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THE LANGUAGE OF AESCHYLUS

The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 80-6.

Aeschylus was the inventor of the grand style of tragic diction. He was the first, not only to exalt and ennoble the spirit of tragedy, but also to clothe it in a form of suitable magnificence, and to "build up the structure of splended phrases." His language, which we are now to consider, serves as a fitting vehicle for the expression of his mighty conceptions. It is cast in the same majestic mould as his heroes and heroines. In splendour and impressiveness it towers above the level of common speech just as much as his Prometheus and his Clytemnestra surpass in greatness ordinary human nature.

Among the means by which this effect is produced one of the most obvious is the pomp and volume and resonance of the phraseology. His verse is a massive structure, built together with materials of imposing size and strength. Words as "huge as Parnes or Lycabettus" impart a sonorous gravity to the diction. When the resources of existing language are insufficient for his purpose, he uses the licence of genius to create a new poetical vocabulary of his own. Out of the surviving plays and fragments nearly a thousand words have been collected which appear to be the invention of Aeschylus. Long compound adjectives, and nouns and verbs of impressive bulk, are coined with a freedom which could only have been possible in a language of great flexibility, and at an early stage of its literary development. Weighted with materials such as these his diction approaches, in majestic grandeur of expression, the utmost limits of which human speech is capable. In the words of Dionysius, it resembles one of those vast piles of Cyclopean masonry, built of huge and unhewn blocks, before which the smooth and polished workmanship of later buildings sinks into insignificance.

This pomp of language is enlivened throughout by a wealth and brilliance of imagination which has only been equalled, among dramatists, by Shakespeare. Metaphors, similes, figures, and images come streaming from his mind in endless profusion, and without the least appearance of effort. Figurative diction, in his case, is not an acquired habit, but an instinctive mode of expression. His thoughts naturally tend to clothe themselves in concrete form, by means of some flashing image or vivid picture, which stamps them upon the mind. Hence the extraordinary vigour and incisiveness of his style. To take a few examples. The wrath of God is said to "trample with heavy foot upon the nations of Persia." When the people of Argos vote, the "sky bristles with right hands," and their decision, once taken, is immovable and "pegged down with bolts." The ships of the Greeks, on their voyage from Troy, are "butted at in fury" by storm and tempest, and "whirled to and fro by an evil shepherd," so that on the morrow the sea is "in flower with corpses." Again, as an instance of the profusion with which he piles metaphor on metaphor and simile on simile, we may cite the passage in which Cassandra prefaces her revelation. "The oracle," she says, "shall no longer peer forth from behind a veil, like a newly-wedded bride, but blow fresh and clear towards the sunrise, so as to send surging into the daylight, like a wave of the sea, woes far greater than hers," while she "scents with keen nostril the trail of ancient evil."

Aeschylus also resembles Shakespeare in the boldness with which he often combines two incongruous metaphors, as when the Argive elders declare that they have "no hope to wind off anything profitable from the burning flames of their mind," or when the chorus bid Electra "drill this tale through her ear with the mind's silent tread." Sometimes, indeed, the metaphorical bias of the poet's intellect leads him into grotesqueness, as in his famous description of dust as the "brother of mud." But instances of this kind are rare, and Aeschylus possesses the prerogative of true genius in his power of venturing with safety and success on the most daring flights of imagination.

One form of metaphorical speech which is exceedingly common in Aeschylus, and which contributes as much as anything to the vigour of his style, is his habit of personifying inanimate objects, and of investing them with life and feeling. Everything in his poetry seems to move, and breathe, and rejoice in existence. Swords are "savage-hearted" and "swift of foot," the waves of the sea quiver with "endless laughter," the ship's prow "fixes its eyes on the waters in front, paying good heed to the voice of the rudder." Perhaps the finest example of this manner is the description of the beacon-fire which brings the news of Troy's capture to Argos. The flame is conceived as some mighty spirit, exulting in its strength and swiftness. It "vaults over the back of the sea with joy"; it "hands its message" to the heights of Macistus; it "leaps across" the plain of Asopus, and "urges on" the watchmen; its "mighty beard of fire" streams across the Saronic gulf, as it rushes along from peak to peak, until finally it "swoops down" upon the palace of Atreidae.

