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Aeschylus, Poet and Moralist

Author(s): Thomas A. Becker
Source: The Classical Journal, Vol. 17, No. 8 (May, 1922), pp. 422-429
Published by: The Classical Association of the Middle West and South
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we may say that the father of Greek tragedy was the soldier poet of Marathon. The drama existed in embryonicform when Ionian epos and Dorian lay had been loosely joined together. but an TcXLPK6JV is exaggerationthat is in some sense justified. And leaving out of our present discussionthe question of drama's crude beginnings. " With that philosopherthe poet's power is a fine frenzy. Aeschylus possessed in a supreme degree creative power. alike in thought and expression. whatever concessions we make to his supposed predecessor. But it may be said in passing that great poets are invariably artists. it was the subject of our sketch who fashioned it into a distinctive form of literary art and carriedit to a perfection that his younger rivals did not essentially modify. and while not necessarily self-consciousthey are not therefore unconscious artists. a divine Aav'ta. To say that poetry is GEov Kal A the exaggeration of a writer himself a poet. Symonds plausibly suggests that Aeschylus illustrates "the artistic psychology of Plato. but they achieved unsurpassedmastery in the art they created.AESCHYLUS. Aeschylus and Shakespeare rise 422 . though the art be not always obtrusive. S. This distinction seems to belong to Aeschylus. but it was the poet of the Agamemnonwho really gave birth to tragedy. His might and majesty. Boston College In dramatic as in epic and lyric poetry the Greeks were not merely the pioneers who paved the way for later literature. POET AND MORALIST By THOMAS A. Sophocles and Tennyson suggest above all the conscientious craftsman. The untamed energy of creative genius. To fix the bounds and describe the functions of genius and art in poetry would lead us too far afield. BECKER. the lofty gift of poetic inspiration. the conceptions that exhaust the resourcesof language. are consistent with classic self-restraint. warrant for him the name of genius. Even though Thespis invented tragic drama ten or more years before the birth of Aeschylus.J.

AESCHYLUS. In the phraseof a noted critic. In the realm of human nature too his portrayal is titanic. is most conspicuously shown in the vastness and grandeur of his creations. "he was the demiurgeof ancient art. . Sun and earth and sky thrill with life. and in the Choephoroeand the Eumenidesdivine powers take an important part in the action. Persia and Hellas locked in the grim embrace of war's death-grapple. was the dramatization of contemporaryhistory in the Persae. Aeschylus is generally representedby critics as an hierophant. True. The genius of Aeschylus. in the Prometheusthe only human personageis Io. He is styled "a mythopoet. But the poet like his compeers drew his material from the familiar legendary lore of Greece. IEtna trembles responsive to the throes of Enceladus. are colossal in the grandeur of their conception while they lose nothing of majesty or dignity in delineation. the unrivaled figure of Clytemnestra. Macbeth. hunt their quarry on his stage. vague portraits of the Greek conscience. Argos. with snaky locks and fiery breath. as has been pointed out repeatedly. we must go to the genius that gave us Coriolanus. One daring innovation. If Athenaeusis to be trusted. Besides there breathes in all the tragedies a spirit of divine intervention and over all there broods a suggestion of mysticism. and Mycenae." Abstractions." This does not mean that he chose his subjects from religiousmyths to the exclusion of national legend. If we would find a kindred spirit to that of the Athenian mystic. elemental beings. all the unsubstantial pageantry of dreams fix the gaze and arrest the ear. Ghosts and denizens of an unseen world. as the theologian of Greek tragedy. but who command at will a noble symmetry and a keen sense of artistic unity. Justice and sin and ancestral curse loom gigantically before us as persons of his drama. POET AND MORALIST 423 before us as men of massive mold who are rather impatient than ignorant of the laws of art. of which Phrynichus furnished a parallel. the stories of Thebes. outlines faintly limned by the popular imaginationare doweredby this Prometheuswith definiteform and substance. The heroes that thunder at the seven gates of Thebes." or "pre-eminently a religiouspoet. The brazen-footed Furies. and Lear.

