Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.Merope. A Tragedy. 1858
[First published 1858.]
But, as often as it has happened to me to be blamed or praised for my supposed addiction to the classical school in poetry, I have thought, with real humiliation, how little any works of mine were entitled to rank among the genuine works of that school; how little they were calculated to give, to readers unacquainted with the great creations of classical antiquity, any adequate impression of their form or of their spirit. And yet, whatever the critics may say, there exists, I am convinced, even in England, even in this stronghold of the romantic school, a wide though an ill-informed curiosity on the subject of the so-called classical school, meriting a more complete satisfaction than it has hitherto obtained. Greek art—the antique—classical beauty—a nameless hope and interest attaches, I can often see, to these words, even in the minds of those who have been brought up among the productions of the romantic school; of those who have been taught to consider classicalism as inseparable from coldness, and the antique as another phrase for the unreal. So immortal, so indestructible is the power of true beauty, of consummate form: it may be submerged, but the tradition of it survives: nations arise which know it not, which hardly believe in the report of it; but they, too, are haunted with an indefinable interest in its name, with an inexplicable curiosity as to its nature.
I desired to try, therefore, how much of the effectiveness of the Greek poetical forms I could retain in an English poem constructed under the conditions of those forms; of those forms, too, in their severest and most definite expression, in their application to dramatic poetry.
I thought at first that I might accomplish my object by a translation of one of the great works of Aeschylus or Sophocles. But a translation is a work not only inferior to the original by the whole difference of talent between the first composer and his translator: it is even inferior to the best which the translator could do under more inspiring circumstances. No man can do his best with a subject which does not penetrate him: no man can be penetrated by a subject which he does not conceive independently.
Should I take some subject on which we have an extant work by one of the great Greek poets, and treat it independently? Something was to be said for such a course: in antiquity, the same tragic stories were handled by all the tragic poets: Voltaire says truly that to see the same materials differently treated by different poets is most interesting; accordingly, we have an Oedipus of Corneille, an Oedipus of Voltaire: innumerable are the Agamemnons, the Electras, the Antigones, of the French and Italian poets from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. But the same disadvantage which we have in translating clings to us in our attempt to treat these subjects independently: their treatment by the ancient masters is so overwhelmingly great and powerful that we can henceforth conceive them only as they are there treated: an independent conception of them has become impossible for us: in working upon them we are still, therefore, subject to conditions under which no man can do his best.
It remained to select a subject from among those which had been considered to possess the true requisites of good tragic subjects; on which great works had been composed, but had not survived to chill emulation by their grandeur. Of such subjects there is, fortunately, no lack. In the writings of Hyginus, a Latin mythographer of uncertain date, we possess a large stock of them. The heroic stories in Hyginus, Maffei, the reformer of the Italian theatre, imagined rightly or wrongly to be the actual summaries of lost Greek dramas: they are, at any rate, subjects on which lost dramas were founded. Maffei counsels the poets of his nation to turn from the inferior subjects on which they were employing themselves, to this ‘miniera di tragici argomenti,’ this rich mine of subjects for tragedy. Lessing, the great German critic, echoes Maffei’s counsel, but adds a warning. ‘Yes,’ he cries, ‘the great subjects are there, but they await an intelligent eye to regard them: they can be handled, not by the great majority of poets, but only by the small minority.’
Among these subjects presented in the collection of Hyginus, there is one which has long attracted my interest, from the testimony of the ancients to its excellence, and from the results which that testimony has called forth from the emulation of the moderns. That subject is the story of Merope. To the effectiveness of the situations which this story offered, Aristotle and Plutarch have borne witness: a celebrated tragedy upon it, probably by Euripides, existed in antiquity. ‘The Cresphontes of Euripides is lost,’ exclaims the reviewer of Voltaire’s Mérope, a Jesuit, and not unwilling to conciliate the terrible pupil of his order; ‘the Cresphontes of Euripides is lost: M. de Voltaire has restored it to us.’ ‘Aristotle,’ says Voltaire, ‘Aristotle, in his immortal work on Poetry, does not hesitate to affirm that the recognition between Merope and her son was the most interesting moment of the Greek stage.’ Aristotle affirms no such thing; but he does say that the story of Merope, like the stories of Iphigeneia and Antiope, supplies an example of a recognition of the most affecting kind. And Plutarch says; ‘Look at Merope in the tragedy, lifting up the axe against her own son as being the murderer of her own son, and crying—
It is singular that neither Aristotle nor Plutarch names the author of the tragedy: scholiasts and other late writers quote from it as from a work of Euripides; but the only writer of authority who names him as its author is Cicero. About fifty lines of it have come down to us: the most important of these remains are the passage just quoted, and a choral address to Peace; of these I have made use in my tragedy, translating the former, and of the latter adopting the general thought, that of rejoicing at the return of peace: the other fragments consist chiefly of detached moral sentences, of which I have not made any use.
It may be interesting to give some account of the more celebrated of those modern works which have been founded upon this subject. But before I proceed to do this, I will state what accounts we have of the story itself.
