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Mr. Browning's Alcestis must be looked for under the title of “Balaustion's Adventure.” Balaustion (wild pomegranate flower) is the pet name, invented by Mr. Browning, of a Greek girl, also invented by Mr. Browning, who, at the time of the Sicilian Expedition, escaped from the island of Rhodes (on the point then of revolting from Athens to Sparta) and fled in a small vessel-she and with her a number of likeminded companions bent on making their way to the Peiræus. They were pursued by pirates, and, mistaking Sicily for Crete, rowed hard to land near Syracuse, where, detected as Athenian in sympathy by a song with which they had cheered themselves in rowing, they were met with a repulse, which, however, changed to a welcome, when it was found out that Balaustion could recite a play of Euripides. The Alcestis was the play. Such is the plot of Mr. Browning's poem. The plot has a foundation in fact, or, at least, in tradition. It is said that Athenian captives in Syracuse that knew snatches of Euripides could earn for themselves substantial advantages by reciting these for the gratification of their kindred Greek-speaking masters.
The story of the Alcestis of Euripides is very simple. Alcestis was wife and queen to Admetus, king of Pheræ, in Thessaly. Admetus was, by grace from Apollo, granted the privilege of not dying, on condition of his being able to find some one who would agree to die in his stead when his turn should come. Alcestis became the required substitute and died, but was brought back to life by Heracles, and restored to her husband.
The play opens with a prologue from Apollo, who, after explaining the situation for the enlightenment of spectators (compare the prologue to Milton's Mask of Comus), has a fruitless colloquy with Death, come now for his prey, Alcestis having reached the day of her doom. With this colloquy we begin our citations from the play. A. curious passage it is. Some critics pronounce it very fine, and some critics pronounce it very foolish.
Jealous Death suspects Apollo of intention to interfere a second time with his rights. Apollo says he has no idea of using with Death any plea but justice. Whereupon Death significantly slanting at Apollo's customary weapon:
Death. What need of bow, were justice arms enough?
De. Ay, and with bow, not justice, help this house.
Apollo retorts with a vague prophecy that Heracles will soon be at hand to rob Death after all of his prey. Death rejoins once again with a savage show of his grinning teeth,
Apollo withdraws. Apollo gone, a chorus of sympathizers assemble at the palace door, to learn about the progress of events within. Knowing what impends, they inquire, draw inferences, and bewail, by turns. Is Alcestis dead ? But there is no sound of lamenting to be heard. Can the corpse have been already carried forth? No signs appear that this has happened.
Presently the full chorus join in symphony accentuated, we are to suppose, with rhythmic movement in dance. We omit this passage. A palace-maid comes out, who describes to the chorus the beautiful behavior of Alcestis about to die, as follows:
Hear what she did indoors, and wonder then!
But, when of many tears she had her fill,
Extended her right hand to all and each,
There is more description from the palace attendant of what was passing within, accompanied or interchanged with more choral lamentation. Mr. Browning, while a sad procession issues from the palace, avails himself of the occasion to introduce a considerable passage of interpretation and interpolation highly characteristic of his very peculiar genius. This we omit of course-not because it is devoid of interest, but for the twofold reason that it would be somewhat obscure to those not already versed in Browning, and that it does not belong to Euripides. Now appears dying Alcestis with her husband, her son, and the chorus. Poor Alcestis, with that Greek love of light, would see the sun once more. The dialogue that ensues, if dialogue it should be called, say, rather, the monologue-apostrophe of Alcestis interrupted by exclamations from Admetus which she, in her rapt state, at first does not heed-this passage, whatever it is to be styled, deserves to be given. Mr. Browning at this point breaks in so much with matter not of Euripides that we forsake him for the moment to take up here the version of Mr. Potter :
Alcestis. Thou sun, and thou fair light of day! ye clouds
That in quick eddies whirl along the sky! .4dmetus. Sees thee and me most wretched, yet in naught
Offending 'gainst the gods that thou shouldst die.
Raised in Iolcos, my paternal seat!
Intreat the powerful gods to pity thee.
And he that wafts the dead grasps in his hand
Haste thee; thou lingerest; all is ready here!"
Charon, impatient, speeds me to be gone.
O thou unhappy, what a fate is ours !
That close upon the dead ; dost thou not see
Wretched, most wretched, must I downward tread !
Thy children, who with me this sorrow share.
Here lay me down: I have not strength to stand ;
More happy, see the golden light of heaven !
Than any death more painful : by the gods
We may now return to Mr. Browning for the speech in which Alcestis, becoming conscious once more of Admetus, adjures him to be true to her own memory, and, for their joint sake, to their children :
Alkestis. Admetos, how things go with me thou seest,
I wish to tell thee, ere I die, what things
Do me in turn a favor-favor, since