Tragedies of Sophocles (Plumptre 1878)/Life
LIFE AND WRITINGS OF SOPHOCLES.
IT has fared with the greatest dramatic poet of Greece as with the greatest dramatic poet of England. In both cases the task of writing a biography is almost like that of making bricks without straw. In the case of our own Shakespeare, we have to rest content with leaving much of the outward, and nearly the whole of the inward life, as geographers leave a region untravelled and unsurveyed. Gaps remain, which no elaborate industry, no lynx-eyed acuteness, enable us to fill up. It is hardly otherwise with the life of Sophocles. We ask for sources, and we find that our nearest approach to them is to be sought in the second-hand memoir of an unknown Scholiast of uncertain date, in the short notices of a lexicographer, in a few anecdotes, more or less trustworthy, scattered here and there in the dialogues of Plato, in the rhetoric of Cicero, in the literary gossip of Athenæus. Fuller lives that were once extant have perished utterly, and all that we know of them is the record of the names of those who wrote them, preserved by the unknown compiler. Those names, themselves once conspicuous in the list of philosophers or critics, tantalise us with the fact, that the life of Sophocles was once treated by men possibly able to do justice to their high theme. Modern critics have done their best to collect, sift, and classify the materials which thus remain to us. At the head of the results of their labours we must place the masterly fragment of a Life of Sophocles by Gottfried Lessing, and the more complete but less elaborate work of Adolf Schöll. The article on Sophocles in Dr Smith's Dictionary of Classical Biography, by Mr Philip Smith, deserves also a special mention.
Two courses are open to one who ventures on a task which others have so often undertaken, and in which there seems so little room for discovery or re-arrangement. He may content himself with bringing the few facts, or the anecdotes that pass for facts, into something like chronological order, noting, where it may be necessary, the degree of trustworthiness belonging to this or that statement, and then pass on to the more attractive and, in some sense, easier task of examining the writings of the man of whom we know so little. He may tell his readers that these dry bones are all that now remain of a form that was once noble in its perfection; that these mere outlines, more than half effaced, are all that Time has spared of the picture of a living man. For such a course he has a sufficient defence. He cannot give more than he has received. He cannot construct the life of a great man out of his moral consciousness.
Or he may venture on another and more hazardous task. He may attempt, as far as in him lies, to make the dry bones live, and to fill up the outlines. He may gather round the man of whom he speaks the scenery and the incidents of his time,—may ask his readers to estimate, and seek to estimate himself, the effect which contact with given men, familiarity with given places, the thoughts that were passing through men's minds around him, the political changes of his country, actually had, or may be supposed to have had, on a mind and character such as the writings of poet or philosopher show that he possessed. Of these two modes of treatment, it has been thought right, not without some hesitation, to attempt the latter. If, on the one side, the work is more interesting, and the result more life-like, there is, on the other, the risk at every step of substituting conjecture for fact, assuming impressions to have been made to which the man himself was profoundly insensible, losing the distinctness of the life of which we treat in the rank overgrowth of circumstances which form no part of it. It does not help us much towards knowing more of the life of a man to have pictures, however clear, of all the places in which he has lived, or biographical notices of all his contemporaries. To guard against such dangers there must be some self-restraint in the use of materials, which on this plan are almost as unlimited as they are scanty on the other, watchfulness for facts which are really suggestive, or present points of contact with the man's acts or writings, caution in pressing too far what may be merely imaginary, care not to overlook anything, however trifling it may at first appear, which is really significant. If these conditions are fulfilled, the attempt may be made with a fair expectation of success. Out of a few fossil bones the geologist constructs the whole framework of some huge and highly-organised skeleton. Out of hints that lie below the surface, fragments scattered here and there in many different books, undesigned coincidences, light has been thrown, with a fulness beyond all that could have been expected, on the lives of David and St Paul. It is possible that a like attempt, though made with far scantier and less promising materials, may not fail utterly in writing the life of Sophocles.
The place and time of the poet's birth are given with definiteness enough. He was born at Colonos, in the year B.C. 495. The deme, or village so called, stood about a mile and a half to the north-west of Athens, the road from the city to the village passing the Kerameikos, the plain of the Kephisos, and the grove of Akademos, and its natives were enrolled among the Athenian citizens, though, with something like a special pride in their locality, they exulted in speaking of themselves as Coloniatæ, the men of Colonos. The name of the place, originally simply descriptive of the character of the country, "the hill," and as such applied to a rising ground within the walls of the city as well as to that outside, had been associated, as were so many other Greek local names, with a special mythus, and the men of the village loved to think that it took its name from a hero, Colonos, to whom they looked up as their founder and patron. From the higher of the two hills in the valley between which it lay, about 1600 feet above the sea-level, the hills, and rocks, and temples of Athens, the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the Areopagos, the Peiræos, Œgina, Argolis, were distinctly visible. The spot was one to which the mind of the poet in his old age turned back with a love and tenderness that shows how it must have told upon his childhood. No ideal picture of a poet's birthplace could be fairer than that which he has drawn in the wonderful chorus which describes it. The glittering whiteness of the limestone rock cropping out, here and there, from the thin herbage, the hills purple with the vine, the thick groves of laurels and of olive, the pure clear stream of the Kephisos, that never failed even in the hottest drought, the warbling of the nightingale in the summer evenings, these were the first impressions of his childhood. Small as the deme might be, too, it had its local sanctuaries. The burghers prided themselves upon their breed of horses, their skill in training, and the guardian deities of Attica, Athena, and Poseidon, were worshipped there, as giving the strength and the skill which were needed to bring the fiery strength of the brute creation under the control of man. It was a true discernment which led people, as well as poet, to recognise in the power which curbs the winds something analogous to that which subdues with bit and bridle, in the sailor's daring on the sea, a proof of man's supremacy as striking as his yoking swift-footed steeds to his chariot. Poseidon Hippios, the Neptune of Horses, was not for the Athenian mind a strange or incongruous combination. The presence of a shrine of the fire-bearer, the Titan Prometheus, probably indicates that the men of the deme were iron-workers, or brass-founders as well. But above all, at Colonos there was the sacred grove of the Eumenides, where the common foot might never tread, the maze with its many paths, the low stone wall which served at once as a boundary and a defence, the descent into sepulchral darkness, of which it was believed that it led down into Hades itself, the shadow-world of the departed. There by the basin in the rock, and the hollow pear-tree, was the record of the friendship of Peirithöos and the great Attic hero Theseus, who had themselves descended to that shadow-world. There the Erinnyes, the stern avenging ones, daughters of darkness, dogging the footsteps of the doer of evil, were thought of as with a new character, under a new name. They were the Gentle Ones, the Eumenides, who might be approached with solemn rites of penitence and purification, and who would then be found placable and forgiving. There, from time to time, some pilgrim, burdened with the consciousness of guilt, would come, the suppliant's branch in his hand, and offer, according to an ancient and precise ritual, libations of pure water from the spring. There, so the local legends went, one great sufferer, the Theban King, whose name the boy of Colonos was afterwards to immortalise, had found the longed-for close of the many sorrows of his life in the calm sleep of a mysterious death.
Of the poet's father we know little more than the name, Sophillos. Whether he was, as earlier biographers said, a carpenter, or a brass-founder, or a sword -maker, working with his own hands, or, as later writers conjectured, a citizen of some wealth, employing his slaves in these trades, and living on their profits, as did the fathers of Isocrates and Demosthenes; or, as Pliny reported, one of the wealthier, if not nobler, class, this must remain uncertain. Against the notion of any low descent, is the fact that there are no traces of any reference to it in the rough, unsparing jesting of the older comedy; and that the poet was chosen as one of the Ten Generals in the war with Samos, a colleague with the great Pericles. In itself, indeed, in a state like Athens, which afterwards placed its Cleons at the head of armies, this would hardly be conclusive, but it would have been most improbable that any one of low birth, promoted to such high office, should have escaped satire, and the men who had no connexion with the Eupatrids had hardly forced themselves forward at the time of the Samian Expedition. We need not trouble ourselves much on a matter which affected the growth of the poet's mind very slightly. His father was able to give his son the education which the highest Athenians gave to theirs. The boy was not hindered by any servile employment from giving his genius full play.
The date of his birth was not in itself remarkable. Athens was exulting in her liberation from the despotism of the sons of Peisistratos, and growing great in the consciousness of a freedom for which her people were prepared to live and, if need be, to die. Harmodios and Aristogeiton were the favourite heroes of the people, and their names resounded continually in drinking songs and odes. The title of Tyrannos, which Peisistratos had assumed, had already, through them and others like them, gained the hateful associations which did not belong originally to its meaning, but which have clung to it ever since. Traces of the hatred with which he had been taught to look upon it in his childhood may be seen in the language of the poet's manhood. The "tyrant" with him is the offspring of the wanton recklessness of self-willed pride, certain, after a short career of triumph, to have a terrible downfall. Much more important in its bearing on the history of the poet's boyhood was the first great event of which he could have had any remembrance. When he was yet barely five years old, the sudden invasion of Datis and Artaphernes roused the whole population of Attica to the fever-heat of excitement. The victory of Marathon made all men's hearts burn within them. To have been one of those that had fought on that field made a man conspicuous all his life long. To have seen and known one was a boy's highest pride. Such was the beginning of the poet's life. Many long lives have witnessed changes greater in their extent, but it may be questioned whether any includes more striking contrasts than that of one who remembered the battle of Marathon, and lived to see that of Arginusæ—who saw Athens triumphant over Persia, and humbled to the dust by the failure of the Sicilian expedition—who lived through the rise, the glory, the decline of the Athenian commonwealth.
The ten years that lie between the ages of five and fifteen are, as all acknowledge, among the most important of any man's life for the growth of intellect and the formation of character. In most cases, indeed, the total or all but total absence of any records of the boyhood of a great man, would make it impossible to reconstruct in any way the history of his education. The present instance, however, is an exceptional one. There was a marked difference in the character of Athenian education in the periods that preceded and followed the Persian war, and we have the most vivid pictures both of the earlier and the later systems. The latter, under the influence of sophists and rhetoricians, was open to the charge of cultivating sharpness of intellect at the expense of manliness, and strength, and purity. It proposed political success as the one object in life, and that was only to be obtained by the skill of speech, which involved long practice and attendance in the assemblies, deliberative and judicial, of the people. So trained, the youths of Athens became pale and narrow-chested, glib of speech, chattering in the Agora, boasting that they were better than their fathers, calling good evil and evil good, sinking into all forms of effeminacy. But the same hand that has drawn us this picture has left us also another. The education, which was old-fashioned and obsolete at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war, was in full sway between Marathon and Salamis, and under its influence Sophocles must have grown up.
