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Consecration as a hero
The successive moods of Ajax.
is the goal to which the poet brings Ajax; and this is to be remembered in tracing the mental phases through which he passes. On first recovering his sanity, he gives utterance to bitter lamentation, deploring the triumph of his foes and his own disgrace, and praying for death. Then the resolve to die takes definite shape in his mind: he forms it with full deliberation, after a review of the possible alternatives. He takes farewell of his child, with a stern tenderness both for him and for Tecmessa. He silences her appeals, curtly and roughly —but the very roughness indicates that a struggle is going on within him. Then he retires into the solitude of his tent. After an interval, during which the Chorus chant an ode, he comes forth again, sword in hand, and delivers that speech, which, more
His speech in vv. 646 —692.
than any other passage in the play, has divided the opinions of critics. A correct appreciation of it is, indeed, of the first importance. On the meaning attached to parts of it must depend our conception of the mood in which Sophocles meant Ajax to quit life; and this, in turn, must affect the interpretation of the play as a whole.

He begins thus:—

All things the long and countless years first draw from darkness, then bury from light; and there is nothing for which man may not look; the dread oath is vanquished, and the stubborn will. For even I, erst so wondrous firm,—yea, as iron hardened in the dipping,—felt the keen edge of my temper softened by yon woman's words; and I feel the pity of leaving her a widow with my foes, and the boy an orphan.

It was once the prevalent view that this utterance, like all others in the speech, must be regarded as deliberately designed by Ajax to mislead his hearers, Tecmessa and the Chorus. While he speaks these words, he is still resolved to die: that is certain. It was inferred that he must be grimly ironical when he speaks of having been ‘softened,’ or of ‘feeling pity’ at leaving his wife and child. Welcker1 was the first to maintain— what is unquestionably true—that a change of mood has really taken place in Ajax. He has been touched by Tecmessa's pleading; he does feel pity. Nor is it necessary to suppose that this change has been abrupt—taking place during his brief seclusion in the tent. Ajax is rugged, imperious and resolute, but not hard of heart: his love for his wife and his child have been hinted already. His words now suggest, indeed, that his new pity will forbid him to die. So far—and so far only—they are delusive.

He continues:—

But I will go to the bathing-place and the meadows by the shore, that in purging of my stains I may flee the heavy anger of the goddess. Then I will seek out some untrodden spot, and bury this sword, hatefullest of weapons, digging in the earth where none shall see; no, let Night and Hades keep it underground! For since my hand took this gift from Hector, my worst foe, to this hour I have had no good from the Greeks. Yes, men's proverb is true: The gifts of enemies are no gifts, and bring no good.

The words fit his real design. He is indeed going to ‘purge his stains’—by death. He will fix his sword in the earth, and ‘bury’ it—in his body; Night shall ‘keep it underground’—in his grave. But is it not manifest that, after his previous reference to the change in his mood, his hearers would necessarily understand these words in their literal sense—as meaning that he would wash off with sea-water the stains left on him by the slaughter of the cattle,—would seek to propitiate Athena,—and would bury his ill-omened sword in the ground, where it could do no more mischief? This is so evident that it would seem hardly needful to state it, were it not that some eminent critics had maintained a different view. Welcker2, followed by Thudichum3, and (with some qualifications) by Thirlwall4, thinks that Ajax has no intention to mislead his hearers: he expresses his real purpose, in veiled language, no doubt, but it is their fault that they do not understand him. This view we may unhesitatingly reject. Ajax deliberately deceives his hearers. The art by which he does so, without saying anything that is not verbally true, is so contrived as to give the spectators the kind of pleasure which is felt in guessing a riddle. It would be a mistake to suppose that ancient Greeks would have seen anything unworthy or unheroic in the use of such deception. He is resolved to die, and to die in solitude. He also feels a real tenderness for those whom he is leaving. He cannot part from them in silence; nor, again, can he bring himself to speak openly, and to part from them—as would then be necessary—by force. He therefore veils his farewell so that it is such only to his own mind, not to their apprehension. Greeks would think of this as of a stratagem in war; and the hero would not suffer in their eyes, since the end in view is (as they would think) heroic. Ajax next says:—

Therefore henceforth I shall know how to yield to the gods, and learn to revere the Atreidae. They are rulers, so we must submit. How else? Dread things and things most potent bow to office; thus it is that snowstrewn winter gives place to fruitful summer; and thus night's weary round makes room for day with her white steeds to kindle light; and the breath of dreadful winds can allow the groaning sea to slumber; and, like the rest, almighty Sleep looses whom he has bound, nor holds with a perpetual grasp.

