Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 10, September 1836, 2:???-???


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CRITICAL NOTICES.

PHILOTHEA.

Philothea:. Romance. By Mrs. Child, author of the Mother’s Book, &c. Boston: Otis, Broaders, Co. New York: George Dearborn.

Mrs. Child is well known as the author of “Hobomok,” “The American Frugal Housewife,” and the “Mother’s Book.” She is also the editor of a “Juvenile Miscellany.” The work before us is of a character very distinct from that of any of these publications, and places the fair writer in a new and most favorable light. Philothea is of that class of works of which the Telemachus of Fenelon, and the Anarchlarsis of Barthelemi, are the most favorable specimens. Overwhelmed in a long-continued inundation of second-hand airs and ignorance, done up in green muslin, we turn to these pure and quiet pages with that species of gasping satisfaction with which a drowning man clutches the shore.

The plot of Philothea is simple. The scene is principally in ancient Athens, during the administration of Pericles; and some of the chief personages of his time are brought, with himself, upon the stage. Among these are Aspasia, Alcibiades, Hippocrates, Anaxagoras of Clazomenæ, Plato, Hermippus the comic writer, Phidias the Sculptor, Artaxerxes of Persia, and Xerxes his son. Philothea, the heroine of the tale, and the grand daughter of Anaxagoras, is of a majestic beauty, of great purity and elevation of mind. Her friend, Etidora, of a more delicate loveliness, and more flexile disposition, is the adopted daughter of Phidias, who bought her, when an infant, of a goat-herd in Phelle — herself and nurse having been stolen from the Ionian coast by Greek pirates, the nurse sold into slavery, and the child delivered to the care of the goat-herd. The ladies, of course, have lovers. Eudora is betrothed to Philæmon. This Athenian, the son of the wealthy Cherilaus, but whose mother was born in Corinth, has incurred the dislike of Aspasia, the wife of Pericles. She procures the revival of an ancient law subjecting to a heavy fine all citizens who married foreigners, and declaring all persons, whose parents were not both Athenians, incapable of voting in the public assemblies or of inheriting the estates of their fathers. Philæmon, thus deprived of citizenship, prevented from holding office, and without hope of any patrimony, is obliged to postpone, indefinitely, his union with Eudora. The revisal of the obnoxious law has also a disastrous effect upon the interests of Philothea. She is beloved of Paralus, the son of Pericles, and returns his affection. But in marrying, she will bring upon him losses and degradation. Pericles, too, looks with an evil eye upon her poverty, and the idea of marriage is therefore finally abandoned.

Matters are thus situated, when Philothea, being appointed one of the Canephoræ, (whose duty it is to embroider the sacred peplus, and to carry baskets in the procession of the Panathenaia,) is rigidly secluded by law, for six months, within the walls of the Acropolis. During this time, Eudora, deprived of the good counsel and example of her friend, becomes a frequent visitor at the house of Aspasia, by whose pernicious influence she is insensibly affected. It is at the return of Philothea from the Acropolis that the story commences. At the urgent solicitation of Aspasia, who is desirous of strengthening her influence in Athens by the countenance of the virtuous, Anaxagoras is induced to attend, with his grand-daughter, a symposium at the house of Pericles. Eudora accompanies them. The other guests are Hermippus, Phidias, the Persian Artaphernes, Tithonus a learned Ethiopian, Plato, Hipparete the wife of Alcibiades, and Alcibiades himself. At this symposium Eudora is dazzled by the graces of Alcibiades, and listens to his seductive flattery — forgetful of the claims of Hipparete, the wife of Alcibiades, and of Philrmon, her own lover. The poison of this illicit feeling now affects all the action of the drama. Philothea discovers the danger of her friend, but is sternly repulsed upon the proffer of good advice. Alcibiades is appointed a secret interview by Endora, which is interrupted by Philothea — not however before it is observed by Philetmon, who, in consequence, abandons his mistress, and departs, broken-hearted, from Athens. The eyes of Eudora are now opened, too late, to the perfidy of Alcibiades, who had deceived her with the promise of marriage, and of obtaining a divorce from Hipporete. It is Hipparete who appeals to the Archons for a divorce from Alcibiades, on the score of [page 660:] his notorious profligacy; and, in the investigations which ensue, it appears that a snare has been laid by Aspasia and himself, to entrap Eudora, and that, with a similar end in view, he has also promised marriage to Electra, the Corinthian.

