and this word
Of contradiction, not ungrateful, I will speak:
        I say thou dost not well
        To kill the better hope.
      For think, a lot exempt from pain
The son of Cronos, king who governs all,
        Ordainèd not for men.
To all men sorrow and joy alternate come,
        Revolving, as in heaven
      The twisting courses of the Bear.
          For neither starry night
        Abides with men, nor death, nor wealth—
          But quickly it is gone;
          And now another learns
        The changeful tale of joy and loss.
        Therefore I counsel thee, the queen,
        To keep this ever in thy hopes:
For when was Zeus so careless for his sons?
  Dejanira—Ye come, I must conjecture, having heard
My trouble; but how the trouble eats my heart,
Ye know not,—may ye not by suffering learn.
In such a well-fenced place, in native soil,
The tender plant grows, where no sun may scorch,
Nor rain nor any wind is rough with it;
Upward a painless pleasant life it lifts
Until such time the maiden is called a wife:
And in a night her share of trouble comes,—
By husband or by children made afraid.
  Suddenly comes the news of her husband’s return; and the spoils are brought in, among whom a fair captive (Iole) excites Dejanira’s interest,—especially as she can learn nothing concerning her, from the herald Lichas who has escorted her, or from the girl herself who maintains an obstinate silence. Of course it very soon comes out that this is the new flame for whom the truant hero has sacked Œchalia, and that she has come no ordinary captive to the house. Dejanira’s speech charging the herald Lichas to tell her the whole truth, is full of pathos.

    Dejanira—            Mad indeed were I myself
To blame this maiden, cause with him of that
Which causes me no shame, does me no wrong.
I cannot blame. But now, if taught of him
You lie, no noble lesson have you learned;
Or if you school yourself, take heed lest then
You be found cruel when you would be kind.
Nay, tell me all the truth: to be called false
Is for free men no honorable lot.
That you should ’scape discovery cannot be:
Many are they who heard you, and will speak.
And if you are afraid, you fear amiss:
For not to know—this would afflict me; but
Fear not my knowing: hath not Heracles
Loved many another—most of all men he?
And never any of them bore from me
Harsh word or gibe: nor shall, howe’er she be
Consumed with love, this maiden; nay, for her
Most of them all I pity, having seen
That ’twas her beauty that made waste her life,—
Poor soul, who sacked, unwitting, and enslaved,
The city of her home. But now I charge thee,
Heed not what winds blow whither: but be false
To others if thou wilt; to me speak truth.
  When considering this largeness of heart regarding her husband’s new passion, we must remember we are reading of Greek heroic times and manners, when such license, though censured as bringing discord into a household, was in no way regarded as the violation of a moral law. The chorus in a very fine ode recalls the desperate struggle of Heracles for the possession of this very Dejanira, whom he has now slighted and forgotten. But her charms are fading, while Iole is in the first flush of youth. Then comes her hasty resolve to send him as a present, which she had been preparing for his return, the “shirt of Nessus” anointed with the deadly poison of the Centaur’s wound. She has been unaware of its fatal power; but the wool she had used to anoint the present takes fire when heated by the sun, and before the news comes back she has anticipated the whole catastrophe. Then follows the terrible narrative of Hyllus, and his fierce accusation of his mother, who rushes in the silence of desperate resolve from the stage. After an interrupting chorus, her death-scene is affectingly told by her nurse.

    Chorus—        Remorse, or what fierce fit
    Of madness was it,—the fatal thrust
So murderously dealt? How compassed she
        Death piled on death,—
    Wild work for one weak hand to do?
  Nurse—    One plunge of cursed steel: ’twas done.
  Chorus—        What, babbler, were you there?
        Saw you the wanton deed?
  Nurse—Near as I stand to you, I stood and saw.
  Chorus—    How was it? The manner? Tell me all.
  Nurse—Herself, and of herself, she did this thing.
  Chorus—    What do you tell me?
  Nurse—                    Plain, the truth.
  Chorus—    Stranger, not thy fair face alone
    Thou bringest, but born, yea born of thee,
    A dire Erinys to this house!
  Nurse—Too true; but more, had you been there to see
The things she did,—much more your tears had flowed.
  Chorus—And daunted not such work a woman’s hand?
  Nurse—A marvel, truly: hear and testify.
She came alone in the house, and saw her son
In the great chamber spreading forth a couch,
Deep-pillowed, ere he went to meet his sire
Back; but she crept away out of his sight,
And at the altars falling, moaned that she
Was desolate,—and each chattel of the house,
That once she used, fingered, poor soul, and wept;
Then hither and thither roaming, room to room,
Each face she saw of servants that she loved,
Unhappy lady, looked and wept again,
Upon her own hard lot exclaiming still,
And how her children were her own no more.
