A review of The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney

The difference is startling but the poetry is unmistakable and convincing in its authenticity. But may it be the authenticity of Heaney rather than of Sophocles?

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Burial at Thebes
by Seamus Heaney
Faber and Faber 2004, ISBN 0-571-22361-3, £12.99, 56 pages

By an interesting coincidence the best treatment of a Greek drama is that of Antigone – which Heaney here translates as The Burial at Thebes – by Carl Orff. A major authority on Greek drama, H.D.F. Kitto, describes the plays as akin in many respects to opera and it is pertinent that the earliest composers of opera imagined that they had restored the Greek drama to its original form. Although a greater composer than Orff had composed a work on the subject of one of the Greek plays, Stravinsky’s effort – based as it is on a mixture of spoken vernacular narrative and a text sung for no acceptable reason in Latin – remains a curiosity from the dramatic point of view, whatever it may be musically. Orff with the insistent rhythms of his music and his ability to deal with the humanity of the protagonists gives us a version in which the meaning of the text is clear despite choral singing (a frequent source of total incomprehensibility) and the events are stark and implacable.

The events themselves are indeed stark. The play opens with the conversation between Antigone and Ismene. They are the daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta. He had unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. In addition to Antigone and Ismene were two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. In a dispute over which should rule Thebes after the mysterious disappearance of Oedipus, Eteocles, defender of Thebes, and Polyneices, leader of an invading army, engage and kill each other. Creon, brother of Jocasta, assumes the rule of Thebes. He allows burial of Eteocles but denies it to Polyneices. Antigone resolves to bury him. Ismene resolves to obey Creon. The chorus of Theban elders enters and Creon addresses them. He is all rigor, a compulsive victim of his own bad decisions. He involves the chorus in his decision although they resist. When a guard tells Creon that an unknown person has given funeral rites to Polyneices, Creon immediately sees himself as the victim of a conspiracy and accuses the guards of accepting bribes.

The choral passage that follows is ambiguous. It describes the emergence of man from savagery to a position of civilized life. In the bounds of civility he receives applause only if his acts are just. When the guard brings Antigone forward as the culprit, the words of the chorus would seem to apply to her but Sophocles is careful to maintain balance between Creon and Antigone. He gives us no reason to like Creon, an insecure man with a consequent swagger in his decisions and a repulsive readiness to think first of money influences and envy. But Antigone is as intransigent as he although more admirable. At the end the tragedy will seem to be more his than hers.

Creon sends Antigone to her death despite the successive warnings of his son (betrothed to Antigone), the prophet Teresias and the chorus. It is the chorus that Creon heeds but too late to prevent his own ruin. It is a bitter and searing play, a look into the pit.

Antigone was the subject of another play. This play, which has perished, was by Euripides, Sophocles’ younger contemporary. The reported details, not entirely reliable, suffice to show that the play by Euripides was very different. These differences emphasize that Antigone herself as well as her sister Ismene were characters of very late invention and therefore more plastic than characters derived from older mythical levels. It is amusing that the city of Thebes itself adopted Antigone and showed sites associated with her – for the benefit of the tourist trade.

It is unlikely that today any reader would be greatly concerned with the accuracy of this translation. The number of those fluent in classical Greek is too negligible for this to be an issue. But how does Heaney’s translation compare to other available translations?

In 1894 the Dean of Wells, E.H. Plumtre, translated the close of the last choral ode as:

The child of highest Zeus: appear, O king,
With Thyian maidens wild,
Who all night long in dance,
With frenzied chorus sing
Thy praise, their lord, Iacchos.

Its diction may date it slightly but this is not bad. Heaney has this:

Be the necklace-fire of stars,
The cauterizing lightening,
Bewilder us with good.
We who live where Cadmus
Sowed the dragon’s teeth
Call on you, Dionysus.

The difference is startling but the poetry is unmistakable and convincing in its authenticity. But may it be the authenticity of Heaney rather than of Sophocles? Elizabeth Wyckoff (The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore) translates the same passage as:

Leader in dance of the fire-pulsing stars,
overseer of the voices of the night,
child of Zeus, be manifest,
with due companionship of Maenad maids
whose cry is but your name.

Rather prosy but much more like Dean Plumtre’s translation than Heaney’s. And finally Paul Roche (The Oedipus plays of Sophocles):

Come you choreographer
Master of the pulsing stars
And voices of the night, O Prince
Appear! You Zeus begotten!

All your choric troop proceeding,
Midnight maenads in their frenzy,
Come, Iacchos, O come.

This is more definitely poetry, very free but closer in content to Plumtre and Wyckoff and thus, one presumes, also closer to the original.

The Burial at Thebes is, then, a version rather than a strict translation. How little strict it is may be seen in Heaney’s use of Cadmus and the dragon’s teeth in the passage that we have been comparing. This is a grace in the text for which we must applaud – or blame – Seamus Heaney. This was, I should add, the kind of thing that, back when folk knew classical Greek, Sir Gilbert Murray caught hell for.

Although I miss the choral divisions into strophe and antistrophe, I was caught up in this version and finished it with the tense knot in my throat that marks an experience of something uncommon. As an introduction to a great play or as an expression from a major poet The Burial at Thebes is equally valuable and necessary.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places