Pericles seeks to please the populace by diminishing the power of the Areopagus. He causes a decree to be passed, that those who denied the existence of the Gods, or introduced new opinions about celestial things, should be tried by the people. This, however, proves injurious to some of his own personal friends. Hermippus lays before the Thesmothetme Archons an accusation of blasphemny against Anaxagoras, Phidias, and Aspasia; and the case is tried before the fourth assembly of the people. Anaxanoras is charged with not having offered victims to tihe Gods, and with having blasphemed the divine Phoebus, by saying the sun was only a huge ball of fire,-and is condemned to die. Phlidias is accused of blasphemy, in having carved the likeness of himself and Pericles on the shield of heaven-born Pallas, of having said that he approved the worship of the Gods merely becatise he wished to have his own works adored, and of decoying to his own house the maids and matrons of Athens, under the pretence of seeing sculpture, but in fact, to administer to the profligacy of Pericles. He is also adjudged to death. Aspasia is accused of saying that the sacred baskets of Demeter contained nothing of so much importance as the beautiful maidens who carried them; and that the temple of Poseidon was enriched with no offerings from those who had been wrecked, notwithstanding their supplications-thereby implying ir-reverent doubts of the power of Ocean’s God. Her sentence is exile. Pericles, however, succeeds in getting the execution of the decrees suspended until the oracle of Amphiaraus can be consulted. Antiphon, a celebrated diviner, is appointed to consult it. He is absent for many days, and in the meantime Pericles ha.s an opportunity of tampering wvith the people, as he has already done with Antiphon. The response of the oracle opportunely declares that the sentences be reconsidered. It is done — Phidias and Anaxagoras are merely banished, while Aspasia is acquitted. These trials form perhaps the most interesting portion of the book.

Chapter XI introduces us to Anaxagoras, the conterited resident of a small village near Lampsacus in Ionia. He is old, feeble, and in poverty. Philothea watches by his side, and supports him with the labor of her hands. Plato visits the sage of Clazomenwe in his retreat, and brings news of the still-beloved Athens. The pestilence is raging — the Pirwus is heaped with unburied dead. Hipparete has fallen a victim. Peri cles was one of the first sufferers, but has recovered through the skill of Hippocrates. Phidias who, after his sentence of exile, departed with Eudora to Elis, and grew in honor among the Eleans-is dead. Eudora still remains at his house, Elis having bestowed upon her the yearly revenues of a farm, in consideration of the affectionate care bestowed upon her illustrious bene factor. Philremon is in Persia instructing the sons of the wealthy Satrap Megabyzus. Alcibiades is living in unbridled license at Athens. But the visiter has not yet spoken of Paralus, the lover of Philothea.

“Daughter of Aleimenes,” he at length says, (we copy here half a page of the volume, as a specimen of the grace of the narrative) “Daughter of Alcimenes, your heart reproaches me that I forbear to speak of Paralus. That I have done so, has not been from forgetfulness, but because I have with vain and self-defeating prudence sought for cheerful words to convey sad thoughts. Patralus breathes and moves, but is apparently unconscious of existence in this world. He is silent and abstracted, like one just returned from the cave of Trophoniuts. Yet beautiful forms are ever with him in infinite variety; for his quiescent soul has now undisturbed recollection of the divine archetypes in the ideal world, of which all earthly beauty is the shadow.”

“He is happy, then, though living in the midst of death,” answered Philothea. “But does his memory retain no traces of his friends?”

“One — and one only,” he replied. “The name of Philothea was too deeply engraven to be washed away by the waters of oblivion. He seldom speaks; but when he does you are ever in his visions. The sound of a female voice accompanying the lyre is the only thing that makes him smile; and nothing moves him to tears save the farewell song of Orpheus to Eurydice. In his drawings there is more of majesty and beauty than Phlydias or Myron ever conceived; and one figure is always there — the Pythlia, the Muse, the Grace, or something combining all these, more spiritual than either.”

