As many allusions are made in the foregoing pages to characters of women drawn by the Greek dramatists, which may not be familiar to the majority of readers, I have borrowed from the papers of Miranda, some notes upon them. I trust the girlish tone of apostrophizing rapture may be excused. Miranda was very young at the time of writing, compared with her present mental age. Now, she would express the same feelings, but in a worthier garb—if she expressed them at all.
“Iphigenia! Antigone! you were worthy to live! We are fallen on evil times, my sisters! our feelings have been checked; our thoughts questioned; our forms dwarfed and defaced by a bad nurture. Yet hearts, like yours, are in our breasts, living, if unawakened; and our minds are capable of the same resolves. You, we understand at once, those who stare upon us pertly in the street, we cannot—could never understand.
You knew heroes, maidens, and your fathers were kings of men. You believed in your country, and the gods of your country. A great occasion was given to each, whereby to test her character.
You did not love on earth; for the poets wished to show us the force of woman’s nature, virgin and unbiased. You were women; not wives, or lovers, or mothers. Those are great names, but we are glad to see you in untouched flower.
Were brothers so dear, then, Antigone? We have no brothers. We see no men into whose lives we dare look steadfastly, or to whose destinies we look forward confidently. We care not for their urns; what inscription could we put upon them? They live for petty successes; or to win daily the bread of the day. No spark of kingly fire flashes from their eyes.
None! are there none?
It is a base speech to say it. Yes! there are some such; we have sometimes caught their glances. But rarely have they been rocked in the same cradle as we, and they do not look upon us much; for the time is not yet come.
Thou art so grand and simple! we need not follow thee; thou dost not need our love.
But, sweetest Iphigenia; who knew thee, as to me thou art known. I was not born in vain, if only for the heavenly tears I have shed with thee. She will be grateful for them. I have understood her wholly; as a friend should, better than she understood herself.
With what artless art the narrative rises to the crisis. The conflicts in Agamemnon’s mind, and the imputations of Menelaus give us, at once, the full image of him, strong in will and pride, weak in virtue, weak in the noble powers of the mind that depend on imagination. He suffers, yet it requires the presence of his daughter to make him feel the full horror of what he is to do.
It is her beauty, not her misery, that makes the pathos. This is noble. And then, too, the injustice of the gods, that she, this creature of unblemished loveliness, must perish for the sake of a worthless woman. Even Menelaus feels it, the moment he recovers from his wrath.
The virgin daughter, with my Helena!
* * Its former reasonings now
Thy soul foregoes. * * * *
For it is not just
That thou shouldst groan, but my affairs go pleasantly,
That those of thy house should die, and mine see the light.”
Indeed the overwhelmed aspect of the king of men might well move him.
Aga. I give it, for the victory is thine, and I am wretched.
I am, indeed, ashamed to drop the tear,
And not to drop the tear I am ashamed.”
How beautifully is Iphigenia introduced; beaming more and more softly on us with every touch of description. After Clytemnestra has given Orestes (then an infant,) out of the chariot, she says:
Receive her, for she is of tender age.
Sit here by my feet, my child,
By thy mother, Iphigenia, and show
These strangers how I am blessed in thee,
And here address thee to thy father.
Iphi. Oh mother, should I run, wouldst thou be angry?
And embrace my father breast to breast?”
With the same sweet timid trust she prefers the request to himself, and as he holds her in his arms, he seems as noble as Guido’s Archangel; as if he never could sink below the trust of such a being!
The Achilles, in the first scene, is fine. A true Greek hero; not too good; all flushed with the pride of youth; but capable of god-like impulses. At first, he thinks only of his own wounded pride, (when he finds Iphigenia has been decoyed to Anlis under the pretext of becoming his wife;) but the grief of the queen soon makes him superior to his arrogant chafings. How well he says:—
So great a wrong.”