The system was one well adapted to bring out all powers of man's mind and body to their highest perfection. The government of Peisistratos had helped to raise the people out of the roughness of their earlier life. Intercourse with the Asiatic Greeks had brought in quicker perceptions of beauty in art, and poetry, and music. It had not as yet brought in in their fulness, though the tyrants of Greece were doing their best to introduce them, the vices with which all Asiatic society was tainted. The zeal with which Peisistratos had collected and edited the works of Homer had given the youth of Athens a basis upon which their education rested; and its ethical influence, if not always in harmony with the standard of a higher wisdom, and sometimes too subservient to the principles of despotism, at least tended to a reverence for truth and honour and manliness. The Iliad and the Odyssey were free from the deep-dyed stain of later Greek literature. They were fit text-books for an education which aimed at forming the heroic temper, and looked on the training of the body, and skill in music and poetry, as equally contributing to it. Manliness, and self-restraint, and reverence for parents, were the keynotes of the whole. We have but to individualise the general features of the picture which the comic dramatist has drawn, to follow the boyhood of Sophocles in its daily life. To go with the other boys of his deme, marching in due order, bareheaded and unclothed, even though it might snow fast and thick, to the house of the music-teacher, there to learn a manly and vigorous music, free from all tricks and affectations; to pass from that lesson to the school of the trainer, to gain in wrestling, running, leaping, the clear complexion, the blooming health, the well-developed form, which gave promise of a vigorous manhood; to honour father and mother, and pay all due reverence to age; to blush with a genuine shamefastness; to be pure in the midst of the floods of impurity that were beginning to creep in; to be each of them in his own person as a very statue of modesty,—this was the training of the men who fought at Marathon, and this, with somewhat more of intellectual culture, must have been that of Sophocles. And the boy was father of the man. The prize dramatist in many later contests was crowned with garlands in his youth, as successful in both branches of education, gymnastic and music. And then, for the life that lay outside the school-hours, was there not the race under the olive-trees of the Academeia, and the contest with companions vigorous and pure-hearted as himself, and the prize of wreathed boughs, and the sweet delights of spring, when the plane-tree whispered to the elm? Were there not the visits to the city that lay so near, with its many festivals and its constant markets? Were there not, above all, the great Dionysia, when the whole city poured into the spacious theatre, to sit long hours listening to dramas which had then all the charms of novelty, and were daily calling into play new powers, and becoming more and more the most important element of education? It was something to have grown up under that training in the golden days of its perfection. The change for the worse came rapidly after the conclusion of the Persian war Euripides, though but eleven years younger than Sophocles, suffered from the deterioration.
It is possible even to go one step further in individualising this general description. The name of the poet's instructor, Lampros, has come down to us; and while on the one hand, Plutarch, following Aristoxenos, assigns to him a place with Pindar and other lyric poets of the highest order, the report of Athenæos, on the other, that he was a water-drinker, and the sneers of the comic writer Phrynichos, taunting him with being a "long-winded talker, over-philosophical, a very skeleton of the Muses," point to his having had the repute of temperance and cultivated intellect. Of such men what Protagoras describes as characteristic of the older school of teachers of music, that they were more than instructors in an art, that they watched over and guided the moral growth of their pupils, was probably fully true. What were the poet's reminiscences of his own education, we may infer from an interesting fragment in which such a training is sketched.
"Now let us go, my children, to the schools
Where wise men teach, and learn the Muses' arts,
And ever, day by day, take one step on,
Till we gain power to study nobler things.
In boyhood mischief comes spontaneously,
And each, self-taught, learns all too easily,
But good, not even with the teacher near,
Abides with him, but is full hardly gained.
Ο let us, then, be watchful, and work hard,
My children, that we seem not to belong
To those who ne'er have learnt true discipline,
The children of a father far from home." 
The poet's fifteenth year was made memorable by a Persian invasion more terrible than that of Datis and Artaphernes. The great King himself was coming at the head of his countless hosts. There seemed no power in Greece able to oppose him. The fierce patriotism of Athens, which had showed itself under Dareios in the murder of the heralds who came to demand earth and water, was now to meet with a fierce retribution. There came panic and dismay, oracles of uncertain sound, divided counsels. With all that followed we are only so far concerned as it enters into the one life which we are studying, and of him we have to think as glowing with the same indignation as his older countrymen, too young as yet to share with them the danger and the glory of battle, sent with the women and children to the asylum offered by Salamis. Thence he may have seen in the distance the smoke of the burning houses and temples, which the soldiers of Xerxes had destroyed; thence soon there came floating rumours that strange portents had given presage of the imperishable freedom of his own Athens. If in the description of Colonos we trace the old man's recollections of his boyhood, we can trace it not less distinctly here. The sacred olive had proved itself inviolable and sacred, the terror of the swords of their enemies. No invader, flushed with the insolence of youth, or hoary with age, should be able to destroy it.
So the weeks passed on, till at last Salamis rivalled the immortality of Marathon, and then there came to the young Sophocles the highest honour which was possible for an Athenian youth. Others had won the victory. He was chosen to be the representative of the people in their thanks to the Gods who had given it. The double prize for wrestling and music which he had gained in the years of his training, had marked him out as possessing at once the perfection of outward symmetry of form and the skill in minstrelsy which were required for such a function; and so, when the solemn hymn of victory was chanted around the trophy, he appeared either entirely unclothed, or clad only in the light linen tunic, which allowed his form, like that of a young Apollo, to be seen in all its grace and strength; and his voice led the chorus in their song, while he guided them through all the measured movements of their dance. On that day, for the first time in his life, he must have been the observed of all observers, and must have tasted somewhat of the joy of praise and sympathy from a great multitude. It was a proof that he possessed gifts that would secure their praise. It was a proof, we may add, that he had gained the respect of his countrymen as one in whom the image of purity and modesty had not yet been defaced. The feeling indicated in the stories which Herodotos puts into the mouth of Solon, that the Gods looked with most favour on the worship of sons, true, loyal, obedient, was not yet extinct; and the Greeks would hardly have tolerated at such a time the selection of one whose life was stained with intemperance or lust. What has been said before as to the character of his teacher is in harmony with such a conclusion.
For the twelve years that followed we are left almost entirely to conjecture. All that we know of the bright promise of his youth and the high perfection of his manhood leads us to think of it as a time of deliberate self-culture for the work to which he intended to devote himself. It was significant of the impulse given to all national activity at Athens by its victory over Persia, that among the new buildings that rose in more stately form from the ruins of the old city, one of the earliest and most conspicuous was a stone theatre of Dionysos. Hitherto the drama had received no such recognition of its permanent place in the life of the people, and the feasts were more crowded than ever, and the representations themselves of a higher character than before. And at the head of the list of all dramatic poets was the great name of Æschylos, with everything to command the reverence and admiration of the people. With gifts lofty and wonderful above all that went before or followed, he was also a true Athenian. He himself and his brothers had fought at Marathon and Salamis, and he counted that a greater glory than his highest triumph as a poet. Within eight years after that victory, he had brought the discomfiture of Xerxes on the stage for the delight of those who had resisted him. Year after year he gained the highest prize among those who thus sought the applause of the people. It seemed almost as if he were looked upon as the only poet capable of writing tragedies.
No study of the life of Sophocles would be complete which did not take into account the influence probably exercised upon his mind by that wonderful genius, daring in its choice of subjects, its startling figures, its bold imagination, daring even in its use of the adjuncts of stage effects, of masks, and machinery, and dress, yet more daring in the way in which he dealt with the traditional religion of his countrymen. Passing, we know not under what guidance—it may be he hardly knew himself—to a far higher region than that of the Homeric Olympos, the Gods were not for him capricious, vindictive, boastful, below rather than above the level of human passions and goodness, with absolutely no ethical character entitling them to reverence, but strange mysterious beings, colossal in their greatness, dimly known by man. Strange thoughts of a succession of divine Powers, each supreme in its turn, doubts whether the Power whom men knew as Zeus were the impersonation of Might only, or of Might and Right in union—whether the conflict between that Might, as seen in nature on the one side, and the intellect and will of man on the other, would end, as it seemed likely to end, in crushing and subjugating the latter, or in some far off atonement and reconciliation of the two,—all this, and much more than this, was brought before the thousands who heard his trilogies, and among others before the mind of Sophocles.
It would be absurd to suppose that he remained unaffected by a force acting so powerfully and so directly. The statement of the old biographer that he learnt tragedy from Æschylos may be true in this sense, that in the dramas of Æschylos, as they were performed year by year, he found a discipline for his own mind. That the one dramatist was in any more formal way the instructor of the other, we have no reason to believe. But the study was not that of a mere imitator. A mind in which the perception of beauty and harmony had been developed to its highest power, was not likely to be satisfied, however much it might admire it, with the Titanic strength of Æschylos. What a later age embodied in the form of the mythus that Æschylos learnt in no musician's school, but that Dionysos himself had appeared to him in his infancy, and had called him to a poet's work, so that he spake as one inspired, represented the fact that his genius, lofty as it was, was less trained and self-controlled than that of Sophocles, that there was in him less of conscious and deliberate art "Æschylos," the later of the two dramatists, was reported to have said, "does right, but does not know why he does it;" and it might well be that to a mind so calm and self-possessed as that of Sophocles, there would seem something below the calm grandeur of tragedy in the loud groans and wailings of the Persæ, or the masks that frightened women into fits in the fifty Eumenides.
In the year B.C. 468 the younger poet appeared as a competitor for the tragic prize against the older. This year and the occasion were alike memorable. Kimon, then in the height of his popularity, had returned from Skyros with the bones of Theseus, which the Pythian oracle had four years before commanded the Athenians to bring back as a condition of relief, after a time of pestilence or famine. After some difficulty and delay, they were brought back with all imaginable pomp, and the people celebrated their arrival with a great dramatic contest. The Archon Apsephion presided, and the usual order would have led him to appoint by lot the arbitrators who should decide the prize. As it was, however, there were signs that the audience were already divided into parties warmly excited on behalf of their respective favourites, some clinging to the name of Æschylos, and to the conservative policy with which he was now allying himself, some to the new and all but untried writer, of wider thoughts and more consummate skill, whose name and person were already familiar to them. The Archon, afraid of a tumult, had recourse to an unusual expedient. When Kimon and the generals who had served with him entered the theatre and made the accustomed libations, he stopped them before they withdrew, and bound them by an oath to act as judges themselves, representing, as they did, the ten tribes, and free from the least suspicion of unfairness. The result was a decision in favour of the new-comer against the veteran. How great was the triumph, how bitter the defeat, we may judge from the fact that, according to the popular tradition, Æschylos left Attica not long afterwards in disgust, went to Sicily and died.
Few studies would have been more instructive to the critic of Greek dramatic art than an examination of this first and most successful play. As it is, however, Plutarch, who tells the story, does not give even the name of the drama; and it is only by an inference from an isolated notice that later criticism has fixed on the Triptolemos. Of this play a few fragments have come down to us, and, scanty as they are, they serve, in connexion with the subject itself, to explain its popularity. It appealed directly to a strong local feeling. Triptolemos, the hero of Eleusis, the chief figure in the mysteries, the favourite of Demêter, who had gone over the earth, east and west, in his fiery chariot, scattering the barley and the wheat which she had given him, was sure to attract an eager interest; and his wanderings in the far west enabled the poet to bring together pictures of strange lands and their products—Œnotria, and the Tyrrhenian Gulf, and Liguria, and Carthage, maize, and pulse, and rice, and beer—such as would command the attention of a sea-faring and commercial people. What were the real excellences of the play we can, of course, form no judgment. One phrase has come down to us, containing an image which was afterwards among the common-places of poetry, but which had then the freshness of a new thought. Borrowing from Æschylos, who had used nearly the same words in the "Prometheus Bound," (l. 739,) Sophocles speaks of writing what we wish to remember in the "tablets of our soul."
The departure of Æschylos left his rival master of the field, and for the twenty-nine years that followed we may think of him as holding an almost undisputed sway. During that long period we have hardly any intimation as to his life, and are left to fill up the blank between B.C. 468, the date of the contest with Æschylos, and B.C. 440, when he in his turn had to see the prize snatched from him by Euripides, as we can. Of this we may, at least, be sure, that this period was one in which all his marvellous powers were reaching their perfection, and devoted with a deliberate purpose to the attainment of the highest excellence. The fullest harvest was indeed to come yet later; but the period of which we are now speaking was marked by thirty-two tragedies; and this in one to whom each was a work of consummate art, requiring thought, care, revision, implied no small labour.