These proceed from three sources—Apollodorus, Pausanias, and Hyginus. Of their accounts that of Apollodorus is the most ancient, that of Pausanias the most historically valuable, and that of Hyginus the fullest. I will begin with the last-named writer.
‘Merope sent away and concealed her infant son. Polyphontes sought for him everywhere, and promised gold to whoever should slay him. He, when he grew up, laid a plan to avenge the murder of his father and brothers. In pursuance of this plan he came to king Polyphontes and asked for the promised gold, saying that he had slain the son of Cresphontes and Merope. The king ordered him to be hospitably entertained, intending to inquire further of him. He, being very tired, went to sleep, and an old man, who was the channel through whom the mother and son used to communicate, arrives at this moment in tears, bringing word to Merope that her son had disappeared from his protector’s house. Merope, believing that the sleeping stranger is the murderer of her son, comes into the guest-chamber with an axe, not knowing that he whom she would slay was her son: the old man recognized him, and withheld Merope from slaying him. After the recognition had taken place, Merope, to prepare the way for her vengeance, affected to be reconciled with Polyphontes. The king, overjoyed, celebrated a sacrifice: his guest, pretending to strike the sacrificial victim, slew the king, and so got back his father’s kingdom.’
‘Cresphontes had not reigned long in Messenia when he was murdered together with two of his sons. And Polyphontes reigned in his stead, he, too, being of the family of Hercules; and he had for his wife, against her will, Merope, the widow of the murdered king. But Merope had borne to Cresphontes a third son, called Aepytus: him she gave to her own father to bring up. He, when he came to man’s estate, returned secretly to Messenia, and slew Polyphontes and the other murderers of his father.’
Pausanias adds nothing to the facts told by Apollodorus, except that he records the proceedings of Cresphontes which had provoked the resentment of his Dorian nobles, and led to his murder. His statements on this point will be found in the Historical Introduction which follows this Preface.
The account of the modern fortunes of the story of Merope is a curious chapter in literary history. In the early age of the French theatre this subject attracted the notice of a great man, if not a great poet, the cardinal Richelieu. At his theatre, in the Palais Royal, was brought out, in 1641, a tragedy under the title of Téléphonte, the name given by Hyginus to the surviving son of Merope. This piece is said by Voltaire to have contained about a hundred lines by the great cardinal, who had, as is well known, more bent than genius for dramatic composition. There his vein appears to have dried up, and the rest is by an undistinguished hand. This tragedy was followed by another on the same subject from the resident minister, at Paris, of the celebrated Christina of Sweden. Two pieces with the title of Mérope, besides others on the same story, but with different names, were brought out at Paris before the Mérope of Voltaire appeared. It seems that none of them created any memorable impression.
The first eminent success was in Italy. There too, as in France, more than one Merope was early produced: one of them in the sixteenth century, by a Count Torelli, composed with choruses: but the first success was achieved by Maffei. Scipio Maffei, called by Voltaire the Sophocles and Varro of Verona, was a noble and cultivated person. He became in middle life the historian of his native place, Verona; and may claim the honour of having partly anticipated Niebuhr in his famous discovery, in the Capitular library of that city, of the lost works of Gaius, the Roman lawyer. He visited France and England, and received an honorary degree at Oxford. But in earlier life he signalized himself as the reviver of the study of Greek literature in Italy; and with the aim to promote that study, and to rescue the Italian theatre from the debasement into which it had fallen, he brought out at Modena, in 1713, his tragedy of Merope.
The effect was immense. ‘Let the Greek and Roman writers give place: here is a greater production than the Oedipus!’ wrote, in Latin verse, an enthusiastic admirer. In the winter following its appearance, the tragedy kept constant possession of the stage in Italy; and its reputation travelled into France and England. In England a play was produced in 1731, by a writer called Jeffreys, professedly taken from the Merope of Maffei. But at this period a love-intrigue was considered indispensable in a tragedy: Voltaire was even compelled by the actors to introduce one in his Oedipus: and although in Maffei’s work there is no love-intrigue, the English adapter felt himself bound to supply the deficiency. Accordingly he makes, if we may trust Voltaire, the unknown son of Merope in love with one of her maids of honour: he is brought before his mother as his own supposed murderer: she gives him the choice of death by the dagger or by poison: he chooses the latter, drinks off the poison and falls insensible: but reappears at the end of the tragedy safe and sound, a friend of the maid of honour having substituted a sleeping-draught for the poison. Such is Voltaire’s account of this English Merope, of which I have not been able to obtain sight. Voltaire is apt to exaggerate; but the work was, without doubt, sufficiently absurd. A better English translation, by Ayre, appeared in 1740. I have taken from Maffei a line in my tragedy—
Maffei makes some important changes in the story as told by its ancient relaters. In his tragedy the unknown prince, Merope’s son, is called Egisto: Merope herself is not, as the ancients represented her, at the time of her son’s return the wife of Polyphontes, but is repelling the importunate offer of his hand by her husband’s murderer: Egisto does not, like Orestes, know his own parentage, and return secretly to his own home in order to wreak vengeance, in concert with his mother, upon his father’s murderer: he imagines himself the son of Messenian parents, but of a rank not royal, entrusted to an old man, Polidoro, to be brought up; and is driven by curiosity to quit his protector and visit his native land. He enters Messenia, and is attacked by a robber, whom he kills. The blood upon his dress attracts the notice of some soldiers of Polyphontes whom he falls in with; he is seized and brought to the royal palace. On hearing his story, a suspicion seizes Merope, who has heard from Polidoro that her son has quitted him, that the slain person must have been her own son. The suspicion is confirmed by the sight of a ring on the finger of Egisto, which had belonged to Cresphontes, and which Merope supposes the unknown stranger to have taken from her murdered son: she twice attempts his life: the arrival of Polidoro at last clears up the mystery for her; but at the very moment she recognizes Egisto, they are separated, and no interview of recognition takes place between the mother and son. Finally, the prince is made acquainted with his origin, and kills Polyphontes in the manner described by Hyginus.
