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2005 Summer Reading
A Note on the English Meter of the Play

by Jay Rogoff, English

Seamus Heaney’s standing among the best poets currently writing in English comes in part from his prodigious formal craft, including his facility in manipulating meter and rhyme. His version of Antigone does not attempt to reproduce Sophocles’ Greek meters, but casts the rhythms of speech into English and Irish meters that differentiate his characters and contribute subtly to the play’s dynamic shifts in feeling. In his appended “Note,” he explains how the three-beat line from an Irish lament provides the rhythm for Antigone and Ismene’s speeches, the choric songs derive (loosely) from alliterative Anglo-Saxon prosody (the meter of Beowulf, which Heaney has also translated), and Creon’s lines follow traditional English iambic pentameter, the medium of Shakespeare, Milton, and much of English poetry. The mourning sisters, then, speak in traditional Irish mournful cadences, the Theban elders chant in the oldest English poetic style, and Creon the ruler uses rhythms that for five centuries were the rule in English verse. The Guard who informs Creon of Polyneices’ burial speaks in prose (19-21), as do lower class characters in Shakespeare’s plays, and Heaney sprinkles his speech with colloquial Anglo-Irish-style understatements, a device called litotes (“Sir, I wouldn’t exactly say I was panting to get here”).

Heaney is far from doctrinaire in assigning these speech rhythms; with the exception of the opposing poles of Antigone and Creon, the characters’ meters alter to fit the emotional situation. The Guard leaves off his prose when he enters in dialogue with Creon, falling into the king’s iambic pentameter in their exchange of single lines, a device known as stichomythia:

 Guard.  Can I say a word or am I just dismissed?
 Creon.  Dismissed. That’s it. You and your news disturb me.
 Guard.  Your conscience is what’s doing the disturbing.
 Creon.  Watch it, guard. You’re overstepping here. (23)

In the same scene, the Chorus have likewise swapped their Anglo-Saxon rhythms for Creon’s iambic pattern:

 Chorus.  Creon, sir, I cannot help but think
   The gods have had a hand in this somewhere. (21)


These shifts suggest Creon’s inflexibility: far from a ruler who can speak in the language of his subjects, he imposes his will upon them so they feel forced to speak as formally as he. The Chorus’s ode on suffering (39-40) seems an amalgam of iambic and Anglo-Saxon rhythms as though their sense of morality and autonomy were struggling with the force of Creon’s decrees. Even Antigone, in her appeal to Creon, articulates her case in his longer, more rigid line, as if he won't hear her in any other tongue:

 Creon.  So you know something no one else in Thebes knows?
 Antigone.  They know it too. They're just afraid to say it. (32)

Late in the play, the Chorus signals its shift in sympathy to Antigone by taking up her trimeter line:

Chorus.           Steadfast Antigone,

                      Never before did Death

                     Open his stone door

                      To one so radiant. (50)

At the play's end, Creon speaks in Antigone's trimeters, as if finally to listen to her voice and her concerns, now internalized and emanating from within him. His final despair and his embrace of his fate, spoken in rhythms like his kinswoman’s, are moving, but not as moving as Antigone’s final speeches as she accepts her betrothal to death. At these moments of heightened emotion, Heaney makes Antigone’s colloquial and even shocking language sound more formal through the subtle use of rhyme:

 Antigone  There. You have hit home.  a
   Over and over again  b
   Because I am who I am  a
   I retrace that fatal line  b
   And the ghastly love I sprang from.  a
   My father weds his mother.  c
   He mounts her. Me and mine,  b
   His half-sisters and -brothers  c
   Are born in their sullied bed.  d
   These are the stricken dead  d
   I go to meet in Hades (52).  x


Such formality gives Antigone’s speech and her life a sense of closure, a sense of finality as we watch her prepare to turn herself into art.
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