Lex Deux Masques of Saint-Victor

IT may be said that there is no literary form which is so strongly impressed by the characteristics of the different countries in which it has received attention as the drama. The aim of every writer of plays has been to hold the mirror up to nature ; but just what nature is has been decided by them in as many various ways as has been done by painters who have sat down before a model or a landscape, and have put on canvas what they saw. The national life has expressed itself on the stage, and frequently in a way that has been obscure to the people of other countries. To take illustrations from modern times, we may point out the striking differences between the French, Spanish, and English dramas, and the very limited sympathy that we English-speaking people have for the plays of our neighbors, or they for ours. Inasmuch, however, as the dramatic literature of the world is nearly, if not quite, the most important manifestation of the mind of men, nothing so much excites and repays study as the drama, and we cannot be too grateful for a book that helps us in this task.

M. de Saint-Victor, a busy and accom plished writer, whose merits one might fear would never receive any other recognition than that of his contemporaries, because he writes mainly for the papers and seldom publishes a book, has now in hand a series of volumes that cannot fail to make a lasting impression on students of literature. It is his intention to write six volumes on the drama. The first volume, which has alone appeared, treats of Æschylus; the second is to be about Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, with an appendix on Calidasa, the author of the Sakuntala; then will follow two volumes on Shakespeare; while the last two are to be on the French drama from the earliest days down to the time of Beaumarchais.

Certainly, the subject Saint-Victor has chosen is an attractive one, and, judging from the volume before us, it will be treated as it deserves. This is high praise, but it is no more than the book merits ; for it would be hard to find another writer who has so vividly brought Æschylus before us, so vividly explained the peculiarities of the Greek stage, and in every way facilitated our comprehension of the masterpieces of the Greek dramatic literature. The man who does this should have our lasting gratitude. The Greek plays are, in parts at least, so hard that only an accomplished scholar can read them without a translation by his side, and most of the English translations give us the merest dry bones of the author, without a ray of the poetical feeling that is lost in harsh inversions, awkward literal renderings, and crabbed constructions that rival in difficulty the original Greek. What can be said, for instance, in praise of these lines from Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon ? —


“ O much unhappy, but, again, much learned Woman, long bast thou outstretched! But if truly Thou knowest thine own fate, how comes that, like to

A god-led steer, to altar bold thou treadest ? KASSANDRA, “There’s no avoidance,—strangers, no! Some time more! CHOROS. “He last is, anyhow, by time advantaged. KASSANDRA. “It comes, the day: I shall by flight gain little,” etc.

This passage is chosen at random, and it is certainly better than the literal prose versions. Plumptre’s renderings are less baffling, but they leave the reader wondering and cold.

In contrast, one might almost say that, except in the mouths of foreigners, there is no such thing as bad French, and one may certainly say that SaintVictor never wrote a page of French that was not full of life and eloquence. Lamartine was not unamiable when he said that he always wore blue spectacles when he read Saint-Victor; he only described picturesquely a most striking quality of that author’s style; yet here — and we would be far from making any implication against the rest of his work — the style most admirably suits the subject.

Saint-Victor begins with an account

of the origin of the Greek theatre, followed by a life of Æschylus. Then there comes a most vivid description of the wars between Greece and Persia, which serves to show the importance to us of that struggle between the East and the West, as well as the mighty influence it had in the development of Athens. This is a more or less familiar story, but it is told over again here in a way that is nothing less than thrilling. It serves, too, not only as a general introduction to a picture of the Athens of that time, but also as a special preparation for understanding Æscliylus’s Persians, which receive full comment. Saint-Victor’s plan is to give what information is necessary before describing the play, and then to make copious extracts, in the French, of course, with pages of illustration and exposition. It would be hard to speak too highly of the skill, the thoroughness, the poetical sympathy, with which the remote poet is brought before us. The book is a masterpiece of literary skill. Its eloquence is most inspiring; and it is not the perfervid, somewhat artificial fire of some of the modern English writers, but the genuine expression of intense enthusiasm.

The subject is an inspiring one. When we reflect how much of what was plain to the Greeks is dim to us, that the language is to most readers anything but a transparent medium for the thought, that the religious significance of the myths is something we cannot fully comprehend, it is easy for us to acknowledge the wonderful excellence of, say, the Agamemnon, which no one can read, even in a translation, without feeling its tragic force. It seems to have been written by fate itself.

To the student Saint-Victor’s book will be of invaluable service. Too often, histories of Greek literature are as arid as catalogues of irregular Greek verbs, but this volume is so animated, so clear, that he must hate letters who is not carried away by the author’s enthusiasm. If the scholars who are lost in the mazes of Greek constructions and the incomprehensible allusions of the plays will read what Saint-Victor has to say, they will see that the Greek literature is not a mere storehouse of grammatical puzzles and recondite points that demand protracted investigation, but that it contains some of the highest flights of human thought. Every year students are graduated from college with no comprehension of the marvelous beauty of the lit-

erature of Greece, yet this knowledge is in no way inconsistent with exact scholarship. But books like Saint-Victor’s fill just this gap, and, moreover, they are of just as much service to those who cannot read a line of Greek. Every person who loves what is best in letters will find in this volume not only instruction, but rare intellectual pleasure. It is made plain what people mean when they praise Greek literature. Its beauty is not merely affirmed ; it is shown.

  1. Les Deux Masques. Tragédie— Comédie. Par PAUL DE SAINT-VICTOR. Première Série. Les Antiques. 1. Eschyle. Paris: C. Lévy. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.