And when she ceased from this, I saw her pass
Suddenly to the chamber of my lord.
I, screened by the dark, seeing, myself unseen,
Watched: and I saw my mistress fling, lay smooth,
Couch-coverings on the couch of Heracles,
Till all were laid; then from the ground she sprang
And sat there in the midst upon the couch,
And loosed the flood of scorching tears, and spake:—
“O marriage bed and marriage chamber mine,
Farewell now and forever; never more
This head upon this pillow shall be laid.”
No more she said; but with a violent hand
Did doff her robe, clasped by the brooch that lay,
Gold-wrought, upon her bosom, and made bare
All her left arm and whiteness of her side.
Then I made haste and ran with all my strength,
And told her son what way her thoughts were bent.
But lo, whilst I was gone, just there and back,
The deed was done; the two-edged sword, we saw,
Quite through her side, midriff, and heart had pierced.
Oh, but he groaned to see it! For he knew
This deed, alas! his rashness had entailed,—
Taught all too late by those o’ the house that her
The Centaur lured to do she knew not what.
And now the boy—piteous!—of groans and tears
He knew no end, lamenting over her:
He knelt and kissed her lips; his side by hers
He laid along, and lay, complaining sore
That he had slain her with his random blame;
And weeping, his would be a double loss,
Bereaved of both his parents at one stroke.
  Here the main interest of the play ends for modern readers. But among the ancients, the official catastrophe; the lyrical wailing of Heracles, his wrestling with his agony, and final victory; his calm review of his life,—all this was far more celebrated. Such lyrical dialogues, in which the actor and chorus sang alternately, were highly prized on the Greek stage, and are an almost universal feature in tragedy. To us the tragic irony of the earlier catastrophe is much more affecting. The oracle must be fulfilled; Heracles must die, but by the hands of his most loving wife: and the wretched authoress of the catastrophe wanders through the house amazed, aimless, heart-broken, bursting into tears at every familiar object; then with sudden resolve she bares her side, and strikes the sword into her heart.  20
  If this noble play has in my opinion been underrated, we cannot complain of the esteem in which the next play of our series is held,—the ‘Œdipus Rex’: which is cited in Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ as a sort of ideal or canon play; which modern critics have been, I think, unanimous in placing at the very summit of Greek tragic art. Yet when first performed, the audience only awarded it the second prize. Can we find any reason for this curious variance of judgments? It is of course easy to say that momentary passions or prejudices may have misled the Athenians; that such a work could not be appreciated at first hearing; that we know not what undue favor towards a competitor, or momentary jealousy of Sophocles’s fame, may have swayed a public as notoriously sensitive and fickle in temper as it was educated in taste. Such causes are possible, but must not be assumed in contradiction of all the traditions we possess, which assert Sophocles to have been the darling of the Attic public. Admitting on the other hand that the critical taste of the public was very sensitive, and easily offended, we can find some reasons why in the present case Sophocles failed to win the first place. We are arguing without knowledge of the remaining plays of the group, and it is possible that these pieces were weak, so that the group as a whole was inferior in average to the group presented by Philocles. This again is but a hypothesis.  21
  But there are in the conditions presupposed in the opening scene more serious and actual objections. In order to create for himself a situation of exceptional horror, the poet has piled up antecedent improbabilities in the strangest way. Œdipus, a grown-up man, flying from the prophetic warning that he would slay his father and marry his mother, travels to Delphi. Though he had been led to doubt whether Polybus of Corinth was indeed his father, he meets and slays an old man who treated him roughly in a narrow road, and four attendants with him. When the oracle had just threatened him, it should have been his first precaution not to kill men freely, seeing that his putative father’s relation to him had been questioned. He comes to Thebes, which he finds in mourning; the king (Laius) having been murdered on his way to Delphi by a band of robbers, and the dreadful Sphinx with her riddles still persecuting the country. He gets rid of the Sphinx, and marries the widowed queen, without making any search for the murderers of his predecessor; though the very spot was known where he had been slain, and he remembers the spot twenty years later. Moreover, the oracle which threatened him seems to take no notice of the hideous mistake: he is prosperous and untouched by any presentiment of woe, until the four children which his mother bears are grown up. Then suddenly comes a great pestilence; and in consequence of this pestilence the oracle commands him to seek out by all means the murderers of Laius. Tiresias the seer, living at Thebes, is represented as knowing the truth from the beginning, and yet never attempting to prevent the marriage. Here then is a truly impossible combination of circumstances, and its absurdities make themselves felt all through the play.  22
  Yet the manner in which the poet has worked out the catastrophe is indeed beyond all praise. Granted an earnest, able man in such a position as Œdipus, and setting himself to unravel it, we may grant that his moral blindness is such that he will not see the plainest indications of his own guilt; and that he first with zeal, then with obstinacy, follows out the threads of the evidence, which closes round him and at last produces the awful catastrophe. The splendor of the dialogue is matched by the splendor of the lyrical parts; and the chorus assumes a dignified and independent as well as sympathetic attitude.