It must be remembered, too, that the dramatic system of Greece threw on the author the added labours of the manager, and often of the actor. He had to choose the two or three persons who had skill or genius to divide between them all the characters of his play, to train the chorus of twenty-four, or, in the time of Sophocles, of twelve or fifteen, voices to the proper musical utterance of their recitatives and choral odes, to provide the fitting masques, to superintend the scenery, decorations, dresses, which his plot required. And all this had to be done for a people keenly alive to any imperfection, ready to seize eagerly upon any ludicrous combination, or coarseness of taste, satisfied with nothing but completeness. Out of the scanty records which give us little more than a blank, a few facts emerge which may be referred to this period; and trifling as they are, they are characteristic, (1.) Up to his time, it had been the custom, as has been said, for the author to be the chief actor also, appearing as the hero of the piece, and combining with it such of the subordinate characters as appeared when the hero was off the stage. Æschylos, for example, had acted the parts of Prometheus and Agamemnon. Sophocles, however, partly from a weakness of voice, which would have made it difficult to fill the great theatre of Dionysos, partly, perhaps, from a sense that the two functions were in their nature distinct, and that it was better to keep them so, that each might attain to excellence, withdrew from the stage altogether. (2.) To him also was due the enlargement at once of the freedom of the writer in planning the construction of his dramas, and of facility in representing them. Scanty as the resources were even thus, in comparison with the requirements of later dramatic poets, it was an immense step forward. In the first, or Thespian, stage of the art, the performance was, strictly speaking, hardly more than a monologue. One actor appeared conversing with the chorus, now in one character, now in another, changing his costume as occasion might require. It is obvious that within such limits the range of art was miserably scanty, and something was gained when Æschylos introduced a second actor in addition to himself. With two performers, able each of them to appear in different characters, with appropriate masks and dresses, it was possible to have a considerable number of permutations and combinations, but so long as the rule was adhered to, the action was limited to dialogues between two persons at a time; and, strange as it may seem to us, some of the extant works of Æschylos were produced under these conditions. The introduction of a third performer by Sophocles gave scope for much more action and development of plot; the third performer being capable, like the other two, of appearing in different characters. In one instance, indeed, that of the Œdipus at Colonos, four performers appear to have been indispensable, unless we adopt the conjecture that the actor who took the part of Ismene also appeared in that of Theseus, and had a mute double to take his place in the scene where Ismene appears with Theseus but does not speak. It need hardly be said that the performers were in all cases men; and that the choral odes, among the many purposes which they answered in the construction of a Greek drama, served also to give time for the change of dress which this multiple personation required. (3.) The change which raised the number of the chorus from twelve, to which Æschylos had reduced it, to fifteen, was connected probably with details of their movement during the strophes and antistrophes, as well as with the more effective utterance of the choral odes; and in our ignorance of these details, we can but note it as an instance of the critical perception of beauty or fitness, which did not slight any element of perfection, however apparently insignificant. (4.) Another departure from previous routine was the composition of dramas, independent of each other, though exhibited together, instead of the long continuous Trilogy of which we have an example in the Oresteia of Æschylos. The lessons which the older poet taught by tracing the progress of guilt and its punishment through successive generations, Sophocles apparently passed over for subtle relations of harmony or contrast. So also (5.) the traditions of the Athenian stage assigned to him the introduction of the twisted, sturdy walking-stick, which became the conventional sign of age, as the lighter wand was of youth, and the white boots which were worn both by the chorus and the other actors. (6.) Even the use of landscape scenery has been ascribed to him, as having first applied or greatly improved this element of reality in dramatic performances. The scenery required for the Œdipus at Colonos and the Aias must have presented a far greater variety and beauty than the conventional palace with its right, central and left doors. To these we may add (7.) the division of a line of verse (the iambic trimeter) between two speakers, in the more impassioned verses of the play,—as, e.g., in Œd. King, 626–629, and Electr., 1220–1225.
To this period, however, we may refer a more important act in the poet's personal history. Living chiefly as he must have done in it, for the art to which he had devoted himself, he was still an Athenian citizen, and could not but take some share in the struggle then going on between the party of progress and that which was simply conservative. In the question which more than any other was the battle-field of the two parties, the limitation of the jurisdiction of the Areopagos, Æschylos, in the last play of his greatest Trilogy, had declared himself against the Reformers and Philosophers, and had endeavoured to rouse all feelings of reverence and awe in support of the time-honoured institution. Whether Sophocles took any active part in that controversy, is left unrecorded. Later on in life, however, he too had something to say through the medium of his art as to the Areopagos, and it is at least significant that he puts a panegyric on that tribunal into the mouth, not of Theseus, the hero and lawgiver of Athens, but of Creon, the tyrant and the hypocrite. One drama, at any rate, the Antigone, belongs to this period, and it appears to have produced much the same impression on the minds of the Athenian people as Addison's Cato did on the Whigs and Tories of the days of Anne, each party claiming it as a witness to their views, and both uniting to applaud it to the skies. It was indeed conspicuously an attempt to assert the great principles which were held on either side, and to show how fatal was the issue when they were brought into collision with each other, what choice the lovers of truth and freedom must make when the collision became inevitable. Order was good, obedience to rulers right, but rulers who themselves forgot the reverence due to humanity, and made their power subservient to their passion, forfeited their claim to obedience. Above all conventional rules, above all duties of citizens to magistrates, were the eternal laws of right, "which were not of to-day or yesterday," Heaven-born, and stamped with the might and majesty of God.
A like tendency showed itself, as will be seen further on, in his relation to the religious questions which were then dividing men's minds. What we are now concerned with is the immediate effect of the Antigone. There may seem at first a strange incongruity between the merit and the honour with which it was rewarded. The author of a successful tragedy was elected as a general, and was sent (B.C. 440) with Pericles against the revolted Samians. It must be remembered, however, that his early training had fitted him for active as well as artistic life, and that such a choice implies, on the part of those who made it, a knowledge of the personal character and capacities of the man which we do not possess. Even we are not accustomed to look on success in dramatic poetry or works of fiction as excluding a man from the higher offices of state. As might be expected in one who first entered on this line of service at the age of fifty-five, he does not appear to have either gained or sought military distinction. He could confess with a smile that he understood how to write poetry, but not how to command an army. He could acknowledge that though he was older in years, Nikias was, by right of skill and experience, his senior officer. For us it has but little interest to learn what part he took in bringing up reinforcements from Chios, or, in a later campaign, in laying waste the territory of Sparta, or subduing the cities of Achaia. Far more noteworthy is the fact, that he was thus brought into close companionship with Pericles. Doubtless the two men must have met and known each other before, and there was much in the character of each to draw out mutual admiration. In Pericles the spirit of progress was as yet unmarred by the coarse brawling of the demagogue. The welcome which he gave to the wider thoughts of the new philosophy of Anaxagoras had not as yet passed into mere sophistry and scepticism. The oratory of the one, as was the poetry of the other, (as was also, we may add, the sculpture of Pheidias,) was perfect in its freedom from lower passions, its lofty serenity, its earnest assertion of great principles, its intuitive recognition of the beauty of a self-balanced completeness. The policy of Pericles, too, led him to see in the dramatic representations of the four great festivals a true means of educating the people; and the strong conviction which made him wish to secure that education even to the poorest, at the cost of a heavy charge on the revenues of the state, becomes more intelligible when we remember that at that time Sophocles was the acknowledged monarch of the Athenian drama, and represented, as far as any poet could do, his own political and philosophical convictions.
The Samian expedition, in all probability, brought him into contact with yet another of the great names of Greece. There, before his final emigration to Thurii, was Herodotos, the man who had seen more of distant lands and strange forms of human life than any other Greek, whose mind was stored with many stories of the past, who himself united, like Sophocles, a real reverence for the forms of religious belief that surrounded him, with a dim sense of something higher and wider, that embraced them all. If we could accept the popular tradition, that Herodotos had read his history at Athens a few years before, their friendship may have been formed already. Traces of it are found in an epigram, which fixes the date and the age of Sophocles at the time, and yet more in striking parallelisms between passages in the works of the two writers. Some of these have been noticed in an interesting paper by Dr Donaldson in the Transactions of the Philological Society; but the case is much stronger even than he represents it, and the coincidences have so much interest as throwing light on the relations between the poet and the historian, that it seems worth while to bring them before readers, to some of whom, at least, they will probably be new.
(1.) In the speech which Herodotos (iii. 119) puts into the mouth of the wife of Intaphernes, as her apology for asking the life of her brother rather than of her husband and children, we find her saying, "Ο king, I might yet find, God willing, another husband and other children, if I should lose these, but now that my father and my brother have ceased to live, I can never have another brother." Compare this with Antig. 909–912.
"And dost thou ask what law constrained me thus?
I answer, Had I lost a husband dear,
I might have had another; other sons
By other spouse, if one were lost to me;
But when my father and my mother sleep
In Hades, then no brother more can come."
It is clear that such a coincidence could not have been accidental.
(2.) Not less striking is the reference to one aspect of Egyptian life noticed by Herodotos, (ii. 35.) "The Egyptians have manners and customs altogether different from those of other nations. Among them women buy and sell, and the men stay at home and spin." Compare Œd. Col., 337.
"Oh, like in all things, whether nature 's bent
Or form of life, to Egypt's evil ways,
Where men indoors sit weaving at the loom,
And wives outdoors must earn their daily bread."
"For sure I think that neither Istros' stream
Nor Phasis' floods could purify this house,
Such horrors does it hold."
(4.) Still more striking does the harmony of the two writers appear when we compare their language on the great questions of ethics, politics, and theology, which were then occupying men's minds. The historian dwells on the mutability of all things.
"The cities that once were great for the most part have become small, and those that in my time were great were of old time small; and I, therefore, knowing that human happiness never continueth in the same state, will make mention of both alike."—Herod., i. 5. 1.
The poet gives back an echo of the same thought.
"Who then can count the happiness of man
As great, or small, or held in no esteem?
None of all this continues in one stay."—Fragm. 93.
(5.) Following in the same line Herodotos puts into the mouth of Solon, speaking to Crœsos, the well-known reflection, "I cannot call thee happy till I learn that thou hast finished thy life well. . . . . But before a man dies we ought to hold our judgment in suspense, and to call him not happy, but prosperous." Compare with this the two following passages of Sophocles:—
"'Tis an old saying told of many men,
Thou can'st not judge aright the life of man,
Or whether it be good or bad to him
Before he die."—Trach. 1–3.
Or this, the moral drawn from the history of Œdipus,—
"From hence the lesson learn,
To reckon no man happy till ye see
The closing day, until he pass the bourne
Which severs life from death, unscathed by woe."
—Œd. King, 1528–30.
(6.) The rule which governs these changes is in both, that the divine order of the world is against the pride and haughtiness of man.
"God ever smiteth the creatures that exalt themselves, and lowly things provoke Him not. . . . . God is wont to cut down the lofty. . . . . He suffereth none but Himself to think great things."—Herod., vii. 10.
"But pride begets the mood
Of wanton, tyrant power;
Pride, filled with many thoughts, yet filled in vain,
Scaling the topmost height,
Falls to the abyss of woe."—Œd. King, 874–8.
(7.) The special form of this pride, against which Herodotos bears his witness, is the spirit of scorn and doubt, which was beginning to show itself in relation to oracles and prognostics.
"I cannot say of oracles, looking to these facts, that they are not true, not wishing to attempt to overthrow the authority of such as speak clearly. . . . . I neither despise them myself, nor tolerate one who does"—Herod., viii. 77.
"No longer will I go in pilgrim's guise,
To yon all holy place,
Earth's central shrine, nor Abæ's temple old,
Nor to Olympia's fane,
Unless these things shall stand
In sight of all men tokens clear from God."
