The Burial at Thebes and "Hercules and Antaeus"
– Jan. 30, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC Aug. 27, 2014
– some minor editing done, Jan. 30, 2015

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

A Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004);
"Hercules and Antaeus" is found in Selected Poems: 1966-1987 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), originally from North (1975)


exploring the poetic-prosaic axis through example


I have be dwelling these last couple of posts[FN] on the idea as presented by Owen Barfield in Poetic Diction of recognizing that a literary text (or any text of any medium) can and should be analyzed through the recognition that the material and ideational elements of a text are two different (though not independent) elements of the text. That to speak of the material aspect — the verse-prose spectrum — is of a different subject than speaking of the ideational (spiritual) aspect — the poetic-prosaic spectrum.

[FN] The first and third are found here on this site: "'Hymn to Life' by Timothy Donnelly" and "Re-examining the Verse-Prose Poetic-Prosaic Graph. The second of the posts, "'A Way' by Rosanna Warren", is found on the PDC blog. *******************************

Consequential to that idea — and central to its importance — is the recognition that what makes poetry art, the aesthetic aspects of it, that nature of poetry, literature, and art in general that sustains the idea that true art speaks of the highest natures of humankind, does not lie in the material but lies in the ideational/spiritual. That is, what makes poetry poetry, what makes it art, is not found in the material, in verse. Rhyme and meter, or structure of whatever kind, may work to the poetic or prosaic aspects of a text, but they in themselves are not part of that spiritual spectrum.

This is not anything new to my explorations on this site. I have always made the distinction between the aesthetic and the nomic, and have anchored that which is ultimately important about poetry within the aesthetic. The language offered by Barfield's observations, however, the simple proposition that there is two spectra, the material and the spiritual, and that it is fallacious to confuse the two, has offered me here and elsewhere quite a bit of fruitful thought and exploration.

My last post (well, my second to last post) was an abstract exploration of the relationship between the material and the spiritual. Here, I want to continue the exploration with a demonstration through texts. Because nothing can be proved in demonstration, because nothing can be proved through the single example (no matter how many single examples you have), this can only ever be exploration. As such, I will try to limit this post to that exploration. Hopefully I will pull it off such that you will be able to bring the demonstration into engagement with the previous discussion. For me to attempt to definitively make those connections will work contrarily to the intended ends.

Though, I do think that I have found a half-way decent example to serve as demonstration of the nature of the spiritual/ideational spectrum, and show the difference between the poetic and prosaic modalities as they exist within literary texts. As opportunity arises on this blog, I will add more examples to the exploration. (Though whether I remember to explicitly point them out is another issue altogether.) Keep in mind, here, that this is not an exploration of poetics. The exploration here is ideational. Nor is this an exploration of some limited set of characteristics of literature. This is to the heart and soul of literature as an aesthetic endeavor, of what makes literature something of value to the human mind and to culture in general. (Indeed, it is to the core of my agonism with pop-poetry and pop-literature, as will be seen in the closing moments of this post.)


The text I want to use is Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes, though I will limit myself here to but the opening moment. The work a dramatic work, commissioned for the centenary of the Abbey Theatre. It is, as stated by the subtitle, "a version of Sophocles' Antigone." It is not a direct translation. As Heaney describes it in the afternote:

I wanted to do a translation that actors could speak as plainly or intensely as the occasion demanded, but one that still kept faith with the ritual formality of the original.

Which may not be a terribly helpful statement beyond this particular point: I do not want you to think I am here speaking about translations. The accuracy or inaccuracy of the translation (whatever that may mean) is irrelevant to this. I am only concerned with the resulting text.

Here must come the necessary transparency, the revealing of bias. As I have said before, I have never been as enthralled as the rest of the world is with Heaney. In all honesty, I consider him to have been and to still be, at least on this side of the pond, the most overrated UK poet of the last decades.[FN] Which is not to say that I do not enjoy his work, or that I think he was a terrible poet. Not at all. I merely think that his work is exalted far beyond what it actually merits.

[FN] Were you to ask me what are the most overrated poets in the US these last decades, I think my honest answer would be either (1) there are too many worthy possibilities, or (2) most of them. Though, as with Heaney, that also has less to do with the work of the writers than it has to do with the culture proclaiming the merits of that work.