424 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL the poet himself said that his plays were fragments from the banquet of Homer. Ath. the diapason of heaven and earth. in the Eumenides the aristocratic leanings of the dramatist reveal themselves when he assigns a divine origin to the court of the Areopagus. We should probably find that Aeschylus did not feel himself constrained to follow the Hesiodic form of the Promethean myth. or. 41. Still it is only in the Eumenidesthat the action is fully closed. viii. chose rather a broad canvas. His architecture is cyclopean. as Morshead has observed. At the outset we must rememberthe preferenceof Aeschylusfor the trilogy. And yet the entire length of the Orestean trilogy is less than that of Hamlet. the Greekplaywrightsallowed themselves a fair amount of freedom in adapting legend to the purposes of dramatic art. But Aeschylus. from the legends of the epic cycle. to illustrate from another art. It should be noted further that the poet's preference for the trilogy means no abatementof his skill in the constructionof single plays. whose creative faculty was massive in conception.a growthof the action to a crisis.) Despite the narrow limits of a subject-matter prescribed by tradition. (Athen. a descending movement to a catastrophe. 347 E." (Const. Again. if the trilogy had survived to make a comparisonpossible.) However. the poet's political bias is displayedin the Supplicesand the Oresteia. From the material we naturally pass to a considerationof the construction. crashing symphonies of waking worlds. The Pelasgic king of Argos shows a marked deference to popular opinion. His music is the simple. In them we can discern an exposition or preparation for the tragicconflict. that is. but in shaping with his Titan's chisel huge mountain crags into forms of superhuman grandeur. So Athenian sentiment or tradition attributed a democratic tendency to the pre-historic monarchy as we may infer from Aristotle's reference to what he styles the "constitution of Theseus. 2. and it is noteworthy that in this play all is laid in peace and reconciliationas in the Philoctetesof Sophocles . his power is seen not in the deft and subtle artistry of delicate detail. Readersof romanticdrama are likely to be more in sympathy with the method of Sophoclesand Euripides who complete a tragic action in a single play.

if not an essential. The Supplices is of particular interest to the student of the developmentof Greektragedy. almost bald. retains an importancethat disappearseven in the plays of Aeschylus. With the watchman in the Agamemnonwe see the leaping beacon fires that herald the king's return. which was the fore-runnerof "lyrical tragedy" and of tragedy proper. outline of Aeschylean tragedy than from the drama of deftly woven intrigue. And there are doubtless many readers to whom simplicity makes a stronger appeal than complexity. for more than half the play is composed of lyric strains. proves not that Aeschyluswas less skilledas an artist but that he followeda different method. so common in Euripides. Hephaestus and his jailers rivet the Titan to his lonely crag in the Prometheus. That the drama of Sophocles and Euripides is characterizedby a more closely knit unity. has more than once been stigmatized as a sorry makeshift. The poet's aim should ever be borne in mind when studying the plan of construction of an Aeschylean tragedy. Aeschylusplunges at once into the action. Bradley has pointed out Shakespeare's method of beginning with a short scene full of life to engage the spectator's attention. Indeed we have here rathera cantata than a drama. and by a more finished elaboration of detail. But in his tragedy the chorusnever is reduced to a mere musical interlude. or for human heroes of colossal bulk whose lineaments are but dimly seen and whose . it remains always an integral. The impressionmay exist in some minds that the poet was incapable of painting human nature. Before dismissing the subject of construction a word about the choral element may not be amiss. The prologue. who derive a keener aesthetic pleasure from the bare. POET AND MORALIST 425 and in Shakespeare'sWinter's Tale. by greater delicacy. part of the play and at times enters conspicuously into the action. Aeschylus adopts a style that is analogous if not strictly parallel. The Furies toss in restless sleep about their victim in the Eumenides.AESCHYLUS. Perhaps the reasonis that critics have dwelt with undue insistence on his preferencefor gods and demigods. Aeschylus is a master not only of invention and construction. but of characterizationas well. and the dithyramb of Dionysus.

