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SCENES FROM THE ALCESTIS OF ALFIERI.
THE “ Alcestis” of Alfieri is said to have been the last tragedy he composed, and is distinguished, in a remarkable degree, by that tenderness of which his former works present so few examples. It would appear as if the pure and exalted affection, by which the impetuosity of his fiery spirit was ameliorated during the latter years of his life, had impressed its whole character on this work, as a record of that domestic happiness in whose bosom his heart at length found a resting place. Most of his earlier writings bear witness to that “ fever at the core," that burning impatience of restraint, and those incessant and untameable aspirations after a wider sphere of action, by which his youth was consumed; but the poetry of “ Alcestis ” must find its echo in every heart which has known the power of domestic ties, or felt the bitterness of their dissolution. The interest of the piece, however, though entirely domestic, is not for a moment allowed to languish, nor does the conjugal affection, which forms the main-spring of the action, ever degenerate into the pastoral insipidity of Metastasio. The character of Alcestis herself, with all its lofty fortitude, heroic affection, and subdued anguish, powerfully recalls to our imagination the calm and tempered majesty distinguishing the masterpieces of Greek sculpture, in which the expression of mental or bodily suffering is never allowed to transgress the limits of beauty and sublimity. The union of dignity and affliction impressing more than earthly grandeur on the countenance of Niobe, would be, perhaps, the best illustration of this analogy.
The following scene, in which Alcestis announces to Pheres, the father of Admetus, the terms upon which the oracle of Delphos has declared that his son may be restored, has seldom been surpassed by the author, even in his most celebrated productions. It is, however, to be feared that little of its beauty can be transfused into translation, as the severity of a style so completely devoid of imagery must render it dependent, for many incommunicable attractions, upon the melody of the original language.
SCENES FROM THE
“ Alcestis" OF ALFIERI. Act 1.-Scene II.
Alcestis. Weep thou no more.--0, monarch dry thy tears,
For know, he shall not die; not now shall Fate
Bereave thee of thy son.
What mean thy words ?
Hath then Apollo -is there then a hope?
Alcestis. Yes, hope for thee,--hope, by the voice pronounced
From the prophetic cave. Nor would I yield
To other lips the tidings, meet alone
For thee to hear from mine.
But say, oh; say,
Shall, then, my son be spared ?
He shall, to thee.
Thus hath Apollo said-Alcestis thus
Confirms the oracle; be thou secure.
Pheres. O sounds of joy! He lives!
But not for this;
Think not that e'en for this the stranger, joy,
Shall yet revisit these devoted walls.
Pheres. Can there be grief when, from his bed of death,
Admetus rises ? What deep mystery lurks
Within thy words ? What mean'st thou? Gracious Heaven!
Thou, whose deep love is all his own, who hearest
The tidings of his safety, and dost bear
Transport and life in that glad oracle
To his despairing sire; thy cheek is tinged
With death, and on thy pure, ingenuous brow
To the brief lightning of a sudden joy
Shades dark as night succeed, and thou art wrapt
In troubled silence. Speak! oh! speak!
Themselves have limitations to their power,
Impassable, eternal; and their will
Resists not the tremendous laws of fate :
Nor small the boon they grant thee in the life
Of thy restored Admetus.
In thy looks
There is expression, more than in thy words,
Which thrills my shuddering heart. Declare what terms
Can render fatal to thyself and us
The rescued life of him thy soul adores ?
Alcestis. O, father! could my silence aught avail
To keep that fearful secret from thine ear,
Still should it rest unheard till all fulfilled
Were the dread sacrifice. But vain the wish;
And since too soon, too well it must be known,
Hear it from me.
Pheres. Through all my curdling veins
Runs a cold, death-like horror ; and I feel
I am not all a father. In my heart
Strive many deep affections. Thee I love,
O fair and high-souled consort of my son!
More than a daughter; and thine infant race,
The cherished hope and glory of my age ;
And, unimpaired by time, within my breast,
High, holy, and unalterable love,
For her, the partner of my cares and joys,
Dwells pure and perfect yet. Bethink thee, then,
In what suspense, what agony of fear,
I wait thy words; for well, too well, I see
Thy lips are fraught with fatal auguries
To some one of my race.
Death hath his rights,
Of which not e'en the great Supernal Powers
May hope to rob him. By his ruthless hand,
Already seized, the noble victim lay,
The heir of empire, in his glowing prime
And noon-day struck ;--Admetus, the revered,
The blessed, the loved, by all who owned his sway,
By his illustrious parents, by the realms
Surrounding his,--and oh! what need to add,
How mụch by his Alcestis ? Such was he,
Already in the unsparing grasp of death,
Withering, a certain prey. Apollo thence
Hath snatched him, and another in his stead,
Although not an equal,--(who can equal him ?)
Must fall a voluntary sacrifice.
Another, of his lineage, or to him
By closest bonds united, must descend
To the dark realm of Orcus in his place,
Who thus alone is saved,
What do I hear?
Woe to us, woe!-what victim ?-—who shall be
Accepted in his stead ?
The dread exchange
E'en now, O father! hath been made; the prey
Is ready, nor is wholly worthless him
For whom 'tis freely offered. Nor wilt thou,
O mighty goddess of the infernal shades !
Whose image sanctifies this threshold floor,
Disdain the victim.
All prepared the prey !
And to our blood allied ! 'O heaven!-and yet
Thou bad'st me weep no more !
Yes, thus I said,
And thus again I say,—thou shalt not weep
Thy son's, nor I deplore my husband's doom.
