A Fine Tragedy

George Eliot, The Antigone and Its Moral:

The opinion which decried all enthusiasm for Greek literature as ‘humbug,’ was put to an excellent test some years ago by the production of the Antigone at Drury Lane. The translation then adopted was among the feeblest by which a great poet has ever been misrepresented; yet so completely did the poet triumph over the disadvantages of his medium and of a dramatic motive foreign to modern sympathies, that the Pit was electrified, and Sophocles, over a chasm of two thousand years, once more swayed the emotions of a popular audience. And no wonder. The Antigone has every quality of a fine tragedy, and fine tragedies can never become mere mummies for Hermanns and Bockhs to dispute about: they must appeal to perennial human nature, and even the ingenious dulness of translators cannot exhaust them of their passion and their poetry.

E’en in their ashes live their wonted fires.

We said that the dramatic motive of the Antigone was foreign to modern sympathies, but it is only superficially so. It is true we no longer believe that a brother, if left unburied, is condemned to wander a hundred years without repose on the banks of the Styx; we no longer believe that to neglect funeral rites is to violate the claims of the infernal deities. But these beliefs are the accidents and not the substance of the poet’s conception. The turning point of the tragedy is not, as it is stated to be in the argument prefixed to this edition, ‘reverence for the dead and the importance of the sacred rites of burial’,but the conflict between these and obedience to the State. Here lies the dramatic collision: the impulse of sisterly piety which allies itself with reverence for the Gods, clashes with the duties of citizenship; two principles, both having their validity, are at war with each.

Marie Spartali Stillman, Antigone

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