« PoprzedniaDalej »
Prize Fight in Virgil and Statius compared.
of his genius, emphatically to the silver age. His narrative may indeed be called, as Mr. Carlyle's has been called in our own day, history read by flashes of lightning ; but that vivid and fitful intensity leaves a more distinct as well as more powerful impression on the mind than the equable moonlight glow of Livy. But Tacitus is enabled to produce this effect by the presence of that stern self-restraint which accompanies power of the highest class. The flashes of his genius are no mere idle coruscations, but obey a fixed law which makes each subservient to a general result. But for this restraining principle, we should have not a history, but a series of epigrams. And this restraining principle is precisely what Statius wants. The consequence is that we have a narrative which is full of short cuts and compendious expedients, and at the same time incredibly tedious. We are always out of breath, and yet seem never to arrive at our journey's end. The paradox of the arguers against motion is realized, and progress is shown to be impossible by the infinite divisibility of the ground which has to be passed over. Let us contrast the narrative of the Thebaid for a few moments with the narrative of the Æneid, choosing a place in the two stories where they really come into competition, the description of the prize fight in the funeral games. We must trust that our readers' recollection will supply them with the details in Virgil's account, while we endeavour to give them some notion of those in the tale as told by Statius.
As soon as Adrastus has proclaimed that the boxing-match is to begin, which he does by commending the prowess shown in boxing as “ bellis et ferro proxima virtus,” Capaneus rises like the Homeric Epeios or the Virgilian Dares, puts the lead-weighted gauntlets on hands as hard as they, and asks for an opponent, intimating that he would rather have had a Theban, whom he might fairly have killed, instead of being obliged to shed the blood of a citizen. Alcidamas, a young Spartan, rises at last, to the surprise of all but his compatriots, who know that he is a child of the palæstra, having been trained by Pollux :
" Ipse deus posuitque manus et brachia finxit
Materiam (suadebat amor): tunc sæpe locavit
Sustulit exultans, nudumque ad pectora pressit." The passage is not altogether easy; but we suppose the meaning to be that Pollux had moulded the rudimentary gristle of his young favourite into bone and muscle, had stood up with him repeatedly, and had been so charmed with his spirit and endurance as to catch him to his breast and embrace him then and there. Now let us think of Virgil's notice of Dares' victory VOL. XL.—NO. LXXIX.
over Butes, or Entellus' companionship with Eryx, and we shall be better able to appreciate this unseasonable attempt to interest us by minute word-painting in the antecedents of a personage on whom the eye is only meant to rest for a second or two. Capaneus is indignant, scornful, and affectedly contemptuous ; at length, however, his languid sinews swell, and he stands up to fight. They confront each other, the one like what Tityos would be if the birds would suffer him to rise ; the other so young as to arrest the sympathies of the spectators, who tremble at the prospect of seeing him bleed.
“Quem vinci haud quisquam, sævo nec sanguine tingi
Malit, et erecto timeat spectacula voto." At first they are prudent and cautious, sparring rather than hitting : "explorant cæstus hebetantque terendo. Alcidamas continues this Fabian policy, and keeps his fury in reserve,“ differet animum:" Capaneus becomes enraged, and expends both his hands recklessly: "ambas consumit sine lege manus.” The young Spartan has the advantage, parrying his opponent's hits, while he sometimes goes into him (the word is Statius' own, “ intrat,") like a wave breaking on a rock, and finally plants a wound on his forehead. Capaneus hears the shout of the spectators, but is unconscious that blood has been drawn; at last, however, he puts up his hand to his brow, when the sight of the stains makes him more furious than a wounded lion; he rushes on Alcidamas, who is driven before him, preserving his coolness nevertheless.
“Non tamen immemor artis, Adversus fugit, et fugiens tamen ictibus obstat." The mad effort soon exhausts them both, and they pause to take breath ; and the poet takes breath too in a short simile :
“ Sic ubi longa vagos lassarunt æquora pautas
Et signo de puppi dato posuere parumper
Brachia, vix requies, jam vox ciet altera remos.” The giant makes another rush, but his nimble adversary first eludes him and then butts him over, “sponte ruens mersusque humeris,” knocking him down again as he is rising, till he is alarmed at his own success. The Argives raise a shout which the shores and woods but faintly echo; but Adrastus sees that Capaneus is not beaten, but only made more dangerous, and interposes to prevent murder from being done.
"Ite, oro, socii, furit : ite, opponite dextras,
Festinate, furit, palmamque et præmia ferte:
Tydeus and Hippomedon with some difficulty hold Capaneus, telling him that he has conquered, and that it is graceful to spare a vanquished foe who happens to be an ally; but he thrusts aside the prize, and complains that he is not allowed to beat the minion to a mummy, and send him back thus to his patron. The Spartans welcome their champion, and indulge in a distant laugh at Capaneus' blustering; and so the scene is ended.