—Œd. King, 898–902.
(8.) As they take the same view of the moral order of the world, so are they of one mind as to the best form of government. Even the ideal discussion between the counsellors of Dareios as to the good and evil of each (iii. 80–82) has its counterpart in the debate between Creon and Hæmon, (Antig., 660–740,) in which the one maintains the principle of order, and the other that of freedom; and when they speak out more clearly it is in the same tone. "Athens, before great, now being freed from tyrants, became greater." . . . . (Herod., v. 66.) "It is clear that a constitutional government is a gain everywhere. . . . The Athenians, freed from their tyrants, came to be the foremost state of Greece," (v. 78.) "Many and evil are the things which the tyrant does, puffed up with pride," (iii. 80.)
"Pride begets the mood of tyrant power."
—Œd. King, 872.
"But whoso to a tyrant wends his way
Becomes his slave, although he go as free."
The induction might, I believe, be carried further. The instances that have been given are enough to show, not indeed that one copied from the other, or had read his works, but that the two men must have had some knowledge of each other, must have met and exchanged their information and their thoughts on the great questions of their time. It is characteristic of the genius of the poet that he makes the knowledge thus gained subservient to the highest purposes of his art.
Of the long period that followed our knowledge is but meagre. A few years after the Samian war, (B.C. 440,) his name appears as holding the office of Hellenotamias of the common fund of the Greek Confederacy, (Böckh, Staatsh., 456.) To this function and period we are probably to ascribe the story that when a golden patera had been stolen from the temple of Heracles, the offender was revealed to him in a dream by that hero, and that the poet, with the talent which he received for the discovery, built a shrine to Heracles the Detective, (Μηνυτής.) One who had attained the age of sixty when the Peloponnesian war broke out, whose whole mind and character were alien to the factions, the demagogy, the restlessness of the new generation, might legitimately hold aloof from any active participation in the contest. So far as we connect his life at all with the history of the time, the relation is one of contrast. Through all the changes and chances of the war, through all the strife of parties, he holds on his course in a calmer and clearer atmosphere. If he were the Sophocles who was appointed (B.C. 413) as one of ten on a Committee of Public Safety, when the great disaster of the Sicilian expedition filled all hearts with fear, we may see in his acceptance of the office a proof of the love of his country, which led him to return, at the age of eighty-two, to public life. His acceptance of the oligarchic revolution effected by the Four Hundred, two years later, (B.C. 411,) as the least of two evils, was natural enough to one of his age and character. Some passages of the extant plays, however, seem to have a distinct reference to the passing political changes of the time. The language of the Chorus in "Œdipus the King," (882–895,) and "Œdipus at Colonos," (1537–8,) is manifestly directed against the reckless licence which, not satisfied with its emancipation from popular superstition, threw itself into outrages like the mutilation of the Hermæ busts and the profanation of the Mysteries; while the words, seemingly opposite in tendency, (497–501,) which maintain the judgment of common sense against the claims of soothsayers, may have been meant as a protest against the credulous fear, of which Thucydides speaks, (ii. 54,) which led the people, at every crisis in the war, to fall back blindly on uncertain or spurious oracles which had never had the Delphic stamp upon them. In the language which describes how the great cannot prosper without those of low estate, nor the poor without the rich, (Aias, 158–163,) we may see his desire to close, if it were possible, the breach that was becoming wider every day, and to prevent the war of classes, the oligarchic conspiracies, the democratic passions, which were bringing ruin upon his beloved city. The yearning of the Greeks before Troy to bring back Philoctetes may well be thought of as having been chosen as a subject from its parallelism to the desire of the great majority of Athenians for the recall of Alcibiades. The language of Œdipus to Theseus (Œd. Col., 607–620,) speaks of a deep feeling of regret at the alienation between Thebes and Athens, and a hope, (fulfilled, let us remember, shortly after the play was performed,) that it might one day be removed, and a true alliance take its place. Assuming, as we may well do, that the lost plays contained like allusions, it is not difficult to think of the old poet as using every opportunity to assert the policy and principles of Pericles, whom he had known and loved, against the sceptical young oligarchs on the one side, and the rampant reactionary fanaticism, the rash, incautious ambition of the demagogues, on the other.
What is worthy of special notice throughout, is the fondness with which he clung to his country and his birthplace. Other poets might be tempted to seek elsewhere for greater honour or larger gifts, Æschylos closed his life in Sicily under the patronage of Hiero. Agathon and Euripides were attracted to Macedonia by the offers of Archelaos; and the lavish liberality of that king, in his efforts to bring a half barbarous court to the standard of Hellenic civilisation, drew round him a host of minor poets and philosophers. Like offers from these and other princes were made to Sophocles, but he refused them all. He was faithful to his beloved Athens, to the country upon which he looked, as Pericles had looked, with an idealising and passionate attachment,—whose legends he had raised to the height of the noblest poetry, from whose people he had received so much sympathy and honour. Like his great contemporary, Socrates, he seems never to have quitted the city except at her call and in her service. It might almost seem in his case, as in that of Dante, as if the sense of belonging to a city, which, in the history of the Greek and Italian republics, took the place of belonging to a country, was capable of inspiring a more concentrated, and therefore more passionate attachment. The state-city was mightier than the fatherland.
Devotion to his art may have combined with, or, it may be, formed part of this love of Athens. Out of the 113 plays assigned to him, not less than 81 belonged to this period, and this, with all that it involved, implies an almost unremitting labour. It is to the honour of the Athenian people that he suffered less than most poets have done from the caprices of popular favour. Sometimes a passing perversion of taste, or the attraction of a new style, might lead them to adjudge the first prize to Euripides (B.C. 442) or Euphorion, the son of Æschylos, (B.C. 432,) but Sophocles stood first in twenty contests, wrote, that is probably, eighty prize plays, and never occupied a lower place than the second, though exposed to the competition of sixteen or seventeen dramatists. The same distinction could not be claimed for the eighty tragedies of Æschylos, or the seventy-five of Euripides, nor yet for Iophon, the son of Sophocles, whom his father lived to see crowned with victory. It seemed too as if this, the autumn of his life, was also the season of his finest, as well as most abundant vintage. Assuming, as we may fairly do, that it was the surpassing excellence of the extant tragedies that led, directly or indirectly, to their preservation, when others were left to perish, it is noticeable that they belong most of them to this period. The noblest of all single passages was among the latest of all, when the decay of physical strength, and, it may be, his absorption in his art, gave occasion to the charge that he was sinking into the imbecility of age, and no longer able to manage his own property. The incident just referred to connects itself with one of the few facts that are reported as to the poet's personal history. By Theoris, a woman of Sicyonian birth, and with whom, therefore, he could not contract a legal marriage, he had a son, Ariston, born probably at a comparatively early period in his life. Some years afterwards, a marriage with Nicostrate, a free Athenian, gave him four sons, the eldest of whom, Iophon, was his father's legal heir. Ariston, however, had grown up, and a son was born to him, named after his grandfather, and so manifestly the darling of the old man's age that the legitimate sons feared he might be led to enrich him at their expense, and brought him before the Phratores, who in such cases exercised a kind of equitable jurisdiction, as needing guardianship. His answer was to read the wonderful chorus in which he has described the beauty and the glory of his native place, from the play of "Œdipus at Colonos," as yet unfinished and unperformed, and to ask whether that gave any proof of a weakened or incapable intellect. The usual order of the Court was disturbed by irrepressible emotion, and he left it as in the moments of his highest success he had left the theatre of Dionysos, amid loud clamours of applause. In the play itself we may trace, without too bold a conjecture, something both of the bitterness of these trials of his old age, (Œd. Col., 1211–1238,) and of the reconciliation with the sons who had been so unfilial, (Œd. Col. 1280–1283.)
So the life drew to its close. The occasion of a death at the age of ninety is not a matter of any great moment, and we need not discuss whether suffocation from swallowing a grape-stone, or over-exertion in reciting the Antigone, or over-excitement in again winning the tragic prize after Euripides and others had for some years been successful rivals, was the immediate cause of what must, a few months sooner or later, have been inevitable. Something, it has well been said, may be inferred as to the calmness with which he looked forward to the end, as one that would come as tranquilly and harmoniously as his life, from the picture which he draws of such an end in the play which gathers up all the experience and the feelings of his latest years. As with the discrowned king, who is the central figure of the "Œdipus at Colonos," so with him, death, if it came as he expected it, may have come with no pang of agony or failing reason. To one who rose beyond the popular belief, which yet he reverenced, the functions of the priesthood, which in his old age he accepted in the shrine of a local hero, probably also his initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries, (Fragm. 719,) may have been subservient to a higher religious life; and in the epithet "most devout," which later tradition gave him, and the belief that he received divine revelations of the will of the Gods, we may see a token of a temper which entitles us to class him with those among the Greeks most distinguished for a true reverence, with those who were his contemporaries, and two of whom we know to have been his friends, with Nikias and Herodotos and Socrates. Calmly he too may have passed away, not without awe, not without such hope in "some far-off divine event," as belonged to the times of ignorance:
"For neither was it thunderbolt from God,
With flashing fire that slew him, nor the blast
Of whirlwind sweeping o'er the sea's dark waves;
But either some one whom the Gods had sent
To guide his steps, or gentleness of mood
Had moved the Powers beneath to ope the way
To earth's deep centre painlessly. He died
No death to mourn for, did not leave the world
Worn out with pain and sickness, but his end,
If any ever was, was wonderful."
One tradition relative to this period is, in spite of some uncertainty, too honourable and too interesting to be passed over. Euripides, as has been said above, after a career of success at Athens, in which he had not seldom triumphed over his greater rival, went, cir. B.C. 406, to Macedonia, on the invitation of Archelaos. A personal dispute with one of the king s officers involved him and his friend Agathon in a quarrel, in which he lost his life. The news came to Athens, and Sophocles, then in extreme old age, a few months before his death, was bringing out a tragedy. In honour of the memory of his great rival, in token of his forgetting all feelings of jealous emulation, if he had ever known them, he appeared on the stage at the head of a chorus, clad in mourning apparel, and without the wreaths which the members of a choral company usually wore on their entrance, and laid upon the altar.
Such an old age, in its calm serenity, in its full enjoyment of the reverence and admiration of his contemporaries, has, perhaps, its nearest parallel in the later years of the life of Goethe. In many respects, indeed, it is far nobler and more admirable. The Greek had risen to the highest truth within his reach, and had heartily embraced it. The German had been brought into contact with a higher truth, and had set himself in antagonism against it. The art of the one was made instrumental in asserting a Divine order, and teaching men to revere it. In that of the other all experiences of life were made subservient to Art for its own sake, and the crowning lesson, after all phases of character, passion, cynicism, philosophy, impurity, is simply that of a supreme Epicurean selfishness.
So the life ended. It remained for those who had known him, and survived, to show how they regarded it. The Athenians, after their manner, recognised him, as raised above the level of common men, by a yearly sacrifice in his honour. Tradition told how Dionysos had twice appeared in the visions of the night to Lysander, and bidden the foreigner and the invader to allow the burial of the poet's body in the grave of his fathers, on the way to Dekeleia. Epitaphs by contemporary poets expressed their reverence and admiration. Of these, some are simply interesting as showing this feeling, and so helping us also to a right estimate of his character. Over his tomb, it was said, was sculptured the form of a Siren, and on it was an inscription, ascribed to his son Iophon.
"Beneath this tomb reposeth Sophocles,
In tragic art with highest glory crowned,
In outward form of all most venerable."