By seeing him here, we understand why he, not Hector, was the hero of the Iliad. The beautiful moral nature of Hector was early developed by close domestic ties, and the cause of his country. Except in a purer simplicity of speech and manner, he might be a modern and a christian. But Achilles is cast in the largest and most vigorous mould of the earlier day: his nature is one of the richest capabilities, and therefore less quickly unfolds its meaning. The impression it makes at the early period is only of power and pride; running as fleetly with his armor on, as with it off; but sparks of pure lustre are struck, at moments, from the mass of ore. Of this sort is his refusal to see the beautiful virgin he has promised to protect. None of the Grecians must have the right to doubt his motives. How wise and prudent, too, the advice he gives as to the queen’s conduct! He will not show himself, unless needed. His pride is the farthest possible remote from vanity. His thoughts are as free as any in our own time.
Who speaks ‘mong many falsehoods, but few truths,
Whene’er chance lends him to speak true; when false,
The prophet is no more.”
Had Agamemnon possessed like clearness of sight, the virgin would not have perished, but also, Greece would have had no religion and no national existence.
When, in the interview with Agamemnon, the Queen begins her speech, in the true matrimonial style, dignified though her gesture be, and true all she says, we feel that truth, thus sauced with taunts, will not touch his heart, nor turn him from his purpose. But when Iphigenia begins her exquisite speech, as with the breathings of a lute,
Of Orpheus, &c.
Compel me not
What is beneath to view. I was the first
To call thee father; me thou first didst call
Thy child: I was the first that on thy knees
Fondly caressed thee, and from thee received
The fond caress: this, was thy speech to me:—
‘Shall I, my child, e’er see thee in some house
Of splendor, happy in thy husband, live
And flourish, as becomes my dignity?’
My speech to thee was, leaning ‘gainst thy cheek,
(Which with my hand I now caress:) ‘And what
Shall I then do for thee? shall I receive
My father when grown old, and in my house
Cheer him with each fund office, to repay
The careful nurture which he gave my youth?’
These words are in my memory deep impressed,
Thou hast forgot them and will kill thy child.”
Then she adjures him by all the sacred ties, and dwells pathetically on the circumstance which had struck even Menelaus.
His Helen, what concerns it me? and how
Comes he to my destruction?
Look upon me;
Give me smile, give me a kiss, my father;
That if my words persuade thee not, in death
I may have this memorial of thy love.”
Never have the names of father and daughter been uttered with a holier tenderness than by Euripides, as in this most lovely passage, or in the “Supplicants,” after the voluntary death of Evadne; Iphis says
To my own house?—and desolation there
I shall behold, to sink my soul with grief.
Or go I to the house of Capaneus?
That was delightful to me, when I found
My daughter there; but she is there no more:
Oft would she kiss my cheek, with fond caress
Oft soothe me. To a father, waxing old,
Nothing is dearer than a daughter! sons
Have spirits of higher pitch, but less inclined
To sweet endearing fondness. Lead me then,
Instantly lead me to my house, consign
My wretched age to darkness, there to pine
And waste away.
Struggling with many griefs, O how I hate thee!”
But to return to Iphigenia,—how infinitely melting is her appeal to Orestes, whom she holds in her robe.
Thy friends; yet for thy sister with thy tears
Implore thy father that she may not die:
Even infants have a sense of ills; and see,
My father! silent though he be, he sues
To thee: be gentle to me; on my life
Have pity: thy two children by this beard
Entreat thee, thy dear children: one is yet
An infant, one to riper years arrived.”
The mention of Orestes, then an infant, all through, though slight, is of a domestic charm that prepares the mind to feel the tragedy of his after lot. When the Queen says
My son? The rolling chariot hath subdued thee;
Wake to thy sister’s marriage happily.”
We understand the horror of the doom which makes this cherished child a parricide. And so when Iphigenia takes leave of him after her fate is by herself accepted.
Cly. Embrace him, for thou ne’er shalt see him more.
Iphi. (To Orestes.) Far as thou couldst, thou didst assist thy friends.’
We know not how to blame the guilt of the maddened wife and mother. In her last meeting with Agamemnon, as in her previous expostulations and anguish, we see that a straw may turn the balance, and make her his deadliest foe. Just then, came the the suit of Ægisthus, then, when every feeling was uprooted or lacerated in her heart.
