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Once only; and once groaned; but ne'er unclosed
But chiefly of that night, and of those forms
ESSAY ON THE CHARACTER OF EURIPIDES,
AS A TRAGIC POET.
In examining the lives of eminent literary men, we find that in every age and in every country, they have eagerly profited by the lessons of some learned and virtuous contemporary, or have drunk deep from the cup of knowledge, prepared for them by the wisdom of their predecessors. Thus it was with Euripides. In the era in which he lived, a mystical philosophy, baffling the energies of the mind, prevailed, with very few exceptions, throughout Greece. Euripides was therefore fortunate in having his mind cultivated under the wise superintendence of Anaxagoras, who copiously imparted to his apt and eager pupil, those instructive lessons in ethics and physics, which that celebrated philosopher was so eminently qualified to communicate. His intimate converse with the virtuous Socrates, who was some years younger than his friend, tended much to confirm those early impressions. To the precepts of the one, and to
*«'Od: Ewxpatns," says Ælian, L. II c. xiii." otanov hey importa Tois Olargous, tipors de 'Eveinions της τραγωδίας ποιητης ήγωνιζετο καινοις τραγωδοις, τοτε γι αφικνεισο. Και Πειραιοι δε αγωνιζομενου τον Ευριπιδου και εκει κατηες έχαιρε γαρ το άνδρι, δηλονότι δια τι την σοφίαν αυτου, και την εν τοις μετροις αρετην.”
the friendship of both of these eminent philosophers, are we therefore to look for the stamp of those qualities which characterize the mind and genius of Euripides.
The early friendship of Socrates was not directed to an unworthy object. For this famed tragedian, by his captivating eloquence, exhibited such attractive pictures of piety, firmness, prudence and patience, in the persons of his heroes, as roused the sensible and finely organized minds of his countrymen, to imitate and rival those virtues, hallowed as they were by the divine impress of genius. His sentiments on the providence of the Deity, and the immortality of the soul, are at once natural and sublime. Indeed his energetic mind seems to have suggested to him such accurate conceptions of those mysterious subjects, as few of his countrymen had at that time attained ; and such as, considering the age, justly excite our unbounded admiration. Were we to decompose his writings, the ingredients would resemble the maxims of a moral philosopher, rather than the materials of an ordinary tragic poet. Writings, which could elicit the highest praises and the warmest admiration of Demosthenes, Plutarch, Cicero and Quinctilian, must indeed possess no ordinary merits.
Of that bright triumvirate in the tragic art, Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the names of the former two only have been immortalized, by the sweet strains of those poets, who flourished in the golden age of Roman literature. But we are not thence rashly to infer, that Euripides was considered by them the dimmest of the bright constellation of talent which illuminated, at that period, the smiling region of Greece. This was as far from their thoughts, as it would be wide of the truth.
In his style, Euripides succeeds in blending propriety with the utmost perspicuity. His delicate taste banished far beyond the pale of tragedy, that fustian and rant, which beset those who are ever aiming at the sublime. But the success of his coun.
* To this circumstance he owed the name of Exnuixos diaoropos; and such passages as Phæniss. v. 549. Troad. v. 681, and a thousand others, show that the appellation was not misapplied.
7" Illud quidem,” says Quinctilian, L. X. c. i.“nemo non fateatur necesse est, iis, qui se ad agendum comparaverint, utiliorem longe (Æschylo et Sophocle) Euripidem fore. Namque is et vi et sermone (quo ipsum reprehendunt, quibus gravitas et cothurnus et sonus Sophoclis videtur esse sublimior) magis accedit oratorio generi : et sententiis densus, et rebus ipsis, et in his, quæ a sapientibus tradita sunt, pæne ipsis par, et in dicendo ac respondendo, cuilibet eorum, qui fuerunt in foro diserti, comparandus. In affectibus vero cum omnibus mirus, tum in iis, qui miseratione constant, facile præcipuus." The refined Cicero is equally Jaudatory, and in more elegant periods,
trymen, in freeing themselves from the Persian power, was nearly as fatal to simplicity and eloquence in style, as the arms of that power had been to the liberties of Greece. For the Athenians, always easily excited, were so elated at expelling the myriads which overspread their land, that only such language in dramatic compositions, as was lofty, full of pomp, and roused heroic feelings, could inspire with delight the multitudes that at that period resorted to the theatres.
When language was thus running riot, Euripides happily interfered, and checked its headlong career. Aschylus and Sophocles, in some measure, pampered the depraved and vitiated appetite which had been falsely excited by the circumstances of the times. The Athenians required a manly and independent writer, like Euripides, to say to them, “I do not write in order to learn from you, but that you may learn from me."*
The Athenians were hurried away by the soul-stirring sentiments with which Euripides animated his heroes; and the witchery and felicity of his pathetic diction enabled him to manage at pleasure, the passions and affections. In painting the furies of love, or exciting the emotions of pity, he far excels his two great rivals. However, when compared generally with Sophocles, it seems to be the prevailing opinion, that with less pomp
of diction, less force and elevation of character, and less knowledge of dramatic effect than his rival ; he nevertheless, excels him in tenderness, suavity, and moral sentiment. He is sparing in the use of poetical words; but under his hand, ordinary expressions judiciously selected ennoble the most common thought. With rare felicity, he has appropriated to himself the just medium between meanness and inflation; and his style is at once, eloquent, clear, harmonious, flowing, and so flexible, that, without effort, it adapts itself to every feeling of the soul.
