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The tragedy of Alcestis has been considered the most remarkable of all the plays of Euripides for tenderness. The conception of the principal character is touching and beautiful. Admetus is doomed by the terrible decree of fate to an untimely death. Apollo has gained, by some art, a hard-wrung consent to spare his life, on condition of another's dying in his stead. His friends and kindred, even his gray-haired father and mother, refuse to save the ill-starred prince. But his young and lovely wife Alcestis resolves to rescue him from his impending fate. This is the leading idea of the play. It is obvious that to carry out this idea in a consistent delineation of character, is no common effort of dramatic genius. It is obvious too that the plot has some difficulties at first sight, which are not easily gotten over. To make us look with complacency on a lovely woman laying down her life for her husband, that husband ougnt to be a worthy object of such self-forgetting love. But if he asks the sacrifice or even consents to it, he shows a selfish clinging to life wholly at war with that greatness of soul which can alone bring our feelings into harmony with the action. It must be confessed that Euripides has not kept this revolting view of the plot sufficiently out of sight. The opening scene in the drama gives us the impression that Admetus has gone about among his friends to beg some one to die for him, and that when they all turn a deaf ear, he consents to the death of his wife. Of course, we despise him as a paltry, heartless coward. This impression is strengthened by the indecent language he utters, when his aged father comes to condole with him in his bereavement. But if we look a little more closely into the poem, our first impression is somewhat softened down, and the conduct of Admetus towards his father seems less hateful, on the supposition that the poet meant to represent him so overwhelmed by calamity, that he lost all self-command, and forgot, in the bitterness of sorrow, the respect due to the author of his being. The plot, however, must still be considered faulty in these particulars. Alfieri has treated of the same subject, in perhaps the most beautiful of his dramas, the Alceste Seconda. In unfolding the action, as he conceived it, the Italian poet has brought the redeeming considerations we have touched upon above into strong relief. So far, therefore, his play is a decided improvement upon Euripides, though in some other points it falls far short of antique simplicity, both in sentiment and situation.
But setting these intrusive suggestions aside, and taking the character of Alcestis by itself, we must pronounce her one of the most exquisite creations of poetry.
"She was one made up
Of feminine affections, and her life
Was one full stream of love, from fount to sea."
She is a being with whom all thought of self is merged in an VOL. III. (1837). No. III.
absorbing love of those to whom she is bound by conjugal and maternal ties. Her character is drawn with unsurpassed delicacy, and every word she utters is in the strictest keeping with the spirit of a nobleminded woman. The scenes between herself and Admetus, when she is about to die, are beautifully imagined. Indeed the poet had upon his hands no common task when he undertook to delineate a being so soft, yet so firm, so gentle, yet so heroical. He had to represent, not merely a woman with the delicate lines of her moral and intellectual character, her quick perceptions, her swiftly changing shadowy trains of association, her imaginative affections, and her overwhelming sensibilities,-but a woman, who, besides all these, was moved by the tenderest love of the wife and the mother; from whom a husband is about to be torn by the will of Destiny; whose children are soon to feel the evils of orphanage. Still more, the will of Destiny at last relents. Her husband may be spared but she must die. This is the point where all the feelings of the woman, whose life has been blessed in the possession of a beautifully harmonized spirit, a husband's love, and a mother's joy, to whom the earth, the air, the clouds, the stars, had been perpetual ministers of happiness, sweep over her agitated soul with an overwhelming power. Her husband's life is saved; that is the grand aim of her heroical suffering. But she must leave for ever the home of her happiness, and her children must lose for ever a mother's love and care. She comes abroad to look for the last time on the light of heaven. She gazes on the long familiar scenes about her, and the solemn vision of approaching death wrings from her trembling spirit some natural words of sorrow which fill her husband's heart with agony. The destiny of her son and daughter stir anew in her bosom the tender feelings and anxious forebodings of maternal love. In her farewell to Admetus, she speaks in a tone of the utmost propriety at that sad hour, of the claim her sacrifice of life has given her upon their grateful recollection; and the reply of Admetus breathes the softest spirit of tender melancholy.
