Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Grief teaches the steadiest minds to waver."

I came across this quote somewhere in my death, grief and memory reading for the book and thought I would revisit Antigone, one of Sophocles (496 BC to 406 BC) remaining 7 plays (it is estimated that in his lifetime he wrote more than 120) and a study in the possibilities of grief, to find the exact context of the quote.

I've got two versions of Antigone on my shelves: The Complete Plays of Sophocles (Bantam, 1988, paperback), probably left over from college; and a Dover Thrift Editions Antigone (1993, also paperback) that I probably picked up to have something to read while traveling. I read through the first before bed one evening and was shocked by the mysogeny, the hubris of Creon's character, the wise, guiding voice of the chorus, and the sorrow of a conviction that ends in the death of three members of the Theban royal house. But I didn't find the quote I was looking for.

As the introductin says of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb's (1841 - 1905) translation, it "has the merit not only of extreme accuracy but also of maintaining a high formalism and dignity appropriate to Sophocles. Jebb's device for lending dignity to a prose version of stately poetry was to use archaism in vocabulary, wordforms, word order - in a word, to emulate the English of the King James Bible." I find this all a little suspect and - to use a word - British.

I switched to the Dover text, translated by Sir George Young (1837 - 1930), another turn-of-the-century Brit. The Dover edition preface says Sir George's translation, "is not only very accurate; it also preserves the feeling of the original Greek to a great extent. The verse forms are reasonable English equivalents; the diction - lightly archaic in the blank-verse dialogues, heightened and more involuted in the stanzaic choruses - admirably reflects the hieratic nature of Sophocles' drama." I still didn't find the quote; and to be more exact, I couldn't even find the equivalent of the quote I sought.

Although Antigone was written many years before Oedipus - which was composed when Sophocles was nearly 90 - the actions in the play take place after the fall of Oedipus and concern his four children, Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles and Polynices, and his wife Jocasta's brother, Creon, the ruler of Thebes in Oedipus' wake.

The play begins after a bloody battle for the rule of Thebes between Eteocles and Polynices, with the sons of Oedipus killing each other with simultaneous blows. Because Polynices is the invader, hoping to overthrow his briefly reigning brother, Creon declares to all citizens that the body of Polynices will go unburied and that defiance of this cree is punishable by death.

Because Antigone sees this as a criminal slight to the gods and to human dignity, she chooses to bury her brother to prevent birds and dogs from desecrating his body. (Here I have to think of the grief Antigone and her sister have suffered! First she finds out that her father, Oedipus, is also her brother, then her mother, Jocasta, kills herself, Oedipus is banished from the kingdom, then her two brothers kill each other in battle. That's a grief wallop.)

Proud Creon discovers that Antigone has betrayed his order and refuses to relent his sentence, though she is betrothed to his son Haemon. He orders her to be buried alive even though Haemon pleads for her life.

Antigone is the tragic figure here, not Creon. As the Bantam introduction notes, he is just sad. When one of the senators of the chorus asks Creon to bend for Antigone, he replies,

"Truly if here
she weild such powers uncensured, she is man,
I woman!"

When his son Haemon begs for reason, Creon says,

"Men that we are, must we be sent to school
To learn discretion of a boy like this?"


Tiresias shows up, as he does in Oedipus, to talk some sense into the ruler. He predicts great death in the house of Creon and then quickly leaves. This news makes Creon see the light and he runs off to bury Polynices, then to release Antigone from her grave. But by the time he arrives at her cavern, she has already hung herself, her lover Haemon clings to her waist and wails. When he sees his father, he drives a knife through his chest.

Creon returns to the palace distraught, carrying the body of his son. Only to find that his wife, Eurydice, has already heard of the death of her only son and also killed herself after cursing him.

The Dover version is in verse, which I find gives the chorus, for instance, and Creon's wailing cries of guilt in the death of his son and wife more impact. Compare these passages:


Oh Hades, all-receiving, whom no sacrifice can appease. Have you no mercy for me? You herald of bitter evil tidings, what word are you uttering? Alas, I was already as dead, and you have smitten me anew! What are you saying, my son? What is this new message that you bring - woe, woe is me! - of a wife's doom, of slaughter heaped on slaughter?


Woe is me again, for this new sorrow I see.

What deed is not done?
What tale is not told?
Thy body, O son,
These arms enfold -
Dead--wretch that I am! Dead, too, is the face these eyes

Ah, child, for thy poor mother! ah for thee!

Alas, I faint for dread!
Is there none will deal
A thrust that shall lay me dead
With the two-edged steel?
Ah woe is me!
I am all whelmed in utter misery!

Peter Manseau writes in his new novel, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, "As the old Italian saying has it, Traduttore, Traditore. A translator is a traitor. With poetry it is even more complicated than that."

Unless we read Greek, any version of Antigone comes to us from the hand of a traitor.

In the NY Times today there is a review by Anita Gates of "Too Much Memory," an award-winning staging of Antigone currently at Fourth Street Theater here in Manhattan. I mean to see it before it closes on December 22. But I don't expect to hear the quote I am searching for.