Let him be saved, and other sounds of woe,
Less deep, less mournful far, shall here be heard,
Than those his death had caused. With some few tears,
But brief, and mingled with a gleam of joy,
E'en while the involuntary tribute lasts,
The victim shall be honoured, who resigned
Life for Admetus. Wouldst thou know the prey,--
The vowed, the willing, the devoted one.
Offered and hallowed to the infernal gods,-
Father! 'tis I.
Pheres. What hast thou done ? O heaven ! What hast thou done ? And think'st thou he is saved By such a compact? Think'st thou he can live Bereft of thee? Of thee, his light of life, His very soul !--Of thee, beloved far more Than his loved parents,—than his children more, More than himself!-Oh! no, it shall not be ! Thou perish, O Alcestis ! in the flower Of thy young beauty ;-perish, and destroy Not him, not him alone, but us, but all, Who as a child adore thee! Desolate Would be the throne, the kingdom, reft of thee. And think'st thou not of those, whose tender years Demand thy care ?—thy children! think of them! O thou, the source of each domestic joy,Thou, in whose life alone Admetus lives, His glory, his delight, thou shalt not die, While I can die for thee !-Me, me alone, The oracle demands-a withered stem, Whose task, whose duty is, for him to die. My race is run—the fulness of my years, The faded hopes of age, and all the love Which hath its dwelling in a father's heart,
And the fond pity, half with wonder blent,
Inspired by thee, whose youth with heavenly gifts
So richly is endowed - all, all unite
To grave in adamant the just decree,
That I must die. But thou-I bid thee live!
Pheres commands thee, O Alcestis ! live!
Ne'er, ne'er shall woman's youthful love surpass
An aged sire's devotedness.
Thy lofty soul, thy fond paternal love;
Pheres, I know them well, and not in vain
Strove to anticipate their high resolves.
But if in silence I have heard thy words,
Now calmly list to mine, and thou shalt own
They may not be withstood.
What canst thou say
Which I should hear? I go, resolved to save
Him who, with thee, would perish :-to the shrine
E'en now I fly;
Alcestis. Stay, stay thee! 'tis too late.
Already hath consenting Proserpine,
From the remote abysses of her realms,
Heard and accepted the terrific vow
Which binds me, with indissoluble ties,
To death. And I am firm, and well I know
None can deprive me of the awful right
That vow hath won.
Yes! thou mayst weep my fate,
Mourn for me, father! but thou canst not blame :
My lofty purpose. Oh! the more endeared
My life by every tie, the more I feel
Death's bitterness, the more my sacrifice
Is worthy of Admetus. I descend
To the dim shadowy regions of the dead
A guest more honoured.
In thy presence here
Again I utter the tremendous vow,
Now more than half fulfilled. I feel, I know
Its dread effects. Through all my burning veins
The insatiate fever revels. Doubt is o'er.
The Monarch of the Dead hath heard ;-he calls,
He summons me away, and thou art saved,
O my Admetus !
In the opening of the third act, Alcestis enters, with her son Eumeles
and her daughter, to complete the sacrifice, by dying at the feet of
Proserpine's statue. The following scene ensues between her and
Alcestis. Here, O my faithful handmaids ! at the feet
Of Proserpine's dread image spread my couch,
For I myself, e'en now, must offer here
The victim she requires. And you, meanwhile,
My children! seek your sire. Behold him there,
Sad, silent, and alone. But through his veins
Health's genial current flows once more, as free
As in his brightest days: and he shall live,
Shall live for you. Go, hang upon his neck,
And with your innocent encircling arms
Twine round him fondly.
Can it be indeed,
Father, loved father ! that we see thee thus
Restored? What joy is ours !
There is no joy!
Speak not of joy! away, away! my grief
Is wild and desperate ; cling to me no more!
I know not of affection, and I feel
No more a father.
Oh! what words are these ?
Are we no more thy children? Are we not
Thine own? Sweet sister! twine around his neck
More close; he must return the fond embrace.
Admetus. Oh children! Oh my children! to my soul
Your innocent words and kisses are as darts
That pierce it to the quick. I can no more
Sustain the bitter conflict. Every sound
Of your soft accents but too well recalls
The voice which was the music of my life.
Alcestis ! my Alcestis !- -was she not,
Of all her sex, the flower? Was woman e'er
Adored like her before? Yet this is she,
The cold of heart, the ungrateful, who hath left
Her husband and her infants ! This is she,
deserted children! who at once Bereaves you of your parents. Alcestis.
Woe is me!
I hear the bitter and reproachful cries
Of my despairing lord. With life's last powers,
Oh! let me strive to soothe him still. Approach,
My handmaids, raise me, and support my steps
To the distracted mourner. Bear me hence,
That he may hear and see me,
Is it thou ?
And do I see thee still? And com'st thou thus
To comfort me, Alcestis? Must I hear
Thy dying accents thus ? Alas! return
To thy sad couch, return! 'Tis meet for me
There by thy side for ever to remain.
Alcestis. For me thy care is vain. Though meet for thee-
Admetus. O voice ! O looks of death! are these, are these
Thus darkly shrouded with mortality!
The eyes that were the sunbeams and the life
Of my fond soul! Alas! how faint a ray
Falls from their faded orbs, so brilliant once,
Upon my drooping brow! How heavily,
With what a weight of death, thy languid voice
Sinks on my heart ! too faithful far, too fond,
Alcestis ! thou art dying-and for me !
Alcestis ! and thy feeble hand supports
With its last power, supports my sinking head,
E'en now, while death is on thee! Oh! the touch
Rekindles tenfold frenzy in my heart.
rush, I fly impetuous to the shrine,
The image of yon ruthless deity,
Impatient for her prey. Before thy death,
There, there, I too, self-sacrificed, will fall.
Vain is each obstacle-in vain the gods