Closely allied to this love of metaphor and personification is the use, very frequent in the plays of Aeschylus, of picturesque, compound adjectives -- such as "beam-compacted," "golden-helmed," "travel-trodden," "hand-outstretching" -- which appeal to the eye and the senses, and call up a vivid image of the thing described. Each of these epithets is a little word-painting in itself, and their continual recurrence imparts to his language the glow and reality of a series of pictures. The practice was borrowed from Homer and the epic poets, but is employed by Aeschylus with much greater variety and power of imagination.

Another result of his exuberant fancy and lively perceptiveness is to be seen in the copious fullness of his diction, especially in descriptive passages. He delights to linger over the objects which he is mentioning, and to dwell fondly on their various qualities, adding touch after touch to the picture, as fresh ideas come streaming into his mind. Often, in this way, he accumulates adjectives one upon another in almost unlimited sequence. He speaks of a mountain precipice as "bare, goat-abandoned, invisible, solitary, overhanging, vulture-haunted"; and of a curse as "fearful, inveterate, guarding the house, crafty, relentless, vengeful," To the same tendency are to be ascribed his frequent repetitions, such as "listen and give ear," "summoned and not uncalled"; and his constant use of explanatory phrases, as in "shields, the orbed protectors of the body," and "flowers, the children of all-productive earth."

But though his phraseology is gorgeous and ornate, the structure and syntax of the language is simple and archaic in character. He belongs to that earlier class of writers to whom rhetorical artifice was unknown. His sentences are arranged in straightforward fashion, more by way of parallel clauses than by the subordination of one clause to another. Rounded periods, with carefully balanced rhythm, polished antithesis, and recurring cadence, are foreign to his style. When he constructs a long sentence, he follows the natural order of the thought, without artifice or studied effect. He is the best representative, according to Dionysius, of that "austere style," as it was called by the ancients, which obeyed the promptings of nature rather than the rules of art, and which aimed above all things at dignity, freedom, and simplicity.

Yet in spite of these qualities his language is no doubt open to the charge of obscurity. This defect was felt even by the ancients, and is often alluded to in Aristophanes. Much of his obscurity is due to a certain fanciful and enigmatical mode of expression which he not uncommonly adopts, as, for instance, when he speaks of a victory portended by favourable auspices on the road as an "auspicious wayside victory". But the principal source of the difficulty in his style arises from the splendour and impetuosity of his genius, which hurries him along swiftly from thought to thought, and from image to image, without regard for necessary links and transitions. One brilliant conception succeeds another with such startling rapidity, that the mind is bewildered, and fails to follow the chain of ideas. Language of such a type could not fail to be perplexing, even if applied to the most simple purposes; but when employed by Aeschylus in the discussion of profound problems concerning Fate and Providence, which are abstruse and difficult themselves, it becomes doubly ambiguous.

Perhaps, however, the common opinion of his obscurity has been unduly exaggerated in modern times owing to the corrupt state of his text. The choral odes have all suffered in this respect. But if we take the best preserved of his plays -- the Septem (Seven Against Thebes), Persae (Persians), and Prometheus Bound -- and confine out attention to the dialogue, we shall find that with few exceptions it is clear and free from difficulty. The enumeration of the services rendered by Prometheus to mankind, the account of the champions in the Septem, and the narrative of the battle of Salamis in the Persae, are models of lucid yet magnificent description. It must be confessed, indeed, that in his last work -- the Orestean trilogy -- he shows a decided preference for complexity and indirectness of expression, which cannot be accounted for by any supposed mutilations of the manuscript. But this tendency appears to be not uncommon in poets of advancing years, and may be paralleled by numerous examples from the later plays of Shakespeare and Goethe.

The influence of Homer upon the formation of his style has often been pointed out and is easily discernible. Many of those picturesque epithets, which have already been mentioned as characteristic of his poetry, are taken directly from Homer; and many archaic nouns and verbs are borrowed from the same source. But besides enriching his vocabulary from Homer, he adopts a large number of his phrases and expressions. He also imitates his similes and metaphors, comparing, for example, an army to a swarm of bees, joy of mind to dew upon a cornfield, and the contrivance of a murder to the stitching of a garment. Instances of this kind, which are very numerous, show how deeply his mind was penetrated with the language of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and are a proof of the reverence with which he regarded the ancient epic poets, from whom, as he confesses in the Frogs, he derived his first conception of heroic valour, and of noble characters such as "Patroclus and lion-hearted Teucer."

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