From Peithô's Web

W. Rhys Roberts translation


Chapter 15


IMAGES, moreover, contribute greatly, my young friend, to dignity, elevation, and power as a pleader. In this sense some call them mental representations. In a general way the name of image or imagination is applied to every idea of the mind, in whatever form it presents itself, which gives birth to speech. But at the present day the word is predominantly used in cases where, carried away by enthusiasm and passion, you think you see what you describe, and you place it before the eyes of your hearers. 2. Further, you will be aware of the fact that an image has one purpose with the orators and another with the poets, and that the design of the poetical image is enthralment, of the rhetorical--vivid description. Both, however, seek to stir the passions and the emotions.

Mother!--'beseech thee, hark not thou on me
Yon maidens gory-eyed and snaky-haired!
Lo there!--lo there!--they are nigh--they leap on me!
        (Euripides, Orestes 255, at Perseus)


Ah! she will slay me! whither can I fly?
        (Euripides, Iphigeneia in Taurus 291, at Perseus)

In these scenes the poet himself saw Furies, and the image in his mind he almost compelled his audience also to behold. 3. Now, Euripides is most assiduous in giving the utmost tragic effect to these two emotions--fits of love and madness. Herein he succeeds more, perhaps, than in any other respect, although he is daring enough to invade all the other regions of the imagination. Notwithstanding that he is by nature anything but elevated, he forces his own genius, in many passages, to tragic heights, and everywhere in the matter of sublimity it is true of him (to adopt Homer's words) that

The tail of him scourgeth his ribs and his flanks to left and to right,

And he lasheth himself into frenzy, and spurreth him on to the fight.

(Iliad 20.170, at Perseus)

4. When the Sun hands the reins to Phaethon, he says

'Thou, driving, trespass not on Libya's sky,
Whose heat, by dews untempered, else shall split
Thy car asunder.'

And after that,

'Speed onward toward the Pleiads seven thy course.'
Thus far the boy heard; then he snatched the reins:
He lashed the flanks of that wing-wafted team;
Loosed rein; and they through folds of cloudland soared.
Hard after on a fiery star his sire
Rode, counselling his son--'Ho! thither drive!
Hither thy car turn--hither!'

Would you not say that the soul of the writer enters the chariot at the same moment as Phaethon and shares in his dangers and in the rapid flight of his steeds? For it could never have conceived such a picture had it not been borne in no less swift career on that journey through the heavens. The same is true of the words which Euripides attributes to his Cassandra:--

O chariot-loving Trojans.

5. Aeschylus, too, ventures on images of a most heroic stamp. An example will be found in his Seven against Thebes, where he says

For seven heroes, squadron-captains fierce,
Over a black-rimmed shield have slain a bull,
And, dipping in the bull's blood each his hand,
By Ares and Enyo, and by Panic
Lover of blood, have sworn.
        Seven Against Thebes 42, at Perseus)

In mutual fealty they devoted themselves by that joint oath to a relentless doom. Sometimes, however, he introduces ideas that are rough-hewn and uncouth and harsh; and Euripides, when stirred by the spirit of emulation, comes perilously near the same fault, even in spite of his own natural bent. 6. Thus in Aeschylus the palace of Lycurgus at the coming of Dionysus is strangely represented as possessed:--

A frenzy thrills the hall; the roofs are bacchant
With ecstasy:

an idea which Euripides has echoed, in other words, it is true, and with some abatement of its crudity, where he says:--

The whole mount shared their bacchic ecstasy.
        (Bacchae 726, at Perseus)

7. Magnificent are the images which Sophocles has conceived of the death of Oedipus, who makes ready his burial amid the portents of the sky (Oedipus at Colonus 1586, at Perseus). Magnificent, too, is the passage where the Greeks are on the point of sailing away and Achilles appears above his tomb to those who are putting out to sea-- a scene which I doubt whether anyone has depicted more vividly than Simonides. But it is impossible to cite all the examples that present themselves. 8. It is no doubt true that those which are found in the poets contain, as I said, a tendency to exaggeration in the way of the fabulous and that they transcend in every way the credible, but in oratorical imagery the best feature is always its reality and truth. Whenever the form of a speech is poetical and fabulous and breaks into every kind of impossibility, such digressions have a strange and alien air. For example, the clever orators forsooth of our day, like the tragedians, see Furies, and-- fine fellows that they are--cannot even understand that Orestes when he cries

Unhand me!--of mine Haunting Fiends thou art--
Dost grip my waist to hurl me into hell!
        (Euripides, Orestes 264, at Perseus)

has these fancies because he is mad. 9. What, then, can oratorical imagery effect? Well, it is able in many ways to infuse vehemence and passion into spoken words, while more particularly when it is combined with the argumentative passages it not only persuades the hearer but actually makes him its slave. Here is an example. 'Why, if at this very moment,' says Demosthenes, 'a loud cry were to be heard in front of the courts, and we were told that the prison-house lies open and the prisoners are in full flight, no one, whether he be old or young, is so heedless as not to lend aid to the utmost of his power; aye, and if any one came forward and said that yonder stands the man who let them go, the offender would be promptly put to death without a hearing' (Against Timocrates, 208) 10. In the same way, too, Hyperides on being accused, after he had proposed the liberation of the slaves subsequently to the great defeat, said 'This proposal was framed, not by the orator, but by the battle of Chaeroneia.' The speaker has here at one and the same time followed a train of reasoning and indulged a flight of imagination. He has, therefore, passed the bounds of mere persuasion by the boldness of his conception. 11. By a sort of natural law in all such matters we always attend to whatever possesses superior force; whence it is that we are drawn away from demonstration pure and simple to any startling image within whose dazzling brilliancy the argument lies concealed. And it is not unreasonable that we should be affected in this way, for when two things are brought together, the more powerful always attracts to itself the virtue of the weaker. 12. It will be enough to have said thus much with regard to examples of the sublime in thought, when produced by greatness of soul, imitation, or imagery.

On the Sublime, tr. Roberts


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