1 JANUARY 1876, Page 23


MR. SWINBURNE'S " ERECHTHEUS."* To our mind, Mr. Swinburne has written nothing near so good as this since he wrote Atalanta in Calydon. Subjects of the severe -Greek kind suit, because they yoke and control, the somewhat lawless and unchastened character of his genius. As it was good for his hero to

"bow down the bridled strength of steeds To lose the wild wont of their birth, and bear Clasp of man's knees and steerage of his hand,"

SO it is good for him to put his genius under the sharp curb of the polished and simple spirit of Athenian tragedy. Mr. Arnold attempted this kind of composition and failed, not because he had .. too little insight into the severity of the Greek taste, but because he had too much. Merope was tame,—all form and no spirit. Mr. Swinburne's genius seems at first sight the very reverse of the Greek. His natural tendency as a poet is to excess, extravagance, and the- obscurity of a tropical and redundant fancy. For that very reason, when he once gets it under

the mastery of the grand and single-minded spirit of the Greek tragedy, the reader feels the power that frets and chafes against the curb, and the strong reins that hold it fast within the limits of Hellenic art. A true Sophoclean play without life beneath the severe mouldings of the form, is, we need. hardly say, a contradiction in terms. Moreover, there is just enough of religious awe and mystery in the old Greek tragedy, and just

enough, too, of that grave and massive naturalism in treating the primary relations of the family and the State, to carry Mr. Swin- burne's sympathies with it, without awakening his iconoclastic scorn and defiance. In some respects this play is even more true to the spirit of the .1Eschylean and Sophoclean tragedy than Atalanta. There is not in it the same note of aweless defiance -which is anything but harmonious with the mould of the great

school in which these two poems of his are cast. Reverence of the flell.mie kind runs through this play, and there are no

• Riveletimut A Tragedy. By Algernon Charles Svrinberne. London: Ghetto and Windos. Titanic bursts of mingled despair and wrath such as here and there disfigured the severe beauty of Atalanta. For those who do not know the Greek tragedy, and would wish to form some conception of it without trying to see through the dark glass of a translation, Mr. Swinburne's Erechtheus seems to us as fine and as instructive a study as they could get. The vitality of the genius that beats within the stately form is full and fresh, but the limits prescribed by that form itself are hardly ever transgressed. Now and then, no doubt, there is a certain obscurity in some of the choruses, and an obscurity which is not quite of the Greek kind ; and now and then it may be that the bounding verse of the choruses, with its affluence of rhyme, suggests more of the modern than of the ancient spirit. But it would be difficult, in our opinion, to find a nearer approach to the terse and weighty dialogue of the Sophoclean tragedy than Mr. Swinburne gives us in the dialogue of his play, with its nervous brevity, and the deep sense by which it is penetrated, of the sacredness of the ties of kindred, of country, and of local faith.

The play before us is intended to exalt Athens, in the shape of a tragedy constructed out of its legendary history. Erechtheua, the child of the Earth, and chosen by Athene to build her altar on the soil of her chosen country, is introduced, awaiting the oracle which is to tell him how Athens may be saved from a Thracian invasion, instigated by Poseidon, which is threatening its soil. This invasion is symbolic of the constant encroachment of the sea on the land, and Mr. Swinburne carries this symbolic character of the legend right through the drama, though not so as in any way to deprive it of its human and dramatic interest. When he describes the battle in which Erechtheus beats back the invaders, you hardly know whether you are reading of battle accompanied by the strife of the elements, or only of battle waged with all the fury of a natural storm, or, finally of an allegory of elemental strife. The story of the children of Erechtheus, one of whom had been carried off by the North Wind, while one is sacrificed to appease the wrath of the sea-god, is full of this flavour of parable, and Mr. Swinburne makes the most skilful use of his materials. Yet there is nothing of the pallor of allegory in the play,—certainly not more of it, probably not so much, as there is in the Prometheus of 2Eschylus. There is no allegory in the painting of Mr. Swinburne's figures. Erechtheus is a genuine king, and Praxithea the stateliest of loving wives and mothers. It is only in the descriptions of family tradi- tion and the story of the fray which decides the fate of Athens that you are allowed to hear just a note of the old meaning which had been moulded first into myth, and then into human story. In a drama on the greatness of Athens, to have eliminated human attributes in order to make more of the shadowy impersonations of natural forces would, indeed, have been a mistake ; for it was the characteristic achievement of Athens to make man for the first time truly the crown and apex of Nature. Certainly, Mr. Swinburne never commits this mistake. What, for instance, can be fuller of the dignity and self-restraint of Hellenic awe and passion than this dialogue between Erechtheus and his Queen, Praxithea, in which he begins to break to her the fiat of the oracle that her daughter must die to save the fair city from the onset of the sea-borne destroyer ? — " EBECHTIIEISS.