Iphigenia’s moving address has no further effect than to make her father turn at bay and brave this terrible crisis. He goes out, firm in resolve; and she and her mother abandon themselves to a natural grief.
Hitherto nothing has been seen in Iphigenia, except the young girl, weak, delicate, full of feeling and beautiful as a sunbeam on the full green tree. But, in the next scene, the first impulse of that passion which makes and unmakes us, though unconfessed even to herself, though hopeless and unreturned, raises her at once into the heroic woman, worthy of the goddess who demands her.
Achilles appears to defend her, whom all others clamorously seek to deliver to the murderous knife. She sees him, and fired with thoughts, unknown before, devotes herself at once for the country which has given birth to such a man.
Becomes not me; nor for myself alone,
But to all Greece, a blessing didst thou bear me.
Shall thousands, when their country’s injured, lift
Their shields; shall thousands grasp the oar, and dare,
Advancing bravely ‘gainst the foe, to die
For Greece? And shall my life, my single life,
Obstruct all this? Would this be just? What word
Can we reply? Nay more, it is not right
That he with all the Grecians should contest
In fight, should die, and for a woman. No:
More than a thousand women is one man
Worthy to see the light of day.
* * * for Greece I give my life.
Slay me; demolish Troy: for these shall be
Long time my monuments, my children these,
My nuptials and my glory.”
This sentiment marks woman, when she loves enough to feel what a creature of glory and beauty a true man would be, as much in our own time as that of Euripides. Cooper makes the weak Hetty say to her beautiful sister:
“Of course, I don’t compare you with Harry. A handsome man is always far handsomer than any woman.” True, it was the sentiment of the age, but it was the first time Iphigenia had felt it. In Agamemnon she saw her father, to him she could prefer her claim. In Achilles she saw a man, the crown of creation, enough to fill the world with his presence, were all other beings blotted from its spaces. *
The reply of Achilles is as noble. Here is his bride, he feels it now, and all his vain vauntings are hushed.
Some god would make me, if I might attain
Thy nuptials. Greece in thee I happy deem,
And thee in Greece. * *
* * * in thy thought
Revolve this well; death is a dreadful thing.”
How sweet is her reply, and then the tender modesty with which she addresses him here and elsewhere as “stranger.”
Enough of ware and slaughters from the charms
Of Helen rise; but die not thou for me,
O Stranger, nor distain thy sword with blood,
But let me save my country if I may.”
Achilles. “O glorious spirit! nought have I ‘gainst this
To urge, since such thy will, for what thou sayst
Is generous. Why should not the truth be spoken?”
But feeling that human weakness may conquer yet, he goes to wait at the altar, resolved to keep his promise of protection thoroughly.
In the next beautiful scene she shows that a few tears might overwhelm her in his absence. She raises her mother beyond weeping them, yet her soft purity she cannot impart.
Cly. For thy dear sake fierce contests must he bear.
Iphi. For Greece reluctant me to death he yields;
Cly. Basely, with guile unworthy Atreus’ son.”
This is truth incapable of an answer and Iphigenia attempts none.
She begins the hymn which is to sustain her,
To overturn the Phrygian state.”
After the sublime flow of lyric heroism, she suddenly sinks back into the tenderer feeling of her dreadful fate.
Opened on Pelasgic skies!
O ye virgins, once my pride,
In Mycene who abide!
Why of Perseus name the town,
Which Cyclopean ramparts crown?
Me you rear’d a beam of light,
Freely now I sink in night.”
Freely; as the messenger afterwards recounts it.
“Imperial Agamemnon, when he saw
His daughter, as a victim to the grave,
Advancing, groan’d, and bunting into tears,
Turned from the sight his head, before his eyes,
Holding his robe. The virgin near him stood,
And thus addressed him: ‘Father, I to thee
Am present; for my country, and for all
The land of Greece, I freely give myself
A victim: to the altar let them lead me,
Since such the oracle. If aught on me
Depends, be happy, and obtain the prize
Of glorious conquest, and revisit safe
Your country. Of the Grecians, for this cause,
Let no one touch me; with intrepid spirit
Silent will I present my neck.’ She spoke,
And all that heard revered the noble soul
And virtue of the virgin.”