I consider The Burial at Thebes to be a grand failure of a work. (This as a read text, though I do not believe my opinion would change if I saw it capably performed.) It is to me a glorious, flaming crash and burn. For whatever merit one might find in its material, verse aspects, it is ideationally/spiritually banal. Not to mention a terrifically boring read. Everything that is brilliant about Sophocles is absent from Heaney's version. All that remains is the structure of the general plot bearing only a thin veneer of the overarching themes. It is not unlike a Little Readers version of Antigone: the plot is there but only at a narrative level. It is all surface; there is no depth or resonance.

That is, it is a prosaic and not a poetic work.

I have neither desire nor intention to try to demonstrate this across the work. (If you would like to demonstrate its opposite, I would love to read the argument.) I am going to stick to the one moment, the opening words of Antigone to her sister Ismene. It is adequately characteristic of the rest of the text.

Since The Burial at Thebes is written in verse, in an effort to remove some confusion with the material spectrum (the verse-prose spectrum) I am going to reformat the text so that it is written like prose, adding punctuation as is made necessary by the removal of the line breaks, and to make the grammar as unobtrusive as is possible.

Ismene, quick, come here!

What's to become of us? Why are we always the ones?

There's nothing, sister, nothing Zeus hasn't put us through just because we are who we are: the daughters of Oedipus. And because we are his daughters we took what came, Ismene, in public and in private, hurt and humiliation —

But this I cannot take.

No, wait.

Here's what has happened. There's a general order issued and again it hits us hardest. The ones we love, it says, are enemies of the state. To be considered traitors.

To me, the flow through the "No wait. Here's what has happened" is terrifically clumsy. The entire moment seems to stumble to the end rather than flow. But that is of the material aspect; I bring it up only so it can then be ignored.

For consideration of the ideational/spiritual nature of the text, I need a comparison. This is the same opening words of Antigone as translated by Robert Fagles (in The Three Theban Plays). Again, I am modifying it to be prose (for same the reasons above, though also so that it echos the paragraph structure established in Heaney's text, above).

My own flesh and blood — dear sister, dear Ismene — how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down!

Do you know one, I ask you, one grief that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us while we still live and breathe? There's nothing, no pain — our lives are pain — no private shame, no public disgrace, nothing I haven't seen in your griefs and mine.

And now this: an emergency degree, they say, the Commander has just now declared for all of Thebes.

What, haven't you heard? Don't you see? The doom reserved for enemies marches on the ones we love the most.

I want to focus on but a few specific moments:

1. The cause of their suffering:

H: "just because we are who we are, the daughters of Oedipus"
F: "our father Oedipus handed down to us"

The activating source of the cause of the suffering of Antigone and Ismene differs between the texts. In Fagles, the phrasing puts the source of the cause on Oedipus, he hands down the griefs to them. This is in resonance with the general idea of Greek tragedy, of the Oedipus story, in that the events that underlie Antigone were set in motion before the time of the play, were set in the clash between Oedipus and Fate. That idea is removed from Heaney's version. There is no alluding to the source cause of the griefs. Rather, there is only the factual statement that they suffer because they are Oedipus's children.

"Factual" being the key point. The resonance of the line in Fagles both with the whole of Antigone and to the whole of the Oedipus story (and the ideation field of tragedy) has been excised in favor for a simple, factual statement of cause and effect: we are Oedipus's children so we suffer griefs.

2. Zeus's involvement:

H: "There's [. . .] nothing Zeus hasn't put us through"
F: "Do you know [. . .] one grief that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us"

In Fagles, Zeus is not the source of the griefs, he is the perfecter of the griefs, which again brings the ideation of the moment into engagement with the greater ideation of the tragedy of Oedipus and the idea of fate. In Heaney, Zeus is made the source of the grief. The entire ideational superstructure of fate and Oedipus's primary story is absent. What remains is cause and effect. There the effect of grief; it was caused by Zeus. Once established the mechanical modality stretches outward: Zeus's need to cause the grief is thus itself the effect of an earlier cause. Antigone and Ismene's sufferings are here effected punishment for some earlier act. A leads to B for the reason that A leads to B: nothing more is said because nothing needs to be said.

3. The relationship of Antigone and Ismene to the griefs:

H: "because we are his daughters we took what came, Ismene, in public and in private, hurt and humiliation"
F: "There's nothing, no pain — our lives are pain — no private shame, no public disgrace, nothing I haven't seen in your griefs and mine."

