The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 256-61.
Among the causes which contributed to the popularity of Euripides in ancient times, not the least important was the beauty of his style, which was universally admired for its graceful facility and rhetorical power. The extent of the enthusiasm which it excited in antiquity is proved by the permanence of its effect upon Greek literature. It speedily became the recognized style of the later tragedy, and was imitated with hardly less zeal by the comic dramatists. Even Aristophanes felt its charm, and confessed that, while abhorring the sentiments of the poet, he was willing to copy the elegance of his language. Dionysius, the critic, places Euripides among the most prominent representatives of the "flowery" kind of writing; praises his diction for its soft and fluent attractiveness, and the harmonious balance of its clauses; and compares it to a gently flowing stream, or to a picture in which lights and shades are imperceptibly commingled. This description, as far as it goes, is doubtless a true one; the style of Euripides is distinguished by nothing so much as by its easy and melodious smoothness. At the same time it possesses many other striking merits which are not always to be found in the "flowery" method of composition. It is lucid, without being commonplace. Though frequently diffuse, it is capable at times of intense force and concentration. In the expression of tempestuous emotion, and of deep and tender pathos, it is hardly to be excelled. Above all, when at its best, it displays in full perfection that supreme and unapproachable beauty of form, of which the Greeks alone possessed the secret.
Regarded as a whole the language of Euripides appears uniform and consistent in its texture. But when examined more in detail, it will be found to exhibit considerable diversities, according to the varying nature of the subject. The lyrical odes stand by themselves. But even in the dialogue Euripides may be said to have three varieties of style. The first of these is that which he employs in the narrative portions of tragedy, and in those parts where the excitement and pathos are less pronounced. On these occasions he follows Aeschylus rather than Sophocles in the use of grand and pompous phraseology. He displays, like Aeschylus, a partiality for words of sonorous form, which give weight and dignity to the verse. He delights, also, in long picturesque epithets and grandiloquent phrases. Cars are "earth-treading," shields are "iron-backed," a day is a "shining transit of the sun," sheep are "nurslings of Parnassian herbage." This occasional strand of magniloquence has not escaped the notice of Aristophanes, by whom it is frequently ridiculed. Though copied from Aeschylus, it can hardly be said to equal the original in vividness and imaginative power. At times, indeed, it seems more like a mannerism of speech, consciously adopted for the sake of effect, than like the spontaneous outcome of a gorgeous fancy.
But Euripides has also another style, which was considered by the ancients to be peculiarly characteristic of his poetry, and to which Aristophanes is obviously alluding, when he makes him boast of having "reduced the bulk and pruned down the pomposity" of tragic diction. It may be called the "plain" style, and its distinguishing features are simplicity and absence of ornament. The language it employs is that of ordinary life; yet owing to some subtle and indefinable charm in the arrangement of the words, it strikes the finest chords of emotion. In scenes of deep feeling, in tender dialogues, and pathetic speeches and descriptions, Euripides glides imperceptibly into this natural way of writing, which he uses with overwhelming effect. To reproduce such passages in a translation would be useless; their delicate beauty vanishes with the slightest alteration of the language. But we may mention Medea's soliloquy before the murder of her children, Hercules' lament over his wife and sons, and the description of the dying Alcestis, as beautiful examples of this simple kind of pathos. The style which we have been describing is warmly commended by Aristotle, who regards Euripides as its inventor. Though apparently easy, yet to wield it with effect is granted only to the highest genius. Hence one of the poets of the Anthology warns his readers against the folly of imitating Euripides, "whose path," he says, "though smooth and inviting to the eye, proves rougher, to those who follow it, than sharp-pointed caltrops."
The third manner, the forensic, prevails almost exclusively in those debates and oratorical contentions which Euripides seldom fails to introduce. In diction it is sometimes pompous and ornamental, sometimes simple and straightforward; but it is to be discriminated from each of the other styles by its strong and pronounced rhetorical colouring. The conscious art of the advocate is everywhere apparent. Sometimes this art degenerates into artifice and over-subtlety, and produces those "twists and contrivances" of which the comic poets complained. As a rule, however, the speeches composed in this fashion are striking specimens of oratorical power, and their force and argumentative skill were the admiration of ancient writers on rhetoric.
In spite of the varied excellencies of Euripides, it must be admitted that in carefulness of execution and finish of language he compares unfavourably with Sophocles. Signs of hasty and negligent composition are far from infrequent in the work of his later period. Apart from occasional examples of loose and ill-constructed sentences, he is apt at times to lapse into a mechanical style of tragic diction, which takes the place of poetic inspiration. A conventional aspect is given to the verse by the constant employment of certain stock phrases and forms of expression. The word "dew," for example is repeatedly introduced for every kind of liquid, and the word "couch" is used no less than twenty-nine times in one play as a synonym for wedlock. Circumlocutions, such as "circle of the market," and "circle of the sun," are hardly less common. The practice of repeating the same word is often pushed to extremes, as in his "holy, holy night ... hasten, hasten on wings ... by sorrow, by calamity, we are ruined, ruined." Alliteration and verbal antithesis are further tricks of style in which he indulges to excess. The presence of these defects in certain plays, and portions of plays, may be recognized and conceded, without interfering with our admiration for his greatest productions, or affecting our general estimate of the beauty of his diction.
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