One by Phrynichos confirms the view taken above as to the calmness and harmony of his death—
"Blest, yea, thrice blest, was Sophocles, who lived
Long years, of subtle wit and prosperous life,
Who many noblest tragedies did frame,
And passed away at last without a pang."
But that which bears the name of Simmias of Thebes, the pupil of Socrates, is of a higher kind, and may justly take its place among the most perfect of such forms of composition. A translation can give but a faint notion of its exquisite gracefulness, but it is worth while making the attempt.
"Creep gently, ivy, ever gently creep,
Where Sophocles sleeps on in calm repose;
Thy pale green tresses o'er the marble sweep,
While all around shall bloom the purpling rose.
There let the vine with rich, full clusters hang,
Its fair young tendrils fling around the stone;
Due meed for that sweet wisdom which he sang,
By Muses and by Graces called their own."
In another and very different way, even the great Satirist of Athens, who had at one time attacked him as grasping and covetous, now bore testimony to his greatness. There was no one to fill the place which he left vacant. In the play which Aristophanes brought out the year after his death, Dionysos himself is introduced, seeking in vain for a successor, and has to go into Hades, the world of the dead, to decide between the rival claims of Æschylos and Euripides. Sophocles, though he too is there, is beyond all rivalry, "gentle and calm in death, as he had been gentle and calm in life."
Forty years after his death, Lycurgos, then finance minister at Athens, carried a proposal for placing bronze statues of the three great dramatists in the theatre, and having complete transcripts of their writings made and kept among the archives of the town. This, and a painting in the Stoa Pœkilé, representing him as playing on the lyre in his own drama of Thamyris, kept the features of the great poet before the eyes of his countrymen.
VII. Moral Character.
Was there on a character so stately and noble the stain of a sensuality such as lower natures have imputed to it? So it has been said, both by earlier and later biographers, and traditional sayings from the poet's own lips have been quoted in support of the statement.
Unpleasing as is the task of examining evidence in such cases, it is yet due to the memory of a great man to vindicate his fame. And the evidence in this case is of the slightest and flimsiest description. An epigram of the most doubtful authorship, as unlike anything else that bears the name of Sophocles, as the epitaph on John a Combe is unlike anything else of Shakespeare's, and which, even if it were genuine, is a denial and not a confession of the charge; anecdotes, some of which, so far as they are good for anything, prove victory over sense, and outward purity of life; these are surely slender grounds for thinking of the character of the man as out of harmony with the character of the writer. They cannot be admitted to outweigh the negative evidence in his favour, that the rough satire of the older comedy, unflinching and unsparing, never even dared to connect his name with evil of this nature, the positive evidence of his own writings, from first to last, maintaining their calm and pure serenity, unmarred by any low thoughts or even sensuous imagery, the indirect testimony of the friendship of Nikias and Herodotos, of the admiration and reverence of the people. Few dramatic poets, even of those who have lived under happier influences, have left so little they would wish to blot. It had been well if the writings of Shakespeare, Lessing, Goethe, (not to speak of other names among the dramatists of modern Europe,) had been as free from the alloy of baser metal. We may well rest in the belief that the name of Sophocles stands as clear and unblemished as that of one against whom like charges were brought in the very recklessness of slander, the noble and true-hearted Socrates.
VIII. Moral and Religious Teaching.
The name of Socrates reminds us of the fact, that the lives of the two men just brought together ran on, during nearly their whole extent, parallel with each other. The poet must have been familiar enough with the half grotesque form, the sharp irony, the playful gentleness, the deep and subtle questionings which we picture to ourselves as the centre of a group of loving and admiring disciples, indicating the natural enemy of all pretence, and baseness, and unreality. The thinker must have been oftentimes among the spectators in the Dionysiac Theatre, who listened with intent eagerness to the dramas of the poet. Can we form any estimate of their relation to each other? Were they working in the same direction, or was one counteracting and neutralising the influence of the other?
The inquiry is obviously one of some interest. The other great dramatist of the time was conspicuously the poet of the Sophists. It was the stock charge against him, that he familiarised men with subtle distinctions and perverted casuistry. The line,—
"My tongue has sworn, my mind remains unbound,"
became the representative of all the lax morality by which the rising generation of statesmen were, or were supposed to be, affected. True, it might be urged, that what he did was but done as a dramatist; that, as such, he had the right of representing different forms of character; but it was felt, and felt naturally, that a poet who uses dramatic machinery as a vehicle for discussions in which the true principles of all morality are questioned, and not asserted, does in effect contribute to undermine men's reverence for them, and is so far an element of evil in the literature of his time and country.
What is characteristic of the poetry of Sophocles is the absence of this half rhetorical sophistry, the prominence of what is directly antagonistic to it. Nowhere, even in the ethics of Christian writers, are there nobler assertions of a morality divine, universal, unchangeable, of laws whose dwelling is on high,—
"In which our God is great, and changeth not,"
of which it is true that
"They are not of to-day or yesterday;"
that they, written on the hearts of all men, are of prior obligation to all conventional arrangements of society, or the maxims of political expediency. Such as he was in relation to the Ethics of his time, such he was also in relation to what we may venture to speak of as its Theology. For him, indeed, there was a veil over the central truth. He lived surrounded by all forms of the mythical religion with which the activity of Greek imagination had clothed itself, and, in the absence of a higher knowledge, he could but accept them as symbols and exponents of the Truth. It was unwise to lessen men's reverence for them, unless he had something better to offer in their stead. In his own case, indeed, the acceptance was probably (as it was with Herodotos, and, perhaps, with Pericles himself) that of a mind which had received, and had not dared to question,—utterly unlike the scepticism of a later age, which kept up the show of conformity as a state necessity, or that which, in Rousseau's Confession of the Savoyard Vicar, is represented as compatible with the maintenance of a corrupt Christianity. There are no tokens of any consciousness of a contradiction between the higher and lower forms of Greek religion. The very fact that he had a firm grasp on the truths of the one, made him tolerant, or more than tolerant, of the other. All that we can note as characteristic in his way of dealing with the popular religion is, that here also there is a kind of instinctive reverence and purity. The baser elements of it fall into the background. The impurities which were found elsewhere, are to him as though they were not. The gods of Sophocles are not, like those of Homer, spiteful, vindictive, mean, below the level of heroic, or even of average human worth. They are not, like those of Euripides, sententious, rhetorical declaimers.
It is difficult enough, in any case, to throw ourselves into the religious life of those whose lot has been cast under a different system from our own; but the difficulty rises to its height when we ask ourselves with what thoughts and emotions the word God, as distinct from any special names, Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, was connected in his mind, and that of other thinkers of his time. And yet we must not lose sight of the fact, that with him, as with the other great religious Greeks of his time, Herodotos and Socrates, the teaching of Anaxagoras seems to have so far affected his language, that the loftiest and noblest utterances of religious truths are always, or all but always, so set forth. It is God who is great in His own eternal laws; His providence watches over the good, and takes vengeance on the ungodly. Even the plural form, the Gods, and the received synonyms, Heaven, Olympos, and the like, suggest the grand, vague thought of an unseen, all-pervading Presence, (like the Supreme Reason of Anaxagoras,) rather than that of the many personal individualities of popular Greek mythology; and the great lesson which he teaches in every drama is that of reverence for this invisible Power. Whatever might be the truth or falsehood of the faith of their fathers, the spirit of scorn and reverence which rejected all belief in a Divine Order, and made its own desires the standard of duty, and its own conceptions the measure of the universe, was an infinitely greater evil. To exclude from among the elements of tragedy the feeling of perplexity, mounting up to fierceness and despair, which rises out of seeing or feeling the moral disorders of the world, and which finds utterance even in the psalms of Asaph and the confessions of the Preacher, and yet more awfully in the impassioned complaints of Job, would have been to cast away the most effective instrument for acting upon the feelings of makind, and to prove untrue to his high calling as a poet But here, too, it is characteristic of the spirit in which he wrote that he puts these vehement protests into the mouths of those who are chief actors in his dramas, and in whom they answer to transient, often to merely momentary phases of thought, not into the odes of the Chorus which represent the higher teaching of the ideal spectator, reading the world's lesson rightly, and pointing to an order which fulfils itself in the midst of all seeming disorder and confusion. Hyllos may call on men "not to forgive the Gods, seeing the mischief that they do;" Philoctetes may complain that, "honouring the Gods, he finds the Gods as base;" but the Choral Odes still assert the temper of reverence, the spirit which submits and waits, and controls impatience, and represses wrath, as the great duty of all men.
The thought of a Divine discipline, ordering men's lives aright, is brought out yet more clearly in the way in which the dramas of Sophocles deal with another great element of tragedy, the mystery of suffering, apparently undeserved by him on whom it falls, of an evil destiny transmitted from generation to generation, of crimes into which the criminal falls unconsciously, but which, in spite of that unconsciousness, entail a tremendous punishment. The curse that haunted and hovered over the houses of Pelops or of Labdacos, exercised on him, as for the two great tragedians who were his rivals, an almost irresistible fascination. The madness that fell upon Aias, the ten years' agony of Philoctetes, seemingly so far beyond all that they had deserved, were, for that very reason, fitter subjects for the poet's work than sufferings more accurately proportioned to demerits would have been. Tragedy requires for its subject-matter, not mere physical pain or violent catastrophe, but suffering in its awfulness and its mystery; not a Providence making its awards in this life visibly, and at once, on a scale of precise adjustment, to "point a moral, and adorn a tale," but One whose "path is in the great waters, and whose footsteps are not known," "visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children," and working, through strange and unexpected ways, towards its final issue. But what is to be noted in the poet's way of dealing with such elements in the mystery of man's life is, that he is always careful to bring into prominence the fact that the suffering is not merely the result of a transmitted curse, but is connected very closely with defects of some kind in the sufferer himself which call for chastisement. Jocasta speaks mockingly and defyingly of the Oracles of Delphi, and has been guilty of cold-blooded infanticide. Œdipus is proud and lifted up with his victory over the Sphinx. Philoctetes has outraged the sanctuary of a Goddess, or a Nymph. Aias has sinned in asserting his independence of all Divine aid, his scorn of all prayer for Divine blessing, and so there comes on him the terrible madness which shows him how the wrath of the Gods may come on those who despise them. Heracles has made himself the slave of lust and ferocious passion, and the fiery pain of the robe of Nessos is his due penalty. Creon and Hæmon forget the ties which bind them together as father and as son, and the father has to mourn, in his lonely age, over a terrible desolation.
But it is not merely the fact that calamity is deserved that is thus brought out. With hardly a single exception, there is also the lesson that it does its work as a discipline, chastening and correcting faults that would otherwise have been incurable, and bringing out excellency in others that would otherwise have been dormant. The sufferings of Œdipus teach him humility, reverence, contentment, and give scope, in their earlier stage, to the unexpected kindliness of Creon; in their latter, to the noble, chivalrous sympathy and generosity of Theseus, and the filial devotion of Antigone. Without the sufferings of Philoctetes, we should not have had the touching picture of the half-unwilling fraud, and the hearty, full repentance of Neoptolemos. Even the madness and death of Aias bring out the loyal love of his brother, and for a moment melt into pity even the crafty and hard temper of Odysseus; and the devotion of a son to a father could not have been painted as it has been in the character of Hyllos, if it had not been for the agonising death of Heracles. Out of the fratricidal strife of Eteocles and Polyneikes, there rises, in Antigone, the noblest heroism of womanhood that the poets of Greece or Rome have represented.