The most special object of Plato’s visit to Anaxagoras is the bearing of a message from Pericles. Hippocrates has expressed a hope that the presence of Philothea may restore, in some measure, the health and understanding of Paralus, and the once ambitious father has sent to beg the maiden’s consent to a union with his now deeply afflicted son.

“Philothea would not leave me even if I urged it with tears,” replied Anaxagoras, “and I am forbidden to return to Athens.”

“Pericles has provided an asylum for you, on the borders of Attica,” answered Plato, “and the young people would soon join you after their marriage. He did not supppose [[suppose]] that his former proud opposition to their loves would be forgotten; but he said hearts like yours would forgive it all, the more readily beause [[because]] he was now a man deprived of power, and his son suffering under a visitation of the gods. Alcibiades laughed aloud when he heard of this proposition; and said his uncle would never think of making it to any but a maiden who sees the zephyrs run, and hears the stars sing. He spoke truth in his profane merriment. Pericles knows that she who obediently listens to the inward voice, will be most likely to seek the happiness of others, forgetful of her own wrongs.”

“I do not believe the tender hearted maiden ever cherished resentment against any living thing,” replied Anaxagoras. “She often reminds me of Hesiod’s description of Leto:

Placid to men and to immortal gods;

Mild from the first beginning of her days;

Gentlest of all in Heaven.

She has indeed been a precious gift to my old age. Simple and loving as she is, there are times when her looks and words fill me with awe, as if I stood in the presence of divinity.”

“It is a most lovely union when the Muses and the Charities inhabit the same temple,” said Plato. “I think she learned of you to be a constant worshipper of the innocent and graceful nymphs, who preside over kind and gentle actions. But tell me, Anaxagoras, if this marriage is declined, who will protect the daughter of Alcimenes when you are gone?”

The philosopher replied, “I have a sister Heliodora, the youngest of my father’s flock, who is Priestess of the Sun, at Ephesus. Of all my family, she has least [page 661:] despised me for preferring philosophy to gold; and report bespeaks her wise and virtuous. I have asked and obtained from her a promise to protect Philothlea when I am gone; but 1 will tell my child the wishes of Pericles, and leave her to the guidance of her own heart. If she enters the home of Paralus, she will be to him, as she has been to me, a bounty like the sunshine.”

Philothea assents joyfully to the union, although Chrysippus, the wealthy prince of Clazomenœ, has made her an offer of his hand. Anaxagoras dies. His grand-daughter, accompanied by Plato, and some female acquaintances, takes her departure for Athens, and arrives safely in the harbor of Phalerum. No important change has occurred in Paralus, who still shows a total unconsciousness of past events. The lovers are, however, united. Many long passages about this portion of the narrative are of a lofty and original beauty. The dreamy, distraught, yet unembittered existence of the husband, revelling in the visions of the Platonic philosophy — the anxiety of the father and his friends — the ardent, the pure and chivalric love, with the uncompromising devotion and soothing attentions of the wife — are pictures whose merit will not fail to be appreciated by all whose good opinion is of value.

Hippocrates has been informed that Tithonus, the Ethiopian, possesses the power of leading the soul from the body, “ by means of a soul-directing wand,” and the idea arises that the process may produce a salutary effect upon Paralus. Tithonus will be present at the Olympian Games, and thither the patient is conveyed, under charge of Pericles, Plato and his wife. On the route, at Corinth, a letter from Philemon, addressed to Anaxagoras, is handed by Artaphernes, the Persian, to Philothea. At the close of the epistle, the writer expresses a wish to be informed of Eudora’s fate, and an earnest hope that she is not beyond the reach of Philothea’s influence. The travellers finally stop at a small town in the neighborhood of Olympia, and at the residence of Proclus and his wife Melissa, “worthy simple-hearted people with whom Phidias had died, and under whose protection he had placed his adopted daughter.” The meeting between this maiden and Philothea is full of interest. The giddy heart of Eudolra is chastened by sorrow. Phidias had desired her marriage with his nephew Pandcenus — but her first love is not yet forgotten. A letter is secretly written by Philothea to Philcemon, acquainting him with the change in the character of Eudora, and with her unabated affection for himself. “Sometimes,” she writes, “ a stream is polluted in the fountain, and its waters are tainted through all its wanderings; and sometimes the traveller throws into a pure rivulet some unclean thing, which floats awhile and is then rejected from its bosom. Eudora is the pure rivulet. A foreign strain floated on the surface, but never mingled with its waters.”