This is an outline of the story as arranged by Maffei. This arrangement has been followed, in the main, by all his successors. His treatment of the subject has, I think, some grave defects, which I shall presently notice: but his work has much nobleness and feeling; it seems to me to possess, on the whole, more merit of a strictly poetical kind than any of the subsequent works upon the same subject.
Voltaire’s curiosity, which never slumbered, was attracted by the success of Maffei. It was not until 1736, however, when his interest in Maffei’s tragedy had been increased by a personal acquaintance with its author, that his own Mérope was composed. It was not brought out upon the stage until 1743. It was received, like its Italian predecessor, with an enthusiasm which, assuredly, the English Merope will not excite. From its exhibition dates the practice of calling for a successful author to appear at the close of his piece: the audience were so much enchanted with Voltaire’s tragedy, that they insisted on seeing the man who had given them such delight. To Corneille had been paid the honour of reserving for him the same seat in the theatre at all representations; but neither he nor Racine were ever ‘called for.’
Voltaire, in a long complimentary letter, dedicated his tragedy to Maffei. He had at first intended, he says, merely to translate the Merope of his predecessor, which he so greatly admired: he still admired it; above all, he admired it because it possessed simplicity; that simplicity which is, he says, his own idol. But he has to deal with a Parisian audience, with an audience who have been glutted with masterpieces until their delicacy has become excessive; until they can no longer support the simple and rustic air, the details of country life, which Maffei had imitated from the Greek theatre. The audience of Paris, of that city in which some thirty thousand spectators daily witnessed theatrical performances, and thus acquired, by constant practice, a severity of taste, to which the ten thousand Athenians who saw tragedies but four times a year could not pretend—of that terrible city, in which
He does himself less than justice. When he objects, indeed, to that in Maffei’s work which is truly ‘naïf et rustique,’ to that which is truly in a Greek spirit, he is wrong. His objection, for instance, to the passage in which the old retainer of Cresphontes describes, in the language of a man of his class, the rejoicings which celebrated his master’s accession, is, in my opinion, perfectly groundless. But the wonderful penetration and clear sense of Voltaire seizes, in general, upon really weak points in Maffei’s work: upon points which, to an Athenian, would have seemed as weak as they seemed to Voltaire. A French audience, he says, would not have borne to witness Polyphontes making love to Merope, whose husband he had murdered: neither would an Athenian audience have borne it. To hear Polyphontes say to Merope ‘Io t’amo,’ even though he is but feigning, for state purposes, a love which he has not really, shocks the natural feeling of mankind. Our usages, says Voltaire, would not permit that Merope should twice rush upon her son to slay him, once with a javelin, the next time with an axe. The French dramatic usages, then, would on this point have perfectly agreed with the laws of reason and good taste: this repetition of the same incident is tasteless and unmeaning. It is a grave fault of art, says Voltaire, that, at the critical moment of recognition, not a word passes between Merope and her son. He is right; a noble opportunity is thus thrown away. He objects to Maffei’s excessive introduction of conversations between subaltern personages: these conversations are, no doubt, tiresome. Other points there are, with respect to which we may say that Voltaire’s objections would have been perfectly sound had Maffei really done what is imputed to him: but he has not. Voltaire has a talent for misrepresentation, and he often uses it unscrupulously.
