Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Eagle's wing, horsehair helmets: Antigone 110-116

ὃς ἐφ᾽ ἡμετέρᾳ γᾷ Πολυνείκους 
ἀρθεὶς νεικέων ἐξ ἀμφιλόγων 
ὀξέα κλάζων 
ἀετὸς εἰς γᾶν ὣς ὑπερέπτα
λευκῆς χιόνος πτέρυγι στεγανός
115πολλῶν μεθ᾽ ὅπλων 
ξύν θ᾽ ἱπποκόμοις κορύθεσσιν.
[110] He set out against our land because of the strife-filled claims of Polyneices, and like a screaming eagle he flew over into our land, covered by his snow-white wing, [115] with a mass of weapons and crested helmets.
The second part of the Antigone's first ode continues the bifurcated agency begun in the first strophe. The "he" who set out is the "Man" that came to Thebes - the entire armed force of Argives. But this "he" came because of the strife-filled claims (νεικέων) of Polyneices (Πολυνείκους). Two agents, then, driving one action.

It is difficult to think of another poet who puts pressure upon grammar, particularly upon grammatical number, the way Sophocles does here. First, there's the giant collective noun, reduced to the third person singular pronoun (ὅς). "He" comes to Thebes because of the νεικέων -- the plural claims or quarrels, of the singular Polyneices, whose name contains this same word. (Πολυνείκους means "many quarrels," or "much strife.")

The attention shifts back to the "Man" now likened to a screaming eagle with a snow-white wing. Normally the term for birds' wings occur in the plural (or, in Greek, the dual*), since they naturally come in twos. This eagle has only one, and it's στεγανός -- closely, or tightly covered, watertight.

We take that to be the white shield of the army, but the moment we take the total army as one bird, and the totality of shields as one tight white wing, this singular collective entity is "with many weapons and horsehair-crested helmets."

It's as if there's a struggle going on within the grammar of the ode -- strife between a totalizing imposition of a collective singular upon numerous individuals, and an actor, or agent, that refuses to remain singular, but diverges into "Man" / "Eagle" / "wing" which has multiple armaments yet is caused by "many quarrels" who happen(s) to be one man.

If this seems surreal, consider that it's in seeming violation of certain norms of poetic figure. If something is imagined to be One though it is many, poets usually sustain their inspired images by elaborating their figure in a consistent form. Sophocles clearly doesn't want to do this - no sooner do we take the army to be singular and birdlike and single-winged than it is toting many weapons and horsehair helmets -- we're back to a literal language and plurality of real armed forces that we do not have to "take" as anything other than itself.

The effect is of rough-hewn power, neither elegant, nor clever, nor cute. I find it disconcerting, slightly surreal, and haunting. Whatever else the first ode of the Antigone is doing, the poetics of the song are claiming attention by defamiliarizing grammatical and poetic expectancies. Interpretation of what this could mean will be taken up later. For now the attempt is to describe a certain textual strangeness.

[update] *Sophocles did use the dual number, as I was happy to learn after posting the above:
11. Antigone's name means "Against the Family." "Against" carries both the sense of "close to" and "opposed to." When Antigone first speaks she is yet without a name but her language stresses closeness. She addresses her sister with a hyperbole whose overstatement of filial closeness is further enhanced by her use of the dual number. Beside the singular and plural, Greek has a set of inflections for expressing pairs, most often, common pairs like two oxen or two eyes. Antigone encloses Ismene with language that makes them such a natural pair, and Ismene acknowledges this with dual forms of her own. Source.

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