The thought of this "Divinity that shapes our ends," and works out a reconciliation of the Divine justice with the miseries and perplexities of life that seem to contradict it, is brought out with varying degrees of clearness. In "Œdipus the King," the prevailing impression at the close is simply that of horror; but when we pass to what must have been intended (divided from it, though it was, by an interval of many years) as its natural completion, the lesson stands out in daylight clearness. It is in the grove of the dark Goddesses that the wanderer finds rest at last, and the dread avenging Erinnyes have become the Eumenides, the Gentle Ones; and the sufferer is taught how to make atonement for his sins, and win their favour. In the "Aias" and "Philoctetes," Athena and Heracles appear visibly on the stage as guiding and directing the whole course of events. If the "Maidens of Trachis" ends, as does "Œdipus the King," in what is simply terrible, we may see in the appearance of the hero in his new character, as one of the Immortals, in the play just named, what was meant to complete and reconcile, and to remove the impression that Zeus had been unmindful of any of his children.
The precision with which the ritual of the grove of the Eumenides is given by the priest-poet in the "Œdipus at Colonos," (465–490,) may be accepted as fair evidence that it was to him significant, that each rite and rubric was for him a token of the truth. Man needs a "purification," and with "holy hands" must pour out water as the symbol of that which cleanses and renews. Repentance and prayer, in proportion to their earnestness, exclude all mirth and revelling, and therefore there was to be no wine in the libations, only the "water" which represented the purity, and the "honey" which expressed the sweetness of the new life. He was to turn to the precise point at which the first ray of dawn was visible, for he came as a seeker after light. With the "olive branches" of suppliants, symbols of gentleness and peace, the worshipper was to ask, not for wealth, or honour, or health, but only that the Dreaded Ones would be "gracious," and deliver him from the burden of his guilt. There was to be no "loud cry" or "lengthened prayer;" for true worship is of the heart, and does not consist in "much speaking" or wild emotion. When the prayer was over he was to withdraw without turning, for there should be no abrupt transition from the awfulness of the Divine presence to the common routine of life. With a yet more marvellous approximation to the thought which underlies the mystery of Atonement, the sufferer himself discovers that where he fails it is possible that another may take his place, if only that vicarious offering be made in the fulness of a self-devoted love. In words which give what the early Fathers of the Church would have called the "testimonium animæ naturaliter Christianæ," he proclaims that
"One soul, working in the strength of love,
Is mightier than ten thousand to atone."
Strange, unconscious prophecy, that ἀντὶ μυρίων μιάν ψυχὴν, of the words, "a ransom for many," (λύτρον ἀντὶ πολλῶν,) spoken by the Holiest!
It would be to give an undue prominence to a few scattered passages which are hardly more than a recognition of popular belief, to represent Sophocles as having been a preacher of immortality, even in the degree in which that title may be claimed for Socrates. The clouds that hung over the future were thick and dark, and it was not given to him to look behind the veil. But so far as the tendencies of his mind are traceable, there seem good grounds for classing him with those who sought to carry men's thoughts forward into the future in the spirit of reverence and hope, with Pythagoras, and Zamolxis, and Herodotos, and Plato, rather than with the scoffers, to whom this life was all, and by whom, therefore, it was sensualised and degraded. With the wonderful intuition of a noble soul, he fixes on all elements of popular belief that pointed upwards. The blessedness of the death of Œdipus carries our thoughts on irresistibly to something beyond itself, to a rest of which it was but the prelude and the foretaste. Even the suicide of Aias is not shrouded in darkness and despair. He is passing from a world which he can bear no longer, because he has forfeited his self-respect, into a peace which is more than sleep. He bids farewell, gently and tenderly, to the sun, the streams, even the plains of Troïa. All else he will reserve "for those that dwell in Hades." Antigone devotes herself to her self-imposed duty towards the dead, because it is with them that she will have to dwell evermore, and they will count her deed honourable. Death has for her no terrors, because it removes her from a world where right is often crushed, to one in which it is eternally triumphant. The Chorus consoles Electra with the thought that one who had suffered much was reigning in the other world in the fulness of life. Of the spirit of reverence and religion, it is said, that while in one sense it does not pass away whether men live or die, but abides eternally, in another, it does indeed die with them. They pass into Hades, and their works do follow them.
What has been called the irony of Sophocles has been so exhaustively discussed in Bishop Thirlwall's masterly Essay in the Philological Museum, that any treatment of it within the limits of these pages must be necessarily unsatisfying. Our survey of the character of his dramas would, however, be incomplete without some mention of it. The characteristic so described seems in him, and in other writers who possess it in different degrees, to spring from a keen sense of the incongruities of human nature, and the disappointments of human life. Men promise much, and perform little. They think they are marching onward to fame and greatness, when the ground is opening between their feet, and they are sinking into destruction. They boast of their strength when they are really displaying their weakness. Like Œdipus, they solve the riddle of the Sphinx, and are blind to the riddle of their own life. They imagine themselves to be asserting some high principle, when they are simply yielding to passionate impulse, and cloaking it with the garb of morality or religion. The good are not without a touch of baseness. The base are not without an element of good. Words spoken in condemnation of others come home afterwards to the man's own soul, with a strange and terrible retribution. There is something like a pitying tolerance for all men and all forms of character, together with the sense of the littleness that mixes itself with all, which reminds us (different as the two writers were in everything else) of that strange union of sympathy and satire which distinguished Thackeray. One who reads the extant tragedies with this clue to one aspect of their teaching, will find illustrations at every step. Should he need a guide, he will find one in the Essay already named. To give those illustrations in detail, would be to quote a large portion of what will be found in the following pages.
Any estimate in these pages of the chief characteristic of the dramatic poetry of Sophocles must, for the same reason, be of the briefest. Those who wish for a fuller survey of his works may be referred to Schlegel's well-known Lectures on Dramatic Poetry, or Müller's History of Greek Literature, or M. Patin's Etudes sur Sophocle. I am quite content that they should learn to understand Sophocles from Sophocles himself. What is perhaps most necessary, is to warn them against the commonplaces of rhetorical panegyric which have been repeated times without number, but which help little to any true perception of his excellence. To say that Sophocles is the "Homer of Tragedians," is either a mere amplification of the fact that he stands at the head of one class of writers, as the great epic poet does at the head of another, or else it tends to mislead by identifying two forms of genius, of which we might almost say that they were generically different. The name which speaks of him as the "Bee of Tragedy," and the lines which place him as at an unapproachable height of excellence, in like manner do but express the admiration of a later age, without helping us to appreciate what is specially worthy to be admired. If I were to sum up, in fewest words, what constitutes this surpassing excellence, I should find it in the wonderful equilibrium of all powers, the self-control and consummate art with which all are devoted to working out a perfection deliberately foreseen and aimed at. There is power, as in the self-inflicted blindness of Œdipus, the agony of Heracles, the long woe of Philoctetes, the suicide of Aias, to paint vividly and awfully the scenes of terror which belong essentially to the true conception of Tragedy; but there is no exaggeration, as there is so often with Euripides, of the mere details of physical pain and loathsomeness. In him what the great "Master of those who know" has laid down as the end of Tragedy, is attained. Through the instrumentality of terror and pity those emotions are themselves purified and ennobled, and freed from contact with what is base and unmanly. With the power of word-painting, which shows itself in descriptions like that of the plague at Thebes, Teiresias' seat of augury, the cave of Philoctetes, the grove of the Eumenides, the stories of the Guard in the Antigone, he is yet careful to guard himself against overstepping the boundaries which his keen perception of proportion led him from the first to trace; and we never feel that the accessories have usurped the place which ought to be occupied only by the more essential elements of the drama In the Œdipus at Colonos, (1148,) he deliberately sacrifices an opportunity for a long narrative of a battle such as Euripides would have delighted in, in order to bring out, in a few simple words, the nobleness of Theseus. Great as is the lyric power shown in the choral odes which, like those in "Œdipus the King," approach more closely than others to the character of hymns or litanies, they are yet, in all cases, connected essentially with the action of the drama, and are always more than "purple patches" of beauty interpolated as ornaments to win the applause of the audience. Here and there, even, broad as was the line of demarcation in ancient art between the provinces of Tragedy and Comedy, we find, as in the Messengers in Œdipus the King, and the Maidens of Trachis, and in the Guard of the Antigone, traces of a sense of humour, which, but for that demarcation, and the set purpose of Sophocles to adhere to it, might have made him almost as myriad-minded as our own great dramatist.
Such is the estimate we are led to form from the seven Tragedies which now remain to us. When we remember that the number which he wrote was not less than one hundred and thirteen, and that a large number of these were received with as much applause and as much success as those which are still extant, we are struck with wonder at the immense fertility which was united with such consummate art. Difficult as it is to compare writers who differ, as has been said, generically, daring as it may be to attempt to dethrone one whom so many ages have recognised as king, it seems but the natural conclusion of what has been said to assign to Sophocles a higher place in the history of Greek literature, even than to Homer himself. If he has not the glory of being the first great poet, his greatness is of a higher type. He is the representative poet of a more advanced and cultivated age, and shows greater sympathy with the thoughts and questionings of such an age, with its hopes and fears, its problems and its strivings. In his estimate of human excellence there is a less exclusive admiration of the mere brute courage which passes into ferocity, and which even in Homer's noblest heroes is accompanied by acts of savage cruelty, and he thinks more of reverence, wisdom, skill in rule, filial devotion, faithfulness, and honour. No character in the Iliad approaches the pattern of chivalrous truth and generosity which we find in Theseus. Even Andromache, in her passionate love for Hector, must yield to the higher, more self-sacrificing love of Antigone for her father and her brother. In what bears on the growth and history of the society in which he lived, he is not content, as Homer was, with making his characters the mouthpieces of the commonplace declamation of kings and chiefs against the advancing freedom of the people, or caricaturing demagogues, as in the portraiture of Thersites, but aims, in the spirit of a wise conservatism, at bringing into permanent harmony the two principles of order and of progress, reverence for the past, and freedom and hopefulness for the future. In his estimate of the higher and more mysterious truths which enter into man's life and thoughts, he stands, as we have seen, on a far higher elevation. The work of Homer was to immortalise the poorest and coarsest forms of the popular mythology, with scarcely a thought of anything beyond them or above them. In the transition stage, of which he is the representative, the grandeur of the physical conceptions, out of which the Polytheism of Greece arose, was all but lost, and that of the loftier ethical thoughts of a true anthropopathy hardly as yet in sight. The work of Sophocles, following, though with calmer tread, and clearer vision, and serener speech, in the steps of Æschylos, was the task, finding the mythology of Homer in possession of the mind of the people, to turn it, as far as it could be turned, into an instrument of moral education, and to lead men upwards to the eternal laws of God, and the thought of His righteous order. If, in the language so familiar to the noblest minds of early Christendom, we may recognise in Greek philosophy an education by which men were prepared for a teaching higher than itself, we may venture to speak of him as one of the greatest among the master minds by whom that education was carried on towards completion. Even he may have become, to those who followed his guidance rightly, a παιδαγωγὸς εἰς Χριστόν.
- The Vita Anonyma, probably by an Alexandrian writer.
- Suidas, s. v. Sophocles.
- See references infra.
- Aristoxenos of Tarentum, and Heracleides of Pontus, circ. B.C. 320. Philochoros of Athens, circ. B.C. 300. Hieronymos of Rhodes, B.C. 250. After B.C. 200, Neanthes, Istros, Satyros. and others.
- The date is arrived at from the Vita Anon., which gives the year in Olympiads, and the Parian Chronicle, which gives his age at the time of his gaining his first prize, and fixes that date by naming the Archon. Diodoros, (xiii. 103,) fixing the year of his death, gives his age as ninety. Other authorities are slightly discrepant, but the limits of variation are very narrow, and lie between B.C. 497–495.
- Œd. Col., 53–63.
- Œd. Col., 14. The distance was but ten stadia, a mile and a quarter.