*“Nec Euripides quidem” says Valerius Maximus, L. iii. c. 7, “ Athenis arrogans visus est, cum, postulante populo, ut ex tragedia quadam quandam sententiam tolleret, progressus in scenam dixit ; se, ut eum doceret, non, ut ab eo disceret, fabulas componere solere. Laudanda profecto fiducia est, quæ æstinationem sui certo pondere examinat, tantum sibi arrogans, quantuin a contemplu et insolentia distare satis est.” His slowness of composition is mentioned by the same author, in the following words: “Itaque etiam quod Alcestidi tragico poetæ respondit, probabile : apud quem cum quereretur, quod eo triduo non ultra tres versus maximo impenso labore deducere potuisset, atque is se centum perfacile scripsisse gloriaretur; sed hoc, inquit, interest, quod tui in triduum tantummodo, mei vero in omne tempus sufficient. Alterius enim fecundi cursus scripta intra primas memoriæ metas corruerunt; alterius cunctante stilo elucubratum opus per omne ævi tempus plenis gloriæ velis feretur.”
But perhaps the most characteristic quality of Euripides, is, that his style is always natural, and in unison with the sentiment expressed. In his choral verses, he not unfrequently rises and soars majestically in the same regions with the sublime Pindar, without, however, meeting with that catastrophe, which Horace declares must be the fate of such adventurers.
Perfection however is scarcely attainable by the most profound genius. This great tragedian, whose beauties are flung with so plenteous a hand over every page, has permitted to intrude among the beautiful creations of his genius, blemishes of various kinds. Under the management of Æschylus and Sophocles, tragedy had assumed an imposing and vigorous appearance, from the bold imagination of the former, and from the magnificent and dignified style of the latter. But Euripides lowered the high-pitched tone of his art, and exhibited the vices, as well as the virtues, of his characters. He took an enlarged view of mankind, and considered them, as they really were, swept along by the tide of events, and subject to all the imperfections of humanity. This innovation in the tragic art, at first startled his countrymen, accustomed to the ideal perfection of his two rivals ; but, by degrees, they became more reconciled to it, when they perceived that his pictures were the faithful delineations of nature, and individual character. But, by this change, he is generally considered to have enervated the character of tragedy. The low familiarity of expression, and the short dialogue, in both of which he occasionally indulges, are incompatible with the dignity of the art, and have not unfrequently a tragi-comic effect. But the fault is amply redeemed, perhaps, in those very parts of his drama, by the pleasure which results from the closeness of the imitation, and by those precious touches of nature, which infuse delight into the heart of genius. Such an effect can be produced only by an exact transcript of nature, as it really exists—a transcript of what the poet himself has actually felt, and of what he has actually observed.
Though his eloquence raised him high in the opinion of orators, yet it repeatedly degenerates into genuine verbosity. He multiplies sentences and reflections, and takes delight in exhibiting his extensive knowledge, and surrendering himself to the diction of oratory. For this quality he is praised by some, and no less censured by others. It is generally acknowledged, that the lofty style of Sophocles but ill accords with the prosaic lambic ; but the change that the diction of tragedy underwent by the hand of Euripides, when he lowered it into unison with the measure, has given rise to various opinions, according to the standard to which the disputants referred. The opinion of the
Stagirite, on this point, is of some importance. In his book on rhetoric, he says: “ The best way to conceal artifice, and make your language appear easy and natural, is by forming it chiefly of the words and phrases of customary speech, properly selected, as Euripides does, who first set the example."
Let us now consider this great poet, with respect to his management of the different divisions of a regular drama; and first of the chorus. According to the ancient critics, it should be considered as one of the persons in the drama, should be a part of the whole, and a sharer in the action. In this respect, Euripides exposes himself to censure, for his choral odes will, in general, be found more loosely connected with his subject, than those of Sophocles, or of the other tragedians. However, this may, in some degree, depend upon the period in which he wrote, for it is well known, that the condition of the chorus, from time to time, underwent great and important changes. At first, it was the whole of the poem; it then was relieved by the intermixture of dialogue, though still constituting the principal part; then it became subordinate to the dialogue, and after that, discursive, and imperfectly connected with the piece. We finally detect this Proteus in the modern theatre, in the shape of the performers in the orchestra.
A few words on the subject of the prologue. The business of this introductory part of the drama, was to give the spectator, either directly in its very outset, or more obliquely in its course, so much information relative to the subject of the piece, as would enable him, without confusion, to follow the action. Euripides generally adopted the former of these methods. Nearly the whole of his dramas are opened by one of the characters giving a frigid detail of the events anterior to, and connected with the action; relating either his own genealogy, or that of one of the principal personages; informing us of the motives which has excited him to leave the sky, if he be a god; or the tomb, if he be a mortal.
This tedious and inartificial plan has been the subject of much happy ridicule to the witty Aristophanes. But Æschylus and Sophocles, like our moderns in the tragic art, leave the argument to the oblique information and gradual developement of the action itself, and make the separate prologue subservient to other purposes, unconnected with the subject of the drama. We have already mentioned, that Euripides lowered the tone of tragedy; and his inartificial prologues of explanatory narrative, seem to be only an extension of this plan. They forcibly remind us of the state of tragedy previous to the introduction of the dialogue, when it consisted only of a story told between the acts, if we may use the expression, of the Dithyrambic chorus,