And we—must we not learn discretion? I, at least, will learn it; for I am newly aware that our enemy is to be hated but as one who will hereafter be a friend; and towards a friend I would wish but thus far to show aid and service, as knowing that he will not always abide. For to most men the haven of friendship is false.

Here it is of especial moment to determine how far he is saying what he really means, and how far he is ironical. Is he ironical, to begin with, in saying that he will ‘yield to the gods’? When Tecmessa appealed to him in their name, he cried out, in the sharp anguish of the moment, that he owed them no further service (v. 589 f.)—as he had said before that he was ‘plainly hateful’ to them (v. 457). But, since then, he has been alone for a time with his own thoughts, and (as we have seen) his mood has been changed by pity for those whom he is leaving. If his profession of ‘yielding to the gods’ were ironical, his real meaning must be that he defies them: he would be a Capaneus, a Mezentius5. But the sense in which he ‘yields’ to the gods is not merely that he takes a step to which they have driven him, and retires from life: to ‘yield,’ in that sense, would be merely to accept the inevitable. He ‘yields’ to the gods in the further sense that he has come to see the folly of the pride in which he formerly despised their help. His words are sad, and are tinged with bitterness; still, they are the proof that he has been chastened by the judgment of Athena, and has learned not ‘to think thoughts too high for man.’ But what is to be said of his other promise,—‘to revere the Atreidae’? In his last soliloquy he invokes the Furies to punish them for his wrongs. We might be inclined to say that here, at least, he speaks with bitter irony. And that there is some irony in the form of the phrase, need not be doubted. But then submission to the gods and reverence for the Atreidae are alike enforced by him in the sublime illustration which he draws from the elemental powers of nature. To employ imagery so solemn and so beautiful for the purpose of pointing mere mockery would be incongruous and repulsive. Undoubtedly Sophocles conceived Ajax as really meaning that he would thenceforth ‘revere the Atreidae’—in this sense:—that he had come to recognise his offence against social order in failing to reverence their station, and to accept the authoritative award of the arms without attempting to exact vengeance. Such a perception would be in no way inconsistent with continued resentment against the Atreidae personally, as unjust men, or with an invocation of divine avengers to smite them. Thus the conversion which Ajax announces in himself is a real one: the element of deception is in his mode of stating it; since, when he says that ‘henceforth6’ he will practise these precepts, he implies, and clearly intends his hearers to understand, that he will continue to live.

The speech ends thus:—

But concerning these things it will be well.—Woman, go thou within, and pray to the gods that in all fulness the desires of my heart may be fulfilled. And ye, my friends,—honour ye these my wishes even as she doth; and bid Teucer, when he come, have care for me, and good-will towards you withal. For I will go whither I must pass; but do ye what I bid; and ere long, perchance, though now I suffer, ye will hear that I have found peace.

Welcker argues that Ajax cannot have intended to mislead his friends, because this last passage plainly points to death: indeed, he thinks, the poet might even be reproached with some disregard of probability in allowing the Chorus to be deceived by it. It is true that the disguise is thinnest here. But the meaning which hearers would attach to the words would necessarily depend on what had gone before. When the belief that Ajax meant to live had been fixed in their minds by the earlier part of the speech, nothing in this last part could undeceive them.

The foregoing analysis will have shown that I cannot entirely agree with any interpretation of this speech, as a whole, which has hitherto been given. The difficulties which have been felt in it have largely arisen (as it appears to me) from an assumption, express or tacit, that every part of the speech must bear a similar relation to the real thoughts of Ajax. It has been supposed that everywhere he is practising dissimulation7; or else that everywhere he is saying what he really means, darkly, indeed, yet without the intention of deceiving8. The fact seems to be rather that three distinct threads are subtly interwoven in the texture of the speech; viz., direct expression of his real mind; irony in a form which does not necessarily imply the intention to mislead; and artifice of language so elaborate as necessarily to imply such an intention, at any rate when addressed to simple hearers. While the change of purpose is feigned, the change of mood is real. At his first return to sanity, he had thought of death only as a refuge from disgrace and a recovery of honour. He has now come to view it also as an atonement due to Athena. He recognises the sin of his former over-weening self-confidence. In this sense he dies reconciled to the gods. And that reconciliation has come through the human affections. He had listened to Tecmessa, and parted from his son, without being turned from his resolve, but not without being profoundly moved. The inward workings of pity recalled him to a human standard of feeling, and so revived his sense of human weakness, and of the submission which mortals owe to gods. It was as natural for an ancient Greek to derive fear of the gods from a painful breaking of human ties as it is for Christians to deduce the love of man from the love of God.


