« السابقةمتابعة »
YALE LITERARY MAGAZINE.
ION, AS AN IMITATION OF THE GREEK DRAMA.
Aut famam sequire, aut sibi convenientia finge
STARE not, gentle reader, at the long title that heads our article ; think not that we are about to bewilder you with learned disquisitions upon Greek writing. Far from it; we only ask you to join us in hunting out the varied beauties of one of the gems of modern poesy. Let us seat ourselves quietly in our good arm chairs, and as the coals blaze cheerfully, forget the dull cares of life, and live once more with Ion, in the olden time of Greece. What though the cold winds of December howl among the bare limbs of the bending elms, we, at least in imagination, are under the clear sky of that joyous land, and the only air that fans our cheeks is the zephyr.
But before we plunge “ in medias res," let me ask you one question, my gentle reader. Tell me, has it ever occurred to you, when upon some momentous occasion in the debating society, when, filled with the genuine flatus, you were not only piling Ossa upon Pelion, but planting even the tree of liberty upon Ossa, boiling at the same time with the idea of your intellectual liberty, that you were in fact only a sort of mental automaton, acting merely upon those impressions which habit had fixed in your mind? Do not, my dear sir, think by this, that I would throw out any insinuations against the originality of your speech; you no doubt in that case had read nothing except an essay or two by Macauley, and seven or eight pieces in the Edinburgh Review. Your speech was, undoubtedly, in your eye, entirely your own. I am merely preaching a sermon to you, from the text that "man is the creature of habit ;" but lest your self-love may incline you to deny the truth of this proverb, when you are cited as the example, suppose we take a wider range, and see whether it does not apply to nations, as well as individuals.
You can scarcely have failed to observe, when reading a book of travels, how close a connection exists between the character of a people, and that of the country which it inhabits. Let us leave to philo
sophy the separation of mankind into races ; for us, it is only necessary to consider now what are the circumstances of the climate and scenery of their respective homes. Not that I would have you understand me as saying, that race is of no consequence, for such an assertion would of course be absurd; but merely as alluding to the peculiar likeness in the characters of all nations who occupy similar localities, and the still more striking differences, which a variety of such circumstances causes in the feelings and dispositions of two people really of the same family.
As examples of this, I shall bring forward only those two nations who have in turn given a tone to the feelings of civilized Europe. The first of these, the Grecians, were placed in a situation calculated in a rare degree to cultivate a taste for the beautiful. Living in a land whose scenery was ever exciting feelings of delight, though but seldom rising to that grandeur which calls up deeper emotions, under a sunny sky whose serenity was almost unbroken, and a climate which invited all to enjoy to the full the bounties which nature had so lavishly poured forth, they caught inspiration from all that surrounded them, and acquired a strange elegance of thought. While, however, their situation inspired them with this love of the beautiful, it by no means imparted that sense of the wildly grand so striking in the German. The beauty of the Greeks was of a bright and sunny cast ; it was the beauty of rounded forms and sparkling eyes. To reach perfection in this, elegance of execution is absolutely necessary, and this consequently connected with an even balance of parts, and strict unity of design, and extreme finish.
The attention being so entirely taken up with mere outward symmetry and physical enjoyment, they were naturally led into a certain degree of sensuality in all of their ideas. For instead of pondering upon the mystic workings of the mind, the Greek was ever reducing the intellectual to a level with the material ; and even when striving to express his idea of the divine, we see him carving
- The Lord of the unerring bar, The God of Life, and poesy, and light,
The sun in human limbs arrayed." The German, on the other hand, occupied almost an opposite position. In the savage mountains and dismal forests of his northern home, there was litile indeed to excite his fancy, but there was much to appeal to his imagination. While the Grecian painted Zephyr young and beautiful, floating on airy pinion over the earth, and strewing flowers along his way, the German, cowering in his subterranean dwelling, heard in the howling of the wintry blast only the voice of the dread spirit of the storm. Repelled, and yet excited by the wild scenes around him, his soul soared above earthly things, and he was filled with the idea of the spiritual and the romantic; but his reason refused to enclose within walls a deity whose works were so grand, and he worshiped the God of Nature in her own solitudes.
Still this very elevation was ever running into the mystic and irregu
lar; and while the Greek is apt to sink into sameness and insipidity, the German but too often becomes extravagant and unintelligible. This opposition of character breathes in all their works, but is nowhere seen so distinctly as in the dramatic poetry of the respective nations.
Dramatic poetry, I say, for I am convinced that while other branches of poetical composition afford to the student an insight into particular traits of national character, still that it is only in the drama that we can obtain a view of it in full. The hymn, indeed, marks the prevailing idea of the divine, the epic of the heroic; the lyric raises the veil that hides the gentler feelings ; the ballad throws open the house, and paints the domestic manners of the age ; but the drama, the drama alone, blends into one common picture the superstitions, the prejudices, the passions, and the customs of a people.
The reason is obvious. Even granting the poet to be an isolated being, sympathizing in no respect with his countrymen, and unmoved by any of those local influences which give direction to the thoughts, yet the mere fact that his work must be subjected to the criticism of a promiscuous assembly, would lead him to choose such a therne as would be most likely to interest his hearers. But this is a most unwarrantable supposition ; the poet does indeed differ from his countrymen, but surely not by wanting this nationality, rather is it by having it to excess, by being as it were the embodiment of their peculiarities. And this is only natural, for the circumstances which excite a common mind, form his sensitive nature; the superstitions that float dimly before the eyes of the vulgar, are seized upon by him with avidity,
“ And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Tarns them to shape.” When, therefore, he throws his conceptions into the form of a play, we have the spirit of the people placed evidently before us, while the exigencies of the case also oblige the introduction of their customs to a very considerable extent.
