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Egyptians. Bythis magic, he understands a profound knowledge of nature, which enabled them to work miracles, of which, however, he does not mention one, because the truth is, that they never worked any.
What,” says he, “has become of the charms of that music which so often enchanted men and beasts, fishes, birds, and serpents, and even changed their nature ?” This enemy to his own times believed implicitly in the fable of Orpheus, and, it should seem, had never heard of the fine music of Italy, nor even of that of France, which do not charm serpents, it is true, but which do charm the ears of the connoisseur.
It is still more strange that, having all his life cultivated the belles-lettres, he reasons no better on our good authors than on our philosophers. He considers Rabelais a great man, and speaks of Les Amours des Gaules (The Loves of the Gauls) as one of our best works. He was, nevertheless, a learned man, a courtier, a man of considerable wit, and an ambassador, who had made profound reflections on all that he had seen; he possessed great knowledge; one prejudice sufficed to render all this merit unavailing:
Boileau and Racine, when writing in favour of the Ancients against Perrault, showed more address than Sir William Temple. They knew better than to touch on astronomy and physical science. Boileau seeks only to vindicate Homer against Perrault, at the same time gliding adroitly over the faults of the Greek poet, and the slumber with which Horace reproaches him. He strove to turn Perrault, the enemy of Homer, into ridicule. Wherever Perrault misunderstands a passage, or renders inaccurately a passage which he understands, Boileau, seizing this little advantage, falls upon him like a redoubtable enemy, and beats him as an ignoramus- -a dull writer. But it is not at all improbable that Perrault, though often mistaken, was frequently right in his remarks on the contradictions, the repetitions, the uniformity of the combats, the long harangues in the midst of them, the indecent and inconsistent conduct of the Gods in the poem-in short, on all the errors into which this great poet is asserted
to have fallen. In a word, Boileau ridicules Perrault much more than he justifies Homer.
Racine used the same artifice, for he was at least as malignant as Boileau. Although he did not, like the latter, make his fortune by satire, he enjoyed the pleasure of confounding his enemies on the occasion of a small and very pardonable mistake into which they had fallen respecting Euripides, and, at the same time, of feeling much superior to Euripides himself. He rallies the same Perrault and his partisans upon
their critique on the Alceste of Euripides, because these gentlemen had unfortunately been deceived by a faulty edition of Euripides, and had taken some replies of Admetus for those of Alceste; but Euripides does not the less appear in all countries to have done very wrong in making Admetus use such extraordinary language to his father, whom he violently reproaches for not having died for him :“How !” replies the king his father.
" Whom, pray, are you addressing so haughtily? Some Lydian or Phrygian slave? Know you not that I am free, and a Thessalian? (Fine language, truly, for a king and a father!) You insult me as if I were the meanest
Where is the law which says, fathers must die for their children? Each one for himself here below. I have fulfilled all my obligations towards you. In what, then, do I wrong you? Do I ask you to die for me? The light is dear to you ;-is it less so to me? You accuse me of cowardice! Coward that you yourself are! You were not ashamed to urge your wife to save you, by dying for you. After this, does it become you to treat as cowards those who refuse to do for you what you have not the courage to do yourself? Believe me, you ought rather to be silent. You love life; others love it no less. Be assured that, if you continue to abuse me, you shalt have reproaches, and not false ones, in return."
Here he is interrupted by the chorus, with “ Enough!—too much on both sides. Old man, cease this ill language towards your son.
One would think that the chorus should rather give
the son á severe reprimand for speaking in so brutal a manner to his father.
All the rest of the scene is in the same style :
Pheres (to his son).--Thou speakest against thy father, without his having injured thee.
Admetus.--Oh! I am well aware that you wish to live as long as possible.
Pheres.-And art thou not carrying to the tomb her who has died for thee?
Admetus.-Ah! most infamous of men! 'tis the proof of thy cowardice !
Pheres.-At least, thou canst not say she died
Admetus. Would to heaven that thou wert in a situation to need my assistance!
Pheres.- Thou wouldst do better to think of marrying several wives, who may die that thy life may be lengthened.
After this scene, a domestic comes and talks to himself about the arrival of Hercules.