1 In his excellent essay on the Ajax in the Rhein. Museum for 1829, pt. 3, pp. 43—92, 229—264 (reprinted in his Kleine Schriften).

2 Op. cit. p. 229. Welcker compares the language of Ajax here to that of the prayer which Clytaemnestra utters in Electra's presence—a “κεκρυμμένη βάξις”, as she herself terms it ( El. 638). That is, the terms in which Ajax expresses his purpose are, indeed, only allusive; but there is nothing in them which it is impossible for the hearers to understand; no clue is wanting which they do not possess,—as Aegisthus, for instance, does not possess the clue to Electra's irony ( El. 1448 ff.). The answer to Welcker's view may, I think, be given in Aristotle's phrase ( Rhet. 1. 2.§ 13), “ γὰρ κριτὴς ὑπόκειται εἶναι ἁπλοῦς”. A sufficiently acute hearer would perhaps have suspected the truth; but the Chorus and Tecmessa are supposed to be simple persons.

3 In his German Translation of Sophocles, with notes: vol. II. pp. 150 f. (1838). He is in general agreement with Welcker; but allows that, if Ajax had no intention to deceive, it is at least remarkable that his purpose is described throughout only in ‘figurative’ language; and that a misapprehension of it would be easy.

4 In his essay ‘On the Irony of Sophocles,’ where Welcker's view of this speech is examined, and, on the whole, approved (Phil. Museum, vol. I. pp. 514 ff.: 1833). Thirlwall is the only writer (so far as I know) who has really grappled with the objections to Welcker's view that the words “κρύψω τόδ᾽ ἔγχος τοὐμόν”, etc., might be spoken by Ajax without intention to deceive. He grants that this passage ‘at first sight’ suggests ‘a deliberate intention to mislead.’ Nay, he admits that any other view is ‘scarcely possible, if it had been only the fatality of the weapon that he had in his thoughts.’ [The italics are mine.] ‘But,’ Thirlwall proceeds, ‘perhaps it may be more easily conceived, if we suppose him to have reflected on it rather as having been once the object of his pride, a tribute of respect to his valour from a respected enemy, and afterward the instrument of his shame. He was now about to expiate his pride, and to wipe off his shame: in both respects he might be said to “hide” his sword in the most emphatic sense, when he sheathed it in his own body.’—Thirlwall's argument (as I understand it) comes to this. It is just conceivable that, in saying “κρύψω τόδ᾽ ἔγχος”, etc., Ajax did not intend to deceive, if we suppose that the thought in his mind was:—‘I will put that sword, once my glory and my joy, out of sight for ever’ [and not: ‘I will bury that sword, which has brought me only woe’]: because the words, so viewed, would suggest an antithesis between glorious life—and something else. But, if Ajax had been thus thinking of his sword, as ‘once the object of his pride,’ would he have said merely, “κρύψω τόδ᾽ ἔγχος τοὐμόν, ἔχθιστον βελῶν”? Does not this (with the two verses which follow) clearly show that it was ‘only the fatality of the weapon that he had in his thoughts’?

5 As is well observed by Welcker (p. 235), and by Thirlwall (p. 519).

6 Verse 666, “τὸ λοιπόν”. For Ajax himself this signifies, ‘in what of life remains to me.’ Thirlwall observes (op. cit. p. 519): ‘These professions would certainly be mere dissimulation if they referred to anything but the approaching termination of his career, whereas they seem to imply a prospect of its continuance. Yet, if Ajax contemplated his death as a satisfaction both to divine and human justice, his manner of describing the lesson which he had learnt and would thenceforth practise, is not unnatural, but strongly emphatic.’ The last sentence is true; but not (I venture to think) the dilemma stated in the first. Ajax means his hearers to understand that he has resolved to go on living. Yet his utterance is not ‘mere dissimulation’; for he is really prepared to ‘yield to the gods,’ and (in his own sense) to ‘revere the Atreidae.’

7 For instance, Döderlein, in his essay on the Ajax, sums up his estimate of the speech in the words, ‘tota simulatio est’ (Abhandl. der Philosophisch-Philolog. Classe der k. Bayer. Akad., vol. II. p. 120, 1837). Schlegel's view is similar (Dramatic Lit., p. 107, Eng. tr.). This was, indeed, the traditional conception.

8 Thus Thirlwall says (op. cit. p. 519): ‘If the aim of Ajax is to deceive his friends, admitting the contrivance to be worthy of his character, and consistent with his previous conduct, he cannot reasonably be supposed more in earnest in one part of the speech than another.’

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hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (3):
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1.2
    • Euripides, Electra, 1448
    • Euripides, Electra, 638
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