  Chorus—          Oh, may my constant feet not fail,
          Walking in paths of righteousness,
              Sinless in word and deed,—
              True to those eternal laws
          That scale forever the high steep
          Of heaven’s pure ether, whence they sprang;—
    For only in Olympus is their home,
          Nor mortal wisdom gave them birth:
          And howsoe’er men may forget,
                  They will not sleep;
For the might of the god within them grows not old.
          Rooted in pride, the tyrant grows;
          But pride that with its own too-much
              Is rashly surfeited,
              Heeding not the prudent mean,
              Down the inevitable gulf
          From its high pinnacle is hurled,
    Where use of feet or foothold there is none.
          But, O kind gods, the noble strength
          That struggles for the State’s behoof
                  Unbend not yet:
In the gods have I put my trust; I will not fear.
          But whoso walks disdainfully
                  In act or word,
          And fears not Justice, nor reveres
                  The thronèd gods,—
              Him let misfortune slay
              For his ill-starred wantoning,
              Should he heap unrighteous gains,
    Nor from unhallowed paths withhold his feet,
    Or reach rash hands to pluck forbidden fruit.
              Who shall do this, and boast
              That yet his soul is proof
    Against the arrows of offended Heaven?
          If honor crowns such deeds as these,
          Not song but silence, then, for me!
          To earth’s dread centre, unprofaned
                  By mortal touch,
          No more with awe will I repair,
                  Nor Abæ’s shrine,
          Nor the Olympian plain,
          If the truth stands not confessed,
          Pointed at by all the world.
    O Zeus supreme, if rightly thou art called
    Lord over all, let not these things escape
            Thee and thy timeless sway!
            For now men set at naught
    Apollo’s word, and cry, “Behold, it fails!”
          His praise is darkened with a doubt;
          And faith is sapped, and Heaven defied.
  But the Providence who lies behind the whole action of the play is a cruel one. There is no reason in the character of Œdipus why he should be the victim of such miseries. He is throughout represented as a right-thinking man, doing his best, and ruined by the mere force of circumstances. The slaying of a stranger who insulted him and smote him on the head could not be, and is not by the poet, considered as any crime that deserved extreme punishment. It was the mere retaliation which any heroic Greek would think perfectly justifiable. How far we are thus removed from the tragic problem of Hamlet, or even of Antigone, the reader will easily perceive. Perhaps the poet may have desired to teach the moral lesson much needed at skeptical Athens in his day,—that the warnings of the gods are accomplished, and that the neglect of them is a crime which brings upon men punishments very disproportionate to the apparent guilt of negligence. But is this a proper subject for a Greek tragedy? And is the iron grasp of fate, which mocks all human effort, a moral subject for the stage?  24
  Sweeter and more human in many respects is the ‘Œdipus at Colonus,’ which ancient tradition and ancient critics unanimously placed at the end of the poet’s life; nor will the arguments of the learned in Germany regarding its perfect diction and structure have much weight against the current belief, supported by the strong feeling of every literary reader from Cicero to our day, that its mildness, sadness, and weariness of life, speak the long experience and sober resignation of an old man at the close of his days.  25
  The whole action turns round the figure of Œdipus, who comes old, beggared, and blind, supported by his daughters only, an exile from Thebes, into the grove of the dread Eumenides (Furies) at Colonus. The gentle and affectionate Antigone in this play is a different character from herself in the title play we have already discussed. It is but one of several instances which show that these tragic poets aimed at no consistency when using the figures of Greek legend for various plays. The Attic audience were not expected to compare this Antigone with the other produced many years before. I have elsewhere suggested that this may be one reason why the subjects of these tragedies were so seldom taken from Homer,—whose characters, as they appear in the Iliad and Odyssey, were too familiar to the audience to admit of any variation being tolerated on the tragic stage. Œdipus himself is now worn and mellowed with suffering; he has recovered a certain dignity not only from his undeserved suffering, but from his person being declared by oracles to be of great value to those that