“ A stranger,” says he,“ opens the door of his own accord, places himself without more ado at table, is angry because he is not served quick enough, fills his cup every moment with wine, and drinks long draughts of red and of white, constantly singing or rather howling bad songs, without giving himself any concern about the king and his wife, for whom we are mourning. He is, doubtless, some cunning rogue, some vagabond, or assassin."
It seems somewhat strange that Hercules should be taken for a cunning rogue, and no less so chat Hercules, the friend of Admetus, should be unknown to the household. It is still more extraordinary that Hercules should be ignorant of Alceste's death, at the very time when they were carrying her to her tomb.
Tastes must not be disputed; but such scenes as these would, assuredly, not be tolerated at one of our country fairs.
Brumoy, who has given us the Théâtre des Grecs (Greek Theatre), but has not translated Euripides with scrupulous fidelity, does all he can to justify the scene
of Admetus and his father : the argument he makes use of is rather singular.
First, he says, that “ there was nothing offensive to the Greeks in these things which we regard as horrid and indecent; therefore it must be allowed that they were not exactly what we take them to have been; in short, ideas have changed.”. To this it may swered, that the ideas of polished nations on the respect due from children to their fathers have never changed.
He adds, “.Who can doubt that in different ages ideas have changed, relative to points of morality of still greater importance?” We answer, that there are scarcely any points of greater importance.
“ A Frenchman,” continues he, “ is insulted; the pretended good sense of the French obliges him to run the risk of a duel, and to kill or be killed, in order to recover his honour.” We answer, that it is not the pretended good sense of the French alone, but of all the nations of Europe without exception. He proceeds
“ The world in general cannot be fully sensible how ridiculous this maxim will appear two thousand years hence, nor how it would have been scoffed at in the time of Euripides.” This maxim is cruel and fatal, but it is not ridiculous; nor would it have been in any way scoffed at in the time of Euripides. There were many instances of duels among the Asiatics. In the very commencement of the first book of the Iliad, we see Achilles half-unsheathing his sword and ready to fight Agamemnon, had not Minerva taken him by the hair and made him desist.
Plutarch relates that Hephæstion and Craterus were fighting a duel, but were separated by Alexander. Quintus Curtius tells us, that two other of Alexander's officers fought a duel in the presence of Alexander, one of them armed at all points, the other, who was a wrestler, supplied only with a staff; and that the latter overcame his adversary. Besides, what has duelling to do with Admetus and his father Pheres, reproaching each other by turns with having too great a love for life and with being cowards ?
I shall give only this one instance of the blindness of
translators and commentators; for if Brumoy, the most impartial of all, has fallen into such errors, what are we to expect from others? I would, however, ask the Brumoys and the Daciers if they find much salt in the language which Euripides puts into the mouth of Polyphemus ?—“I fear not the thunder of Jupiter; I know not that Jupiter is a prouder or a stronger God than myself; I care very little about him. If he sends down rain, I shut myself up in my cavern: there I eat a roasted calf or some wild animal; after which, I lie down all my length, drink off a great potful of milk, and send forth a certain noise, which is as good as his thunder.”
The schoolmen cannot have very are not disgusted with the noise which Polyphemus makes when he has eaten heartily.
They say that the Athenian pit laughed at this pleasantry, and that the Athenians never laughed at anything stupid. So the whole populace of Athens had more wit than the court of Louis XIV! and the populace are not the same everywhere !
Nevertheless, Euripides has beauties, and Sophocles still more; but they have much greater defects. We may venture to say, that the fine scenes of Corneille, and the affecting tragedies of Racine, are as much superior to the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, as these two Greeks were to Thespis.* Racine was quite sensible of his great superiority over Euripides, but he praised the Greek poet for the sake of humbling Perrault.
Molière, in his best pieces, is as superior to the pure but cold Terence, and to the buffoon Aristophanes, as to the merry-andrew Dancourt.
Thus there are things in which the moderns are superior to the ancients; and others, though very few, in which we are their inferiors. The whole of the dispute reduces itself to this fact.
The Anglo-Grecian will be able to pass over these extraordinary remarks of Voltaire, when he recollects his very similar treatment of Shakespear. As a Critic in respect to the Drama, he was uniformly nothing more than a Frenchman.-T.