صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

best. In proof of this, it would be almost sufficient to mention the name of Virgil, who has drawn three-fourths of the materials of his Æneid from the Iliad, and who undoubtedly ranks next in majesty and greatness of soul to the great master himself. Next come Tasso and Milton, each of whom has availed himself largely of the Homeric poems ; nor does Dante form an exception to the rule, although his Divina Commedia is rather a tragedy, or series of tragedies, than an epic.

This universal admiration is of no modern growth. It has existed from the time Lycurgus brought the Homeric poems into the Peloponnessus from Crete, or Ionia, eight hundred years anterior to the Christian era ; and how long previously they were known and admired throughout the Greek Islands, no one can pretend to say. At all events, they only required to be seen in continental Greece to become the delight of all capable of appreciating the beautiful and sublime. Poets and painters, philosophers and statesmen, generals and historians, were equally inspired by them. To them Phydias owed his noblest creations; and it was they that stimulated Pericles, his patron, to the most brilliant deeds of patriotism and generalship, which rendered him at once the wisest statesman, the best orator, and the most liberal patron of the fine arts of his time. If it be denied that Pericles possessed those qualities, all, of whose superior judgment there can be no doubt, bear emphatic testimony to the divine excellence of the Homeric poems.

Plato and Aristotle were alike enthusiastic in their admiration of the Iliad and Odyssey, especially the former. Next to the Stagirite, the best critic that any age has produced is Longinus, whose treatise on the Sublime is pervaded throughout with that Homeric fire and spirit which afforded him such genuine delight, and which taught him to die like a hero at the hands of the executioner, scorning to beg his life even from one of the Cæsars.

In a still more unequivocal manner, if possible, did the poets of Greece evince their admiration of Homer-especially the three most renowned—Æschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. This can be easily seen by turning to their works. Thus the “ Agamemnon” and “ Chephoræ" of Æschylus are based wholly on the Homeric poems. In the former, the King of Men is returning from the siege of Troy with the beautiful Cassandra as his captive, when he is assassinated

by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her paramour, Æsgisthus. The principal character is the Trojan prophetess, who predicts, with startling earnestness, the many woes about to befall the house of Agamemnon. Of a kindred character is the tragedy of the Chephoræ. In the latter, Orestes avenges the murder of Agamemnon ;* in doing which he commits parricide, and is delivered over to the Furies, who render him insane. The very name of the piece is derived from the libations brought by the female Trojan captives, held as slaves by Clytemnestra, to the tomb of Agamemnon.

Still more Homeric are the tragedies of Euripides, especially his Hecuba, Orestes, Andromache, and Iphigenia. In the first, we have the sacrifice of Polyxena, whom the Greeks immolate to the angry manes of Achilles ; also the vengeance of Hecuba on Polymnestor, who, amid the sorrows of her captivity, deprived her of her children. In the second, Orestes and his sister Electra are tried by the people. Menelaus favors their condemnation as parricides, and they are sentenced to death ; but it is declared that they must become their own executioners. Instead of preparing for their doom, they meditate the assassination of Helen. The latter is saved by Apollo, who brings about a double marriage, uniting Orestes to Hermione, Helen's daughter, and his sister Electra to

* In the whole range of tragic literature there is nothing more awfully startling than the dialogue between the mother and the son before the parricide is committed. Anything that takes place between Hamlet and his mother, in similar circumstances, is tame and commonplace compared to this.

Clytem. I nursed thy childhood, and in peace would die.

Orestes. Spare thee to live with me-my father's murderer?
Clytem. Not I; say rather Fate ordained his death.
Orest. The self-same Fate ordains thee now to die.
Clytem. My curse beware, the mother's curse that bore thee.
Orest. That cast me homeless from my father's house.
Clytem. Nay, to a friendly house I lent thee, boy.
Orest. Being free-born, I like a slave was sold.
Clytem. I trafficked not with thee. I got no gold.
Orest. Worseworse than gold : a thing too foul to name !
Clytem. Name all my faults ; but had thy father none?
Orest. Thou art a woman sitting in thy chamber.

Judge not the man that goes abroad and labors.
Clytem. Hard was my lot, my child ; alone uncherished.
Orest. Alone by the fire, while for thy gentle ease

Thy husband toil'd.
Clytem.

Thou wilt not kill me, son ?
Orest. I kill thet not. Thyself don't kill thyself.
Clytem. Beware thy mother's anger-whetted hounds.
Orest. My father's hounds have hunted me to thee.
Clytem. The stone that sepulchres the dead art thou,

And I the tear on't.
Orest.

Cease! I voyaged here
With a fair breeze; my father's murder brought me.
Clytem. Ah me! I nursed a serpent on my breast.
Orest. Thou hadst a prophet in thy dream last night;

And since thou kill'dst the man thou should'st have spared,
The man that now should spare thee, can but kill -

Pylades. In Andromache, the principal event is the death of the son of Achilles, who is slain by Orestes, after having deprived him of his wife, Hermione. Nor is Sophocles less sparing of the Homeric fountain, as the titles alone of his principal tragedies sufficiently show, namely, Ajax, Electra, and Philoctetes, the dramatis persone in each of which are borrowed from Homer.