possess it. Hence Creon, who had exiled him, comes to carry him home by force; his son Polynices comes to pray for his support to insure victory against the younger brother, who now holds the Theban throne. But the old man resists all attempts to persuade him. Theseus saves him from the violence of Creon, and rescues his daughters, who had been seized by Creon’s attendants; and in gratitude to the King of Athens, Œdipus tells him the secret by which the throne of Athens is to be forever safe. Finally, in a splendid scene heralded by thunder and lightning, Œdipus passes into the grove to his mysterious death. The lamentations of the bereaved daughters, with responses from the chorus, occupy a long musical scene at the close of the play. This conclusion, though somewhat lame if judged by modern taste, has the indication of Antigone’s resolve to return to Thebes and strive to stay her brothers’ criminal war; thus pointing at the tragic sequel which Sophocles had already brought upon the stage.  26
  If he had thought fit to rearrange his plays in trilogies after the manner of Æschylus, the three dramas on the legend of Œdipus and his children have a very striking artistic connection. To me the later ‘Œdipus’ seems the finest of all the extant plays; nor can we imagine, if it had indeed been composed in the poet’s middle age, why its production should have been delayed till four years after his death, though we hear this on good authority. There is not only fine character-drawing in the play,—Œdipus, Creon, Theseus, all very living and distinct,—but there are tragic contrasts of the greatest subtlety. Thus the episode of Polynices, who turns aside from the invasion of his native land to entreat the support of Œdipus, is manifestly intended for such a contrast. Both father and son are approaching their fate: but the father, an innocent offender, shines out in the majesty of a glorious sunset; while the son, unfilial, selfish, and vindictive, only uses his punishment of exile to devise further crimes,—his repentance for his unfilial conduct to his father is not genuine, and his heart is still poisoned with ambition and revenge, so that when stricken by his father’s awful curse, he rushes in despair upon his doom. The scene is not without harshness: the old man’s curses are like those of Lear, violent from his feeling of long impotence; but this flaw, if flaw it be, is redeemed by the majesty of his solemn translation to the nether world.  27
  The treatment of the chorus is marked by a curious inconsistency; or rather, by the clear assertion that while they act and think as common old men of Colonus, their choral odes are those of the poet speaking for himself. In their conduct, the chorus of this play show the vulgarities of common life: they treat Œdipus, when they find him in the sacred grove, with cowardice, rudeness, want of faith, unmannerly disgust, and indecent curiosity. They are only courteous and kind to him in the presence of Theseus, or when they have learned that it is their interest to have him there. But when they sing their great interludes, the choral odes, they abandon all this poor personality, and philosophize upon the action with a depth and beauty hardly equaled by any other lyrics in the Greek language.

  Chorus—Beyond the common lot who lusts to live,
    Nor sets a limit to desire,
    Of me no doubtful word shall win—
    A fool in love with foolishness.
Since long life hath in store for him to know
Full many things drawn nearer unto grief,
And gone from sight all pleasant things that were:
        Till fallen on overmuch
        Fulfillment of desire,
    One only friend he sees can help—
A friend who shall come when dawns at last
    The day that knows not bridal song
    Nor lyre nor dance—that fatal day
    Whose equal doom we all abide;—
    Shall come kind Death, and make an end!
Not to be born is past disputing best:
    And after this, his lot transcends,
    Who, seen on earth for briefest while,
    Thither returns from whence he came.
For with its fluttering follies all aswarm,
Who needs, while youth abides, go far afield
To heap vexation? What’s the missing plague?
        Slaughters are here, and strife,
        Factions, and wars, and spite;
    And still life’s crowning ill’s to bear,—
    Last scene of all, of all condemned:
    Unfriended, uncompanioned Age,
    When strength is gone, but grief remains,
    And every evil that is named,—
    Evil of evil, grief of grief.
As now this man, not wretched I alone,—
Lo, like some promontory northward set,
Wave-buffeted by all fierce winds that rave,
        So buffet him, nor cease,
        Poured on his helpless head,
All shattering billows of outrageous fate;
        Some from the setting sun,
        And from the rising some,
        Some with the mid-noon beam,
Some from the starry shimmerings of the night.