- Ibid., 668–705.
- Œd. Col., 56. So in Fragm. 724 we may perhaps trace another local allusion: "Working men" (χειρώναξ λεῶς) are called on to worship Athena as the "working Goddess" (Ἐργάνη.)
- The church dedicated to the Ἅγιοι ἀκίνδυνοι, the ruins of which are still seen at Colonos, gives in its name a faint echo of the old associations. The vines, olives, and nightingales have not passed away.
- Œd. Col., 16, 1590–1596.
- Ibid., 593.
- Ibid., 40–42.
- Œd. Col., 466–502.
- Vit. Anon.
- "Principe loco genitus," (Hist. Nat. xxxvii. 1.) This passage admits, however, of another construction, which would refer the words to Athens, as the poet's birthplace.
- Vit. Anon.
- Herod., v. 66, 78.
- Œd. King, 872–878; Fragm., 711.
- See the elaborate description in the Clouds of Aristophanes, (933–993,) from which most of the details which follow are taken.
- Vit Anon.
- De Musicâ, c 31.
- Deipnos, ii. p. 44.
- Plato, Protag., pp. 317–326.
- Fragm., 729.
- It is, I think, scarcely possible to refuse our assent to the comment of the old scholiast, that the "youth" of the Œd. Col., 702, refers to Xerxes, and the old man to Archidamos, (Thuc., ii. 57,) or possibly (I venture to think more probably) to Mardonios, (comp. Herod., ix. 3).
- Vit. Anon.
- Herod., i. 30.
- Schöll (p. 30) suggests, with much probability, that one so distinguished as Sophocles was, for grace of motion and power of song, was likely to be engaged, from time to time, to take part in the choruses of his great predecessor.
- That this feeling towards his predecessor was, on the whole, and to the last, one of reverence and admiration, we may infer from the language of Aristophanes, (Frogs. 787.)
- Pausan., i. 21. 3.
- Athen., Deipnos., i. 22.
- See the somewhat obscure passage from Plutarch, (De profectu in virt.) as quoted and discussed by Lessing.
- Plutarch. Cimon 8. Thes. 36. It is interesting to think of the picture of a plague-stricken city, in "Œdipus the King," (1–33, 168–185,) as rising either out of this calamity or the more famous plague at the commencement of the Peloponnesian war.
- The fact of the subsequent production of the Oresteian Trilogy (perhaps in the year following) is incompatible with the entire truth of the tradition. It is possible, however, that there may have been a temporary absence.
- Pliny (Hist. Nat., xviii. 12, § 1) speaks of the Triptolemos as having contained a special praise of the corn of Italy, 145 years before the death of Alexander the Great, and this gives us B.C. 468, the very year in which he is said by Plutarch to have obtained the prize, (Schöll, p. 39.)
- Comp. the stress laid on the worship of Demeter in Œd. Col., 1050, and as connected with Italy in Antig. 1118.
- Fragm., 535.
- Two exceptions are mentioned (Vit. Anon.) which seem to prove the rule; one, his appearance as playing a lyre in his own play of Thamyris; the other, his activity in the ball-play of Nausicaa and her maidens, which preceded their discovery of Odysseus. The youthful tastes and skill seem to have continued, (Athen., i. p. 20.) It has to be noted also that the parts do not seem to have been such as to call for much, if for any, dramatic recitation.
- The Supplices and the Persae. In the Prometheus three actors seem to have been almost indispensable, though a mechanical contrivance might possibly have substituted in one scene a figure of Prometheus for the living person. In the Oresteian Trilogy the older poet adopted the improvement of the younger, and we find three appearing on the stage again and again, (Schöll, p. 52.)
- Aristot., Poetic., c. iv.
- The extent of this may be seen from the conjectural divisions of the parts of a single play. Thus in the Aias, the chief actor seems to have taken the hero himself and Teucros; the second Odysseus, the messenger, and Menelaos; the third Athena, Tecmessa, and Agamemnon, (Schöll, p. 61.) The motive of this limitation, under a system where the expense of the performance fell chiefly on the private fortune of the Choregos, was probably economical.
- Suidas, s. v. Sophocles. It is worth mentioning that the dramatist is said to have written a treatise on the subject. It will be noticed that there is for the most part a definite harmony between the age and sex of the chorus and that of the hero and heroine of the play. Thus in Œdipus the King and Œdipus at Colonos it consists of aged men, in Electra and the Maidens of Trachis of women, in the Aias of soldiers, in the Philoctctes of sailors. The Antigone is an exception to the rule.
- Vit. Anon., quoting from Istros and Neanthes. In the description of Ismene in the Œd. Col. (312–14) and of Œdipus himself (1259–65) may be noticed a careful attention to costume as an element of effect.
- Arisiot., Poetic., c. 4.
- Œd. Col., 947.
- Aristoph. Byzant., Arg. in Antig.
- Antig., 160–190, 450–459.
- Vit. Anon. Comp. Athen., xiii. p. 604.
- Plutarch, Nikias, c. 15. The anecdote occurs, somewhat parenthetically, in the history of the Sicilian expedition, without a precise date. If we could infer from this that the poet was then one of the ten Athenian generals, we should get a fact of great interest; but Plutarch does not say that he was so, and mentions (c. 2) that Nikias had acted, young as he then was, as a general with Pericles.
- Plutarch, An sent sit ger. resp.
- Vol. i., p. 161.
- The resemblance between the two passages is pointed out by Clement of Alexandria, who charges Herodotos with plagiarism, (Stromat., vi., p. 265.) Later critics (A. Jacob and Schneidewin) reject the passage as the rhetorical interpolation of a transcriber. On the other hand, the quotation of vers. 911, 912, in Aristotle's Rhetoric, iii. 16, is fair evidence of the state of the text in his time.
- It would seem, e.g., from a passage referred to, though not quoted by Seneca, (Hist. Nat., xiii.) that Sophocles had spoken, in some lost play, of the causes of the inundation of the Nile, as Herodotos does in B. II.
- Προβούλοι. Thuc., viii. 1, compared with Aristot., Rhet., iii. 18. In the latter passage Sophocles is said to have been charged by Peisander with having consented to a measure which he confessed to be mischievous, and to have defended himself by saying that nothing better was open to him. The absence of any distinguishing epithet leads us to think of the more famous Sophocles; the anecdote is characteristic, and the members of the Committee are expressly said to have been chosen from among those who were venerable by age and character. The statement of the Vit. Anon., that he took a conspicuous part in "home statesmanship and embassies," both at home and abroad, is in favour of the identification.
- In one of the extant Fragments, we find a striking protest against the lower forms of demagogy:—
"Ne'er can a state in peace and safety dwell
Where justice and the law of self-control
Are trampled under foot, and brawling knave,
With crafty hand and cruel goad, drives on
The state to his own purpose."—Fragm., 606.
- It will not be thought, I trust, too bold a conjecture to suggest that we may probably find, in the stainless honour and chivalrous generosity of Theseus, in the Œd. Col., something like a reminiscence of the statesman in whom the Athenian character was represented in its highest form, even as Tennyson's "ideal knight" was, in part at least, a portraiture of the purity of life and true nobility of the Prince whose premature death led the English people to a right estimate of his goodness.
- Many other instances of this political element in the plays of Sophocles are brought forward by Schöll, but in not a few he rides his theory to death. We may, perhaps, admit that the Chorus in the Aias, (1185–1225,) in which his sailors complain of the miseries of their prolonged service, expressed the popular Athenian feeling as to their sufferings in the Peloponnesian war, or that the complaint of Tecmessa, (485–503.) and the discussion between Agamemnon and Odysseus as to the treatment of the dead, (1330–1370,) were meant as a protest against the brutality which that war engendered; but it is difficult to repress a smile when we are told to see in the seizure of Ismene and Antigone an allusion to the capture of Aspasia's handmaids by the Megarians, (p. 213,) and that the Athenian charioteer in the Electra (731) was drawn as a portrait of Alcibiades (p. 255.) I can hardly believe that the Chorus which speaks of the power of Aphrodite (Antig., 776) was aimed at the weakness of Pericles in submitting to it, (p. 136.)
- Vit. Anon. The epithet used to describe him (φιλαθηναιότατος) is worth reproducing.
- Vit. Anon. Comp. a paper in the Philological Museum, i. p. 74.
- So in the passage from Plutarch, already referred to, (De profect. in virt., p. 79, b.,) he speaks of himself as having passed through three stages: (1,) a grandiloquence, like that of Æschylos; (2,) then a severe and somewhat artificial style; (3,) lastly, one truer to human character, and of higher excellence.
- Schöll (pp. 367–370) thinks the whole story very doubtful, a legend that has grown out of a metaphor. The name Theoris, on this view, represents Dramatic Art, the object of his devotion in youth and age, still favouring him, when his hair was white with age, in preference to younger rivals. The epitaph which speaks of his age as having "known no ill," (p. lxxiii.,) and the tone in which Aristophanes speaks of him in the Frogs, are against the credibility of home quarrels in the last years of his life.
- "If I am Sophocles, I am not mad; and if I am mad, I am not Sophocles."—Vit Anon.
- See also Fragm. 500, Dind.
- Vit. Anon. Cic., De Senect., c. 7. Diod. Sic., xiii.
- Vit. Anon. Here also, it may be, a tradition has grown out of a metaphor. To be faithful to his art and to Dionysos to the last, was to die, eating of the fruit of the sacred vine. So in the epitaph ascribed to the younger Simonides—
"Thy life was quenched, Ο aged Sophocles,
Thou flower of all that sing,
As thou wert gathering clusters ripe and full
Of grapes to Bacchos dear."—Anthol., vii. 20.
- Vit. Anon. It is worth noticing, in connexion with the tone of reverence in which the sons of Asclepios are spoken of in the Philoctetes, that the hero was Halon, who, with Asclepios, had been taught by Cheiron. So it was said that Asclepios had come to him and abode with him; and when the Athenians offered annual sacrifices to him, as they did to Homer and Æschylos, it was with the new name of Dexion, or the Host, (Etym. M. 256.)
- Schol. on Electr., 815. So also the Vit. Anon. describes him as "Dear to the Gods, as no one else was."
- Thomas Magist., Vit. Eurip.
- "Loved every way by all men."—Vit. Anon. So he was emphatically ὁ τραγικὸς, as Homer was ὁ ποιητής.
- It is interesting, with this parallelism in our minds, to examine the judgment which the one poet passed upon the other, "Sophocles, when he wrote his pieces, by no means started from an idea. On the contrary, he seized upon some ancient, ready-made popular tradition, in which a good idea existed, and then only thought of adapting it, in the best and most effective manner, for the theatre. . . . . His characters all possess the gift of eloquence, and know how to explain the motives for their actions so cunningly, that the hearer is almost always on the side of the last speaker. One can see that, in his youth, he enjoyed an excellent rhetorical education, by which he became trained to look for all the reasons and seeming reasons of things If there be a moral in a subject it will appear, and the poet has nothing to consider but the effective and artistic treatment of his subject. If a poet has as high a soul as Sophocles, his influence will always be moral, let him do what he will. Besides, he knew the stage, and understood his craft thoroughly."—Eckermann's Conversations of Goethe, i. pp. 369, 372, 382.
- Vit. Anon. and Pliny, Hist. Nat., vii. 30. Pausanias, (Att., i. 21,) more cautiously speaks only of "the Lacedæmonian general." Agis, and not Lysander, was at that time attacking Attica.
