THE RICHES OF contemporary Greek literature have been most abundant in poetry and rather sparse in other genres, perhaps sparsest of all in criticism. Only a few critical texts have appeared in English -- for example, Seferis' On The Greek Style and the forthcoming essays of Zissimos Lorenzatos -- and rightly so, since little has appeared in Greek criticism during recent decades worthy of export. Now we have Angelos Terzakis' long essay on tragedy to add to the short list of texts available to the English-speaking reader. It is an essay full of surprises, full of poetic insights that place it above the conventional expectations raised by its title, an appropriate companion volume to the work of Seferis and Lorenzatos.

It should be stated at the start that those trained in either the New Criticism or subsequent post-modernist criticism (as the current jargon has it) will find the essay hard going at times: too subjective, too epigrammatic, too opinionated, too vague and loosely argued, too old-fashioned. But those who persist to the end will discover that a fairly consistent and ultimately provocative point of view informs the whole, and, in any case, that the journey provides illuminations along the way which make the book's slow progress -- especially at the beginning -- more than tolerable.

As Cedric Whitman implies in his generous foreword, Terzakis comes to his criticism of classical tragedy with the advantage of being Greek, of speaking within the long tradition -- its ancient roots still alive under later Christian foliage -- that first nurtured the tragic muse. This advantage is perhaps responsible for his ability to take for granted certain questions that have puzzled other critics. He moves easily to a level of awareness that can define Oedipus (the central preoccupation in three of the book's ten short chapters) as a "paradigm for the whole, a model of humankind" rather than an anomalous exception, and that can see in this a mystery at the heart of our experience of the tragic spirit.

Defining this mystery in the case of Oedipus and a number of other tragic heroes, classical and Elizabethan, becomes the book's major impulse, and the fact that Terzakis can leave us convincingly with mystery as an essential element of his definition speaks both for his cunning and his unusual perspicacity. He finds Oedipus' predicament representative of "a reality of life, part of an unwritten and entirely ruthless law of the world," a world into which we are sent to live without having been asked, under rules we have to accept whether we like them or not because no others exist. Men marked to rebel outrageously or to suffer inexplicably or to love hopelessly are among those who can become tragic heroes, and those who do so, earn "the privilege of expressing us," of being "the bearer[s] of our silent command." We discover gradually that fate is not really at issue in tragedy, nor free will, nor even metaphysical freedom, but the problem of metaphysical freedom. In short, there is always a tormenting question at the center of the tragic experience, a "feeling of potential mystery" which is its sanctity.And the tragic hero moves not in the realm of reason but in the realm of the irrational, where necessity is mythologized.

These general perceptions find a local habitation most vividly -- perhaps especially for English-speaking readers -- in Terzakis' discussion of Elizabethan tragedy. We learn of the awesome tragic shudder in Marlowe's "Ay, we must die an everlasting death" because we are human beings whose humanity is determined by our capacity to sin before a silent God, and of the "sacrificial sacredness" that death (rather than fate) engenders in the idyllic young lovers of Romeo and Juliet , and, in contrast, of the wrathful natural force of destructive passion in the mature lovers of Antony and Cleopatra , a force that can challenge history as it generates doom. And at several crucial moments, Terzakis' Greek advantage allows him to pinpoint brilliantly the godly presences in Shakespeare that are at work for the English playwright as they might have been for a Classical tragedian, for example, the "personified blindness of man" that suddenly appears in Antony's evocation of "Ate... come from hot hell" to stand beside Julius Caesar's revenging spirit, or the elevation of the later Antony's passion to the region of absolutes by his seemingly accidental allusion to the god of love at the opening of Act IV, iv.: "Eros! Mine armour, Eros!"

It is Terzakis' unabashed preoccupation with gods, absolutes, the sacred, the mysterious and the irrational, along with his insistence on the rarity of true tragic creation, that allows him to make a discriminating case against Racine as a tragic dramatist and against critics (George Steiner is mentioned specifically) who have failed to understand that tragedy cannot come by way of court rationalists -- "Masked snobs" to Terzakis -- offering the rhetoric of melodrama in lovely alexandrines, because tragedy is not rational but "of a prerational kind." He thinks the mistaken conception and evaluation may persist because both Racine and his critics have known Attic tragedy only through translations, in an unrecognizable form that does not allow them to receive its "holy communion."

His own critical work may also suffer to a degree from not being read in the original, but without the Greek text at hand for comparison, this reader found the translation both precise and poetic as seemed necessary, without any of the problems of nuance or idiom that occasionally marred the translator's rendering of Seferis' diaries. Professor Anagnostopoulos has clearly grown to meet the eloquence and subtlety of Terzakis' ambitious prose. He is to be congratulated for making the rewards of this exciting essay as accessible as he has.