Monday, February 24, 2014

Antigone: First ode and some interpretive obscurity

The first choral ode of Sophocles' Antigone does a good deal of work. It presents the elders of Thebes who evoke the action that immediately preceded the play's opening. The people's fear of assault, the white-shielded army at the gates, the fate of Capaneus, all would remind an Athenian audience of Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes:

Here is a snippet of Aeschylus's first chorus, anticipating ruin at the hands of a massive Argive army at the city's seven gates:
Ah, ah, you gods and goddesses, raise your war cry over our walls to drive away the onrushing evil!
The army of the white shield, ready for battle, rushes at full speed against the city.
Who then will rescue us, which of the gods or goddesses will help? (89-91)
Here's Sophocles' first chorus, looking back upon the same event:
Shaft of the sun, fairest light of all that have dawned on Thebes of the seven gates, you have shone forth at last, eye of golden day, advancing over Dirce's streams! [105] You have goaded with a sharper bit the warrior of the white shield, who came from Argos in full armor, driving him to headlong retreat.

Sophocles' chorus is steeped in golden light - the shining beam of Helios appears thrice in the first lines, each time using the root φα, as in φαίνωthe root of light, of brightness, of that which causes anything to come into appearance:

ἀκτὶς ἀελίουτὸ κάλλιστον ἑπταπύλῳ φανὲν 
Θήβᾳ τῶν προτέρων φάος, 
ἐφάνθης ποτ᾽ χρυσέας 

followed by the eye of golden day,
ἁμέρας βλέφαρον
The movement from light to shining appearance to the eye is fully coherent and augurs clarity and illumination. Yet the next lines don't quite fulfill the expectation. First, there is some uncertainty about the action: it seems the sharp bit, or bridle, of Helios has turned away the Argives:
You have goaded with a sharper bit the warrior of the white shield
We could spend some time working out precisely how the bit of Helios (presumably driving his chariot) goaded the "warrior" from Argos. Normally bits curb one's own horses, rather than goading enemy armies. Translators are not of one accord on the actual syntax.


                           O golden day's 
eye, coming over Dirce's stream,
on the Man who had come from Argos with all his armor
running now in headlong fear as you shook his bridle free.

It's unclear what verb would serve to represent the "shaking free."

Grene offers:
You drove in headlong rout
the whiteshielded man from Argos,
complete in arms;
his bits rang sharper
under your urging.
Here the "bits" belong to the fleeing Argives.

Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald do away with bits and bridles altogether:
O marching light
Across the eddy and rush of Dirce’s stream,
Striking the white shields of the enemy
Thrown headlong backward from the blaze of morning!
Here the light itself is marching, like the Argive army, and strikes that army, causing not blindness, but a muscular act in which an army is thrown headlong backward.
This might seem an odd translator's decision, given that the Greek text clearly contains the word χα^λι_νόςwhich can mean bit or bridle, or, anything that curbs or restrains, or, a strap, thong, fang of a serpent. And it is ὀξυτέρῳ, i.e., sharp.

So a very simple noun for an everyday object somehow becomes problematic when coupled with a ray of the sun. We get no clear imitation of an action, rather, a set of alternatives that seem to include light, mythological horses, goading and curbing, army and bridle. The collective noun translated as army or enemy is φώς, that is, "man."

The trouble lies in discerning the causation. The ode begins with the clarity of golden sunlight, but the moment it speaks of an action leading to the rout of the man/Argives, the nature of that action proves difficult to grasp. Helios's beam somehow turned away the "man," but sheds very little light on how that feat has been managed.

Before we proceed to complain of Sophocles' word choice, syntax, or dismal handling of simple metaphor, we probably should read on. In so doing, the ode will present other interpretive difficulties. For now, a strong brilliance of light and the act of routing an army are somehow involved in an obscure causal relation. Even if that relation were clear, it would still be necessary to decide on the reliability of the elders who are singing the allegation.


flyingfish said...

What promising observations! I hope you continue the discussion. One thing worries me, though: I think your remarks concerning φα- would have a bit more force if you accounted for ἀκτὶς as well. I mean, I agree with your views, it just feels odd to dive into the semiotics of "light" without at least acknowledging the presence of a "ray."

Tom Matrullo said...

A good point - thanks - you are right - the role and mode of the "ray" might very well be key to getting a better grasp of the text here.