It is obvious that it requires a genius touched to the finest issues to support, consistently, the character of a delicate and lovely woman through such heart-subduing scenes, and under conflicting feelings; and no one who reads the poem attentively will deny Euripides the praise of having completely overcome the difficulties of the problem.
This character is the more remarkable because the feelings unfolded in it are not often brought out in so strong a light by the tragic poets. The personages of the Attic drama, it has been well observed, have more of the severe simplicity of sculpture, than of the blended harmonies of painting. The affections springing from domestic life, though several memorable examples show that they were well understood and deeply felt, are not the ordinary ground
work of ancient tragedy. The terrible power of Destiny, which appears in a tempered form in this piece, and human strength battling against it, are the grand central ideas, around which the circle of tragic emotions mostly revolves. But yet, under every form of civil society and religious faith, the ruling feelings of the human heart, the conjugal, parental, and filial affections, and reverence for the source of all good, will from time to time burst out, in the higher creations of poetry, with a brightness that cheers and warms. In moments of poetical enthusiasm, the kindling soul, even of the heathen bard, seems to rend asunder the veil of ignorance, weakness, and doubt, and to have a sudden comprehension of those truths, dimly shadowed out by tradition, but set in broad sunlight by the Christian revelation. Hence the elysium of pagan mythology,-hence the anticipation of a life to come by the hero of the Iliad, when he mourns in agony over his fallen friend,-hence the assured hope uttered by Admetus, of dwelling with his wife in that world of spirits to which she is hastening.
We conclude this notice by heartily recommending the present edition of this classic to the patronage of schools and colleges.
1. Ireland, Picturesque and Romantic. By LEITCH RITCHIE, ESQ. With nineteen Engravings, from Drawings by D. M'CLISE, Esq., and T. CRESWICK, Esq. London: Longman & Co.
2. The Christmas Library. Vol. I. By MARY HOWITT. London: Darton & Clark.
3. Friendship's Offering, and Winter Wreath. London: Smith, Elder, & Co.
4. The Oriental Annual. By the REV. HOBART CAUNTER, B. D., with twenty-two Engravings from Drawings by the late WILLIAM DANIELL, R. A. London: Tilt.
5. Forget Me Not; a Christmas, New-Year's, and Birth-day Present. Edited by FREDERIC SHOBERL. London: Ackerman & Co.
6. Gems of Beauty, for 1838, displayed in a Series of Twelve Engravings of the Passions. By E. T. PARRIS, with Illustrations in Verse by the COUNTESS of BLESSINGTON. Imperial Quarto. London: Longman & Co.
WHEN the eye rests upon the rainbow, when a lovely maiden just bursting into womanhood stands before us, or after she has attained the meridian of her radiance, every demon is chased from the bosom, the snarling lips become placid and assume a welcoming smile, and the exercise of hypercriticism is regarded as a profanity. In like manner, when such an array of charming annual visitants as
we now behold is extended on our table, we feel so much at peace with mankind, and perceive the world to be so much better than in imagination we could make it, that nothing but praises and blessings can drop from our pen; or if a slight fault be found, this rather serves to set off the surrounding beauties to higher advantage, or, like the drop of acid that lends to the sugar a more exquisite taste, the trifling blemish renders the whole more human and winning.