We feel that this summary has done but little justice to the real points of the narrative, which is at once far more ingenious, and for that reason possibly more tedious, than our plain prose can make it. Almost every line contains some terse, pointed expression; not a few of them are distinguished by graphic and picturesque touches, which we have been compelled to omit. Yet we cannot doubt what the verdict will be, if we now call upon our readers to decide between Statius and Virgil. The narrative in the Æneid reflects the simple majesty of the veteran Entellus, rising modestly, only gradually warming into passion, and finally retiring from the victorious field with a tribute to his patron, such as we can fancy Virgil paying to Homer. In Statius all is noise, glare, and confusion, whether we attempt to sympathize with the baffled giant whom failure is turning into a fiend, or to join in the laugh with which his threats are received by the backers of his young opponent. Yet it is not the absence of art which makes Virgil what he is. Every line in him will bear examination; and every line will be seen upon examination to have been made conducive to the purpose of the entire narrative. Take for instance the figure of Dares; he is drawn with just sufficient definiteness to make him seem as a foil to Entelius; beyond that we are not intended to think of him either with sympathy or with aversion. He is dragged away from the scene as any other beaten combatant might be, his plight being represented in words translated from the description of the Homeric Euryalus. By a single word we are made to feel that his backers are beaten as well as their champion; it is only after having been called, “vocati,” that they come and receive the prize for him; over everything else a veil is drawn, and we are not distracted by traits designed to individualize him or them. Semper ad eventum festinat” might be said of Virgil as truly as of Homer: but his haste is not hurry; he sees the goal before him, and can wait till he reaches it; he does not require to be always reassuring himself by some small piece of immediate success, like the hunters after applause complained of by Sir Walter Scott, who, not content with running swiftly down the stream, must needs taste the froth from every stroke of the oar. He can be summary when he pleases; no writer more effectively so; but he is not for ever calling our attention to the fact by those short sharp jerks which make us feel that the poet after all would have found his best employment in composing epigrammatic arguments for the several books of his own work, and remind us that in another generation or two the art of narrative composition at Rome will culminate in such productions as Ausonius' Periochæ of the Iliad.
But perhaps we shall give a better view of Statius, both in his weakness and in his strength, if we task the patience of our readers by quoting a passage in extenso. It is when Hypsipyle, after having been accosted by Adrastus, disclaims, like Nausicaa in the Odyssey and Venus in the Æneid, the divine character ascribed to her by her querist, and then guides him to the fountain, leaving the infant on the grass :
“ Dixit, et orantis media inter anhelitus ardens
Verba rapit, cursuque animæ labat arida lingua.
Diva quidem vobis, et si cælestis origo est,
At puer in gremio vernæ telluris, et alto
Hypsipyle and her Nursling.
At first we seem to meet with nothing but misplaced ingenuity. The thought of calling attention to the parched tongues and panting breath of Adrastus and his comrades might have occurred to Ovid, but would not have occurred to Virgil, especially as the speech which Adrastus has just delivered by no means reminds us of the gasping utterance of physical distress, being, like all Statius' speeches, epigrammatic and rhetorical. Nor is Hypsipyle's reply expressed in the terms which would be most appropriate to the comprehension of thirsty men. To talk to persons in such a condition about the orphaned nurturer of an intrusted pledge, who knows not whether her own children have any breasts to suck, is to stipulate that before receiving relief they shall guess an enigma. Even when she comes to speak of water she cannot refrain from astronomical and mythological details, Cancer and the mane of the Icarian star. After this the description becomes only pleasing and graceful; we are charmed with the picture of the nurse laying down the child and soothing its crying, and we do not resent the comparison to Cybele and the infant Jupiter, though we feel it to be somewhat ambitious. Virgil might have said this, or something like this, just as before taking Cupid to Dido's palace he gives us a momentary glimpse of Ascanius in Idalia. But with the end of the paragraph Virgil would have stopped. Statius, on the contrary, feels that his chance of displaying his talent has come, and he will not forego it. Thus we have the picture, an exceedingly pretty one, of the babe propelling itself along the grass face foremost, crying for its nurse, and then laughing and talking broken words, wondering at the forest noises, pulling to pieces what falls in its way, and taking in the breath of heaven through its parted lips. It is beauty out of place, but it is beauty still. The simile, or congeries of similes, that follows, is more ques.tionable. After having heard of the infant Jupiter among the Curetes, we do not care to hear of the infant Mars in the snow,. or the infant Mercury on the mountain-top; still less can we be said to require to have our apprehension assisted by the grotesque, if ingenious, portrait of the infant Apollo crawling along Delos, and nearly turning it over on its side.
When we examine the Thebaid as a whole, we can only speak of it as a monument of misused power. It is only when we contemplate it in its parts that we see evidences of power directed towards an object, attaining to it, and resting in it. Every ingenious expression might be regarded in this way as a result gained : it is bad if viewed as a means; good if viewed as an end. But to criticise a work of art in this spirit is not to criticise at all; it is, in fact, to turn the ordered hierarchy of