He never used it more unscrupulously than on this occasion. The French public, it appears, took Voltaire’s expressions of obligation to Maffei somewhat more literally than Voltaire liked: they imagined that the French Mérope was rather a successful adaptation of the Italian Merope than an original work. It was necessary to undeceive them. A letter appeared, addressed by a M. de La Lindelle to Voltaire, in which Voltaire is reproached for his excessive praises of Maffei’s tragedy, in which that work is rigorously analysed, its faults remorselessly displayed. No merit is allowed to it: it is a thoroughly bad piece on a thoroughly good subject. Lessing, who, in 1768, in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie, reviewed Voltaire’s Mérope at great length, evidently has divined, what is the truth, that M. de La Lindelle and Voltaire are one and the same person. It required indeed but little of the great Lessing’s sagacity to divine that. An unknown M. de La Lindelle does not write one letter in that style of unmatched incisiveness and animation, that style compared to which the style of Lord Macaulay is tame, and the style of Isocrates is obscure, and then pass for ever from the human stage. M. de La Lindelle is Voltaire; but that does not hinder Voltaire from replying to him with perfect gravity. ‘You terrify me!’ he exclaims to his correspondent—that is, to himself: ‘you terrify me! you are as hypercritical as Scaliger. Why not fix your attention rather on the beauties of M. Maffei’s work, than on its undoubted defects? It is my sincere opinion that, in some points, M. Maffei’s Merope is superior to my own.’ The transaction is one of the most signal instances of literary sharp practice on record. To this day, in the ordinary editions of Voltaire, M. de La Lindelle’s letter figures, in the correspondence prefixed to the tragedy of Mérope, as the letter of an authentic person; although the true history of the proceeding has long been well known, and Voltaire’s conduct in it was severely blamed by La Harpe.
Voltaire had said that his Mérope was occasioned by that of Maffei. ‘Occasioned,’ says Lessing, ‘is too weak a word: M. de Voltaire’s tragedy owes everything to that of M. Maffei.’ This is not just. We have seen the faults in Maffei’s work pointed out by Voltaire. Some of these faults he avoids: at the same time he discerns, with masterly clearness, the true difficulties of the subject. ‘Comment se prendre,’ he says, ‘pour faire penser à Mérope que son fils est l’assassin de son fils même?’ That is one problem; here is another: ‘Comment trouver des motifs necessaires pour que Polyphonte veuille épouser Mérope?’ Let us see which of Maffei’s faults Voltaire avoids: let us see how far he solves the problems which he himself has enunciated.
The story, in its main outline, is the same with Voltaire as with Maffei; but in some particulars it is altered, so as to have more probability. Like Maffei’s Egisto, Voltaire’s Égisthe does not know his own origin: like him, youthful curiosity drives him to quit his aged protector, and to re-enter Messenia. Like him he has an encounter with a stranger, whom he slays, and whose blood, staining his clothes, leads to his apprehension. But this stranger is an emissary of Polyphontes, sent to effect the young prince’s murder. This is an improvement upon the robber of Maffei, who has no connexion whatever with the action of the piece. Suspicion falls upon Égisthe’s on the same grounds as those on which it fell upon Egisto. The suspicion is confirmed in Égisthe’s case by the appearance of a coat of armour, as, in Egisto’s case, it was confirmed by the appearance of a ring. In neither case does Merope seem to have sufficient cause to believe the unknown youth to be her son’s murderer. In Voltaire’s tragedy, Merope is ignorant until the end of the third act that Polyphontes is her husband’s murderer; nay, she believes that Cresphontes, murdered by the brigands of Pylos, has been avenged by Polyphontes, who claims her gratitude on that ground. He desires to marry her in order to strengthen his position. ‘Of interests in the state,’ he says,
What is the real merit of Voltaire’s tragedy? We must forget the rhymed Alexandrines; that metre, faulty not so much because it is disagreeable in itself, as because it has in it something which is essentially unsuited to perfect tragedy; that metre which is so indefensible, and which Voltaire has so ingeniously laboured to defend. He takes a noble passage from Racine’s Phèdre, alters words so as to remove the rhyme, and asks, if the passage now produces as good an effect as before. But a fine passage which we are used to we like in the form in which we are used to it, with all its faults. Prose is, undoubtedly, a less noble vehicle for tragedy than verse; yet we should not like the fine passages in Goethe’s prose tragedy of Egmontthe better for having them turned into verse. Besides, it is not clear that the unrhymed Alexandrine is a better tragic metre than the rhymed. Voltaire says that usage has now established the metre in France, and that the dramatic poet has no escape from it. For him and his contemporaries this is a valid plea; but how much one regrets that the poetical feeling of the French nation did not, at a period when such as alternation was still possible, change for a better this unsuitable tragic metre, as the Greeks, in the early period of their tragic art, changed for the more fitting iambus their trochaic tetrameter.
return to Voltaire’s Mérope. It is admirably constructed, and must have been most effective on the stage. One feels, as one reads it, that a poet gains something by living amongst a population who have the nose of the rhinoceros: his ingenuity becomes sharpened. This work has, besides, that stamp of a prodigious talent which none of Voltaire’s works are without; it has vigour, clearness, rapid movement; it has lines which are models of terse observation—
Voltaire’s Mérope was adapted for the English stage by Aaron Hill, a singular man; by turns, poet, soldier, theatrical manager, and Lord Peterborough’s private secretary; but always, and above all, an indefatigable projector. He originated a beech-oil company, a Scotch timber company, and a plan to colonize Florida. He published Essays on Reducing the Price of Coals, on Repairing Dagenham Breach, and on English Grape Wines; an epic poem on Gideon, a tragedy called The Fatal Vision, or Fall of Siam, and a translation of Voltaire’s Zaïre. His Merope was his last work. It appeared in 1749 with a dedication to Lord Bolingbroke; it was brought on the stage with great success, Garrick acting in it; and Hill, who was at this time in poverty, and who died soon after, received a considerable sum from his benefit nights. I have not seen this work, which is not included in the Inchbald collection of acted plays. Warton calls Aaron Hill an affected and fustian writer, and this seems to have been his reputation among his contemporaries. His Zara, which I have seen, has the fault of so much of English literature of the second class—an incurable defect of style.
