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"'Sweet is the holiness of youth'—so felt

Time-honoured Chaucer, when he framed that lay

By which the Prioress beguiled the way,

And many a Pilgrim's rugged heart did melt."


So long as the Athenians were a second-rate power in Greece they were content with a military adventurer for the founder of the Ionian race. In a war between Athens and Euboea, one Xuthus had done them good service; his recompense for it was the hand of the Erectheid princess Creusa, and the issue of the marriage was Ion, from whom the Athenians claimed, remotely, to descend. But when, after the decline of Argos, they had risen to a level withCorinth andSparta, they aspired to the honour of a divine ancestry on the spear-side, as well as that of a royal one on the spindle. A wandering soldier no longer sufficed: the son of Creusa must not be born in mortal wedlock, but derive his origin from a god. And what deity—in this matter the virgin Pallas Athene was out of the question—was so fitted by his various gifts to be the forefather of so accomplished a people as the patron of music, poetry, medicine, and prophecy? To set before his fellowcitizens, as well as the strangers and allies who sat in the Dionysiac theatre, the pedigree of the Ionians, and consequently of the Athenians also, Euripides probably composed his "Ion."

Creusa is the daughter of Erectheus, an old autochthonic king of Athens. She has borne a son to Apollo, but through fear of her parents was compelled to leave him, immediately after his birth, in a cave under the Acropolis. The divine father, however, does not abandon the infant, but employs Mercury to transport him to Delphi, and to deposit him on the steps of the temple, where he knows the babe will be cared for. One of the vestals—apparently even then middle-aged, since she is old in the play—finds Ion, and fulfils his sire's expectations. She has, indeed, her own thoughts on the matter, but keeps them to herself until a convenient season comes for disclosing them. In the Delphian temple the foundling receives an education resembling that of the infant Samuel. He thus describes his functions :—

"My task, which from my early infancy
Hath been my charge, is with these laurel boughs
And sacred wreaths to cleanse the vestibule
Of Phoebus, on the pavements moistening dews
To rain, and with my bow to chase the birds
Which would defile the hallowed ornaments.
A mother's fondness and a father's care
I never knew; the temple of the god
Claims then my service, for it nurtured me."

He receives the strangers who come to consult the oracle or to see the wonders of the shrine, and shows himself, by turns, an expert ritualist or a polite cicerone. Centuries later, Ion would have had his place among the youthful ascetics who, by the beauty of their lives, and sometimes of their persons also, adorned the church and edified or rebuked the world. But this early Basil or Gregory of Delphi had other work destined for him than serving at the altar or waiting on pilgrims. He will have to go out of " religion" into the haunts of men: the privilege of celibacy is denied him; his ephod he must exchange for a breastplate, his laurel wreath for a plumed helmet. The name of Ion is due to an illustrious race.

Of all extant Greek dramas, this beautiful one, though easy for readers to understand, is the most complex in its action, and possibly may have kept the original spectators of it, in spite of the information given by Mercury in the prologue, in suspense up to its very last scene. In fact, the principal characters are all at cross-purposes. Creusa has come to Delphi on the pretext that a friend of hers is anxious to learn what has become of a son whom she has borne to Apollo—her own story transferred to another. Her husband Xuthus is there to ask advice from the neighbouring oracle of Trophonius by what means Creusa and himself may cease to be childless. "While he goes on his errand, his wife encounters Ion in the fore-court of the temple, and their conversation begins with the following words:—

"Ion. Lady, whoe'er thou art, that liberal air
Speaks an exalted mind: there is a grace,
A dignity in those of noble birth,
That marks their high rank. Yet I marvel much
That from thy closed lids the trickling tear
Watered thy beauteous cheeks, soon as thine eye
Beheld this chaste oracular seat of Phoebus.
What brings this sorrow, lady? All besides,
Viewing the temple of the god, are struck
With joy; thy melting eye o'erflows with tears.

Creitsa. Not without reason, stranger, art thou seized
With wonder at my tears; this sacred dome
Wakens the sad remembrance of things past."

In a long dialogue she communicates to her unknown son part of her own story, and by casting some reflections on the god for his conduct to her supposed friend, incurs a rebuke from the fair young acolyte. The Chorus remarks that mankind are very unlucky—they rarely get what they wish for :—

"One single blessing
By any one through life is scarcely found."

And Creusa, not at all abashed by Ion's remonstrance, proceeds to complain of Apollo's conduct towards herself and their son.

Xuthus now returns from the Trophonian crypt with good news for his wife and himself Trophonius, indeed, being a very subordinate deity, "held it unmeet to forestall the answer of a superior one;" "but," says Xuthus,—

"One thing he told me,
That childless I should not return, nor thou,
Home from the oracle;"

and then goes into the adytum to leam his fortune.

Ion again expresses his surprise at the strange lady's shrewish, and indeed as he thinks it, rather impious, language; but says, "What is the daughter of Erectheus to me t let me to my task." He admits, however (infected apparently by Creusa's boldness), that his patron has acted unhandsomely to some virgin or other:

"Becoming thus
By stealth a father, leaving then his children
To die, regardless of them."

Xuthus reappears, with this command from the Pythoness: "The first male stranger whom you meet, address as your son." Of course the stranger is Ion; but being greeted with the words, "Health to my son!" by one whom he has never before set eyes on, he is far more offended than pleased by this unlooked-for salutation; and, not at all unreasonably, all things considered, he recoils, when Xuthus proceeds to embrace him, and asks—

"Art thou, stranger,
Well in thy wits; or hath the god's displeasure
Bereft thee of thy reason V

He, a minister of the temple, objects to being thus claimed as so near of kin by a man whose business there he has yet to learn: he says, " Hands off, friend— they'll mar the garlands of the god;" and adds, "If you keep not your distance, you shall have my arrow in your heart:"—

"lam not fond of curing wayward strangers
And mad men."

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