- The reverence of a later age took a stranger form. Apollonios of Tyana, in his Apologia to the Emperor Domitian, speaks of Sophocles as having had power, by his charms and prayers, to appease storms and tempests, (Philostr., Vit. Apoll., viii., c. 7.) The same writer mentions hymns to Asclepios, written by him, as still in use at Athens in his time, and as being like in character to those of Indian sages, (Ibid., iii. 5.) Here, again, there is a point of contact with what has been just mentioned.
- So the Vit. Anon. reports that he was so genial and benignant that all men loved him, and that he was the head of a special Society (θίασος) of those who were devoted to the Muses. The epithet, "sweet poet," which his countrymen gave him, referred as much to character as to writings.
- Vit. Anon. The design was connected with one form of the Lysander legend. The Spartan general was said to have been told to pay funeral honours to the Siren just dead, (Pausanias, l. c.)
- Anon. Pref. to Œd. Col.
- Anthol. Græc., vii. 27.
- Aristoph., Frogs., 82.
- Pseudo-Plutarch, Moral., p. 841, f.
- I regret to find Sir E. Bulwer Lytton and Mr Blayds, the recent editor of Sophocles, (Preface, p. viii.,) hastily adopting these disparaging slanders. Schöll (Sophokles, pp. 365–369) utterly rejects them. So also does Bode, ( , iii., p. 366.) Far more true is Dronke's estimate of his character, as "presenting the image of a pure, deep soul, animated by a devout faith, and an unshaken confidence in God," (Die religiosen und sittlichen Vorstellungen des Æschylos und Sophocles, p. 62.)
- Athen., xiii., p. 604.
- It is not worth while to reproduce the anecdotes in question, but their nature may be briefly stated. On one occasion, in his old age, some one asked him a foul and ribald question, and his answer was, "Hush, my friend; I have known how terrible an enemy such evil is, and am thankful to have been delivered from it," (Plato, Republ., i., p. 329, b. Athen., xii., p. 510.) On another, during the Samian expedition, Pericles, it is said, seeing him look at a face of more than usual beauty, bade him remember that one whose aims were lofty must not be content with purity of outward life, but must strive after purity of thought, (Plutarch, Pericles, viii. Cic. De Off., i. 40.) The story which Athenaeus tells, in connexion with the epigram, (Deipnos, xiii., p. 604,) is but part of the base gossip of that impure writer, and was just the kind of slander which the age that was contemporary with the later years of Sophocles was likely to invent against one whose character rose above its own. Another, (xiii. 603,) less offensive, and reported as coming from an eye-witness, indicates, if true, and measured by the social customs of his time, little more than a genial playfulness.
"Ion the poet, in his 'Reminiscences of Travel,' writes thus:—'I met Sophocles the poet in Chios, when he was sailing as general to Lesbos, and found him full of humour and geniality over his wine. It happened that Hermesilaos, who was his personal friend and Athenian consul (proxenos) there, entertained him at dinner, and the boy who poured out the wine, standing by the fire, was flushed with it. "Do you wish me to enjoy my wine?" said he. "Come slowly, and bring me the goblet, and then take it away." And when the boy blushed and grew redder than before, he said to his neighbour, "How well Phrynichos has put it—'On purple cheeks there shines the light of love.'"
And to this Eretrieus, who was a schoolmaster, answered, "Of course, Ο Sophocles, thy skill in poetry is beyond all question. Nevertheless, Phrynichos has not been happy in his language when he speaks of the cheeks of a beautiful person as purple; for if an artist were to paint this boy's cheek with purple he would no longer be good-looking. And he ought not to have compared what is beautiful with what is not so." And Sophocles smiled at Eretrieus, and said, "Well then, my good friend, art thou not satisfied with this passage of Simonides, which most Hellenes look upon as admirable—'The maiden's voice came forth from purple lips;'
nor with the poet when he speaks of 'golden-haired Apollo;' for if the artist were to make the hair of the God golden and not black, the painting would be the worse for it. Or, again, take him who talked of 'rosy-fingered;' for if one were to dip one's fingers into rose-coloured paint, they would be like a dyer's, and not like a fair woman's." And when they laughed, and Eretrieus was mortified at the retort, he again spoke to the boy, and asked him, as he was trying to remove a particle of dust from the cup with his little finger, if he saw it clearly. And when he said that he did see it—"Blow it then, so that thy finger may not get wetted." And as the boy moved his head closer to the cup, so he brought the cup nearer to his own lips, that their heads might be close together. And when they were on the point of meeting, he put his arm round his neck and kissed him. And when they all burst out laughing and shouting at the trick he had played the boy—"You see, my friends," he said, "that I am practising generalship; for Pericles says that I know how to write poetry, but not what generalship is. And hasn't my strategy turned out well in this instance?" And many such like sportive things he said and did, when he sat at his wine and jested. But as to matters of state he was not conspicuous either for wisdom or activity, but just like any other worthy, well-to-do Athenian.'"
- Aristophanes, for example, who flings such charges broadcast against contemporary poets and statesmen, speaks with great reverence for Sophocles. The charge of an avarice like that of Simonides which he brings against him, (Peace, 681,) probably means nothing more than that the two poets made money by their writings, and were frugal. It would be hard to fix the brand of meanness on Scott because Byron had called him "Apollo's venal son."
- If we may assume the identity of the Sophocles mentioned by Aristotle, (Rhet., iii. 18,) the motives of the slanderers were probably the same in both cases. Those who felt their own vices rebuked by him, threw dirt in the hope that some of it would stick.
- In addition to the masterly essay by Dronke already quoted, (p. lxxi.,) I may refer to another treatise of like character though inferior power, Die Sophokleische Theologie und Ethik, by F. Lübker; and to two papers on the Theology of Sophocles, by Professor Tyler, in an American Review, the Bibliotheca Sacra, vols. xvii. xviii.
- Aristoph., Frogs.
- It is to this moral elevation of tone that we may ascribe Aristotle's dictum (Poet., c. 25) that Sophocles drew men as they ought to be, Euripides as they actually were. It is not that the characters of the former are all good, but that there is nothing mean and corrupting in their faults. The nearest approach to any such phase of character in Sophocles is found in the speeches of Odysseus in the Philoctetes, (100–120, 1049–1052;) but he is there so manifestly the foil to the higher character of Neoptolemos, falling, at the close of the play, not without some shame, into the background, that we feel at once that the purpose of the whole tragedy was to condemn, instead of asserting, the doctrine that the end justifies the means.
- Œd. King, 863–871. Antig., 450–457.
- Œd. King, 863-871.
- Œd. Col., 1180.
- If we could believe the passage cited by Justin Martyr as from Sophocles to have been written by him, it would be a more striking testimony than anything in the extant dramas to his work as a preacher of the truth. "Listen also," so he speaks to his heathen readers, "if we may bring a quotation from the stage in support of the unity of God, to what was said by Sophocles:—
'In very deed and truth God is but one,
Who made the heaven, and all the vast of earth,
The exulting sea, and all the strength of winds;
But we, poor mortals, wandering in our hearts,
Set up poor cheats to soothe our soul's distress,
Carved images of God in wood and stone,
Or forms of well-wrought gold, or ivory,
And, offering sacrifice to these with rites
And solemn feasts, we think we worship Him.'"—
Justin M., Cohort. in Græc. p. 19.
It must be confessed that the passage has somewhat of an apocryphal savour, like that of the Sibylline verses that accompany it. It is quoted, however, by Clement of Alexandria (Protreptic, vii., p. 21) with equal confidence, and is admitted by Eusebius into his Præparatio Evangelica, (xiii., p. 680.) It is interesting to compare it with another attempt to put the language of Monotheism into the mouths of the poets and philosophers, the noble hymn on the unity of the Godhead, which comes at the end of the De Mundo of the Pseudo-Aristotle.
- It is worthy of remark, that this appears to have been forgotten in what is otherwise among the most masterly reproductions of the form of Greek tragedy which English literature can boast of. In Mr Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon, it seems to be the function of the Chorus to blaspheme the Gods.
- Maidens of Trach., 1267.
- Philoct., 446–452.
- Dronke (p. 67) points out that it is precisely this assertion of the mystery of the Divine Government which distinguishes the dramas of Sophocles from those of Æschylos. The work of the latter had been to bring forward a theory, like that of Job's friends, of direct and visible retribution. This, in its turn, needed to be balanced by the truth that facts were not always in harmony with the theory.
- Œd. King, 707, 953.
- Œd. King, 8, 392.
- Philoct., 1327.
- Aias, 764–777.
- Maidens of Trach., 270–279.
- Antig., 683–767.
- Œd. King, 1432–1472.
- Philoct., 897, 1287. Aristotle (Eth. Nicom., vii. 2) refers to this as an instance of instability which is good and not evil.
- Aias, 992–1038.
- Ibid., 1332–1373.
- Maidens of Trach., 1180–1275.
- Schöll, (p. 169,) following Reisig and Lachmann, places the two in close union, as having been parts of the same Trilogy, and traces in both of them allusions to the same political events. The quarrel between Œdipus and Polyneikes shadows out, on this theory, that between Pericles and his son Xanthippos.
- Œd. Col., 40–43, 466–492.
- Philoct., 1413.
- The words are, of course, a foreshadowing of the vicarious element of the Atonement, rather than of its propitiatory character. But, as such, we may well say with Dronke, (p. 87.) that the thought stands out "with no parallel to it in the literature of antiquity."
- Œd. Col., 1558–1566, 1658–1666.
- Aias, 854–865.
- Ant., 75, 521, 450–468.
- Philoct., 1442.
- Electr., 838–841.
- Comp. also Fragm. 719, as indicating an acceptance of the truth taught in the mysteries of Eleusis.
- Vol. ii., p. 482.
- e.g., Œd. King, 8, 58–77.
- e.g., Creon in Antig., 162–210.
- e.g., Creon in Œd. Col., 939–950, and Menelaos in Aias, 1052–1090.
- Œd. King, 225–272.
- Vit. Anon. Aristotle, however, traces the resemblance of the two in their power of delineating character, and quotes, with approbation, the saying of a certain Ionicos, that "Sophocles was the one true scholar of the epic poet," (Poet. 6.)
- Vit. Anon. The name was probably given from the poet's power of appropriating and assimilating whatever was most beautiful in Homer and other poets. An Alexandrian critic (Philostratos) thought it worth while to write a treatise on his plagiarisms, (Euseb., Præp. Evang., x., p. 465.)
- Aristot., Poet., c. 4.
- Œd. King, 1–33, 168–185.
- Antig., 998–1030.
- Philoct., 15–21.
- Œd. Col., 15–18, 668–694.
- Antig., 415–421.
- Œd. King, 151–215.
- Antig., 223–236, 388–400.
- The criticism of the Vit. Anon. shows more discernment than might have been expected. The writer, following Plutarch, (Mor., p. 79, b) dwells on the power of Sophocles as shown in his sweetness, proportion, boldness, variety, yet more in the masterly touch which enabled him to exhibit the whole heart and life of a character in a single sentence, it might be, in half a line. In contrast with this true appreciation, is the judgment of the rhetorical critics of a later date, that he was unequal in excellence, rising to loftiest height, and then suddenly falling, (Longinus, De Sublim., 33.) This is clearly the kind of taste which would prefer Corneille to Shakespeare. The saying that he had "the help of a Molossian dog" in his representations of violent bursts of anger, (Diog. Laert., iv. 20,) indicates at once the power of expressing intense and vehement passion, and his habitual control over it.
- Iliad, ii. 198–206.
- Ibid., ii. 212–271. Do not these passages explain in some degree the fact, that the Iliad was the favourite poem of Peisistratos and Alexander?
- The position of Homer in relation to the history of Greek religious thought has been well discussed in the Introduction to Miss Anna Swanwick's very scholarly translation of the Oresteian Trilogy.