How quickly had the fair bud bloomed up into its perfection. Had she lived a thousand years, she could not have surpassed this. Goethe’s Iphigenia, the mature woman, with its myriad delicate traits, never surpasses, scarcely equals what we know of her in Euripides.
Can I appreciate this work in a translation? I think so, impossible as it may seem to one who can enjoy the thousand melodies, and words in exactly the right place and cadence of the original. They say you can see the Apollo Belvidere in a plaster cast, and I cannot doubt it, so great the benefit conferred on my mind, by a transcript thus imperfect. And so with these translations from the Greek. I can divine the original through this veil, as I can see the movements of a spirited horse by those of his coarse grasscloth muffler. Beside, every translator who feels his subject is inspired, and the divine Aura informs even his stammering lips.
Iphigenia is more like one of the women Shakspeare loved than the others; she is a tender virgin, ennobled and strengthened by sentiment more than intellect, what they call a woman par excellence.
Macaria is more like one of Massinger’s women. She advances boldly, though with the decorum of her sex and nation:
Before you, strangers; this my first request
I urge; for silence and a chaste reserve
Is woman’s genuine praise, and to remain
Quiet within the house. But I come forth,
Hearing thy lamentations, Iolaus:
Though charged with no commission, yet perhaps,
I may be useful.” * *
Her speech when she offers herself as the victim, is reasonable, as one might speak to-day. She counts the cost all through. Iphigenia is too timid and delicate to dwell upon the loss of earthly bliss, and the due experience of life, even as much as Jeptha’s daughter did, but Macaria is explicit, as well befits the daughter of Hercules.
Preserved, of prosperous future could I form
One cheerful hope?
A poor forsaken virgin who would deign
To take in marriage? Who would wish for sons
From one so wretched? Better then to die,
Than bear such undeserved miseries:
One less illustrious this might more beseem.
* * *
I have a soul that unreluctantly
Presents itself, and I proclaim aloud
That for my brothers and myself I die.
I am not fond of life, but think I gain
An honorable prize to die with glory.”
Still nobler when Iolaus proposes rather that she shall draw lots with her sisters.
No thanks are due, or glory—name it not.
If you accept me, if my offered life
Be grateful to you, willingly I give it
For these, but by constraint I will not die.”
Very fine are her parting advice and injunctions to them all:
These youths in all things to be wise, like thee,
Naught will avail them more.”
Macaria has the clear Minerva eye: Antigone’s is deeper, and more capable of emotion, but calm. Iphigenia’s, glistening, gleaming with angel truth, or dewy as a hidden violet.
I am sorry that Tennyson, who spoke with such fitness of all the others in his “Dream of fair women,” has not of Iphigenia. Of her alone he has not made a fit picture, but only of the circumstances of the sacrifice. He can never have taken to heart this work of Euripides, yet he was so worthy to feel it. Of Jeptha’s daughter, he has spoken as he would of Iphigenia, both in her beautiful song, and when
A solemn acorn of ills.
It comforts me in this one thought to dwell
That I subdued me to my father’s will;
Because the kiss he gave me, ere I fell,
Sweetens the spirit still.
Moreover it is written, that my race
Hewed Ammon, hip and thigh from Arroer
Or Arnon unto Minneth. Here her face
Glow’d as I look’d on her.
She locked her lips; she left me where I stood;
“Glory to God,” she sang, and past afar,
Thridding the sombre boskage of the woods,
Toward the morning-star.”
In the “Trojan dames” there are fine touches of nature with regard to Cassandra. Hecuba shows that mixture of shame and reverence, that prose kindred always do, towards the inspired child, the poet, the elected sufferer for the race.
When the herald announces that she is chosen to be the mistress of Agamemnon, Hecuba answers indignant, and betraying the involuntary pride and faith she felt in this daughter.
Radiant with golden locks, allowed to live
In her pure vow of maiden chastity?