All the world knows so perfectly what are the character and appearance of the Annuals, that it would be worse than a waste of words to describe the distinguishing features of the family. It may be remarked, however, that while certain members of the tribe abide strictly by their original design and plan, others of them have, from time to time, in some measure varied their character both internally and externally. Editors and contributors have tasked their wits and fancies to surpass themselves, and to obtain a rank and name which are generally conceded to the first-born of a family. But it has not always been the case that the change has been for the better, either as regards complexion or contents. In fact the ends contemplated by this class of books, the persons who patronize them, and the times as well as the places appointed for their perusal, forbid any very wide range of matter or manner. Accordingly when any great alteration is attempted or made, a failure has been the result, and a work unsuited to the boudoir or the drawing-room. We can this year specify a striking illustration of these remarks in the case of the "Picturesque Annual," the letter-press of which is got up by Leitch Ritchie; for instead of being picturesque, its contents for the most part belong strictly to political economy, and that economy having the history, the condition, and the prospects of poor distracted Ireland for its theme. Mr. Ritchie's work is nothing else than a real tour through that island. In this character it is not destitute of merit, although the traveller took far too little time to be able to acquire a deep acquaintance with what he writes about; but, whatever opinion may be formed of his views concerning a system of poor laws for the Irish people, and kindred discussions, we leave it to the judgment of our readers to say, whether the selection of topics is the most suitable that could be chosen for an Annual.
To be sure, it was impossible to traverse Ireland without falling in with much that was picturesque and romantic, of which Mr. Ritchie has frequently availed himself, and turned his observations to good account. Had there been nothing else in the volume, these topics, together with the anecdotes which must have been abundantly ready, and of which, when he chooses, he makes much, the work would have had all the charms becoming an Annual, and none of those which appear to us to be foreign to this branch of literature. In his Preface the author informs us that next year the
Valley of the Wye is to be his field, and thence we may expect a great deal suited to the title of the series and nothing that is repulsive.
The views which the Artists have introduced are with scarcely an exception of the first-rate order. That, for instance, of the Lake of Killarney is a brilliant effort, conveying to the eye an accurate and descriptive representation of that wonderfully rich and charming scene. But it is of the letter-press that we alone can convey, by means of specimens, a correct notion. One or two samples follow. First, of the Cholera, which raged at Sligo:
"The Asiatic pestilence, which raged some years ago in Europe, under the name of cholera, threatened to depopulate Sligo; and the precautions which it became necessary to observe by the surrounding country, almost deprived the inhabitants of every gleam of hope. A line was drawn round the devoted town, beyond which there was no escape; and those who attempted to fly were driven back, as if into a grave. Nothing was heard in the streets but sounds of lamentation and despair. Even the phenomena of external nature served for omens and predictions of evil. Some flashes of lightning had heralded the approach of the angel of the pestilence; but during his sojourn, a heavy cloud brooded over the town. Not a ray of sunshine was visible by day, and not a star by night.
"At this juncture, men naturally reverted to those feelings of religion which before were dimmed or deadened by the seductions of the world; and every hour of the day they found the Refuge open for their admission, and the servants of the sanctuary at their posts. Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter-all were alike the ministers of God. On this great day of judgment, there was not one priest of any denomination who shrunk from his perilous duty. Wherever their presence was required, there they took their stand-at the foot of the altar, at the bed of the dying, at the side of the new-made grave. Every heart confessed that death was not the master, but the agent of the dispensation; for, rising high above the sound of his footsteps, as he passed through the houses, came a voice from the many-portalled temple of the Lord Jesus Christ, proclaiming, "Come to me and I will give you life!"
"During the period of this visitation, only one clergyman-a Baptist minister-lost his life; while the physicians of the body were nearly all swept off. Besides these two classes, the authorities of the town did their duty well and bravely. Mr. Fausset, the provost, rode in every morning from the security of his country-house, with as great regularity as if all had been well, to visit the hospitals, bury the dead, preserve order in the streets, and take his seat as President of the Board of Health. In spite of his unrelaxing labours, he one morning, on reaching the town, saw the grounds of the Fever Hospital covered with unburied corpses; and then, as he expressed it to me himself, he felt as if the end of the world were indeed come.
"The Board of Health consisted at first of twelve members; who were Nearly their whole duty at last was to grant the dead bodies, and to see that the stock of One day, two poor little boys came to beg
rapidly diminished to seven. coffins and tarred sheets for those materials was kept up.