Samuel Butler: The Way of All Flesh


When he was in his third year a magazine was founded at Cambridge, the contributions to which were exclusively by undergraduates. Ernest sent in an essay upon the Greek Drama, which he has declined to let me reproduce here without his being allowed to re-edit it. I have therefore been unable to give it in its original form, but when pruned of its redundancies (and this is all that has been done to it) it runs as follows -

"I shall not attempt within the limits at my disposal to make a resume of the rise and progress of the Greek drama, but will confine myself to considering whether the reputation enjoyed by the three chief Greek tragedians, AEschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, is one that will be permanent, or whether they will one day be held to have been overrated.

"Why, I ask myself, do I see much that I can easily admire in Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Demosthenes, Aristophanes, Theocritus, parts of Lucretius, Horace's satires and epistles, to say nothing of other ancient writers, and yet find myself at once repelled by even those works of AEschylus, Sophocles and Euripides which are most generally admired.

"With the first-named writers I am in the hands of men who feel, if not as I do, still as I can understand their feeling, and as I am interested to see that they should have felt; with the second I have so little sympathy that I cannot understand how anyone can ever have taken any interest in them whatever. Their highest flights to me are dull, pompous and artificial productions, which, if they were to appear now for the first time, would, I should think, either fall dead or be severely handled by the critics. I wish to know whether it is I who am in fault in this matter, or whether part of the blame may not rest with the tragedians themselves.

"How far I wonder did the Athenians genuinely like these poets, and how far was the applause which was lavished upon them due to fashion or affectation? How far, in fact, did admiration for the orthodox tragedians take that place among the Athenians which going to church does among ourselves?

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