Euripides and His Age/Chapter 1
EURIPIDES AND HIS AGE
Most of the volumes of this series are occupied with large subjects and subjects commonly recognized as important to great masses of people at the present day. In devoting the present volume to the study of a single writer, remote from us in time and civilization and scarcely known by more than name to many readers of the Library, I am moved by the belief that, quite apart from his disputed greatness as a poet and thinker, apart from his amazing and perhaps unparalleled success as a practical playwright, Euripides is a figure of high significance in the history of humanity and of special interest to our own generation.
Born, according to the legend, in exile and fated to die in exile, Euripides, in whatever light one regards him, is a man of curious and ironic history. As a poet he has lived through the ages in an atmosphere of controversy, generally—though by no means always—loved by poets and despised by critics. As a thinker he is even to this day treated almost as a personal enemy by scholars of orthodox and conformist minds; defended, idealized and sometimes transformed beyond recognition by various champions of rebellion and the free intellect. The greatest difficulty that I feel in writing about him is to keep in mind without loss of proportion anything like the whole activity of the many-sided man. Recent writers have tended to emphasize chiefly his work as a destructive thinker. Dr. Verrall, the most brilliant of all modern critics of Euripides, to whose pioneer work my own debt is greater than I can well express, entitled one of his books "Euripides the Rationalist" and followed to its extreme limit the path indicated by this particular clue. His vivid and interesting disciple Professor Norwood has followed him. In Germany Dr. Nestlé, in a sober and learned book, treating of Euripides as a thinker, says that "all mysticism was fundamentally repugnant to him"; a view which is certainly wrong, since some of the finest expressions of Greek mysticism known to us are taken from the works of Euripides. Another good writer, Steiger, draws an elaborate parallel between Euripides and Ibsen and finds the one key to Euripides in his realism and his absolute devotion to truth. Yet an older generation of Euripides-lovers felt these things quite differently. When Macaulay proclaimed that there was absolutely nothing in literature to equal The Bacchae, he was certainly not thinking about rationalism or realism. He felt the romance, the magic, the sheer poetry. So did Milton and Shelley and Browning. And so did the older English scholars like Porson and Elmsley. Porson, while admitting that the critics have many things to say against Euripides as compared, for instance, with Sophocles, answers in his inarticulate way "ilium admiramur, hunc legimus"—"we admire the one, but we read the other." Elmsley, so far from regarding Euripides as mainly a thinker, remarks in passing that he was a poet singularly addicted to contradicting himself. To Porson and Elmsley the poetry of Euripides might or might not be good on the highest plane, it was at any rate delightful. Quite different again are the momentous judgments pronounced upon him as a writer of tragedy by two of the greatest judges. Aristotle, writing at a period when Euripides was rather out of fashion, and subjecting him to much serious and sometimes unintelligent criticism, considers him still "the most tragic of the poets." And Goethe, after expressing his surprise at the general belittling of Euripides by "the aristocracy of philologists, led by the buffoon Aristophanes," asks emphatically: "Have all the nations of the world since his time produced one dramatist who was worthy to hand him his slippers?" (Tagebüchern, November 22, 1831.) We must try, if we can, to bear duly in mind all these different lines of approach.
As a playwright the fate of Euripides has been strange. All through a long life he was almost invariably beaten in the State competitions. He was steadily admired by some few philosophers, like Socrates; he enjoyed immense fame throughout Greece; but the official judges of poetry were against him, and his own people of Athens admired him reluctantly and with a grudge.