  We now come to a play which shows many contrasts to either ‘Œdipus.’ The ‘Ajax’ is perhaps the simplest in structure of all the extant dramas; but is not therefore to be assumed the earliest, as some critics have done. To me it shows so much of the influence of Euripides, or perhaps we should rather say of the dicastic (litigious) habit of the Athenians of post-Periclean days, that I should place its production late in the poet’s life. If a modern dramatist were asked to compose a play on such a subject,—the madness of his hero from disappointed ambition, the carnage of flocks of sheep in mistake for his rivals and umpires, his return to sanity, his consequent despair and suicide, and a quarrel about his funeral,—he would probably feel no small perplexity. Yet Sophocles has composed a justly famous character play upon the story, which he found in the so-called ‘Little Iliad’ of Lesches. There is no finer psychological picture than the awakening of Ajax from his lunacy, his intense shame, his firm resolve to endure life no longer, his harsh treatment of the tender and loving Tecmessa,—the slave-mother of his boy,—and yet his deep love for her and for his child. Even his suicide is brought upon the stage,—contrary to the habit of the Greeks, who avoided such scenes, and put the recital of them in the mouth of a messenger; but then his dying speech is one of the most remarkable in all Greek tragedy. Not less splendid is that in which he gives his directions before going to meet his death.

    Ajax—The long march of the innumerable hours
Brings from the darkness all things to the birth,
And all things born envelops in the night.
What is there that it cannot? Strongest oaths
Of men, and the untempered will, it bends:
As I, who lately seemed so wondrous firm,
See by this woman now my keen edge made—
As steel by dipping—womanish and weak;
So that it pities me among my foes
To leave her widowed, fatherless my child.
Now to the seaside meadows and the baths
I go to purge away my stains, if so
Athene’s grievous wrath I may escape.
And I must go and find some spot untrodden,
And hide away this hated sword of mine,
Burying it in the earth where none may see;
Let night and Hades keep it underground.
For from the day I took it in my hand,
From Hector, from my enemy, a gift,
Of Greeks I gat no honor any more;
But soothly says the proverb that men use,
Foes’ gifts are no gifts,—no, nor profitable.
Well—I shall know henceforth to bow to Heaven,
And the Atreidæ study to revere:
Men must obey their rulers. Nay, how else?
Things most august and mightiest upon earth
Bow to authority: the winter’s storms,
Dense with their driven snow, give place at last
To fruitful summer; and night’s weary round
Passes, and dawn’s white steeds light up the day;
And blasts of angry winds let sleep again
The groaning sea; and tyrannous sleep withal
Holds not his prey, but looses whom he binds.
Then shall not we learn wisdom, and submit?
And I—this lesson I have learnt to-day:
To hate my enemies so much and no more,
As who shall yet be friends; and of a friend
I’ll bound my love and service with the thought,
He’s not my friend forever. For most men find
A treacherous haven this of fellowship.
But for these things it shall suffice; and thou,
Woman, go in, and pray the gods that all
My heart’s desire may be fulfilled in full.
And you, my comrades, honor me with her
Thus praying, and bid Teucer when he comes
Have care of me and all good-will to you.
For I go hence whither I needs must go.
Do ye my bidding; so shall ye hear perchance,
That after all my troubles I am safe.
  Then follows a brilliant hyporcheme or dancing ode, to Pan, in delight that Ajax has recovered his senses:—

    Chorus—    I tremble, I thrill with longing!
    With joy transported, I soar aloft!
        O Pan, Pan, Pan, appear!
Come hither, tossed by the sea, O Pan,
From Cyllene’s rock-ridge, scourged with snow—
The master in heaven of those that dance!
    And unpremeditated measures here,
    Nysian or Gnosian, fling with me!
    For now on dancing my heart is set,
    And far across the Icarian waters,
    Lord of Delos, Apollo, come;
Come, plain to see, and partake my mirth—
Gracious and kind to the end as now!
    Lo, Ares the cloud has lifted;
Despair and dread from our eyes are gone!
        Now, now, O Zeus, again
May stainless light of a gracious day
To our swift sea-cleaving ships come nigh;
When Ajax his sorrow again forgets,
And serves the gods with perfect piety,
Pays them their rites and leaves out none.
For all things ever the strong hours quench;
And naught, I’ll say, is too hard for saying;
Now when Ajax, so past all hope,
Against the Atreidæ unbends his pride—
Rage and defiance outbreathes no more.
  He is for one day, we hear presently from his brother, under the anger of Athene; and if he can weather that day he will be safe. This gives a peculiar pathos to the play, when we reflect how nearly a noble life was saved. But the anger of Athene is hardly justified, beyond the consideration that the gods rule as they please; and here the goddess is shown with those hard and cruel features which we find in Homer’s picture. 1 The Ajax of Sophocles, on the other hand, is far more refined than the Homeric prototype. He feels himself unjustly treated, and carries the spectator’s sympathy wholly with him. The wrangle about his funeral honors between his brother Teucer, who arrives but a moment too late to save him, and the vulgar and heartless Agamemnon and Menelaus, is so disagreeable that we have constantly to remind ourselves of the Attic love of argument, of dispute, of casuistry, to tolerate this part of the drama. Odysseus (Ulysses) for once comes in as the peacemaker; the generous foe, who can respect and honor his fallen enemy. But then he has obtained all his desire,—the easiest moment to be generous. A word must be reserved for Tecmessa; one of the most attractive women in Sophocles, as we possess him. She is one of those slave wives whom the heroes of the Iliad kept in camp to solace their long absence from home. She had passed from the estate of a princess to be the slave mistress of her lord. But she fulfills all her enforced duties with loyalty and tenderness, and with great and womanly affection for both Ajax and his child. She is indeed in many respects as tragic a figure as Ajax; for her disasters have all come upon her without any fault of her own, and in spite of her innocence and loyalty.