One other Merope remains to be noticed—the Merope of Alfieri. In this tragedy, which appeared in 1783, Alfieri has entirely followed Maffei and Voltaire. He seems to have followed Maffei in the first half of it; Voltaire in the second. His Polyphontes, however, does not make love to Merope: desiring to obtain her hand, in order by this marriage to make the Messenians forget their attachment to Cresphontes, he appeals to her self-interest. ‘You are miserable,’ he says; ‘but a throne is a great consolation. A throne is—
This work of Alfieri has the characteristic merit, and the characteristic fault, of Alfieri’s tragedies: it has the merit of elevation, and the fault of narrowness. Narrow elevation; that seems to me exactly to express quality of Alfieri’s poetry: he is a noble-minded, deeply interesting man, but a monotonous poet.
A mistake, a grave mistake it seems to me, in the treatment of their subject, is common to Maffei, Voltaire, and Alfieri. They have abandoned the tradition where they had better have followed it; they have followed it, where they had better have abandoned it.
The tradition is a great matter to a poet; it is an unspeakable support; it gives him the feeling that he is treading on solid ground. Aristotle tells the tragic poet that he must not destroy the received stories. A noble and accomplished living poet, M. Manzoni, has, in an admirable dissertation, developed this thesis of the importance to the poet of a basis of tradition. Its importance I feel so strongly, that, where driven to invent in the false story told by Merope’s son, as by Orestes in the Electra, of his own death, I could not satisfy myself until I discovered in Pausanias a tradition, which I took for my basis, of an Arcadian hunter drowned in the lake Stymphalus, down one of those singular Katabothra, or chasms in the limestone rock, so well known in Greece, in a manner similar to that in which Aepytus is represented to have perished.
Maffei did right, I think, in altering the ancient tradition where it represents Merope as actually the wife of Polyphontes. It revolts our feeling to consider her as married to her husband’s murderer; and it is no great departure from the tradition to represent her as sought in marriage by him, but not yet obtained. But why did Maffei (for he, it will be remembered, gave the story its modern arrangement, which Voltaire and Alfieri have, in all its leading points, followed), why did Maffei abandon that part of the tradition which represents Aepytus, the Messenian prince, as acquainted with his own origin? Why did he and his followers prefer to attribute to curiosity a return which the tradition attributed to a far more tragic motive? Why did they compel themselves to invent a machinery of robbers, assassins, guards, rings, girdles, and I know not what, to effect that which the tradition effects in a far simpler manner, to place Aepytus before his mother as his own murderer? Lessing imagines that Maffei, who wished to depict, above all, the maternal anxiety of Merope, conceived that this anxiety would be more naturally and powerfully awakened by the thought of her child reared in hardship and obscurity as a poor man’s son, than by the thought of him reared in splendour as a prince in the palace of her own father. But what a conception of the sorrow of a queen, whose husband has been murdered, and whose son is an exile from his inheritance, to suppose that such a sorrow is enhanced by the thought that her child is rudely housed and plainly fed; to assume that it would take a less tragic complexion if she knew that he lived in luxury! No; the true tragic motive of Merope’s sorrow is elsewhere: the tradition amply supplied it.
Here, then, the moderns have invented amiss, because they have invented needlessly; because, on this point, the tradition, as it stood, afforded perfect materials to the tragic poet: and, by Maffei’s change, not a higher tragic complication, but merely a greater puzzle and intricacy is produced. I come now to a point on which the tradition might with advantage, as I think, have been set aside; and that is, the character of Polyphontes.
