Page images
PDF
EPUB

as art, but it absolutely called it into being, and constitutes the very spirit of its existence. The deep devotion of the early Greek poets, connecting the history of their nation with the worship of the gods, and ennobling their origin by the revelations of their religion, first gave birth to their literature. It was the result of profound faith and ardent devotion; the picture of a mind, in which patriotism and poetic imagination were beautifully blended, and fixed their stamp indelibly upon the thoughts. To appreciate this literature, it is necessary to assume, as far as possible, the state of mind which dictated it; to stand in the place of the poet; to look back with him upon an ancestral race of heroes and demi-gods, now enshrined in the palace of Olympus; to behold with his eye the glorious train of the immortals, watching over the concerns of man, and directing the universe; in short, to comprehend the spirit, not merely the outward form, of his religion.

The different influences exerted upon literature by the classic religion and by Christianity, may be remarkably illustrated by a comparison between ancient and modern tragedy. The leading characteristic of Greek tragedy, as Schlegel remarks, is the idea of fate upon which it was founded. The notion of fate, as thus illustrated, was of the most dark and awful kind. As understood by the tragedians, fate was consummate and irresistible; power swaying alike the gods and mortals; for man it was the most dreaded of enemies, uncompromising and merciless, propitiated neither by prayers nor sacrifices, accepting no worship, offering no good. It was manifested in the power of the elements, which conquered and destroyed him; in the majestic rolling on of time, in the misfortunes and sorrows of life, and, lastly, in the dreaded event of death. Nor were the gods more exempt from its terrible influences: their immortality only subjected them the more surely to its power; in the sufferings it inflicted upon them, they longed for death; but they longed in vain.

Fate, as thus conceived, seems to have resembled, in respect to its power, our idea of the power of Providence; but in all other respects the ideas of Fate and Providence are widely at variance. Providence is a power which calls into being, clothes with beauty, and develops in perfection. Fate exerted no influence but to crush, torment, and destroy: it gave birth to no new existence, nor added anything to the beauty of creation; it found no pleasure in happiness, no sorrow in misery; dark and mysterious as the night, it was only seen by the lurid glare of the ruin it wrought. Providence exerts a benign action on the mind, calling forth thought and developing moral worth. Fate operated upon the mind only through physical suffering; it carried on an eternal warfare with the soul, whose indomitable will defied, while it submitted to necessity. Providence confers inward power; Fate sports with outward weak

ness; the former unfolds the immortal principle contained in the soul, and reveals the prospect of eternal life; the latter encompasses the mind with the dark shadow of death, or terrifies it with the prospect of an eternity of unintermitted misery. Fate, as thus viewed, constituted the spirit of Greek tragedy. A power, from which there is no hope of escape, and no appeal, which is superior to the might of the gods themselves, implacable as the storm and inevitable as time, afforded subjects for tragedy in the ordinary pursuits of life; but still more in the immortal existences, the splendour of whose station only rendered their sorrows more conspicuous and awful.

This idea of Fate led to a very remarkable difference between ancient and modern tragedy, in the choice of subjects of suffering. Ancient tragedy sought for its heroes the most exalted, powerful, and even virtuous characters; it delighted to exhibit the sublime spectacle of an immortal nature, overwhelmed by the power of fate, yet in the midst of calamities and sufferings not to be imagined without horror, bearing up against an eternity of woe, and defying and even insulting the force to which it is compelled to yield. Unlike the awful creation in which the interest of the Paradise Lost is centred, the heroes of ancient tragedy were often the friends and benefactors of mankind; or if they were stained with crime, it was not the result of their own will, but of the malignant operation of a destiny which they could neither foresee nor avert. Modern tragedy, on the other hand, seems to choose for subjects characters which, however virtuous and attractive, fall short of the splendid attributes with which the ancient heroes were invested. They have not the same power of endurance and indomitable will; they yield to sorrow; they make us weep for their frailty, their tenderness, their misery; they seek relief from the weight of woe in death; and the genius of modern tragedy chants over them, as they go down to the tomb, her solemn and heart-melting requiem, far differing from the sublime and triumphant strains which are sounded forth by the unconquered and immortal heroes of the Grecian drama. In general, the characters to which the interest of Shakspere's tragedy principally belongs, are not of the highest intellectual or moral power. Goethe's remarks upon Hamlet will apply, in this respect, to many of the other characters. In his fine critique upon this play, he remarks, "To me it is clear that Shakspere meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it. In this view, the whole piece seems to me to be composed. There is an oak planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shivered. A lovely, pure, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and

must not cast away. All duties are holy for him, the present is too hard. Impossibilities are required of him, not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last, does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind." There is a yielding to misfortune, a feebleness, which equally seems to mark the characters of Lear, Romeo, Othello, and Macbeth. The character in Shakspere which appears in some points to approach nearest to the subjects of the ancient drama is Lady Macbeth. In the power of her mind, in the boldness and decision with which she plans and executes crime, in her scorn for weakness, her freedom from fear and remorse, she may well be compared with the Medea of Euripides. Still, there are vast differences between the two. Lady Macbeth is absorbed by one ruling passion,-the love of power, the burning desire to reign. In the horrors of the chamber of murder, at the awful feast where the dead mingle with the living in their revels, in the haunted sleep-walk, she still clings to the bloodstained diadem with which crime has encircled her brow. There is no tragedy for her; her march is triumphant to the throne; and the last words we hear from her reveal a mind still victorious over remorse. She is to be regarded as the source rather than the object of tragedy: she seems in a degree to supply the place of fate; through her influence Macbeth is urged on as by the impulse of destiny, to the commission of crime; her power sustains, nerves, and encourages him, and opens the path of ambition through torrents of blood. The veil is drawn over her fall; to witness it would add nothing to the interest of the drama; she retires when her task is finished, and the victim of her power and her crimes gathers into himself the depth of tragedy which marks the close of the piece.