    Tecmessa—O my lord Ajax, of all things most hard,
Hardest is slavery for men to bear.
And I was daughter of a sire freeborn,—
No Phrygian mightier, wealthier none than he;
But now I am a slave. For so the gods,
And so thine arm, had willed it. Therefore now—
For I am thine, thy wife, and wish thee well—
I charge thee now by Zeus who guards thy hearth,
And by that couch of thine which I have shared,—
Condemn me not, given over to their hands,
To bear the cruel gibes thy foes shall fling.
Bethink thee, on that day when thou shalt die,
And by that death divorce me, violent hands
On me the Greeks will lay, and we shall live
Henceforth the life of slaves, thy child and I.
And then at me shall some one of my lords
Shoot out sharp words, “Lo ye, the concubine
Of Ajax, who was strongest of the Greeks—
Fallen from what pride, unto what service bound!”
So they will talk. And me such fate will plague;
But shame such talk imports to thee and thine.
Nay, but have pity, and leave not thou thy sire,
So old, so grieved; pity thy mother too,
Portioned with many years, who night and day
Prays to the gods to bring thee home alive;
And have compassion on thy boy, O prince!—
Think, should he live, poor child, forlorn of thee,
By unkind guardians of kind care deprived,
What wrong thy death will do to him and me:
Nothing have I to look to any more,
When thou art gone. Thy spear laid waste my home;
My mother too and father, Fate withal
Brought low, in the dark house of death to dwell.
What home then shall I find instead of thee—
What wealth? My life hangs utterly on thee.
  The ‘Philoctetes’ is the last of our series, till some fortunate chance, in Egypt or elsewhere, restores to us another of these masterpieces. We know it to have been composed very late in the poet’s life, perhaps the very last of his works; and yet, though it shows everywhere the influence of his great rival Euripides, in this remarkable play there is no evidence of any decadence, of any weakening of Sophocles’s genius, though some critics pretend to see it. The habit of asserting subjective opinions upon such points is so universal in Germany that it is necessary to cite examples of their worth. Some trivial fact is generally at the basis of these theories; because the ‘Philoctetes’ is now accepted as late, the ‘Œdipus at Colonus,’ long criticized as the dying song of the old man, is now attributed to a far earlier period, and is called the product of the poet’s strongest maturity. It was formerly the last sweet echo of his waning powers.  32
  At all events, the ‘Philoctetes’ is a very remarkable and distinctive specimen of the work of Sophocles. It is essentially a character play, in which the action of the gods only comes in to thwart and spoil a plot made great by human suffering and human constancy; and yet though a character play, it is the solitary example we have, among the extant remains of the poet, in which there is no woman brought on the stage. Ingenious people may here find, if they like, a mute antagonism to, a recoil from, the habit of Euripides, who never draws a great man, but sets all the sympathies of the audience upon the grandeur of his heroines. In the play now before us, the principal character is ennobled partly by his long and miserable suffering, partly by his strong will and determination that he will in no way yield to his enemies, or help them in their designs.  33
  He had been abandoned at Lemnos by the sons of Atreus and by Ulysses, on their way to Troy, because of his loathsome wound and his constant and wearisome lamentations. Now they find through an oracle that after ten years’ war and waste of life, the city cannot be taken unless the wounded hero of his own accord accompanies them, bringing with him the famous bow and arrow of Heracles, which he possesses. The plots of Ulysses to obtain this result, and their repeated failure, till Heracles actually descends from heaven and commands Philoctetes to change his resolve,—these are moments of the play. The appearance of Heracles as a deus ex machina is however a mere appendix, thrown in to satisfy the requirements of the popular legend which held that the hero did go to Troy, and so cause the oracles to be positively accomplished.  34
  Ulysses, the principal agent, though not the chief actor in the play, sets in motion those subtle plots which to the Greek were perfectly lawful and even admirable, while to us they savor of meanness and fraud. He suborns the young and gallant Neoptolemus to land at the island, and pretend that he too had been summoned to Troy and then insulted by the leaders of the host; that he is therefore on his way home in anger and disgust. This leads to sympathetic discourse with Philoctetes, who entreats Neoptolemus to bring him home, and intrusts him with the precious bow and arrows when seized with one of his paroxysms which ends in a deep sleep. The chorus of sailors, who as usual represent the mean side of Greek character, propose that now Neoptolemus should decamp with the bow and arrows. The fact that the hero’s own presence and consent were necessary is kept in the background; and the first difficulty arises from the loyal nature of Neoptolemus, who has misgivings from the beginning, and has been persuaded too easily to adopt the crooked policy of Ulysses, but who will not now desert his suffering friend, and