The phrase "our lives are pain" is defining of the moment, indeed of the whole opening if not the whole play: the two are fated to their pain, there is no cause and effect; it is the nature of things. Again, we have the greater context of the story of Oedipus and of the ideation that underlies Greek tragedy: the relationship between the individual and Fate. In Heaney, that is excised from the text and the relationship is reduced to pains that are externally generated and externally applied to the two women. They exist only as something the women need only bear. While there is a narrative structure being generated, there is no ideational depth to the relationship.

Related to this is the semantic error in Heaney of "But this I cannot take." I mean here a error of semantics within Heaney's text. The idea does not exist in the Fagles text. But I am not concerned with translation, so let me say it this way instead: That idea cannot exist within the Fagles text. The need for the statement "but this I cannot take" arises so that the chain of cause and effect in Heaney can be continued. Previously the effect of suffering caused the bearing of suffering. There is no play because the women bore the suffering without generating an effect from that cause extending beyond that required by bearing the suffering. The chain of events ended with the women bearing their pains. Once the effect of suffering causes the refusal to "bear" the suffering any longer, the chain of events that is the play is launched. In Fagles, there is no possibility for the refusal to "bear" suffering: there is no choice. That is their Fate. The actions of Antigone that constitute the body of the play are not an effected reaction to the cause of her suffering, but the actions of a character caught between the conflicting ideational fields of customary law and state law, a conflict that is energized by Creon's decree. Because Heaney reduces the relationship between the women and their suffering to cause and effect, the ideational depth that is the heart of Antigone, that conflicting engagement between customary and state law, is mostly removed. There is only action and reaction.

4. The new order by Creon:

A final example to the same end.

H: "The ones we love, it says, are enemies of the state. To be considered traitors."
F: "The doom reserved for enemies marches on the ones we love the most."

What is the common event to all these examples — indeed, to the whole of The Burial at Thebes? The ideational content of the play has be reduced in Heaney's text from one of complex, ideational depth, of symbolic interplay, of energic fields of meaning, to one of narrative fact. There is in Heaney only the events and the characters positioning within those events; everything is reduced to factuality. The play progresses as a chain of factual events, mechanically moving from fact to effected fact to associated fact.

In Heaney, Polynices (Antigone's and Ismene's dead brother) has been by decree given the label of enemy. It is a factual classification. In Fagles, however, Polynices is given relation not to the mere title of "enemy" but to the "doom reserved for enemies": that is, he is given the nature of an enemy of Thebes, he is given the nature of a non-Theban. It is not an issue of legal or scientific or cultural terminology, but an issue of the very soul and spirit of the person of Polynices and culture of Thebes.

The symbolic aspect of Fagle's text is absent in Heaney's text. There is found there rather only theoretical rationalities, definitions, and mechanical associations. In the terms of Forster, the plot has been reduced to mere story. Art has been reduced to factual history.

That is, the poetic has been reduced to the prosaic.

Do not take the word "reduced" in a derogatory sense. I say "reduced" there because the prosaic and the poetic are not oppositional. The prosaic functions — and necessarily so — within the poetic: the latter is the larger, encompassing field of ideation. Thus, in removing the symbolic from Sophocles's text, what is left is the prosaic. It is a reduction in ideation. The question of whether reduction is a postive or negative event depends upon the aims of the text in question. If the purpose of the text is informational in nature, then such reduction is positive to the ends of the text. For example, if in writing a critical analysis of Sophocles's Antigone I needed to chart out the narratological characters, objects and events of the story, then such a reduction would be necessary to my ends.

Since I cannot speak for Heaney's intention with The Burial at Thebes — perhaps he was in fact trying to write a surface-only, story-only version of Antigone — I cannot speak to the success or failure of his intent. But as a literary object, I can speak of the shallowness, banality, and boredom-inducing nature of the text.


It is only fair to give counter example to Burial, something else from Heaney's work, something to give energy to what I mean by saying Heaney is the most overrated UK poet in the US culture of poetry: that it is not a blanket statement on the poetry itself.

I have picked something also mythologically Greek in subject, "Hercules and Antaeus." Again, I reformatted the lines (it is not the whole poem) to look like prose, re-punctuating (unavoidably imperfectly) as necessary.

