No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, April 02, 2009

#23: The Burial at Thebes -- Seamus Heaney

You can't just pluck your honour off a bush
you didn't plant. You forfeited that right.

Seamus Heaney's new translation of Sophocles' Antigone (performed 442BC) brings the text vividly to life. The story is simple and tragic: Creon, king of Thebes, has decreed that the body of Polyneices be refused burial rites because he'd raised his hand against his brother Eteocles (who'll be buried as religion requires). Their sister Antigone insists on defying Creon's edict and performing funeral rites for Polyneices herself: her sister Ismene won't help.

These are Oedipus's children, so they have every reason to bewail the burdens Fate has laid upon them. Creon, full of his kingly power and determined that everyone should set state before family, ends up Fate's victim too, losing all he holds dear.

People have discussed this play for over two thousand years: I don't feel the need to add to that discussion, except to say:
  • Antigone is a stroppy teenager who is also right

  • This is a world where Fate does punish those who transgress the laws of the gods

  • Ismene just fades out of the action: I presume she survives ...

I do want to laud Heaney's translation, the glorious sonority of the words, the simplicity, the easy colloquialism. ("It was going off," says the guard about the corpse that's beginning to reek.) Compare Ismene's words in a standard modern translation (J. E. Thomas):
Then go, if this seems best to you, but know that
your friends truly love you, however foolish.

and in Heaney's:
Nothing's going to stop you
but nothing's going to stop
the ones that love you, sister
from keeping on loving you

It's poetry in that it says what needs saying with as few and as precise words as possible: not in the sense of formal structure or counted syllables or rhyme.

As in Beowulf, Heaney's good at evoking a world where ritual keeps the unseen, unknowable, at bay: he brings stark symbol and a sense of the supernatural, into the everyday world. Antigone sprinkles earth and pours water (three times): that's funeral enough to honour Polyneices' corpse. When Creon walls her up for her act, he invites Fate's blow -- invites the Furies, 'the inexorable ones' (as Tiresias puts it) to wreak vengeance on Creon (and likely his whole house). And Creon knows he's damned and doomed:
I want to hurry death.
I want to be free of the dread
of wakening in the morning.
Waking up at night.

I was lucky enough to be able to listen to a recording of a performance: definitely worth seeking out, to hear the rhythm brought to life and the remarkably effective musical settings of the Chorus.

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