who will not take him on board by fraud. So when he discloses his real intentions to Philoctetes, he meets with a storm of protest, of adjuration and appeal from the outcast hero, but not a sign of submission. Ulysses, who comes in, threatens force; he proposes to carry off the bow and leave the wretched man helpless and defenseless on the island; he makes all preparations for departure: when Neoptolemus tries the only remaining argument. He returns conscience-smitten with the bow and arrows and restores them to their owner, in spite of the anxious protest of Ulysses, who knows that his own life now hangs upon a thread. But Neoptolemus holds the hand that would draw the bow and slay his enemy, and appeals on the ground of friendship and of generosity to Philoctetes now to yield and return with him as ally to Troy. But here he meets with an equally stubborn resistance; and, vanquished by the vanquished man, he has submitted, and is going to bring Philoctetes to his home at Trachis, when the divine command of Heracles prevents this violation of the current story, and the conflict is ended by the submission of Philoctetes.  35
  Such is the skeleton of the drama; but this skeleton is enriched by the accessories which a true poet adds to his argument. The picturesque features of the lonely island, the voice of nature which threatened and which solaced the lonely man, the birds and beasts that were his companions and his prey,—these are ever present to the hero in his lamentations and his prayers. No doubt the poet knew well this island, which was, like Imbros, a peculiar property of the Athenians for a great part of its history. It lies not far from the Trojan coast, surrounded by splendid historic lands: the giant Samothrace, the still more gigantic Athos, from whose peak I have looked upon Lemnos and thought of the many legends that cluster about that rugged island. And now, after long centuries of cultivation, centuries of piracy and of misgovernment have reduced it again to the very condition described by Sophocles: lonely uplands, windy hills, waste and thicket replacing the labors of men.  36
  It is remarkable that the rival plays on the subject—those of Æschylus and Euripides—did not make the island an absolute wilderness. The chorus, instead of representing the sailors who came with Neoptolemus, as it is in Sophocles’s play, did visit him; and one of them, Actor, appeared as his friend. These facts we owe to an interesting little oration of Dio Chrysostom, who compares the three plays—then extant and known to him.  37
  But I will not extend this commentary unduly. Those who desire to appreciate Sophocles must not attempt to do so at second hand, through this essay or through any modern translation; they must learn Greek, and read him in the original: for no version in any European language can give any notion of the strength, the grace, the suppleness of his dialogue. Not that he was absolutely without faults in style. He himself, in a curious sentence reported by Plutarch, says that he had three styles: first, the grand eloquence of Æschylus, which he had shaken off early; then the harsh and artificial style of his next epoch,—features well known to us in contemporary writers, such as Thucydides; lastly he had adopted the style which was best for painting character, and therefore the fittest for his purpose. We can still trace some of the harshness of which he speaks in the earlier extant plays. The opening speech in the ‘Antigone,’ for example, is contorted and difficult in style, and is by no means exceptional in this quality. Some of the choral odes seem to us to use constructions which we can hardly call Greek; and if it be urged that in these cases corruption of the text has altered the poet’s words, it must have been a very early corruption, and such is not likely unless the original was really obscure. We know also from the great number of strange words cited from his lost plays by early grammarians that his vocabulary must have been not easy and natural, like that of Euripides, but artificial and recondite. This love of erudite words seems to have been as strong in Sophocles as it was in Shakespeare.  38
  But if he was licentious in his vocabulary and sometimes daring in his syntax, no great poet was ever more conservative in his art. It is to us an ever-recurring source of wonder, how a great poet, born in a particular generation, writing for a special public, hampered by all the conventionalities of his age, nevertheless not only rises above all these transitory circumstances and seizes the great and permanent features of human nature, but even frequently turns his shackles into a new source of beauty. Some of the greatest felicities in poetry have been the direct result of the curbs of metre or of rhyme. Nothing has more evidently determined the beauties of Greek or mediæval sculpture than its position as the handmaid of architecture. There are many more such instances, but none more signal than that supplied by the work of Sophocles.  39