Thus may we trace in the theatrical works of every nation its specific character, the contrast in which, from the reasons already alluded to, becomes very striking, when we compare those of Grecian and Teutonic origin, or in other words, the Classic and Romantic dramas. These have been well called the Plastic and Picturesque schools ; for while in the one the aim is to group gracefully a limited number of highly drawn characters, the other calls in the aid of numerous and strikingly diversified personages, who may give relief and effect to the picture, by a display of the varied and deep workings of the human heart.
Even in moments of the most intense excitement, the Classic drama moves on stately and elegant, compelling us, like the Laocoon, to which it has been compared, to pay our meed of admiration to the beauty of the execution, even while our deepest emotions are called up by the force of the conception. The Romantic drama, on the other hand, flows in like some mighty river; a hundred rills, each springing fum a separate heart; here one dancing in the sunlight of innocence and youth, there another disturbed by envy and hate, and again a third tossed by strong passion, pouring each its tribute into the common stream, unite to swell the tide of song.
The last distinction that I shall now allude to, is the opposite views that these two schools take of human nature, and its connection with the divine. For, while in the opinion of the Greek, human nature is self-sufficient, and Fate a stern tyrant whose dictates gods and men must alike obey, the Romantic poet paints man ever weak and erring, ever turning to a benign deity for aids in this, and happiness in a future world.
Having thus glanced at the leading features in our own and the ancient school, we can turn with more intelligence to our immediate subject, and examine how well based Ion's pretensions are to the title of an imitation of the Greek drama. By an imitation of the Greek drama, I of course do not mean a mere servile copy of the metres and technical arrangement of a Greek play, for this demands only some study upon the part of the author, and no more makes him a Greek dramatist, than transcribing Childe Harold correctly would give a penman a right to the name of poet. An imitation is something much higher than this, and is only to be reckoned successful when the piece so completely expresses the feelings of the people, that we can imagine a Greek author writing, and a Greek reader sympathizing in it. To succeed, the author must as it were forget his own nature, and take upon him that of another.
In this respect, Mr. Talfourd appears to me to have been singularly successful. Unlike the French writers, whose Greeks and Romans smack so strongly of the Palais Royal, and through whose jargon about liberty the hollow philosophy of the Gallic school is continually exposing itself, his Grecians are the veritable children of Hellene, feeling and acting as becomes such.
The leading idea of the play, that of fatality, is eminently Grecian. The notion that an ever ruling destiny urges them on and directs their career, has indeed been held by individuals at all times and in all places, but nowhere did it take so complete possession of the public mind, as in the land of Æschylus. This idea, when fully developed, exerts a moral force, which it is scarcely possible to limit. Does the individual possess power, he gains still more by the belief that he puts it forth at the command of fate. Is he weak, his very weakness adds sublimity to his obedience. The insignificance of the agent is lost in the greatness of the directing power, or rather the nobleness of the action gains by this very weakness.
Seizing upon this view of the workings of fatality, the author brings it finely before us in Ion. That gentle boy whose
“Life hath flow'd,
May hover round its surface, glides in light,
And takes no shadow from them,” no sooner feels upon him the hand of destiny, than he breathes a sterner spirit. Life, honor, and even love, weigh with him no longer. He steels himself to noble deeds, and rises equal to his mission. At one bound he leaps over years, and the child of yesterday, who scarce knew a serious thought, stands before us the determined man--the instrument of fate--ION THE DEVOTED.
In bringing about this conviction, the poet rises, however, above the character of a mere imitator, and shows the clear perception of a man of genius. Every one must have observed the readiness with which the mind, strung to the highest pitch of morbid excitement, lays hold upon every thing that can strengthen its own convictions, drawing from
“ Trifles light as air,
As proofs of holy writ.” And this is brought constantly before us. At first we see him shrinking back at the very thoughts of the greatness of his daring, then catching at a chance-word from Clemanthe, then again faltering, now more convinced by an accident of the reality of his mission, and then buoyed up by a sense of duty, triumphing over every obstacle, and finally sacrificing all other things, nay even life itself, in his obedience to fate.
There are two points, though, in which the author has departed most widely from his antique models, in omitting the chorus, and in introducing such a multiplicity of characters. The absence of the chorus, so injurious to the truthfulness of the imitation, needs hardly any explanation. The piece was intended for the stage, not the closet, and the form of our theatres forbids its introduction. But not only is this a loss itself, but it involves a still greater evil, by requiring the poet to bring in many characters. In Ion this violation of classic rules is singularly gross. No less than nine grace the boards, none of whom have the complacency to play “ dummy," as Orestes does, but speak out volubly, almost in general council. How effectually this destroys the desired statue-like simplicity, every one must perceive at the first glance.
But of this enough; a far more inviting field for criticism lies in that melody of verse, and elegance of thought, which are so delightfully obvious in the whole piece, and which are so much in harmony with the Grecian spirit. For whether it is in painting the innocence of youth, the beauty of nature, or the sterner scenes in the drama, he lays on the colors with classic delicacy.
How lifelike and touching is the description of his youth and early love, which Ion gives to Adrastus the misanthrope, when he bids him
“ Taste in thought again