A Prehistoric Luck of Edenhall

— It is a curious fact that the heroes of Homeric song are apparently themselves conscious of inferiority to the generation preceding their own. Thus Nestor recalls with longing the mightier men he had known in his youth : Heracles, almost single-handed, had taken the very city which baffled the younger chieftains for ten weary years ; Theseus the slayer of the Minotaur, Jason the Argonaut, Castor and Pollux among his companions, — these certainly seem a statelier race of demigods, dwarfing even Achilles and Odysseus. Of that tall elder race Œdipus the Theban is no ignoble member.

Before the two great triumphs of the Homeric school appeared, to efface all previous efforts, there must have been many cruder epic attempts. Had these earlier singers glorified an elder generation of heroes, and did Homer in filial modesty sing of the later and lesser men as a graceful confession of his own inferiority to his artistic masters ?

There is, however, at least one passage in the Iliad which has a more self-assertive tone. Agamemnon, reproaching Diomed and Sthenelos for slothfulness in arming after Pandaros’ treacherous breaking of the truce, compares them unfavorably with their fathers, who had fought, in vain, to aid Œdipus’ banished son in reconquering Thebes. Diomed is courteously silent, but the obscurer chieftain bursts forth indignantly : —

“Verily we make claim to be mightier far than our fathers:
We who captured the hold of Thebes with its sevenfold portals,
Leading a lesser array beneath that bulwark of Ares,
Putting our trust in the aid of Zeus and the heaven-sent portents;
— Whereas they, our sires, by their own impiety perished!”

We said there must have been cruder epics before Homer. Yet from

“The dark backward and abysm of time ”

there is little hope that even a fragment will ever drift to our feet. The passage just quoted at least indicates that Homer, perhaps his hearers as well, had a perfect familiarity with the tragic story of Thebes.

Among the poems of the lost Epic Cycle, we hear of three connected works upon this Theban theme. The titles show that they told respectively the tale of Œ(Edipus, of his ill-fated sons and their allies, and lastly of these very chieftains, Diomed, Sthenelos, and the rest, who avenged their fathers’ fall. To this last poem of the trio Herodotus makes respectful allusion, merely raising the question in passing whether it is from Homer’s own hand. Of the Œdipodea hardly anything survives. From the next epic, the Thebaid, we can quote the opening line : —

Sing, O Goddess, of waterless Argos, whence the commanders.

Moreover, Atheæus, in the course of one of his discussions over trifles, has quoted, and thus preserved for us, quite a sustained passage from the same poem. This glimpse of a classic Luck of Edeuhall is in itself striking. The three poems together attained, we are told, a length of twenty thousand verses, or nearly twice the contents of our Odyssey. Probably nobody contends that any one among the epics of that stately cycle, still extant for Athenæus, but forever lost to us, was actually pre-Homerie ; but the lines which by his courtesy or caprice we are enabled to cite will at least deepen the impression that we have lost a goodly body of poetry, not all unworthy to stand beside the Iliad and Odyssey. It is a pity that we can offer only this tantalizing glimpse into so stately a volume of Theban song, from which five great tragedies drew in some degree, at least, their inspiration : Æschylos’ martial Seven against Thebes, the three noble Sophoclean dramas in which Antigone appears, and lastly Euripides’ more melodramatic and over-ingenious Phœnissæ.

The passage which we here render has still another bearing on the Homeric question. No one now supposes “Homer” wrote these Œdipus epics. Yet here is another easy master of his dialect and of the hexameter movement. And so falls at once the argument that none save the one indivisible magician could lift the heavy wand, and therefore that one man must bear the credit for all the contradictions and incongruities of the Iliad, perhaps even of both poems. Bat we are in danger of forgetting the passage, which must serve to “ excuse,” in the architect’s sense, our title and our utterance : —

Yet the divinely descended hero, the fair Polynices,
First at Œdipus’ side made ready the beautiful table,
Silvern, of Cadmus wise as the gods, and straightway upon it
Poured for hissire sweet wine in a golden beautiful goblet.
Then when Œdipus saw at his side that cup of his father, —
Precious, in reverence held, —great woe came over his spirit.
Instantly then upon both his sons did he utter his curses, —
Never to be escaped, for the wrath of the gods was awakened, —
Wishing that they might never in amity share their possessions ;
Ever between them twain might strife and battle continue.

The strife did indeed continue, but the slender connection with this far-away voice breaks off here ! Of course we instinctively make the inquiry, Why did the sight of this heirloom so rouse Œdipus’ wrath ? What was the mystic connection between it and the fate of his house ? But there is no one to answer this or any question. No other tradition throws any light upon this picturesque detail in the great Theban legend.

Such glimpses into vanished literatures almost tempt us to apply to books, lost and extant, the words which our first great American poet uttered of mankind : —

“All that tread
The earth are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.”