Antaeus, the mould-hugger, is weaned at last: a fall was a renewal but now he is raised up. The challenger's intelligence is a spur of light, a blue prong graiping him out of his element into a dream of loss and origins. The cradling dark, the river-veins, the secret gullies of his strength, the hatching grounds of cave and souterrain, he has bequeathed it all to elegists. Balor will die, and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, Hercules met with him on his return from securing the golden apples of the Hesperides. This is from Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (133.g-h):

[Heracles] first traversed Libya, whose King Antaeus, son of Poseidon and Mother Earth, was in the habit of forcing strangers to wrestle with him until they were exhausted, whereupon he killed them; for not only was he a strong and skilful athlete, but whenever he touched the earth, his strength revived. [. . . Antaeus] proved no easy victim, being a giant who lived in a cave beneath a towering cliff, where he feasted on the flesh of lions, and slept on the bare ground in order to conserve and increase is already colossal strength. [. . .]

In preparation for the wrestling match, both combatants cast of their lion pelts, but while Heracles rubbed himself with oil in the Olympian fashion, Antaeus poured hot sand over his limbs lest contact with the earth through the soles of his feet alone should prove insufficient. Heracles planned to preserve his strength and wear Antaeus down, but after tossing him full length on the ground, he was amazed to see the giant's muscles swell and a healthy flush suffuse his limbs as Mother Earth revived him. The combatants grappled again, and presently Antaeus flung himself down of his own accord, no waiting to be thrown; upon which, Heracles, realizing what he was at, lifted him high into the air, then cracked his ribs and, despite the hollow groans of Mother Earth, held him aloft until he died.[FN]

[FN] I realize, looking back, and with no small humor, that I took the time here to give the Hercules story but not the Antigone story. Sorry, that. But you're on your own, on that one.

Again, looking at specific moments:

1. "a fall was a renewal but now he is raised up"

Notice the irony within the language. "Raised up" can normally function as a synonym for "renewed." Here, however, being "raised up" is actually the weakening of Antaeus. With the irony, raising and falling are brought into a unified engagement — an engagement that informs the whole of the poem.

2. "The challenger's intelligence is a spur of light"

That pairing of the opposites of rise and fall is echoed in the elemental description of Hercules and Antaeus. Hercules is "intelligence" and of "light" while Antaeus is strength and of the earth. Light is frequently used as a symbol of the higher qualities of man, above the more basic, brutish earth, just as intelligence is often raised as a higher quality than brute strength. However, the ideational field generated by the opposition of rise and fall moves outward and brings the oppositions of light and earth, intelligence and strength also into ironic opposition.

3. "he has bequeathed it all to elegists"

And is not elegy a poetic art? A 'higher' endeavor of the mind?

4. "Balor will die, and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull"

The mythic struggle – and the generated irony – is brought out from myth into history, into the stories of the 'real' world.

"Hercules and Antaeus" is a poetic text, whereas The Burial at Thebes is a prosaic text, even though both are written in verse. Where "Hercules and Antaeus" is a brewing pot of ideational energies, an ever-open ideational engagement, Burial is closed by its modality of factuality, of mechanical progression. It is a surface text: characters and events, statements of fact and counterfact. There is no place for the reading mind to go except through the mechanical progressions from A to B to C to D. All that is required of the reader is to see and follow that progression.

You cannot so close "Hercules and Antaeus." To say the poem the culture of Sitting Bull above the advances of civilization is to falsely close the irony of the poem, is to reduce the poem from its poetic being into a prosaic reading. You cannot within the poem separate the raising from the falling as they are unified within the poem in a coincidence of opposites. The reader engages the poem, finds not defining fact but energic ideation, and the poem comes alive in its depth and omni-directional currents of flow. In turn so also may the reader's own psyche and engagement with themselves and the cosmos then so come alive.[FN]

[FN] Wholly as an aside, it is worth noting that Hercules, as a mythic figure, is representational of agriculture. Hercules was a farmer. The tales of Hercules resonate greatly with that fundamental need of agriculture of the farmer to, by their own wits, overcome Nature and produce, annually, a bountiful crop. Those ideas are rather to the fore in the tale of Acteon. I cannot say if Heaney knew overtly of the agricultural underpinnings of the Hercules stories, but those ideas do bring much energy to "Hercules and Antaeus."


This post was in part prompted by an online discussion, a brief thread that moved into the idea of the often heard opposing of "serious reading" — "serious lit" — to "reading for fun." The discussion was started (by me) with this quotation from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (ch. 3, p.48 n.* in the Engell/Bate Collected Works edition):

For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather their kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly daydreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and imagery of the doze is supplies ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man's delirium, so as to people the barrenness of an hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement, (if indeed those can be said to retire a musis, who were never in their company, or relaxation be attributable to those, whose bows are never bent) from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely; indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy. In addition to novels and tales of chivalry in prose or rhyme, (which which last I mean neither rhythm or meter) this genus comprizes as its species, gaming, swinging, or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking; tete a tete quarrels after dinner between husband and wife; conning word by word all the advertizements of the daily advertizer in a public house on a rainy day, &c. &c. &c.