Yet, on this point, to speak of setting aside the tradition is to speak too strongly; for the tradition is here not complete. Neither Pausanias nor Apollodorus mention circumstances which definitely fix the character of Polyphontes; Hyginus, no doubt, represents him as a villain, and, if Hyginus, follows Euripides, Euripides also thus represented him. Euripides may possibly have done so; yet a purer tragic feeling, it seems to me, is produced, if Polyphontes is represented as not wholly black and inexcusable, than if he is represented as a mere monster of cruelty and hypocrisy. Aristotle’s profound remark is well know, that the tragic personage whose ruin is represented, should be a personage neither eminently good, nor yet one brought to ruin by sheer iniquity; nay, that his character should incline rather to good than to bad, but that he should have some fault which impels him to his fall. For, as he explains, the two grand tragic feelings, pity and terror, which it is the business of tragedy to excite, will not be excited by the spectacle of the ruin of a mere villain; since pity is for those who suffer undeservedly, and such a man suffers deservedly: terror is excited by the fall of one of like nature with ourselves, and we feel that the mere villain is not as ourselves. Aristotle, no doubt, is here speaking, above all, of the Protagonist, or principal personage of the drama; but the noblest tragic poets of Greece rightly extended their application of the truth on which his remark is based to all the personages of the drama: neither the Creon of Sophocles, nor the Clytemnestra of Aeschylus, are wholly inexcusable; in none of the extant dramas of Aeschylus or Sophocles is there a character which is entirely bad. For such a character we must go to Euripides; we must go to an art—wonderful indeed, for I entirely dissent from the unreserved disparagers of this great poet—but an art of less moral significance than the art of Sophocles and Aeschylus; we must go to tragedies like the Hecuba, for villains like Polymestor.
What is the main dramatic difficulty of the story of Merope, as usually treated? It is, as Alfieri rightly saw, that the interest naturally declines from the moment of Merope’s recognition of her son; that the destruction of the tyrant is not, after this, matter of interest enough to affect us deeply. This is true, if Polyphontes is a mere villain. It is not true, if he is one for the ruin of whom we may, in spite of his crime, feel a profound compassion. Then our interest in the story lasts to the end: for to the very end we are inspired with the powerful tragic emotions of commiseration and awe. Pausanias states circumstances which suggest the possibility of representing Polyphontes, not as a mere cruel and selfish tyrant, but as a man whose crime was a truly tragic fault, the error of a noble nature. Assume such a nature in him, and the turn of circumstances in the drama takes a new aspect: Merope and her son triumph, but the fall of their foe leaves us awestruck and compassionate: the story issues tragically, as Aristotle has truly said that the best tragic stories ought to issue.
Neither Maffei, nor Voltaire, nor Alfieri have drawn Polyphontes with a character to inspire any feeling but aversion, with any traits of nobleness to mitigate our satisfaction at his death. His character being such, it is difficult to render his anxiety to obtain Merope’s hand intelligible, for Merope’s situation is not such as to make her enmity really dangerous to Polyphontes; he has, therefore, no sufficient motive of self-interest, and the nobler motives of reparation and pacification could have exercised, on such a character, no force. Voltaire accordingly, whose keen eye no weak place of this kind escaped, felt his difficulty. ‘Neither M. Maffei nor I,’ he confesses, ‘have assigned any sufficient motives for the desire of Polyphontes to marry Merope.’
To criticize is easier than to create; and if I have been led, in this review of the fortunes of my story, to find fault with the works of others, I do not on that account assume that I have myself produced a work which is not a thousand times more faulty.
It remains to say something, for those who are not familiar with the Greek dramatic forms, of the form in which this tragedy is cast. Greek tragedy, as is well known, took its origin from the songs of a chorus, and the stamp of its origin remained for ever impressed upon it. A chorus, or band of dancers, moving around the altar of Bacchus, sang the adventures of the god. To this band Thespis joined an actor, who held dialogue with the chorus, and who was called [Greek], the answerer, because he answered the songs of the chorus. The drama thus commenced; for the dialogue of this actor with the chorus brought before the audience some action of Bacchus, or of one of the heroes; this action, narrated by the actor, was commented on in song, at certain intervals, by the chorus alone. Aeschylus added a second actor, thus making the character of the representation more dramatic, for the chorus was never itself so much an actor as a hearer and observer of the actor: Sophocles added a third. These three actors might successively personate several characters in the same piece; but to three actors and a chorus the dramatic poet limited himself: only in a single piece of Sophocles, not brought out until after his death, was the employment of a fourth actor, it appears, necessary.
The chorus consisted, in the time of Sophocles, of fifteen persons. After their first entrance they remained before the spectators, without withdrawing, until the end of the piece. Their place was in the orchestra; that of the actors was upon the stage. The orchestra was a circular space, like the pit of our theatres: the chorus arrived in it by side-entrances, and not by the stage. In the centre of the orchestra was the alter of Bacchus, around which the chorus originally danced; but in dramatic representations their place was between this alter and the stage: here they stood, a little lower than the persons on the stage, but looking towards them, and holding, through their leaders, conversation with them: then, at pauses in the action, the united chorus sang songs expressing their feeling at what was happening upon the stage, making, as they sang, certain measured stately movements between the stage and the altar, and occasionally standing still. Steps led from the orchestra to the stage, and the chorus, or some members of it, might thus, if necessary, join the actors on the stage; but this seldom happened, the proper place for the chorus was the orchestra. The dialogue of the chorus with the actors on the stage passed generally in the ordinary form of dramatic dialogue; but, on occasions where strong feeling was excited, the dialogue took a lyrical form. Long dialogues of this kind sometimes took place between the leaders of the chorus and one of the actors upon the stage, their burden being a lamentation for the dead.
