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The Antigone Of Sophocles, As Represented On The Edinburgh Stage
by [?]

Every thing in our days is new. Roads, for instance, which, being formerly ‘of the earth earthy,’ and therefore perishable, are now iron, and next door to being immortal; tragedies, which are so entirely new, that neither we nor our fathers, through eighteen hundred and ninety odd years, gone by, since Caesar did our little island the honor to sit upon its skirts, have ever seen the like to this ‘Antigone;’ and, finally, even more new are readers, who, being once an obedient race of men, most humble and deferential in the presence of a Greek scholar, are now become intractably mutinous; keep their hats on whilst he is addressing them; and listen to him or not, as he seems to talk sense or nonsense. Some there are, however, who look upon all these new things as being intensely old. Yet, surely the railroads are new? No; not at all. Talus, the iron man in Spenser, who continually ran round the island of Crete, administering gentle warning and correction to offenders, by flooring them with an iron flail, was a very ancient personage in Greek fable; and the received opinion is, that he must have been a Cretan railroad, called The Great Circular Coast-Line, that carried my lords the judges on their circuits of jail-delivery. The ‘Antigone,’ again, that wears the freshness of morning dew, and is so fresh and dewy in the beautiful person of Miss Faucit, had really begun to look faded on the Athenian stage, and even ‘of a certain age,’ about the death of Pericles, whose meridian year was the year 444 before Christ. Lastly, these modern readers, that are so obstinately rebellious to the once Papal authority of Greek, they–No; on consideration, they are new. Antiquity produced many monsters, but none like them.

The truth is, that this vast multiplication of readers, within the last twenty-five years, has changed the prevailing character of readers. The minority has become the overwhelming majority: the quantity has disturbed the quality. Formerly, out of every five readers, at least four were, in some degree, classical scholars: or, if that would be saying too much, if two of the four had ‘small Latin and less Greek,’ they were generally connected with those who had more, or at the worst, who had much reverence for Latin, and more reverence for Greek. If they did not all share in the services of the temple, all, at least, shared in the superstition. But, now-a-days, the readers come chiefly from a class of busy people who care very little for ancestral crazes. Latin they have heard of, and some of them know it as a good sort of industrious language, that even, in modern times, has turned out many useful books, astronomical, medical, philosophical, and (as Mrs. Malaprop observes) diabolical; but, as to Greek, they think of it as of an ancient mummy: you spend an infinity of time in unswathing it from its old dusty wrappers, and, when you have come to the end, what do you find for your pains? A woman’s face, or a baby’s, that certainly is not the better for being three thousand years old; and perhaps a few ears of wheat, stolen from Pharaoh’s granary; which wheat, when sown [1] in Norfolk or Mid-Lothian, reaped, thrashed, ground, baked, and hunted through all sorts of tortures, yields a breakfast roll that (as a Scottish baker observed to me) is ‘not just that bad.’ Certainly not: not exactly ‘that bad;’ not worse than the worst of our own; but still, much fitter for Pharaoh’s breakfast-table than for ours.

I, for my own part, stand upon an isthmus, connecting me, at one terminus, with the rebels against Greek, and, at the other, with those against whom they are in rebellion. On the one hand, it seems shocking to me, who am steeped to the lips in antique prejudices, that Greek, in unlimited quantities, should not secure a limited privilege of talking nonsense. Is all reverence extinct for old, and ivy-mantled, and worm-eaten things? Surely, if your own grandmother lectures on morals, which perhaps now and then she does, she will command that reverence from you, by means of her grandmotherhood, which by means of her ethics she might not. To be a good Grecian, is now to be a faded potentate; a sort of phantom Mogul, sitting at Delhi, with an English sepoy bestriding his shoulders. Matched against the master of ologies, in our days, the most accomplished of Grecians is becoming what the ‘master of sentences’ had become long since, in competition with the political economist. Yet, be assured, reader, that all the ‘ologies’ hitherto christened oology, ichthyology, ornithology, conchology, palaeodontology, etc., do not furnish such mines of labor as does the Greek language when thoroughly searched. The ‘Mithridates’ of Adelung, improved by the commentaries of Vater and of subsequent authors, numbers up about four thousand languages and jargons on our polyglot earth; not including the chuckling of poultry, nor caterwauling, nor barking, howling, braying, lowing, nor other respectable and ancient dialects, that perhaps have their elegant and their vulgar varieties, as well as prouder forms of communication. But my impression is, that the Greek, taken by itself, this one exquisite language, considered as a quarry of intellectual labor, has more work in it, is more truly a piece de resistance, than all the remaining three thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine, with caterwauling thrown into the bargain. So far I side with the Grecian, and think that he ought to be honored with a little genuflexion. Yet, on the other hand, the finest sound on this earth, and which rises like an orchestra above all the uproars of earth, and the Babels of earthly languages, is truth–absolute truth; and the hatefulest is conscious falsehood. Now, there is falsehood, nay (which seems strange), even sycophancy, in the old undistinguishing homage to all that is called classical. Yet why should men be sycophants in cases where they must be disinterested? Sycophancy grows out of fear, or out of mercenary self-interest. But what can there exist of either pointing to an old Greek poet? Cannot a man give his free opinion upon Homer, without fearing to be waylaid by his ghost? But it is not that which startles him from publishing the secret demur which his heart prompts, upon hearing false praises of a Greek poet, or praises which, if not false, are extravagant. What he fears, is the scorn of his contemporaries. Let once a party have formed itself considerable enough to protect a man from the charge of presumption in throwing off the yoke of servile allegiance to all that is called classical,–let it be a party ever so small numerically, and the rebels will soon be many. What a man fears is, to affront the whole storm of indignation, real and affected, in his own solitary person. ‘Goth!’ ‘Vandal!’ he hears from every side. Break that storm by dividing it, and he will face its anger. ‘Let me be a Goth,’ he mutters to himself, ‘but let me not dishonor myself by affecting an enthusiasm which my heart rejects!’