"0 daughter of Cephisns, from all time Wise have I found thee, wife and queen, of heart Perfect ; nor in the days that knew not wind Nor days when storm blew death upon our peace Was thine heart swoln with seed of pride, or bowed With blasts of bitter fear that break men's souls Who lift too high their minds toward heaven, in thought Too godlike grown for worship ; but of mood

Equal, in good time reverent of time bad,

And glad in ill days of the good that were.

„.....Nor now too would I fear thee, now misdonbt Lest fate should find thee lesser than thy doom, Chosen if thou be to bear and to be great Haply beyond all women; and the word Speaks thee divine, dear queen, that speaks thee dead, Dead being alive, or quick and dead in one Shall not men call thee living ? yet I fear To slay thee timeless with my proper tongue, With lips, thou knowest, that love thee ; and such work Was neter laid of Gods on men, such words No mouth of man learnt over, as from mine Most loth to speak thine ear most loth shall take And hold it hateful as the grave to hear.


That word there is not in all speech of man, King, that being spoken of the Gods and thee I have not heart to honour, or dare hold More than I hold thee or the Gods in hate Hearing ; but if my heart abhor it heafd Being insubmiesive, hold me not thy wife, But use me like a stranger, whom thine hand Hath fed by chance and finding thence no thanks Flung off for shame'. sake to forgetfulness.


0, of what breath shall such a word be made, Or from what heart find utterance? Would my tongue Were rent forth rather from the quivering root Than made as fire or poison thus for thee.


But if thou speak of blood, and I that bear Be chosen of all for this land's love to die And save to thee thy city, know this well, Happiest I hold me of her seed alive.


0 sun that seest, what saying was this of thine, God, that thy power has breathed into my lips ? For from no sunlit shrine darkling it came.


What portent from the mid oracular place Hath smitten thee so like a curse that flies Wingless, to waste men with its plagues ? yet speak.


Thy blood the Gods require not ; take this first.


To me than thee more grievous this should sound.


That word rang truer and bitterer than it knew.


This is not then thy'grief, to see me die ?


Die shalt thou not, yet give thy blood to death.


If this ring worse I know not; strange it rang.


Alas, thou knowest not; woe is me that know.


And woe shall mine be, knowing ; yet halt not hero.


Guiltless of blood this state may stand no more.


Firm lot it stand whatever bleed or fall.


O Gods, that I should say it shall and weep.


Weep, and say this? no tears should bathe such words.


Woe's me that I must weep upon them, woe.


What stain is on them for thy tears to cleanse ?


A stain of blood unpurgeable with tears.


Whence ? for thou sayest it is and is not mine."

How strongly-knit are the links in this dialogue,—as close and regular as any which that "even-balanced soul," whom

" Business could not make dull, nor passion wild,"

ever welded together in his polished verse !

If we try to choose from this play the greatest of Mr. Swinburne's lyrical efforts, we think we must select not the fine chorus in which the reader is prepared for the account of the battle, powerfully as the rush of the billows of song are made to image the onset of the breakers of the Thracian host, but rather the very beautiful chorus in which the contrast is drawn between the old, far-off sorrow of the rape of the North Wind's bride, and the impending sacrifice of the fair young daughter of Praxithea to redeem the city of Athena. The transition from the stormy grief of other days to the tender and serene*self-devotion of the maiden who loves her mother better than herself, and her country even better than all, is made with exquisite sweetness and melody. Long as it is, we can hardly give our readeri a true conception of the genius of this poem without quoting either this, or some chorus equally long :—


" Oat of the north wind grief came forth,

And the shining of a sword out of the sea.

Yea, of old the first-blown blast blew the prelude of this last, The blast of his trumpet upon Rhodope.

Out of the north skies fall of his cloud, With the clamour of his storms as of a crowd At the wheels of a great king crying aloud, At the axle of a strong king's car That has girded on the girdle of war— • With hands that lightened the skies in sunder And feet whose fall was followed of thunder,

A God, a great God strange of name,

With horse-yoke fleeter-hoofed than flame, To the mountain-bed of a maiden came, Oreithyia, the bride mismated, Wofully wed in a snow-strewn bed With a bridegroom that kisses the bride's mouth dead; Without garland, without glory, without song, As a fawn by night on the hills belated, Given over for a spoil unto the strong.

From lips how pale so keen a wail At the grasp of a God's hand on her she gave, When his breath that darkens air made a havoc of her hair,.

It rang from the mountain even to the wave ;

Rang with a cry, Woe's me, woe is me!

