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With the grave's everlasting,
But thy gesture, thy look,
Appals me, shakes me with awe.
Merope. Thrust back now the bolt of that door!
"Tis done! ...
[The door of the house is thrown open: the interior of the guestchamber is discovered, with ÆPYTUS asleep on a couch.
Merope. He sleeps-sleeps calm. O ye all-seeing Gods! Thus peacefully do ye let sinners sleep,
While troubled innocents toss and lie awake?
What sweeter sleep than this could I desire
Thy head droop'd softly, and the golden curls
And where dost thou sleep now, my innocent boy?—
Untrodden, on Cyllene's desolate side;
Where travellers never pass, where only come
Wild beasts, and vultures sailing overhead.
There, there thou liest now, my hapless child!
Stretch'd among briers and stones, the slow, black gore
And thou, thou fair-skinn'd Serpent! thou art laid
In a king's house, thy victim's heritage;
And drink'st untroubled slumber, to sleep off
Refresh'd, and claim thy master's thanks and gold.
[MEROPE advances towards the sleeping PYTUS, with the are
Arcas (to the Chorus). Not with him to council did the King
[Sees MEROPE and ÆPYTUS.
Foolish old man, thou spoil'st my blow!
Arcas. What do I see?
Merope. Ah !*
[She lets the axe drop, and falls insensible.”
The remainder of the play rests solely on the fate of Polyphontes. We have in this a true tragic element; and Mr. Arnold does all in his power to raise it up and make it replace the other interest which is exhausted. But the attempt is fruitless; not only so, it ought not to have been made. It does not do to have two strings to a tragedy; you may have subordinate interests, but not double, still less shifting ones. You may write a tragedy of Polyphontes, or a melodrama of Merope, but not both in the same play. As it is, Polyphontes is neither strictly subordinated nor made the main interest. The Electra is better in this respect. After the recognition between the brother and sister, what remains, though essential, is cut short; Clytemnestra and Ægisthus are hurried briefly and swiftly to their doom, and Ægisthus never even appears on the stage until the last scene. In Mr. Arnold's play, where the natural strength of the interest is with Merope, he docs all in his power to raise up a subsidiary one in Polyphontes, which he holds as a reserve when the former one flags. He binds the king up in the moral interest of the play; and he endeavours to give him such a character as shall occupy our attention, and attract our sympathies to his fate. The disquisitional parts of the play are skilfully managed, and give place for some thought and for stately and eloquent phrase and polished verse. When we say that the poetry here has something in it of coldness and the clear-cut edges, and, to us, almost bald senten
She was an Oxford woman.
tiousness of his Greek models, Mr. Arnold will feel flattered, and his readers will feel disheartened. The main moral is simple and Greek enough, that blood demands expiatory blood; connected with which is another somewhat deeper and less Greek, viz. that no man can be so sure of himself and his motives as to be justified in making himself arbitrary judge of another, and in shedding blood and assuming power himself for the supposed welfare of others. We presume, at least, that this idea is to be conveyed, though it is rendered somewhat perplexed by the obscurity -we may say, the studied obscurity-which is cast over the character and actions of Polyphontes. His character, Mr. Arnold tells us, is not fixed by the tradition; and he feels free to deal with it as he judges best. "A finer tragic feeling, it seems to me," he says, "is produced, if Polyphontes is represented as not wholly black and inexcusable, than if he is represented as a mere monster of cruelty and hypocrisy. Aristotle's profound remark is well known,-that the tragic personage whose ruin is represented should be a personage neither eminently good, nor yet one brought to ruin by sheer iniquity; nay, that his character should incline rather to good than to bad, but that he should have some fault which impels him to his fall."
Curiously enough, however, instead of painting Polyphontes partly good and partly bad, the poet leaves it uncertain whether he is good or is bad. He paints two characters-the one of a man of a determined spirit, and capable of generous devotion to another, whom a deep sense of patriotism and justice had compelled to rise in arms against and sacrifice the life of the king whom hitherto he had faithfully served; the other, of a man who rebels against and murders his king that he may usurp the throne for his own advantage. Polyphontes represents himself in the one light, Merope represents him in the other; and the reader is furnished with no clue to judge between them, or to decide whether Polyphontes speaks truly or hypocritically. This doubt and perplexity as to the real bent of his character is carried on to the very end of the play. His death does not help to clear it, and Merope herself is unable to see her way out of the puzzle; her last words confess the enigma to be insoluble:
"What meantest thou, O Polyphontes, what
Desired'st thou, what truly spurr'd thee on?
