Page:Sophocles - Seven Plays, 1900.djvu/21

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PREFATORY NOTE TO EDITION OF 1883

of the word 'Atheism' against which the author of the work above alluded to protests so forcibly.

Religion, in the sense here indicated, is the mainspring and vital principle of Tragedy. The efforts of Aeschylus and Sophocles were sustained by it, and its inevitable decay through the scepticism which preceded Socrates was the chief hindrance to the tragic genius of Euripides. Yet the inequality of which we have consequently to complain in him is redeemed by pregnant hints of something yet 'more deeply interfused,' which in him, as in his two great predecessors, is sometimes felt as 'modern' because it is not of an age but for all time. The most valuable part of every literature is something which transcends the period and nation out of which it springs.


On the other hand, much that at first sight seems primitive in Greek tragedy belongs more to the subject than to the mode of handling. The age of Pericles was in advance of that in which the legends were first Hellenized and humanized, just as this must have been already far removed from the earliest stages of mythopoeic imagination. The reader of Aeschylus or Sophocles should therefore be warned against attributing to the poet’s invention that which is given in the fable.

An educated student of Italian painting knows how to discriminate—say in an Assumption by Botticelli—between the traditional conventions, the contemporary ideas, and the refinements of the artist`s own fancy. The same indulgence must be extended to dramatic art. The tragedy of King Lear is not rude or primitive, although the subject belongs to prehistoric times in Britain. Nor is Goethe’s Faust mediaeval in spirit as in theme. So neither is the Oedipus Rex the product of 'lawless and uncertain thoughts' notwithstanding the unspeakable horror of the story; but is penetrated by the most profound estimate of all in human life that is saddest, and all that is most precious.


Far from being naïve naturalists after the Keats