The efforts of Tithonus are inadequate to the effectual relief of Paralus. We quote in full the account of the Ethiopian’s attempt. Mrs. Child is here, however, partially indebted to a statement by Clearchus, of an operation somewhat similar to that of Tithonus, performed either by the aid, or in the presence of Aristotle. It will be seen that even the chimeras of animal magnetism were, in some measure, known to the ancients. The relation of Clearchus mentions a diviner with a spiritdrawing wand, and a youth whose soul was thereby taken from the body, leaving it inanimate. The soul being replaced by the aid of the magician, the youth enters into a wild account of the events which befell him during the trance. The passage in “Philothea” runs thus.

Tithonus stood behind the invalid and remained perfectly quiet for many minutes. He then gently touched the back part of his head with a small wand, and leaning over him, whispered in his ear. An unpleasant change immediately passed over the countenance of Paralus. He endeavored to place his hand on his head, and a cold shivering seized him. Philothea shuddered, and Pericles grew pale, as they watched these symptoms; but the silence remained unbroken. A second and a third time the Ethiopian touched him with his wand, and spoke in whispers. The expression of pain deepened; insomuch that his friends could not look upon him without anguish of heart. Finally his limbs straightened, and became perfectly rigid and motionless.

Tithonus, perceiving the terror lie had excited, said soothingly, “O Athenians, be not afraid. I have never seen the soul withdrawn without a struggle with the body. Believe me it will return. The words I whispered, were those I once heard from the lips of Plato. ’The human soul is guided by two horses-one white with a flowing mane, earnest eyes, and wings like a swan, whereby he seeks to fly; but the other is black, heavy, and sleepy-eyed-ever prone to lie down upon the earth. ’ The second time I whispered, ’ Lo, the soul seeketh to ascend! ’ And the third time I said, ’Behold, the winged separates from that which has no wings. ’ When life returns, Paralus will have remembrance of these words.”

“Oh, restore him! restore him!” exclaimed Philothea, in tones of agonized intreaty.

Tithonus answered with respectful tenderness, and again stood in profound silence several minutes, before le raised the wand. At the first touch, a feeble shivering gave indication of returning life. As it was repeated a second and a third time, with a brief interval between each movement, the countenance of the sufferer grew more dark and troubled, until it became fearful to look upon. But the heavy shadow gradually passed away, and a dreamy smile returned, like a gleam of sunshine after storms. The moment Philothea perceived an expression familiar to her heart, she knelt by the couch, seized the hand of Paralus, and bathed it with her tears.

When the first gush of emotion had subsided, she said in a soft low voice, “Where have you been, dear Paralus?” The invalid answered, “ A thick vapor enveloped me, as with a dark cloud; and a stunning noise pained my head with its violence. A voice said to me, ’ The human soul is guided by two horses; one white, with a flowing mane, earnest eyes, and wings like a swan, whereby he seeks to fly; but the other is black, heavy, and sleepy-eyed-ever prone to lie down upon the earth. ’ Then the darkness began to clear away. But there was strange confusion. All things seemed rapidly to interchange their colors and their forms — the sound of a storm was in mine ears — the elements and the stars seemed to crowd upon me and my breath was taken away. Then I heard a voice saying, ’ Lo, the soul seeketh to ascend! ’ And I looked and saw the chariot and horses, of which the voice had spoken. The beautiful white horse gazed upward, and tossed his mane, and spread his wings impatiently; but the black horse slept upon the ground. The voice again said, ’Behold, the winged separates from that which hath no wings! ’ And suddenly the chariot ascended, and 1 saw the white horse on light, fleecy clouds, in a far blue sky. Then I heard a pleasing silent sound-as if dew-drops made music as they fell. I breathed freely, and my form seemed to expand itself with buoyant life All at once I was floating in the air, above a quiet lake, where reposed seven beautiful islands, full of the sound of harps; and Philothea slept at my side, with a garland on her head. I asked, ’Is [page 000:] this the divine home whence I departed into the body? ’ And a voice above my head answered, ’ It is the divine home. Man never leaves it. He ceases to perceive. ’ Afterward, I looked downward, and saw my dead body lying on a couch. Then again there came strange con fusion-and a painful clashing of sounds — and all things rushing together. But Philothea took my hand, and spoke to me in gentle tones, and the discord ceased.”

