Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Euripides,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VIII: Literary Criticism - part 01 (1902), pp. 43-47


[page 43, continued:]


[Southern Literary Messenger, September, 1835.]

THESE three volumes embrace the whole of Euripides — Aeschylus and Sophocles having already been published in the Library. A hasty glance at the work will not enable us to speak positively in regard to the value of these translations. The name of Potter, however, is one of high authority, and we have no reason to suspect that he has not executed his task as well as any man living could have done it. But that these, or that any poetic versions can convey to the mind of the merely general reader the most remote conception of either the manner, the spirit, or the meaning of the Greek dramatists, is what Mr. Potter does not intend us to believe, and what we certainly should not believe if he did. At all events, it must be a subject of general congratulation, that in the present [page 44:] day, for a sum little exceeding three dollars, any lover of the classics may possess himself of complete versions of the three greatest among the ancient Greek writers of tragedy.

Ardent admirers of Hellenic Literature, we have still no passion for Euripides. Truly great when compared with many of the moderns, he falls immeasurably below his immediate predecessors. “He is admirable,” says a German critic, “where the object calls chiefly for emotion, and requires the display of no higher qualities; and he is still more so where pathos and moral beauty are united. Few of his pieces are without particular passages of the most overpowering beauty. It is by no means my intention to deny him the possession of the most astonishing talents: I have only stated that these talents were not united with a mind in which the austerity of moral principle, and the sanctity of religious feelings were held in the highest honor.”

The life, essence, and characteristic qualities of the ancient Greek drama may be found in three things. First, in the ruling idea of Destiny or Fate. Secondly, in the Chorus. Thirdly, in Ideality. But in Euripides we behold only the decline and fall of that drama, and the three prevailing features we have mentioned are in him barely distinguishable, or to be seen only in their perversion. What, for example is, with Sophocles, and still more especially with Aeschylus, the obscure and terrible spirit of predestination, sometimes mellowed down towards the catastrophe of their dramas into the unseen, yet not unfelt hand of a kind Providence, or overruling God, becomes in the handling of Euripides the mere blindness of accident, or the capriciousness of chance. He thus loses innumerable opportunities — opportunities which his great rivals have used to so good [page 45:] an effect — of giving a preternatural and ideal elevation to moral fortitude in the person of his heroes, by means of opposing them in a perpetual warfare with the arbitrations and terrors of Destiny.

Again; the Chorus, which appears never to have been thoroughly understood by the moderns — the Chorus of Euripides is not, alas! the Chorus of his predecessors. That this singular, or at least apparently singular feature, in the Greek drama, was intended for the mere purpose of preventing the stage from being, at any moment entirely empty, has been an opinion very generally, and very unaccountably received. The Chorus was not, at any time, upon the stage. Its general station was in the orchestra, in which it also performed the solemn dances, and walked to and fro during the choral songs. And when it did not sing, its proper station was upon the thymele, an elevation somewhat like an altar, but with steps, in front of the orchestra, raised as high as the stage, and opposite to the scene — being also in the very centre of the entire theatre, and serving as a point around which the semi-circle of the amphitheatre was described. Most critics, however, have merely laughed at the Chorus as something superfluous and absurd, urging the folly of enacting passages supposed to be performed in secret in the presence of an assembled crowd, and believing that as it originated in the infancy of the art, it was continued merely through caprice or accident. Sophocles, however, wrote a treatise on the Chorus, and assigned his reasons for persisting in the practice. Aristotle says little about it, and that little affords no clew to its actual meaning or purpose. Horace considers it “a general expression of moral participation, instruction, and admonition,” and this opinion, which is evidently just, [page 46:] has been adopted and commented upon, at some length, by Schlegel. Publicity among the Greeks, with their republican habits and modes of thinking, was considered absolutely essential to all actions of dignity or importance. Their dramatic poetry imbibed the sentiment, and was thus made to display a spirit of conscious independence. The Chorus served to give verisimilitude to the dramatic action, and was, in a word, the ideal spectator. It stood in lieu of the national spirit, and represented the general participation of the human race, in the events going forward upon the stage. This was its most extended, and most proper object; but it had others of a less elevated nature, and more nearly in accordance with the spirit of our own melo-drama.

But the Chorus of Euripides was not the true and unadulterated Chorus of the purer Greek tragedy. It is even more than probable that he did never rightly appreciate its full excellence and power, or give it any portion of his serious attention. He made no scruple of admitting the parabasis into his tragedies(1) — a license which although well suited to the spirit of comedy, was entirely out of place and must have had a ludicrous effect in a serious drama. In some instances also, among which we may mention the Danaidae, a female Chorus is permitted by him to make use of grammatical inflexions proper only for males.

In respect to the Ideality of the Greek drama, a few words will be sufficient. It was the Ideality of conception, and the Ideality of representation. Character and manners were never the character and manners of every day existence, but a certain, and very marked [page 47:] elevation above them. Dignity and grandeur enveloped each personage of the stage — but such dignity as comported with his particular station, and such grandeur as was never at outrance with his allotted part. And this was the Ideality of conception. The cothurnus, the mask, the mass of drapery, all so constructed and arranged as to give an increase of bodily size, the scenic illusions of a nature very different, and much more extensive than our own, inasmuch as actual realities were called in to the aid of art, were on the other hand the Ideality of representation. But although in Sophocles, and more especially in Æschylus, character and expression were made subservient and secondary to this ideal and lofty elevation — in Euripides the reverse is always found to be the case. His heroes are introduced familiarly to the spectators, and so far from raising his men to the elevation of Divinities, his Divinities are very generally lowered to the most degrading and filthy common-places of an earthly existence. But we may sum up our opinion of Euripides far better in the words of Augustus William Schlegel, than in any farther observations of our own.

“This poet has at the same time destroyed the internal essence of tragedy, and sinned against the laws of beauty and proportion in its external structure. He generally sacrifices the whole to the effect of particular parts, and in these he is also more ambitious of foreign attractions, than of genuine poetical beauty.”


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 46:]

1.  The parabasis [[parabasis]] was the privilege granted the Chorus of addressing the spectators in its own person.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Euripides)