even the working of Nemesis. unlike Lady Macbeth's. nay. The complaint is often made that the grandeurof Aeschylus frequently degenerates into bombast. for all his grand manner. though different from them all as they differ from one another. His scheme of constructionand surchargedreligious thought led him. Vividness of imagination naturally reveals itself in language. If any complain that Agamemnon'smurderessis rather a Fury than a woman. We may concede that Sophocles humanizedmyth and legend.undauntedwhen the swordof Orestes is at the breast to which. Even his apologist. and that Euripides brought into Greek tragedy a reality of portraiturethat has earned for him the distinction of being the prophet of romanticism. After wreaking vengeance on the slayer of her child with the fury of an enragedlioness. and her strength. Marlowe's . Our poet's creative power in plot and construction displays the range and vigor of his imagination. as she remindshim. we are told. She recalls Goneril and Regan and Lady Macbeth. was a consummate artist in drawing character. she does not stoop with Aegisthus to insult the fallen king nor does she bandy taunt and bluster with the Argive elders. they only agree with Clytemnestra'sown opinion of herself. Aristophanes. Yet her characteris marked by a certain dignity. She is haughty and terriblein her triumph. But Prometheus and Clytemnestraalone place Aeschylus by the side of the supreme master of characterization. is unduly fond of making language do more than can be asked of it. But Aeschylus. in the creationof character. In the Clhoephoroe as in the Agamemnonher mind is keen and crafty. Relentlessly vindictive she returns from the spirit world to goad the Furies who are her avengers. Shakespearetoo. She has all the concentrated hate of Lear's heartless daughters. Shakespeare. her will is strong to depict types rather than individuals. never snaps under the strain.426 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL motives can be but vaguely scannedin the fitful glare of an inspiration that is rather lurid than illuminating. cannot refrain from parodying his ponderous epithets that too often are marshaled in a serriedphalanx. he once clung a suckling babe. The epic fulness of the action may withdraw our attention from the skill of his portraiture.

poet." and the same critic finds a Shakespeareanquality in the graphicpower of his language and imagery. POET AND MORALIST 427 "mighty line" not infrequently has more of sound than sense. Aeschylus. the clumsy affectation of a solemn or rugged manner that masks a shallow or feeble mind. rapidity. faults of diction are the exaggerationof virtues." that conceives a hurricane as "an evil shepherd.AESCHYLUS. It is this perhaps that some term oriental. He is not a pessimist. splendor. The tragic fact is portrayedrelentlessly. Strong. In the brief space at our disposal we can say very little about Aeschylus as a moralist. But even he is a moral. ineffectually struggles. Energy." or a lion as "the Priest of Ruin.fury. but we arenot left despairingof man's lot or of his nature." or with gruesome realism describes wave-tossed corpses gnawed by fishes as "torn by the mute childrenof the undefiled. And so critics remind us of the impersonality and impartiality of Shakespeare. however." Symonds says that Aeschylus "surpassed all the poets of his nation in a certain Shakespeareanconcentrationof phrase. Far different is the inarticulate utterance.and the chorus afforded him a vehicle for its expression. like . if quaint. if not a moralizing. and havoc of war are painted for us in the choruses of the Agamemnonand in the Persae with a vividness possible only to a warrior-poet. is the imagination that gives us pictures such as "the beard of fire." or makes Clytemnestra say "'tis not for me to tread the hall of Fear. he has no room for the morbidand decadent. And the pathos of his description of Iphigenia. the highly dramaticportrayalof Cassandrashow a geniusfor expression closely akin to that of the creator of Desdemona and Ophelia. intensity. But. All the grimness.where nature mirrors the superhuman wills that meet in conflict. At the outset it must be remembered that a dramatist is not to be held responsiblefor all the utterances of his dramatispersonae.sweep us breathless on till we forget the polished art of Sophoclesor the easy grace of Euripides.seems to utter a religiousand a moralmessage. so with Aeschylus. as with these poets. His aim. To convince ourselves of this we have but to recall the descriptions of grand and savage scenery in the Prometheus. His incoherenceis due to the sublimity of the thought with which his language. as yet an imperfect instrument.