Like Lady Macbeth, Medea is endowed with uncommon powers of mind, boldness in crime and remorselessnes of conscience; like her, she is absorbed by one ruling passion, her love for Jason. But the tragedy of the piece consists in the misery and despair with which she is surrounded. She has severed, one by one, the ties which bound her to the society of man. An outraged parent, a murdered brother, a home abandoned and left desolate, monarchs insulted and destroyed, are the sacrifices offered on the altar of her fidelity and affection for one to whom she clings as her last solitary hope. There seems no farther retreat for her; one green spot alone remains in the wilderness her crimes have created around her; if the storm sweep over it she is lost. The extreme misfortune, the uttermost extent of woe, is now impending; the play represents her at the moment when Jason, forgetting all that she has accomplished, and all that she has sacrificed, is about to repudiate her and espouse another woman. We follow her with a dreadful inte

rest through the ravings of despair, the conception of new and more daring crime, the struggles and agony of a mother's tenderness, contending with the pride, and hatred, and revenge of an immortal; and when, triumphant over herself and almost over fate, she disappears at last with the words of taunting and scorn on her lips, we know that she has lighted a fire in her bosom which will burn and torture her for ever.

Such is the power of ancient tragedy, manifested in the voice of wailing, mingled with pride and scorn, which comes from the rock of Prometheus; in the depth and intensity of hatred and despair in Electra; in the involuntary crimes of Edipus, and the awful revenge of Orestes.

The cause of this difference between the subjects of ancient and those of modern tragedy is obvious; it consists in the belief of the omnipotence and the benevolent character of the Deity, which has taken the place of the dark visions of fate that terrified the ancients. Their supreme power was malignant, inexorable, hostile to man. The Christian beholds in Omnipotence goodness equal to its power; the one depresses and renders desperate; the other sustains, encourages, makes triumphant; the former was the source of tragedy; the latter conquers woe. For the Christian, there is a power which upholds and consoles in the midst of sorrow; which renders misfortunes easy to bear; which robs death of his sting, and the grave of its victory. The great mind, which is fortified by this power, is beyond the reach of tragedy; in the midst of the trials and sadness of a mortal career, there is still open beyond it a blissful existence, a light shining from heaven, which sheds its lustre upon the vale of tears, and cheers the heavyladen wayfarer to his eternal home.

Classic mythology is worthy of attention, as making known to us our own nature. This we deem the highest object of study, and the one which all efforts of learning ought to keep constantly in view. The erudition of editors and commentators, the researches of the antiquarian, the lore of the university and the monastery are wasted, except inasmuch as they tend, directly or indirectly, to promote this great object. The literature that does not contribute to this end is of little value, and soon perishes. Poetry must show forth the nature of man by harmonizing with it, by resting on its principles, by proceeding from its depths, by reflecting as a mirror the human soul, or it will not be enduring. The same may be said of history. He who supposes that the importance of this branch of learning consists in the precedents it affords, in the amount of experience, the wisdom of ages which it sums up, errs greatly. The history of one age can be no guide to the statesman of another, except as far as it makes him acquainted with human nature, reveals to him the secret springs of action, and shows the

influences by which man may be acted on singly, or in masses. Its true object is to portray an eternal nature, by representing its operations. But nothing shows forth the soul with such undisguised clearness and fidelity as religion, the embodying of the profoundest thought, the most ardent and devout inspirations, the most far-reaching hopes. Whether religion be revealed from God, or the result only of a mind speculating upon itself and the universe around, it is in harmony with our nature, it speaks to the thoughts which previously existed, and unfolds the germs which are innate in the soul. In this way alone can it find any response. Were religion to speak to us of attributes and qualities of which we are not conscious, it would gain no credence, but would be a dead letter, powerless and transitory. All religion, which is sincerely believed, which is enshrined in the heart, is in the likeness of the mind; and it reveals our nature more than any thing else, because it embraces the whole circle of our faculties, and calls them forth in their just proportions; because it is the most solemn and unfeigned outpouring of the heart. Hence, one of the first inquiries respecting newly discovered tribes or nations, is with regard to their religion; and from the answer we draw more certain deductions with respect to their intellectual and moral qualities, and their general character, than from any other facts concerning them. If we could become intimately acquainted with the religion of every country and every period, we should perhaps know far more of the variety, power, and beauty of the mind, than we do at present.

There is much, however, of which history takes no note; many of the deepest and most sacred attributes of man. Millions of high and noble minds, unknown to observation, and seen only by the Author of their being, have uttered and felt the most ardent devotions. Their longing desires, their deep-seated hopes, the offerings of gratitude, the faith of the mother weeping over the tomb of her children, yet believing that her treasures are laid up in heaven, the love which death cannot conquer, and the friendship which the grave cannot sever, may have passed without notice on earth; but let us hope that the history of these things is written in heaven; the history of man as a trusting, longing, religious being. Let us hope this, too, of many amid the darkness of paganism, who, although fearfully stumbling, were yet making efforts to invade the kingdom of light, towards which the ancient nations of Greece and Rome made the utmost strivings that have ever been recorded of man, unaided by the light of revelation.

« PreviousContinue »