The Greek theatres were vast, and open to the sky; the actors, masked, and in a somewhat stiff tragic costume, were to be regarded from a considerable distance: a solemn, clearly marked style of gesture, a sustained tone of declamation, were thus rendered necessary. Under these conditions, intricate by-play, rapid variations in the action, requiring great mobility, ever-changing shades of tone and gesture in the actor, were impossible. Broad and simple effects were, under these conditions, above all to be aimed at; a profound and clear impression was to be effected. Unity of plan in the action, and symmetry in the treatment of it, were indispensable. The action represented, therefore, was to be a single, rigorously developed action; the masses of the composition were to be balanced, each bringing out the other into stronger and distincter relief. In the best tragedies, not only do the divisions of the full choral songs accurately correspond to one another, but the divisions of the lyrical dialogue, nay, even the divisions of the regular dramatic dialogue, form corresponding members, of which one member is the answer, the counter-stroke to the other; and an indescribable sense of distinctness and depth of impression is thus produced.
From what has been said, the reader will see that the Greek tragic forms were not chosen as being, in the nature of things, the best tragic forms; such would be a wholly false conception of them. They are an adaptation to dramatic purposes, under certain theatrical conditions, of forms previously existing for other purposes; that adaptation at which the Greeks, after several stages of improvement, finally rested. The laws of Greek tragic art, therefore, are not exclusive; they are for Greek dramatic art itself, but they do not pronounce other modes of dramatic art unlawful; they are, at most, prophecies of the improbability of dramatic success under other conditions. ‘Tragedy,’ says Aristotle, in a remarkable passage, ‘after going through many changes, got the nature which suited it, and there it stopped. Whether or no the kinds of tragedy are yet exhausted,’ he presently adds, ‘tragedy being considered either in itself, or in respect to the stage, I shall not now inquire.’ Travelling in a certain path, the spirit of man arrived at Greek tragedy; travelling in other paths, it may arrive at other kinds of tragedy.
But it cannot be denied that the Greek tragic forms, although not the only possible tragic forms, satisfy, in the most perfect manner, some of the most urgent demands of the human spirit. If, on the one hand, the human spirit demands variety and the widest possible range, it equally demands, on the other hand, depth and concentration in its impressions. Powerful thought and emotion, flowing in strongly marked channels, make a stronger impression: this is the main reason why a metrical form is a more effective vehicle for them than prose: in prose there is more freedom, but, in the metrical form, the very limit gives a sense of precision and emphasis. This sense of emphatic distinctness in our impressions rises, as the thought and emotion swell higher and higher without overflowing their boundaries, to a lofty sense of the mastery of the human spirit over its own stormiest agitations; and this, again, conducts us to a state of feeling which it is the highest aim of tragedy to produce, to a sentiment of sublime acquiescence in the course of fate, and in the dispensations of human life.
What has been said explains, I think, the reason of the effectiveness of the severe forms of Greek tragedy, with its strongly marked boundaries, with its recurrence, even in the most agitating situations, of mutually replying masses of metrical arrangement. Sometimes the agitation becomes overwhelming, and the correspondence is for a time lost, the torrent of feeling flows for a space without check: this disorder amid the general order produces a powerful effect; but the balance is restored before the tragedy closes: the final sentiment in the mind must be one not of trouble, but of acquiescence.
This sentiment of acquiescence is, no doubt, a sentiment of repose; and, therefore, I cannot agree with Mr. Lewes when he says, in his remarks on Goethe’s Iphigeneia, that ‘the Greek Drama is distinguished by its absence of repose; by the currents of passion being for ever kept in agitation.’ I entirely agree, however, in his criticism of Goethe’s tragedy; of that noble poem which Schiller so exactly characterized when he said that it was ‘full of soul’: I entirely agree with him when he says that ‘the tragic situation in the story of Iphigeneia is not touched by Goethe; that his tragedy addresses the conscience rather than the emotions.’ But Goethe does not err from Greek ideas when he thinks that there is repose in tragedy: he errs from Greek practice in the mode in which he strives to produce that repose. Sophocles does not produce the sentiment of repose, of acquiescence, by inculcating it, by avoiding agitating circumstances: he produces it by exhibiting to us the most agitating matter under the conditions of the severest form. Goethe has truly recognized that this sentiment is the grand final effect of Greek tragedy: but he produces it, not in the manner of Sophocles, but as Mr. Lewes has most ably pointed out, in a manner of his own; he produces it by inculcating it; by avoiding agitating matter; by keeping himself in the domain of the soul and conscience, not in that of the passion.
