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Euripides. His excellencies and defects. Deterioration of Tragic Poetry through
him. Comparison of the Choëphoræ of Æschylus, the Electra of Sophocles, and that of Euripides. Critical examination of the remaining works of Euripides.
The Satyric Drama. Alexandrine Tragedians. Consider Euripides apart by himself, and without taking his predecessors into the comparison, single out many of his better works, and particular passages in others, and he must be allowed extraordinary encomiums. But take him in his historical connexion with the art, look at each of his works as a whole, and, further, at the general scope of his endeavours, as it is collectively manifested in his extant productions, and one cannot but severely arraign him in a multitude of respects. Of few writers can so much good and evil be said with truth. He was a genius of infinite parts and great versatility of mind: but in him an abundance of splendid and amiable qualities were not reduced to order by that lofty earnestness of spirit, nor yet by that severe artist-like wisdom, which we reverence in Æschylus and Sophocles. Therefore is he so unequal; many times he has charmingly beautiful passages, at other times he sinks into downright mediocrity. With all his failings, he possesses an admirable ease and a certain insinuating charm.
Thus much I thought necessary to premise, else on account of what is to follow I might be accused of inconsistency, having lately in a short French Essay laboured to develope the superior excellency of a certain play of Euripides in comparison with Racine's imitation. There I fixed my attention upon an individual work, and indeed one of this poet's best : here I start from the most general points of view and the highest requisitions of the art; and that my enthusiasm for ancient Tragedy may not seem blind and excessive, I must justify it by keen examination into the symptoms of degeneracy and decay.
Perfection in art and poetry may be likened to the summit of a steep hill, where an uprolled load cannot long maintain its position, but presently rolls down again irresistibly on the other side. This, in accordance with the laws of gravity, takes place quickly and with facility, and one can comfortably and indolently look on while it is doing, for the mass does but follow its natural propensity; whereas the laborious up-hill effort is in some measure a painful spectacle. Hence it is that paintings, for instance, belonging to the age of declining art, please the eye of the uninformed much better than such as preceded the æra of perfection. The genuine connoisseur, on the contrary, will hold the paintings of Zuccheri and others, who set the fashion when the great schools of the sixteenth century were degenerating into empty superficial mannerism, to be infinitely inferior, in intrinsic value, to the works of a Mantegna, Perugino, and their contemporaries. Or conceive of the highest perfection of art as a focus. At equal distances on either side the collected rays occupy equal spaces; but then on the one side they are converging towards a common effect, on the other they diverge continually even to total dissipation.
We have besides a special reason for visiting the aberrations of this poet with unsparing castigation, in the fact that our own age labours under similar faults to those which earned for Euripides so much favour, if not exactly esteem, among his contemporaries. We have lived to see a host of plays, in matter indeed and form immeasurably inferior to those of Euripides, but bearing this affinity to them, that by weakly and sometimes even tender emotions they bribe the feelings to a favourable verdict in their behalf, while their general tendency is to make people downright moral freethinkers.
What I shall say on this subject is for the most part by no means new. Although by the moderns Euripides has been
. not unfrequently preferred to his two predecessors, has found more readers, admirers, and imitators than they, whether it be that people are more attracted to him by his greater affinity to the views and sentiments of modern times, or that they have been led astray by a misunderstood expression of Aristotle's, it nevertheless admits of being shown, that many of the ancients, and some even of Euripides' own times, formed the same judgment of him as myself. In the “ Anacharsis” you find this mixture of praise and blame at least hinted at, though its author is cautious of saying every thing, his object being to exhibit the productions of the Greeks in every department under the most advantageous light.
We have some caustic expressions of Sophocles concerning Euripides : though the former was so far removed from every thing like the petty jealousy of authorship, that he went into mourning for his rival's death, and upon occasion of a play which he brought out soon after, did not allow his actors the usual ornament of the wreaths. The charges which Plato brings against the tragic poets, that they too much surrendered men to the dominion of the passions, and effeminized them by putting immoderate lamentations into the mouths of their heroes, I hold myself justified in referring to Euripides in particular, because in regard to his predecessors the allegations would be too evidently without foundation. Aristophanes' decisive attacks upon him are well known, but have not always been duly appreciated and understood. Aristotle adduces much important censure, and when he calls Euripides“ the most tragic poet,” he nowise ascribes to him the greatest perfection of tragic art in general, but he intends, by that expression, the effect which is produced by disastrous terminations; for he adds directly after, “ although he does not manage the rest well.” Lastly, the Scholiast upon Euripides gives many concise and stringent criticisms upon individual plays; among which, perhaps, some judgments of the Alexandrine critics may have been preserved; those critics, one of whose number, Aristarchus, merited by the solidity and acuteness of his critical powers, the high distinction, that his name is proverbially used as a designation of a judge of art.