Tal. With love the raptured virgin smote his heart.
Hec. Cast from thee, O my daughter, cast away
Thy sacred wand, rend off the honored wreaths,
The splendid ornaments that grace thy brows.”
Yet the moment Cassandra appears, singing wildly her inspired song, Hecuba calls her
Yet how graceful she is in her tragic phrenzy, the chorus shows—
Chanting what haply thou wilt not show true?”
But if Hecuba dares not trust her highest instinct about her daughter, still less can the vulgar mind of the herald (a man not without tenderness of heart, but with no princely, no poetic blood,) abide the wild prophetic mood which insults his prejudices both as to country and decorums of the sex. Yet Agamemnon, though not a noble man, is of large mould and could admire this strange beauty which excited distaste in common minds.
As wise, is nothing better than the mean
Of no repute: for this most potent king
Of all the Grecians, the much honored son
Of Atreus, is enamored with his prize,
This frantic raver. I am a poor man,
Yet would I not receive her to my bed.”
Cassandra answers with a careless disdain,
With all the lofty decorum of manners among the ancients, how free was their intercourse, man to man, how full the mutual understanding between prince and “busy slave!” Not here in adversity only, but in the pomp of power, it was so. Kings were approached with ceremonious obeisance, but not hedged round with etiquette, they could see and know their fellows.
The Andromache here is just as lovely as that of the Iliad.
To her child whom they are about to murder, the same that was frightened at the “glittering plume.”
My son? Hast thou a sense of thy ill fate?
Why dost thou clasp me with thy hands, why hold
My robes, and shelter thee beneath my wings,
Like a young bird? No more my Hector comes,
Returning from the tomb; help no more
His glittering spear, bringing protection to thee.”
* * *
* * “O soft embrace,
And to thy mother dear. O fragrant breath!
In vain I swathed thy infant limbs, in vain
I gave thee nurture at this breast, and toiled,
Wasted with care. If ever, now embrace,
Now clasp thy mother; throw thine arms around
My neck and join thy cheek, thy lips to mine.”
As I look up I meet the eyes of Beatrice Cenci. Beautiful one, these woes, even, were less than thine, yet thou seemest to understand them all. Thy clear melancholy gaze says, they, at least, had known moments of bliss, and the tender relations of nature had not been broken and polluted from the very first. Yes! the gradations of wo are all but infinite: only good can be infinite.
Certainly the Greeks knew more of real home intercourse, and more of woman than the Americans. It is in vain to tell me of outward observances. The poets, the sculptors always tell the truth. In proportion as a nation is refined, women must have an ascendancy, it is the law of nature.
Beatrice! thou wert not “fond of life,” either, more than those princesses. Thou wert able to cut it down in the full flower of beauty, as an offering to the best known to thee. Thou wert not so happy as to die for thy country or thy brethren, but thou wert worthy of such an occasion.
In the days of chivalry woman was habitually viewed more as an ideal, but I do not know that she inspired a deeper and more home-felt reverence than Iphigenia in the breast of Achilles, or Macaria in that of her old guardian, Iolaus.
We may, with satisfaction, add to these notes the words to which Haydn has adapted his magnificent music in “The Creation.”
“In native worth and honor clad, with beauty, courage, strength adorned, erect to heaven, and tall, he stands, a Man!—the lord and king of all! The large and arched front sublime of wisdom deep declares the seat, and in his eyes with brightness shines the soul, the breath and image of his God. With fondness leans upon his breast the partner for him formed, a woman fair, and graceful spouse. Her softly smiling virgin looks, of flowery spring the mirror, bespeak him love, and joy and bliss.”
Whoever has heard this music must have a mental standard as to what man and woman should be. Such was marriage in Eden, when “erect to heaven he stood,” but since, like other institutions, this must be not only reformed, but revived, may be offered as a picture of something intermediate,—the seed of the future growth,—
* Men do not often reciprocate this pure love.
And then she made the lasses o’,”
Is a fancy, not a feeling, in their more frequently passionate and strong, than noble or tender natures.
All Sub-Works of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.