I have now to speak of the chorus; for of this, as of the other forms of Greek tragedy, it is not enough, considering how Greek tragedy arose, to show that the Greeks used it; it is necessary to show that it is effective. Johnson says, that ‘it could only be by long prejudice and the bigotry of learning that Milton could prefer the ancient tragedies, with their encumbrance of a chorus, to the exhibitions of the French and English stages:’ and his tragedy of Irene sufficiently proves that he himself, in his practice, adopted Greek art as arranged at Paris, by those
There is another. Coleridge observes that Shakespeare, after one of his grandest scenes, often plunges, as if to relax and relieve himself, into a scene of buffoonery. After tragic situations of the greatest intensity, a desire for relief and relaxation is no doubt natural, both to the poet and the spectator; but the finer feeling of the Greeks found this relief, not in buffoonery, but in lyrical song. The noble and natural relief from the emotion produced by tragic events is in the transition to the emotion produced by lyric poetry, not in the contrast and shock of a totally opposite order of feelings. The relief afforded to excited feeling by lyrical song every one has experienced at the opera: the delight and facility of this relief renders so universal the popularity of the opera, of this ‘beau monstre,’ which still, as in Voltaire’s time, ‘étouffe Melpomène.’ But in the opera, the lyrical element, the element of feeling and relaxation, is in excess: the dramatic element, the element of intellect and labour, is in defect. In the best Greek tragedy, the lyrical element occupies its true place; it is the relief and solace in the stress and conflict of the action; it is not the substantive business.
Few can have read the Samson Agonistes of Milton without feeling that the chorus imparts a peculiar and noble effect to that poem; but I regret that Milton determined, induced probably by his preference for Euripides, to adopt, in the songs of the chorus, ‘the measure,’ as he himself says, ‘called by the Greeks Monostrophic, or rather Apolelymenon, without regard had to Strophe, Antistrophe, or Epode.’ In this relaxed form of the later Greek tragedy, the means are sacrificed by which the chorus could produce, within the limits of a single choric song, the same effect which it was their business, as we have seen, to produce in the tragedy as a whole. The regular correspondence of part with part, the antithesis, in answering stanzas, of thought to thought, feeling to feeling with the balance of the whole struck in one independent final stanza or epode, is lost; something of the peculiar distinctness and symmetry, which constitute the vital force of the Greek tragic forms, is thus forfeited. The story of Samson, although it has no mystery or complication, to inspire, like tragic stories of the most perfect kind, foreboding and anxious gloom in the mind of him who hears it, is yet a truly dramatic and noble one; but the forms of Greek tragedy, which are founded on Greek manners, on the practice of chorus-dancing, and on the ancient habitual transaction of affairs in the open air in front of the dwellings of kings, are better adapted to Greek stories than to Hebrew or any other. These reserves being made, it is impossible to praise the Samson Agonistes too highly: it is great with all the greatness of Milton. Goethe might well say to Eckermann, after re-reading it, that hardly any work had been composed so entirely in the spirit of the ancients.
Milton’s drama has the true oratorical flow of ancient tragedy, produced mainly, I think, by his making it, as the Greeks made it, the rule, not exception, to put the pause at the end of the line, not in the middle. Shakespeare has some noble passages, particularly in his Richard the Third, constructed with this, the true oratorical rhythm; indeed, that wonderful poet, who has so much besides rhetoric, is also the greatest poetical rhetorician since Euripides: still, it is to the Elizabethan poets that we owe the bad habit, in dramatic poetry, of perpetually dividing the line in the middle. Italian tragedy has the same habit: in Alfieri’s plays it is intolerable. The constant occurrence of such lines produces, not a sense of variety, but a sense of perpetual interruption.
Some of the measures used in the choric songs of my tragedy are ordinary measures of English verse: others are not so; but it must not be supposed that these last are the reproduction of any Greek choric measures. So to adapt Greek measures to English verse is impossible: what I have done is to try to follow rhythms which produced on my own feeling a similar impression to that produced on it by the rhythms of Greek choric poetry. In such an endeavour, when the ear is guided solely by its own feeling, there is, I know, a continual risk of failure and of offence. I believe, however, that there are no existing English measures which produce the same effect on the ear, and therefore on the mind, as that produced by many measures indispensable to the nature of Greek lyric poetry. He, therefore, who would obtain certain effects obtained by that poetry, is driven to invent new measures, whether he will or no.
Pope and Dryden felt this. Pope composed two choruses for the Duke of Buckingham’s Brutus, a tragedy altered from Shakespeare, and performed at Buckingham House. A short specimen will show what these choruses were—
I must have wearied my reader’s patience: but I was desirous, in laying before him my tragedy, that it should not lose what benefit it can derive from the foregoing explanations. To his favourable reception of it there will still be obstacles enough, in its unfamiliar form, and in the incapacity of its author.
How much do I regret that the many poets of the present day who possess that capacity which I have not, should not have forestalled me in an endeavour far beyond my powers! How gladly should I have applauded their better success in attempt to enrich with what, in the forms of the most perfectly-formed literature in the world, is most perfect, our noble English literature; to extend its boundaries in the one direction, in which, with all its force and variety, it has not yet advanced! They would have lost nothing by such an attempt, and English literature would have gained much.
Only their silence could have emboldened to undertake it one with inadequate time, inadequate knowledge, and a talent, alas! still more inadequate: one who brings to the task none of the requisite qualifications of genius or learning: nothing but a passion for the great Master, and an effort to study them without fancifulness.