The mind of Paralus derives but a temporary benefit from the skill of Tithonus, and even the attendance of the patient upon the Olympian games (a suggestion of Pericles) fails of the desired effect. A partial revival is indeed thus brought about-but death rapidly en sues. The friends of the deceased return to Athens, accompanied by the adopted daughter of Phlidias. Philothea dies. Not many days after the funeral ceremonies, Eudora suddenly disappears. Alcibiades is suspected (justly) of having entrapped her to his sum mer residence in Salamis. The pages which follow this event detail the rescue of the maiden by the ingenuity of two faithful slaves, Mibra and Getsa-the discovery of her father in Artaphernes the Persian, whom she accompanies to the court of Artaxerxes-her joyful meeting there, and marriage with Phliaemon, after refusing the proffered hand of Xerxes himself.

In regard to the species of novel of which “Philothea” is no ignoble specimen, not any powers on the part of any author can render it, at the present day, popular. Nor is the voice of the people in this respect, to be adduced as an evidence of corrupted taste. We have little of purely human sympathy in the distantly antique; and this little is greatly weakened by the constant necessity of effort in conceiving appropriateness in manners, costume, habits, and modes of thought, so widely at variance with those around us. It should be borne in mind that the “Pompeii” of Bulwer cannot be considered as altogether belonging to this species, and fails in popularity only in proportion as it does so belong to it. This justly admired work owes what it possesses of attraction for the mass, to the stupendousness of its leading event — an event so far from weakened in interest by age, rendered only more thrillingly exciting by the obscurity which years have thrown over its details — to the skill with which the mind of the reader is prepared for this event — to the vigor with which it is depicted — and to the commingling with this event human passions wildly affected thereby-passions the sternest of our nature, and common to all character and time. By means so effectual we are hurried over, and observe not, unless with a critical eye, those radical defects or difficulties (coincident with the choice of epoch) of which we have spoken above. The fine perception of Bulwer endured these difficulties as inseparable from the groundwork of his narrative — did not mistake them for facilities. The plot of “Philothea,” like that of the Telemachus, and of the Anarcharsis, should be regarded, on the other hand, as the mere vehicle for bringing forth the antique “manners, costume, habits, and modes of thought,” which we have just mentioned as at variance with a popular interest to-day. Regarding it in this, its only proper light, we shall be justified in declaring the book an honor to our country, and a signal triumph for our country-women.

Philothea might be introduced advantageously into our female academies. Its purity of thought and lofty morality are unexceptionable. It would prove an effectual aid in the study of Greek antiquity, with whose spirit it is wonderfully imbued. We say wonderfullyfor when we know that the fair authoress disclaims all knowledge of the ancient languages, we are inclined to consider her performance as even wonderful. There are some points, to be sure, at which a scholar might cavilsome perversions of the character of Pericles — of the philosophy of Anaxagoras — the trial of Aspasia and her friends for blasphemy, should have been held before the Areopagus, and not the people — and we can well believe that an erudite acquaintance of ours would storm at more than one discrepancy in the arrangement of the symposium at the house of Aspasia. But the many egregious blunders of Barthelemi are still fresh in our remembrance, and the difficulty of avoiding errors in similar writings, even by the professed scholar, cannot readily be conceived by the merely general reader.

On the other hand, these discrepancies are exceedingly few in Philothea, while there is much evidence on every page of a long acquaintance with the genius of the times, places, and people depicted. As a mere tale, too, the work has merit of no common order — and its purity of language should especially recommend it to the attention of teachers.

 


Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (September 1836)