though prosperityis perilous because it engenders pride.older than Aeschylus. For a tragic catastropheis a result of deeds that have their main and sufficientcause in human character. he transgressed divine ordinances. Xerxes impiously sought to fetter the hallowed wave of Bosphorus.428 THE CLASSICALJOURNAL Milton's was to justify the ways of God to afflictionschooled. The successive ." Prosperity precedes but does not thereforecause a downfall." The dramatist distinctly disavows the popular doctrine that is a punishment of wealth or power. It was Heraclitus. and from prosperity springs a bane insatiable. -Morshead However much Aeschylus dwells on the resistless power of destiny. a A&papria apparently to be understoodin a strictly moral sense. who said that "character is destiny. Eteocles is not the blameless victim of an ancestral curse.). But I am of another mind. but by pride and selfishness fans anew the flame of the ancient Ate of his house. Though Prometheus was man's benefactor. he is equally insistent on man's responsibility for his fate. it is a necessary condition merely." declares Aeschylus. then the doom descends and inexorable fate pursues the evildoer. Ie hathruled. 'TisZeusalonewhoshowstheperfectway Ofknowledge. From this men may learn wisdom. "It is an ancient saying. Men shall learnwisdom. Thus we find that it is a form of retribution that invariably follows the path of those who "kick against the pricks. There is no doom except for sin. 750 ff. The aT-r or infatuation which leads man to sin is rather the occasion than the cause of his fall. Despite the immemorialsaying. The will is not constrained to do evil. the poet holds that it is Vf3ptsnot 6Xf0os that bringsdown the wrath of heaven. an idea that the divine 4qO6vos appears so frequently in the narrative of Herodotus. "that bliss waxing great dies not without issue. is that the doer must suffer 8puo-avrI raGE0t. but once the deed is done. of decrees to which even Zeus is amenable. as with great tragic poets generally. The burden of his teaching. It is impiety that begets these numerouschildrenstamped with the mark of their parentage" (Again.

. while Zeus in heaven is lord. a dirge that the hearts of men will echo throughout their years of exile and of pain. saying: The fathers have eaten sour grapes. The idea of retribution is not excluded. . feels profoundly the mysteriousness of a power that is at once Fate and Justice. And from the Agamemnon (1562 ff. like Shakespeare. His law is fixed and stern. and guilt is personal nor is its punishment wholly vicarious. So in the tragic world a causal sequence leads from character through deed to doom. POET AND MORALIST 429 generations that suffer the doom of their house are not themselves wholly innocent. it (Agaim. saith the Lord God. The soul that sinneth the same shall And darklydevising... Ruin closes in on wealth and sway and splendid gifts. he is aviLos. As Bradley says. and teeth of the children are set on edge.): While Time shall be. yet may the issue be fair" i2i) is not merely the poignant refrain of the Greek poet. is the sad strain of humanity. "What is the meaning that you use among you this parable as a proverb in the land of Israel. and none but the sinner is made to suffer. Whenthe sinneroutsteppeththe law and heedeththe high Godnot. this parable shall be no more to you a proverb in Israel. bo-icax ~a-7TLIKpcpa (Agam. "Woe. woe is me. 7ra0JLv vrbv'pavra implies not a blind Nemesis but the operation of Justice. To borrow Aristotle's term. As I live. 1561). Aeschylus of course. " In comparison we may quote from Morshead's translation of the Choephoroe (630 ff. The mournful fact of waste and destruction that we know in the real world is portrayed by the tragic poet.AESCHIYLUS. As Morshead has suggested there is a close parallel between the teaching of Aeschylus and that of Ezechiel (chapter 18. though his vision cannot pierce the veil. a power against which man is helpless. a man like Job is not a tragic figure. On him that wroughtshall vengeancebe outpouredThe tides of doomreturn.the Fiend of the house. in speaking of Shakespearean tragedy.. will repay The priceof the bloodof the slain that was shedin the bygoneday.): And the deed unlawfullydone is not troddendownnor forgot. 3 and 20). In the moral world human minds and wills sin against the moral order and must atone. especially vss.