Seamus Heaney and the Soul of Antigone
November 4, 2005 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Love that can't be withstood,
Love that scatters fortunes,
Love like a green fern shading
The cheek of a sleeping girl.
Seamus Heaney's search for the soul of Antigone.
(more inside, with Christopher Logue)
posted by matteo (15 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Cold Calls is the fifth instalment in Christopher Logue's remarkable adaptation of The Iliad. Logue has been working on different episodes of Homer's epic on and off since the late 50s, at first mainly for radio performance. The stunning War Music appeared in book form in 1981, followed in the early 90s by Kings and then Husbands (these three were gathered together under the general title War Music in 1997).

Cold Calls, together with its immediate predecessor, All Day Permanent Red (2003), narrates the opening battle sequences of Homer's poem. Both books are exhilarating reads, but what is immediately striking is just how differently they set about their often grisly and gory material.
posted by matteo at 11:11 AM on November 4, 2005

Heaney on translating:
I've written elsewhere what happened next: all of a sudden I heard a note being struck in my head and inside seconds I had the pen in my hand and had done a number of the opening lines. Purchase on a language, a confidence amounting almost to a carelessness, a found pitch - all arrived in a breath. "Not I, not I," I could have exclaimed, "but the wind that blows through me." What had got me going was not study of the text or of the criticism surrounding it, but the words and rhythms of another work entirely.

The tuning fork sounded when I remembered the opening lines of one of the most famous poems in the Irish language, Eíbhlin Dhubh Ní Chonaill's Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire/ Lament for Art O'Leary.

My love and my delight,
The day I saw you first
Beside the markethouse
I had eyes for nothing else
And love for none but you

This stricken, urgent keen for a murdered husband, beaten out in line after three-stressed line, gave me the note I needed for the anxious, cornered Antigone at the start of the play. The wife in desperation provided a register for the desperate sister. Inside a couple of minutes I had the first sample lines to show to the artistic director
posted by matteo at 11:13 AM on November 4, 2005

Logue, by the way, is not a classicist and began without knowing Greek
posted by matteo at 11:14 AM on November 4, 2005

Thank you matteo. I appreciate how Heaney takes his inspirations from different points in time/space and makes something new. So many works become lost and stale without new translations. Love the picture in the first link, too. The man is a treasure.
posted by rainbaby at 12:02 PM on November 4, 2005

Thanks, matteo. For those who are interested in Antigone, (as story, rather than prose) there is a great site by the Cambridge ART, including a section on Antigone during times of war, covering Anouilh's and Brecht's versions.

I have always been partial to Anouilh's myself: ""The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy". Political commentary staged in occupied Paris with Nazis in the audience -- now that is an artistic statement!
posted by blahblahblah at 12:20 PM on November 4, 2005

Nice links, and while I generally dig your taste Matteo, I have to draw the line at Logue: now that you can change font size in Word in under two seconds, he's pretty much useless. I'm not a translation "purist," i.e., I don't think a translator needs complete mastery, especially of a dead language, to do her job, but to not know any of the language is just ridiculous.

I got to meet Robert Pinsky at a dinner in college when he was doing a tour to support his version of The Inferno. It was funny to watch his reaction when a prof asked him where he'd studied medieval Italian--turns out, he knew not a lick (although it's not a bad translation in the end, just supremely mediocre).

The play sounds cool though. I'd love to see that.
posted by bardic at 1:06 PM on November 4, 2005

As much as I appreicate Heaney, I can't say that I was thrilled with The Burial at Thebes. The Bush/Creon parallel was a little heavy-handed (He cops to the parallel, if not the ham-fistedness of it, in his note at the end of the book, but at this point no one could have missed it). The problem with the parallel, is that it ends up situating Antigone as an extraordinarily sympathetic figure, something that's never quite sat right with me.

Actually, as I've come to reread the texts in various translations, the one character who seems sympathetic to me is Ismene, and I'm actually a bit surprised that I haven't seen much more written about her.

Oh, and thanks for the post, matteo!
posted by .kobayashi. at 1:26 PM on November 4, 2005


There goes my free time this afternoon. Thank you matteo.
posted by reflecked at 1:28 PM on November 4, 2005

: now that you can change font size in Word in under two seconds, he's pretty much useless.

why? I'm not crazy for his own poetry, but I really like his version of Homer. I mean,

Thetis, gliding across the azimuth,
with armour the colour of moonlight

it's war music indeed to me.

are you familiar with his Prince Charming autobiography? lovely book.

re: Dante, I'm lucky enough to read him in lingua originale (actually big chunks of la Commedia still come back to memory -- committing to memory is murder, really, I really hated that) -- when it comes to English, I'm only familiar with Longfellow's translation, that I like, and poor Dorothy Sayer's (at least she had the chutzpah to take a crack at terza rima. I seem to remember than an Italian American scholar tried another terza rima translation -- how was that?
posted by matteo at 1:37 PM on November 4, 2005

You might be thinking of Ciardi's, which I've only looked at but liked. As for Logue, I promise to give him another chance--but the first time I picked up some of his War Music, I just couldn't stand the gimmickiness (is that a word?) of using large fonts. I don't mind creative typography by any means, but he just seemed to use it as his own personal form of the exclamation point.
posted by bardic at 2:00 PM on November 4, 2005

bardic: Please do give him another chance. Forget the fonts—they may be gimmicky, but everybody's entitled to a few gimmicks, and believe me, if you can get past them the poetry is overwhelming. I'm not normally a fan of loose translations, but Logue, like Pound, is good enough in my book to get away with any damn thing he pleases. Just those two lines about Thetis matteo quoted send shivers up my spine every time I read them. I'm excited to hear another installment is out; his Homer is the Homer of our age.

Oddly, though I like Heaney's poetry a lot, I'm not generally thrilled by his translations, and I have serious problems with what I've seen of this one. I just don't think the results justify the distortions:

Love like a green fern shading
The cheek of a sleeping girl.
Love like spume off a wave
Or turf-smoke in the air

is very pretty, but it ain't Sophocles. Heaney turns everything into Heaney; Logue turns Homer into... some wild-eyed 21st-century aoidos, infinitely strange but (for me) totally convincing.

Nice post, matteo!
posted by languagehat at 2:35 PM on November 4, 2005

I completely agree about the Pound/Logue comparison; their best translations have just enough of that blood-stained breath of strangeness to make "dead" works speak again. And anew.

Ciardi, though, oof, I remember boinging along with his Dante...
posted by Haruspex at 3:41 PM on November 4, 2005

I have a few quibbles with this translation (which I don't have time to go into right now, but am preparing to come back to if I remember -- thank Tufts for Perseus), but I thank matteo for this FPP. This is the kind of post that keeps me coming back to MeFi, despite the increasing noise.
posted by trip and a half at 9:16 PM on November 4, 2005

Oh, crap. Thank Tufts for Perseus. Geez.
posted by trip and a half at 9:18 PM on November 4, 2005

Thanks for this, my hair stood on end as I read Heaney's comments on Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire/ Lament for Art O'Leary. Reading this as a 14 year old in Catholic Ireland I first understood the intensity of physical love, and felt strongly that some things simply do not translate;- (likening her lover's flesh to warm, fresh bread that she could eat). Luckily I grew up, learned and loved in a few other languages, but the poem will always be with me.
I hope this isn't a de-rail but please make some time to read this poem.
posted by Wilder at 2:29 AM on November 5, 2005

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