After death, indeed, he seemed to come into his kingdom. He held the stage as no other tragedian has ever held it, and we hear of his plays being performed with popular success six hundred years after they were written, and in countries far removed from Greece. He influenced all the higher forms of Greek writing, both in prose and poetry. He is more quoted by subsequent writers than any other Greek tragedian; nay, if we leave out of count mere dictionary references to rare words, he is more quoted than all the other tragedians together. And nineteen of his plays have survived to our own day as against seven each of Aeschylus and Sophocles. This seems enough glory for any man. Yet the fate that grudged him prizes in his lifetime contrived afterwards to spread a veneer of commonplaceness over the success which it could not prevent. To a great extent Euripides was read because he was, or seemed, easy; the older poets were neglected because they were difficult. Attic Greek in his hands had begun to assume the form in which it remained for a thousand years as the recognized literary language of the east of Europe and the great instrument and symbol of civilization. He was a treasure-house of Attic style and ancient maxims, and eminently useful to orators who liked quotations. Meantime the melody and meaning of his lyrics were lost, because men had forgotten the pronunciation of fifth-century Greek and could no longer read lyrics intelligently. The obviously exciting quality of his plays kept its effect; but there was no one to understand the subtlety of his craftsmanship, the intimate study of character, the skilful forging of links and clashes between scenes, the mastery of that most wonderful of Greek dramatic instruments, the Chorus. Plays had practically ceased to be written. They were thought of either as rhetorical exercises or as spectacles for the amphitheatre. Something similar happened to the whole inward spirit in which he worked, call it philosophy or call it religion. Its meaning became obscured. It had indeed a powerful influence on the philosophers of the great fourth century schools: they probably understood at least one side of him. But the sayings of his that are quoted broadcast and repeated through author after author of the decadence are mostly thoughts of quite the second rank, which have lost half their value by being torn from their context, often commonplace, often—as is natural in fragments of dramas—mutually contradictory, though almost always simply and clearly expressed.
It was this clear expression which the late Greeks valued so highly. "Clarity"—saphêneia—was the watchword of style in Euripides' own day and remained always the foremost aim of Greek rhetoric. Indeed what a Greek called "rhetorikê" often implied the very opposite of what we call "rhetoric." To think clearly, to arrange your matter under formal heads, to have each paragraph definitely articulated and each sentence simply and exactly expressed: that was the main lesson of the Greek rhetor. The tendency was already beginning in classical times and no classical writer carried it further than Euripides. But here again Fate has been ironical with him. The ages that were incapable of understanding him loved him for his clearness: our own age, which might at last understand him, is instinctively repelled by it. We do not much like a poet to be very clear, and we hate him to be formal. We are clever readers, quick in the up-take, apt to feel flattered and stimulated by a little obscurity; mystical philosophy is all very well in a poet, but clear-cut intellect—no. At any rate we are sharply offended by "firstlys, secondlys and thirdlys," by divisions on the one hand and on the other hand. And all this and more Euripides insists on giving us.
It is the great obstacle between him and us. Apart from it we have only to exercise a little historical imagination and we shall find in him a man, not indeed modern—half his charm is that he is so remote and austere—but a man who has in his mind the same problems as ourselves, the same doubts and largely the same ideals; who has felt the same desires and indignations as a great number of people at the present day, especially young people. Not because young people are cleverer than old, nor yet because they are less wise; but because the poet or philosopher or martyr who lives, half-articulate, inside most human beings is apt to be smothered or starved to death in the course of middle life. As long as he is still alive we have, most of us, the key to understanding Euripides.
What, then, shall be our method in approaching him? It is fatal to fly straight at him with modern ready-made analogies. We must see him in his own atmosphere. Every man who possesses real vitality can be seen as the resultant of two forces. He is first the child of a particular age, society, convention; of what we may call in one word a tradition. He is secondly, in one degree or another, a rebel against that tradition. And the best traditions make the best rebels. Euripides is the child of a strong and splendid tradition and is, together with Plato, the fiercest of all rebels against it.