  Nothing can be imagined more artificial than the Greek stage, nothing upon that stage more artificial than tragedy as determined by his predecessors. The subjects to be treated were limited to the Greek legends; legends familiar to the audience, and not admitting of any great liberties in treatment. The actors were padded out and masked, so that all delicate acting was impossible, and slow declamation was the law of the stage. The importance of the chorus and its traditional primacy in the earliest plays determined the musical character of Greek tragedy; which may best be compared to a modern oratorio, acted on the stage. Thus the poet must not only write dramatic verse, he must be a lyric poet; nay more, we are told that he must compose the music for his odes. Even these set pieces, like our musical interludes, were not enough for the requirements of the drama: there were lyrical monodies, or dialogues between the actor and the chorus, which required in the actor—in early days the poet himself—proficiency in singing. It was in fact the “music-drama” of Wagner, out-Wagnered. All these conditions were satisfied by Sophocles in his day. But what marks his world-position is this: though the music is lost; though the stage as he knew it is gone forever; though nothing remains to us but the text, in metres which had their musical accompaniments and which do not speak easily to modern ears,—still these plays, stripped of all the accessories which made them splendid in their day of performance, transcribed with ignorance and defaced by time, the widowed and forlorn remnant of a bygone age and an extinct society, move every modern heart; stimulate every modern poet; stand forth in their imperishable majesty, like the ruined Parthenon, unapproachable in their essential perfection.  40
  What an age was this, when the builders of the Parthenon and the authors of tragedy met and discussed the principles of their art! The lofty Pericles was there, the genial Herodotus, the brilliant Aristophanes, the homely Socrates, all contributing to form an atmosphere in which no poor or unreal art could last for a day. But artificial they all were, except Socrates; though the artifice was only the vehicle for great ideas, for the deepest nature, for the loftiest ideals. Hence the changes of custom, and even of traditions, have not marred the eternal greatness of Sophocles’s tragedies. Sufferers such as Ajax, Philoctetes, Œdipus, will ever command the deepest human pity; martyrs such as Antigone, the purest admiration. To paraphrase the words of Aristotle, Sophocles purifies the affections of pity and awe in the hearts of his audience by representing to them ideal men and women suffering huge misfortunes; broken it may be on the wheel of fortune, but not vanquished, because their heroic will is invincible.  41
  This is the great moral lesson which the poet has taught the world; and it constitutes his first and greatest claim to rank among the stars of the first magnitude in the literature of nations. In theology he was a conservative; he did not venture, like Euripides, to quarrel with the current myths and to question the morality of the current creeds. But even as every sound modern moralist holds that in this world, the ideal of life and conduct is far higher than the average specimens we meet in ordinary society,—so Sophocles was convinced that there was a Divine morality, a Divine justice, far higher and purer than the lives and characters of the several gods as represented in Homer and the Epic Cycle. While therefore he does not alter the hard features of the Greek gods, or justify their jealousy and vindictiveness, he frequently asserts a very different and a far higher government of the world.  42
  Such being the highest feature in the poet’s philosophy, we may place next to it his admirable knowledge and portraiture of human character. The gallery of his heroes and heroines is like the gallery of a great painter’s works, which gives us impressive and imperishable types. He takes but little care about his villains: his tyrants were not drawn from life, and his only erring queen—Clytemnestra—is not very interesting when we compare her to the Clytemnestra of Æschylus. But his heroines are as great as those of Euripides; his heroes are far greater; and his whole stage is more human than that of Æschylus.  43
  Apart from the matter is the style; and in artistic work the style or form is of equal if not of greater importance. It is through style that any writer or age of writers becomes a model, or an ideal, for succeeding generations to pursue. But as I am debarred in this essay from quoting from the original, and am addressing a public not intimate with Greek, I am precluded from discussing this question with any further detail; and can only repeat my previous warning that Greek of the Attic age, used by its greatest masters, is a vehicle of expression so perfect both in its strength and its delicacy, that all versions in other tongues seem tame and bald to those who can read the poet’s own words. It is this peerless perfection in Greek style, not only in the art of composition, but in the plastic arts, which has kept Greek studies alive as the very essence of any thorough modern culture. Nor is it likely that a time will ever come when future generations will have made such advances in art that the Œdipus of Sophocles, the Hermes of Praxiteles, the nameless tomb of the King of Sidon, the temples on the Acropolis at Athens, will be superseded by greater models.  44
Note 1. On this I have already commented in my ‘Social Life in Greece.’ [back]

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.