Of the Heracleidan conquerors, as thou saidst,
Over thy corpse, triumph not, neither mourn;
A mixed character no doubt is fitted to tragedy; but a dubious character is fitted to no dramatic art whatever. This is not the case of a complex character not easily decipherable, but of two simple enough sets of opposite qualities ascribed to one man; and the play must be read to appreciate how nicely the see-saw between the two is kept up, and how distracting an influence it exerts. From the preface, indeed, we may gather which way the balance was intended to incline; and we presume (though even with this assistance we walk very uncertainly) that Polyphontes is intended to be represented as a man of noble nature, and whose rebellion was actuated in the main by noble motives; but in whose breast lay a vein of personal and selfish ambition half concealed, and but half concealed, from the consciousness of its owner. The fate of such a man might take a tragic interest which would deserve not to be eclipsed even by separate interests gathered round another: but if such was indeed the writer's aim, he has shot wide of his mark. The fact is, the forms of the Greek drama scarcely afford scope for the full development of such a character, which demands greater detail and variety of circumstance in its exhibition than can there be possibly afforded. Indeed, in placing such a character on the stage at all, Mr. Arnold can scarcely be said to be true to his model. The general language which Aristotle uses of a man not wholly good or bad, but leaning one way rather than the other, is very descriptive of the amount of human character which the Greek drama required. It uses the men to bring out the story. It does not dwell upon or seek to display the self-originating springs of action. Man stands there as a more or less passive instrument, on which destiny, the gods, and circumstance play; and the character assigned him is only as it were the setting of that instrument at a certain pitch. A character like that which we have presumed the author intends for Polyphontes confuses a Greek play; it raises a crowd of moral questions and dilemmas which have no place there. Merope's simple dictum on his death,
"just in either case the stroke
Which laid thee low, for blood requires blood,❞—
does not satisfy us. We are launched on the inquiry whether the blood was rightly shed: we seek to know whether the man was true to himself,-whether his own conscience exonerated him; and these are not questions either to be asked or solved in Greck tragedy. It concerns itself full little with the motives of action. Herein Mr. Arnold has scarcely been true either to the outward destiny-controlled morality of ancient Greece, or the
placid acquiescences of modern Oxford. It is not this, however, but the duality of nature we have before spoken of, which prevents our taking an interest in Polyphontes, or even grasping him at all by the imagination. We read his speeches, and admire them; but have no notion of the man, and therefore care not for his fate. When Epytus slays him, we feel indifferent whether he had struck the steer or the king: our only impression is, that an elderly insoluble riddle is dead. We are grateful, but not moved.
These are faults, and they are such as were to be looked for from our former experience of the author's writings. We suppose the phrenologists would say he wants individuality. He does not grasp wholes, or even the larger aspects of things. It is in his details we learn how fine a poetic faculty he really possesses. His is not a creative, it is an expressive genius. Hence some of his best poems are those in which he gives a direct voice to his own feelings. He has not that tranquil and complete imagination which without effort embraces a wide field, and compels it into a small and perfect circle of creative art; and which, working outward from an inner conception, stamps the harmony of its own nature on its work. Few indeed are the poets that possess it. Matthew Arnold's is a symmetrical rather than a harmonious genius. He creates parts, and adjusts them together. He wants depth and largeness of artistic power; but he has an exquisite taste, the faculty that detects at least minor disproportions and discrepancies. He has a nice sense of fitness and proportion, and, in all that goes to furnish beauty and finish of execution, it would not be easy to rival him among living poets. His poetry wants power: this play does not move you deeply, nor leave as a whole any profound impression; but step by step it is to be read with a high degree of pleasure, and of a high kind. For the author is rich in poetic instincts, and not devoid of the true poet's insight, and his work is informed throughout with an unfailing life of imagination and fancy. Moreover, his faculties are never strained-he strikes no note above his natural compass. whole conception of the tragedy perhaps taxes his powers fully as far as they can bear; but in the conduct of it he every where displays the decent composure of moderate strength, none of the spasmodic effort of weakness. He has a reticence which enables you to enjoy him with a sense that there is more power in reserve, and sometimes a glowing coal breaks out through the lambent play of imaginative diction which generally characterises him and it is imaginative, not fanciful. Almost always he writes from the deeper hold of the imagination, not from the lighter grasp of fancy. It is fancy, perhaps, though in her very highest mood, that speaks of