There is nothing paradoxical in this. No tradition is perfect. The best brings only a passing period of peace or triumph or stable equilibrium; humanity rests for a moment, but knows that it must travel further; to rest for ever would be to die. The most thorough conformists are probably at their best when forced to fight for their ideal against forces that would destroy it. And a tradition itself is generally at its best, not when it is universally accepted, but when it is being attacked and broken. It is then that it learns to search its own heart and live up to its full meaning. And in a sense the greatest triumph that any tradition can accomplish is to rear noble and worthy rebels. The Greek tradition of the fifth century B.C., the great age of Athens, not only achieved extraordinary advances in most departments of human life, but it trained an extraordinary band of critical or rebellious children. Many a reader of Plato's most splendid satires against democratic Athens will feel within him the conclusive answer: "No place but Athens could ever have reared such a man as this, and taught him to see these faults or conceive these ideals."
We are in reaction now against another great age, an age whose achievements in art are memorable, in literature massive and splendid, in science and invention absolutely unparalleled, but greatest of all perhaps in the raising of all standards of public duty, the humanizing of law and society, and the awakening of high ideals in social and international politics. The Victorian Age had, amid enormous differences, a certain similarity with the Periclean in its lack of self-examination, its rush and chivalry and optimism, its unconscious hypocrisy, its failure to think out its problems to the bitter end. And in most of the current criticism on things Victorian, so far as it is not mere fashion or folly, one seems to feel the Victorian spirit itself speaking. It arraigns Victorian things by a Victorian standard; blames them not because they have moved in a particular direction, but because they have not moved far enough; because so many of the things they attempted are still left undone, because the ideals they preached and the standards by which they claimed to be acting were so much harder of satisfaction than they knew. Euripides, like ourselves, comes in an age of criticism following upon an age of movement and action. And for the most part, like ourselves, he accepts the general standards on which the movement and action were based. He accepts the Athenian ideals of free thought, free speech, democracy, "virtue" and patriotism. He arraigns his country because she is false to them.
We have spoken of the tradition as a homogeneous thing, but for any poet or artist there are two quite different webs in it. There are the accepted conventions of his art and the accepted beliefs of his intellect, the one set aiming at the production of beauty, the others at the attainment of truth.
Now for every artist who is also a critic or rebel there is a difference of kind between these two sets of conventions. For the purposes of truth the tradition is absolutely indifferent. If, as a matter of fact, the earth goes round the sun, it does so not a whit the less because most ages have believed the opposite. The seeker for truth can, as far as truth is concerned, reject tradition without a qualm. But with art the case is different. Art has to give a message from one man to another. As you can only speak to a man in a language which you both know, so you can only appeal to his artistic side by means of some common tradition. His natural expectation, whether we try to satisfy or to surprise it, to surpass or to disappoint it, is always an essential element in the artistic effect. Consequently the tradition cannot be disregarded.
This distinction is often strongly marked in the practice of different artists. One poet may be both a pioneer of new roads in thought and a breaker of the laws of technique, like Walt Whitman—an enemy of the tradition in both kinds. Another may be slack and anarchical in his technique though quite conventional in his thought. I refrain from suggesting instances. Still more clearly there are poets, such as Shelley or Swinburne, whose works are full of intellectual rebellion while their technique is exquisite and elaborate. The thoughts are bold and strange. The form is the traditional form developed and made more exquisite.
Now Euripides, except for some so-called licences in metre, belongs in my judgment markedly to the last class. In speculation he is a critic and a free lance; in artistic form he is intensely traditional. He seems to have loved the very stiffnesses of the form in which he worked. He developed its inherent powers in ways undreamed of, but he never broke the mould or strayed away into shapelessness or mere realism. His last, and in many respects his greatest, play, the Bacchae, is, as far as our evidence goes, the most formal that he ever wrote.
These, then, are the lights in which we propose to look at Euripides. In attempting to reconstruct his life we must be conscious of two backgrounds against which he will be found standing, according as we regard him as Thinker or as pure Artist. We must first try to understand something of the tradition of thought in which he was reared, that is the general atmosphere of fifth century Athens, and watch how he expressed it and how he reacted against it. Next, we must understand what Greek tragedy was, what rituals and conventions held it firm, and what inner fire kept it living, and so study the method in which Euripides used it for his chosen mode of expression, obeying its laws and at the same time liberating its spirit.