CAT 7. Engraved by George Cooke. Sophocles. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 6. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.
Sophocles (496?-406 B.C.), Greek dramatist. From entry in HG 6: “Sophocles brought tragedy to the highest degree of perfection; according to some, he composed a hundred and twenty-five pieces, according to others only eighty, [but] seven of these pieces only have reached us. . . . The fecundity of the moderns is not to be compared with that of the Greeks, who had every thing to create and invent. . . . His Oedipus presents one of the most pathetic subjects of the ancient theatre. . . . The dark colouring of the representations, the truth of the sentiments, the terrible obscurity of the oracles, the deep expressions of despair, bestow on this piece an interest which the differences of religion and manners cannot destroy. . . . Sophocles had not the grief of surviving his genius, although he survived the affection of his children; and his Oedipus at Colonus was the finest revenge he could take on his ungrateful sons. . . . The distinguishing character of this great tragedian is majesty and simplicity; he has in this respect, the advantage over Euripides, who is superior to him in the pathos of sentiment, and the language of the passions” (n.p.). For a depiction of Oedipus and his children at Colonus, see CAT 169.
Melville acquired a volume of Sophocles, translated by Thomas Francklin, as part of the Classical Library in 1849 (Sealts no. 147, v. 14). He was soon using the ancient story of Oedipus to alert his reader to the presence of sin and sorrow in the here and now. In White-Jacket he asserted that the “wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep” in America’s own navy harbor “even worse horrors” than those revealed in “Sophocles’s Œdipus Tyrannus [or] the Roman story of Count Cenci, dramatized by Shelley” (NN WJ 376). Contemplating forty years during which Israel Potter lived in absolute squalor in London, Melville’s narrator asks of the citizens of London: “What plebian Lear or Œdipus; what Israel Potter cowers there by the corner they shun?” The warning this narrator gives himself as a fictional dramatist of such sufferers is as unflinching as that of Sophocles himself: “Best not enlarge upon them. For just as extreme suffering, without hope, is intolerable to the victim, so, to others, is its depiction, without some corresponding delusive mitigation. The gloomiest and truthfulest dramatist seldom chooses for his theme the calamities, however extraordinary, of inferior and private persons; least of all the pauper’s; admonished by the fact, that to the craped place of the king lying in state, thousands of starers shall throng; but few feel enticed to the shanty, where, like a peeled knuckle-bone, grins the unupholstered corpse of the beggar” (NN IP 161).