(All emphasis Coleridge's.) Understanding that excerpt necessitates understanding the greater context that is the whole of the Biographia. Coleridge, there, is not making a distinction between "serious" lit and "reading for fun." Indeed, his concept of what is valuable in literature is inextricably linked with pleasure. So while Coleridge can condemn a certain class of literature as being but "kill-time," of a kind of reading that is on the scale of human endeavor at the same level as spitting over a bridge, that literature cannot be defended with the rebuttal "but I am reading for fun." For the literature Coleridge praises is by definition reading for pleasure.

Nor does Coleridge identify literature worth reading as being "serious" literature, in the manner the the word as most frequently used in such discussions about reading habits. The question of seriousness — in that meaning of the term — is, actually, irrelevant. A good bit of Part II of the Biographia, which is about poetry and literature, works to assuring that point, that what makes great poetry is its modality, and that modality can be engaged by all (that is, should be able to be engaged by all, if education does not get in the way). Though, to note, that does not mean everybody should be able to wholly engage every text: some texts are more difficult than others. But the difficulty — the seriousness — is not what marks literature of value; nor does the absence of seriousness or difficulty mark kill-time literature.

What does mark kill-time literature is that it is prosaic in nature.[FN] That it is prosaic literature. Not that it is written in prose: whether a text be verse or prose does not in consequence make the text poetic or prosaic. The material spectrum does not dictate the spiritual spectrum. It is that it is literature — ostensibly written for pleasure — but literature that is closed to the engagement of the mind. Like The Burial at Thebes, it offers nothing to the thinking mind, but only a mechanical progression of facts which the reader either accepts or rejects.


[FN] Terms prosaic and poetic are Barfield's, not Coleridge. But Barfield's ideas are derived from and descriptive of the ideas of the Biographia.

I find it of no small humor how the defending of bad literature by the statement "I am only reading for fun" is nearly identical to the question of diet in a healthy lifestyle. Coleridge's statement above is anchored in the idea that, to wit, there are no empty calories in reading. Either you are eating to a fit lifestyle, either you are exercising your body to a fit lifestyle, or you are not, and as such you body is deteriorating. There are no empty calories: either the food benefits you, or it is deleterious to you. Either the reading benefits your mind, or it is deleterious to the fitness of your mind. Hearing people say "I am only reading for fun" is directly translatable to an out of shape person saying "I want to eat food I like." As though — as with Coleridge and literature — healthy food cannot be pleasurable. The conflict is not in the taste of the food, but in taste buds conditioned by their addictions to grease and sugar.


I do not here want to go too deep into this idea.[FN] I brought it up for a basic observation, a simple consequence of recognizing the two spectra of the arts, the material and spiritual: that is, that what is valuable in literature is not defined by the "seriousness" of its subject, nor by the complexity of its language, nor by whether it is written in highly formal verse or not. What is important about the poetic is not a question of whether it is reading for pleasure or reading for serious learning. What is important about the poetic is simply that it is poetic: it is an open text, a text to be engaged, a text that does not collapse into factuality, a text that brings energies to the mind of the reader.

[FN] I am by necessity cutting the discussion off, as any further step seems to lead me into the very important point of the necessary unity of the poetic and the philosophic (and, in turn, the moral), that a philosophy is only every a dead philosophy, a mechanical series of facts, if it does not itself function within the poetic. (The critiques of Nietzsche and the post-structuralists should be apparent, here.) To write a word in that direction seems to demand writing many more words following. Though, I will assuredly return to the idea, directly or indirectly, here and elsewhere.

That understanding is central to my approach to literature and the arts and to the project that is this blog. (Which is why, even though this blog is focused on "poetry," on texts constructed in verseform, I occasionally do remind everyone that my interests in literature is not defined by verse but by the poetic.) My critique of pop-poetry, of poetry culture, of much of what is praised as today's great poetry, is that that poetry, when brought into analysis, is not poetic but prosaic in nature, and mostly missing that very quality that is what does and has always made the high arts beautiful.

To speak in the negative, literature of value is, simply, that literature which does not reduce the world to mechanical fact.