Fresh from the Marbles of the British Museum, I went my way through London streets. My brain was still full of fair and grand forms; the forms of men and women whose every limb and attitude betokened perfect health, and grace, and power, and a self-possession and self-restraint so habitual and complete that it had become unconscious, and undistinguishable from the native freedom of the savage. For I had been up and down the corridors of those Greek sculptures, which remain as a perpetual sermon to rich and poor, amid our artificial, unwholesome, and it may be decaying pseudo-civilisation; saying with looks more expressive than all words–Such men and women can be; for such they have been; and such you may be yet, if you will use that science of which you too often only boast. Above all, I had been pondering over the awful and yet tender beauty of the maiden figures from the Parthenon and its kindred temples. And these, or such as these, I thought to myself, were the sisters of the men who fought at Marathon and Salamis; the mothers of many a man among the ten thousand whom Xenophon led back from Babylon to the Black Sea shore; the ancestresses of many a man who conquered the East in Alexander’s host, and fought with Porus in the far Punjab. And were these women mere dolls? These men mere gladiators? Were they not the parents of philosophy, science, poetry, the plastic arts? We talk of education now. Are we more educated than were the ancient Greeks? Do we know anything about education, physical, intellectual, or aesthetic, and I may say moral likewise–religious education, of course, in our sense of the word, they had none–but do we know anything about education of which they have not taught us at least the rudiments? Are there not some branches of education which they perfected, once and for ever; leaving us northern barbarians to follow, or else not to follow, their example? To produce health, that is, harmony and sympathy, proportion and grace, in every faculty of mind and body–that was their notion of education. To produce that, the text-book of their childhood was the poetry of Homer, and not of–But I am treading on dangerous ground. It was for this that the seafaring Greek lad was taught to find his ideal in Ulysses; while his sister at home found hers, it may be, in Nausicaa. It was for this, that when perhaps the most complete and exquisite of all the Greeks, Sophocles the good, beloved by gods and men, represented on the Athenian stage his drama of Nausicaa, and, as usual, could not–for he had no voice–himself take a speaking part, he was content to do one thing in which he specially excelled; and dressed and masked as a girl, to play at ball amid the chorus of Nausicaa’s maidens.
That drama of Nausicaa is lost; and if I dare say so of any play of Sophocles’, I scarce regret it. It is well, perhaps, that we have no second conception of the scene, to interfere with the simplicity, so grand, and yet so tender, of Homer’s idyllic episode.
Nausicaa, it must be remembered, is the daughter of a king. But not of a king in the exclusive modern European or old Eastern sense. Her father, Alcinous, is simply “primus inter pares” among a community of merchants, who are called “kings” likewise; and Mayor for life–so to speak–of a new trading city, a nascent Genoa or Venice, on the shore of the Mediterranean. But the girl Nausicaa, as she sleeps in her “carved chamber,” is “like the immortals in form and face;” and two handmaidens who sleep on each side of the polished door “have beauty from the Graces.”