Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 46

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Chapter XLVI

When he was in his third year a magazine was founded at Cambridge, the contributions to which were exclusively by undergraduates.  Ernest sent in an essay upon the Greek Drama, which he has declined to let me reproduce here without his being allowed to re-edit it.  I have therefore been unable to give it in its original form, but when pruned of its redundancies (and this is all that has been done to it) it runs as follows—

“I shall not attempt within the limits at my disposal to make a résumé of the rise and progress of the Greek drama, but will confine myself to considering whether the reputation enjoyed by the three chief Greek tragedians, Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, is one that will be permanent, or whether they will one day be held to have been overrated.

“Why, I ask myself, do I see much that I can easily admire in Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Demosthenes, Aristophanes, Theocritus, parts of Lucretius, Horace’s satires and epistles, to say nothing of other ancient writers, and yet find myself at once repelled by even those works of Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides which are most generally admired.

“With the first-named writers I am in the hands of men who feel, if not as I do, still as I can understand their feeling, and as I am interested to see that they should have felt; with the second I have so little sympathy that I cannot understand how anyone can ever have taken any interest in them whatever.  Their highest flights to me are dull, pompous and artificial productions, which, if they were to appear now for the first time, would, I should think, either fall dead or be severely handled by the critics.  I wish to know whether it is I who am in fault in this matter, or whether part of the blame may not rest with the tragedians themselves.

“How far I wonder did the Athenians genuinely like these poets, and how far was the applause which was lavished upon them due to fashion or affectation?  How far, in fact, did admiration for the orthodox tragedians take that place among the Athenians which going to church does among ourselves?

“This is a venturesome question considering the verdict now generally given for over two thousand years, nor should I have permitted myself to ask it if it had not been suggested to me by one whose reputation stands as high, and has been sanctioned for as long time as those of the tragedians themselves, I mean by Aristophanes.

“Numbers, weight of authority, and time, have conspired to place Aristophanes on as high a literary pinnacle as any ancient writer, with the exception perhaps of Homer, but he makes no secret of heartily hating Euripides and Sophocles, and I strongly suspect only praises Æschylus that he may run down the other two with greater impunity.  For after all there is no such difference between Æschylus and his successors as will render the former very good and the latter very bad; and the thrusts at Æschylus which Aristophanes puts into the mouth of Euripides go home too well to have been written by an admirer.

“It may be observed that while Euripides accuses Æschylus of being ‘pomp-bundle-worded,’ which I suppose means bombastic and given to rodomontade, Æschylus retorts on Euripides that he is a ‘gossip gleaner, a describer of beggars, and a rag-stitcher,’ from which it may be inferred that he was truer to the life of his own times than Æschylus was.  It happens, however, that a faithful rendering of contemporary life is the very quality which gives its most permanent interest to any work of fiction, whether in literature or painting, and it is a not unnatural consequence that while only seven plays by Æschylus, and the same number by Sophocles, have come down to us, we have no fewer than nineteen by Euripides.

“This, however, is a digression; the question before us is whether Aristophanes really liked Æschylus or only pretended to do so.  It must be remembered that the claims of Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, to the foremost place amongst tragedians were held to be as incontrovertible as those of Dante, Petrarch, Tasso and Ariosto to be the greatest of Italian poets, are held among the Italians of to-day.  If we can fancy some witty, genial writer, we will say in Florence, finding himself bored by all the poets I have named, we can yet believe he would be unwilling to admit that he disliked them without exception.  He would prefer to think he could see something at any rate in Dante, whom he could idealise more easily, inasmuch as he was more remote; in order to carry his countrymen the farther with him, he would endeavour to meet them more than was consistent with his own instincts.  Without some such palliation as admiration for one, at any rate, of the tragedians, it would be almost as dangerous for Aristophanes to attack them as it would be for an Englishman now to say that he did not think very much of the Elizabethan dramatists.  Yet which of us in his heart likes any of the Elizabethan dramatists except Shakespeare?  Are they in reality anything else than literary Struldbrugs?

“I conclude upon the whole that Aristophanes did not like any of the tragedians; yet no one will deny that this keen, witty, outspoken writer was as good a judge of literary value, and as able to see any beauties that the tragic dramas contained as nine-tenths, at any rate, of ourselves.  He had, moreover, the advantage of thoroughly understanding the standpoint from which the tragedians expected their work to be judged, and what was his conclusion?  Briefly it was little else than this, that they were a fraud or something very like it.  For my own part I cordially agree with him.  I am free to confess that with the exception perhaps of some of the Psalms of David I know no writings which seem so little to deserve their reputation.  I do not know that I should particularly mind my sisters reading them, but I will take good care never to read them myself.”