In Euripides we find the essence of ancient Tragedy no longer pure and unmixed ; its characteristic features are already more or less obliterated. We stated these to consist particularly in the idea of Destiny therein predominant, the ideal nature of the representation, and the significance of the Chorus.
The notion of Destiny he received, indeed, in course from his predecessors, and inculcates the belief in it according to tragic usage. Nevertheless Destiny is seldom in Euripides the invisible spirit of the entire poem, the fundamental thought of the tragic world. We have seen that this idea admits of being conceived upon a severer or milder hypothesis ; that the midnight terrors
of Destiny brighten up, in the course of an entire trilogy, even into indications of a wise and merciful Providence. But Euripides has drawn it down from the region of the Infinite; and inevitable Necessity, under his hands, not unfrequently degenerates into the caprice of Chance. Hence he can also no longer apply it to its proper purpose, namely, to heighten by the contrast there with the moral freedom of man. How few of his plays turn upon a stedfast resistance to the decrees of Destiny, or an equally heroic submission to them! His personages suffer for the most part, because they must, not because they will.
The mutual subordination between ideal elevation, character, and passion, which we find observed in this sequence by Sophocles and the Grecian sculpture, Euripides has just reversed. To him, passion is the main thing; then he provides for character; and if these endeavours leave him any further scope, he attempts now and then to superinduce greatness and dignity, but more frequently amiableness.
We have already admitted that the persons of the drama cannot be all alike faultless, because in that case hardly any collision could ensue between them, and therefore no complication could find place. But Euripides, as Aristotle expresses it, has often drawn his persons gratuitously vile; for instance, Menelaus in the Orestes. There were great crimes reported of many old heroes in the traditions hallowed by the popular be
but Euripides palms upon them mere petty villanies of his own arbitrary invention. In fact, he makes it no business at all of his to exhibit the race of heroes as towering in its majestic stature above the present day; rather he labours to fill up or bridge over the gulph that lay between his contemporaries and that wondrous olden time, and to spy upon the gods and heroes of the further side in their night-attire: a species of observation against which no greatness, it is said, can stand proof. He takes familiar liberties with them; he draws the supernatural and fabulous, not into the sphere of human nature, (a proceeding which we extolled in Sophocles,) but into the limits of the imperfect individual. This is what Sophocles meant, when he said that “he drew men such as they ought to be, Euripides such as they were.” Not that his own personages could always be set up as models of blameless behaviour; his expression referred to ideal sublimity and gracefulness of character and
manners. It is Euripides' darling object to be perpetually reminding his audience: “See! these persons were human beings subject to the very same infirmities, acting upon the very same motives as you, as the meanest among you.” Therefore, he depicts quite con amore the weak points and moral failings of his persons; nay, makes them display them openly for themselves in naïve confessions. They are often not merely common, but make their boast of it as if this was just as it ought to be.
The Chorus, in his treatment of it, becomes for the most part an extra-essential piece of finery: its odes are often quite episodical, devoid of reference to the action, rather shining than sublime and truly inspired. “The Chorus,” says Aristotle, “must be regarded as one of the actors and as a part of the whole: it must co-operate in the action : not as Euripides, but as Sophocles manages it.” The elder comedians enjoyed the privilege of introducing the Chorus at times conversing in their name with the audience : this was called a Parabasis, and was, as I shall hereafter show, in strict accordance with the spirit of this kind of drama. But though this procedure is by no means tragic, Euripides frequently, by Julius Pollux's account, did the same in his tragedies, and in this so forgot himself, that in the Danaïds he made a chorus of women use grammatical inflexions which belong only to the male sex.
Thus has this poet at once abolished the essence of Tragedy, and marred the beautiful symmetry of its exterior structure. He generally sacrifices the whole to the parts; and in
. these, too, he aims rather at foreign charms than genuine poetic beauty.
In the accompanying music he adopted all the innovations invented by Timotheus, and chose those harmonies which were most suitable to the softness of his poetry. In the same manner he proceeded in his treatment of the metres: his versification is luxuriant, and runs into anomaly. The same diffluent and emasculated character would undoubtedly appear, upon deeper investigation, in the rhythms of his choral odes likewise.
Every where he lays on, even to overloading, those merely corporeal charms, which Winckelmann calls “adulation of the gross external sense;" all that is exciting, striking; in a word, all that produces a lively effect, without real substance for the mind and the feelings. He labours for effect to a degree in