From the darkness upon Rasmus to the sea And with hands that clung to her new lord's knee, As a virgin overborne with shame, She besought him by her spouseless fame, By the blameless breasts of a maid unmarried And locks unmaidonly rent and harried, And all her flower of body, born To match the maidenhood of morn, With the might of the wind's wrath wrenched and torn.

Vain, all vain as a dead man's vision Falling by night in his old friend's sight, To be scattered with slumber and slain ere light ; Such a breath of such a bridegroom in that hour Of her prayers made mock, of her fears derision, And a ravage of her youth as of a flower. With a leap of his limbs as a lion's. a cry from his lips as of thander,.

In a storm of amorous godhead filled with fire, From the height of the heaven that was rent with the roar of his.

coming in sunder, Sprang the strong God on the spoil of his desire.

And the pines of the hills were as green reeds shattered,

And their branches as buds of the soft spring scattered, And the west wind and east, and the sound of the south, Fell dumb at the blast of the north wind's mouth, At the cry of his coming out of heaven.

And the wild beasts quailed in the rifts and hollows

Where hound nor clarion of huntsman follows,'

And the depths of the sea were aghast, and whitened, And the crowns of their waves were as flame that lightened, And the heart of the floods thereof was riven.

But she knew not him coming for terror, she felt not her wrong that he wrought her, When her locks as leaves where shed before his breath, And she heard not for terror his prayer, though the cry was a God's-- that besought her, Blown from lips that strew the world-wide seas with death.

For the heart was molten within her to hear, And her knees beneath her were loosened for fear, And her blood fast bound as a frost-bound water, And the soft new bloom of the green earth's daughter Wind-wasted as blossom of a tree ; As the wild God rapt her from earth's breast lifted,

On the strength of the stream of his dark breath drifted,.

From the bosom of earth as a bride from the mother, With storm for bridesman and wreck for brother, As a cloud that he sheds upon the sea.

Of this hoary-headed woe Song made memory long ago ; Now a younger grief to mourn Needs a new song younger born.

Who shall teach our tongues to reach What strange height of saddest speech, For the new bride's sake that is given to be A stay to fetter the foot of the sea, Lest it quite spurn down and trample the town, Ere the violets be dead that were plucked for its crown Or its olive-leaf whiten and wither?

Who shall say of the wind's way That he journeyed yesterday, Or the track of the storm that shall sound to-morrow, If the new be more than the grey-grown sorrow ?

For the wind of the green first season was keen, And the blast shall be sharper than blew between That the breath of the sea blows hither."

If there be any serious blemish in the poem, it is the speech of Athena at the end, which certainly has a modern ring in it, and

to some extent seems to us—dramatically, at all events, though not poetically— an anti.climax, coming as it does after the devoted. Queen has given voice to her meek and pious despair. The pane- gyric on liberty and freedom as the special glory of Athens is hardly in the key which the Athenian dramatists would have chosen, and- surely they would not have put into the mouth of Pallas Athens a speech in which "the awless eye of Athens" is treated as the greatest " light alive beneath the sun." " Awless " indeed it was, and no doubt to Mr. Swinburne its awlessness " was part of its glory. But none of the great Athenian poets would so have repre- sented it. To them ' awe' was of the essence of all true insight into this "web of human things," and the absence of awe in the busy Athenian was the constant subject of their awe-struck meditation. No doubt there is good precedent in the great tragedians for thie kind of supernatural intervention at the close of the drama, amt if it were to be attempted at all in a drama on this subject, it was natural gnough that it should take the form of a prophecy of the future greatness and glory of the city. But it is curious that in touching on its greatness, Mr. Swinburne should, apparently un- consciously, lay his finger also on thevery root of its weakness,—on the very characteristic which brought the city and the race it re- presented to insignificance,—though it was also, in all probability, one of the chief characteristics which inspired Shelley, no less than

Mr. Swinburne, with genius :- " Although a subtler sphinx renew Riddles of death Thebes never knew, Another Athens shall arise

And to remoter time Bequeathe, like sunset to the skies, The splendour of its prime,

And leave, if nought so bright may live, All earth can take or Heaven can give."

If the eye of Athens was awless, so were not the eyes 'which were fullest of Athenian insight, and so is not this poem in praise of Athenian genius and devotedness, at least until we come to the envoi so quaintly put into the mouth of the object of Athenian worship. In this passage Mr. Swinburne has mistaken the great blemish of Athenian character for the great secret of Athenian glory. But he has been truer to the poetic truth in dealing with the substance of his fine dramatic effort—on which, indeed, the eloquent prophecy which concludes it, is a mere passing commentary of his own. his passionate admiration for the Athenian