We might thus occupy the whole extent of this paper with the mere titles of poems of various kinds, the chief materials of which have been drawn from Homer, showing how much truth there is in the remark of Dr. Johnson, that “Nation after nation, and century after century, have been able to do little more than transpose his (Homer's) incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.” That national partiality may induce a certain class of critics to compare their own favorite poets to Homer, is not strange. Nor must we be surprised to find those favorites sometimes declared superior to their great master, even by such judges as Dryden and Cowper, the former of whom places Milton above all the world's poets, making him combine all that is beautiful and sublime in Homer and Virgil. Nor is the latter much less eulogistic, as may be seen from the following lines from his Table Talk:

" Ages elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,
And ages ere the Mantuau swan was heard;
To carry nature to lengths unknown before,

To give a Milton birth, asked ages more. Language like this would be much less absurd, if applied to Shakespeare, who has certainly “carried nature to lengths unknown to Milton. But the Italians, Germans, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, institute similar comparisons. Even the Russians do not scruple to compare their tragic poet, Azerov, to Homer. In a recent elaborate review of his Edipus, Polyxena, and Demetrius, attributed to no less a personage than Prince Demetrius Gorchakoff, those performances, though scarcely ever heard of beyond the frontiers of Russia, have been pronounced “ little, if anything, inferior to the Iliad and Odyssey !"

Without pausing to say anything of Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Klopstock, De Vega, Calderon, &c., &c., we may remark that while, as we have said, all have availed themselves of the characters of Homer, they have been more or less degraded by the best of them ; in

other words, the men and women of Homer have never been equalled by any other poet-none others, that have been attempted on their model, are so true to nature, or exhibit characteristics so various, without confounding any individual, male or female, with another. Even Virgil has utterly failed in this respect; though he had proved himself a great poet before he attempted the Æneid. Not one of his characters approaches that upon which it is modelled. It is sufficient to note those of Helen and Ulysses as examples. The former he represents as, indeed, beautiful in person, but in every respect odious in mind, capable of committing the most revolting crimes, in order to secure immunity for herself—willing, for this purpose, to betray alike the Greeks and the Trojans. Her deep remorse, gentleness, modesty, and tenderness—all those feminine and amiable qualities with which she is everywhere invested by Homer--are entirely ignored by Virgil. Thus, no worse character could be given, of man or woman, than she receives at his hands, in the sixth Æneid, where he represents her as having made use of the religious orgies, on the night the wooden horse entered Troy, in order to betray those who had always treated her so kindly, into the hands of their enemies--including her third husband, Deiphobus, whom she is said to have deprived of his weapons of defence, and then thrown open his sleeping apartment, so that Menelaus might kill him in his sleep.* In the first book, he represents her as seeking Troy and unlawful nuptials, instead of having been carried away, if not by actual force, at least against her will.

“Ornatus Argivæ Helenæ quos illa Mycenis,
Pergama cum peteret inconcessosque Hymenæos,

Extulerat; matris Ledæ mirabile donum.”—Æn. I., 650. She is painted in still darker colors, if possible, in that magnificent passage in the second book, in which Æneas relates how he saw her crouching before the altar of Vesta amid the final conflagration, in order to escape the vengeance of Menelaus, while she was alike detested by Greeks and Trojans, as the wanton cause of the miseries of both.

" Illa sibi infestos eversa ob Pergama Teucros,
Et pænas Danaûm et deserti conjugis iras
Præmetuens Trojæ et patriæ communis Erynnis
Abdiderat sese atque aris invisa sedebat.”—Æn. II., 571-4.

* Æn. VI., 515–25.

;

Yet the humiliating and degraded position in which she is placed is by no means the darkest shade in the picture, for Æneas tells us, that so satisfied was he of her guilt, so much did he regard her in the light of a human monster, that he would have killed her, had his mother, Venus, not appeared just at the moment, and told him that he would be better occupied in trying to save his own wife, son, or father.

Nothing is more contrary to her true character, as drawn by Homer, than this. No poet was more opposed to vice than the author of the Iliad. In not a single instance does he allow it to go unpunished ; and he is equally careful to reward virtue. Nothing is more improbable, therefore, than that he would have made Andromache, the model wife and mother, regard Helen as a sister and companion, had he intended to represent her as an adulteress, a slave to her own licentious passions. It is, if possible, still more unlikely that he would have caused the venerable Priam, and the chaste and gentle Hecuba, to treat her as a daughter, as they do on every occasion. That she erred, she did not deny herself, but always regretted it. She was not faultless; but this is a very different thing from being worthless, as Virgil and others represent her. Assuming that she did elope willingly with Paris, and was consequently guilty of adultery, that is no reason that she should be for ever held as a reprobate. How many Christian women of our own time have erred in a similar manner, and been forgiven—taken back by their husbands, and often without any evidence of repentance on their part! It must be remembered, besides, that it was not as a mistress or concubine Helen lived with Paris, but as his only wife; and as such her conduct was irreproachable. She had not, indeed, much respect for him ; she rather despised his character. Still, she was not only faithful, but we have many proofs of her tenderness towards him. But there is more than circumstantial evidence to support the theory of her having been regarded by Homer as a woman “more sinned against than sinning." Even Menelaus never reproaches her -never alleges that she has done him any injury-never expresses any resentment against her ; but, on the contrary, often speaks of her with kindness and respect, as of one who, if she brought ill upon him, did so, either because, being innocent and credulous, she was deceived by Paris, or because she was forced on board his ship. The critics are nearly equally divided on these two points, although the preponder

« السابقةمتابعة »