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Thoughts on “The Burial at Thebes” by Seamus Heaney

The Burial at Thebes is Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ play Antigone. I read it for my December World Party Reading Challenge book, for which the country was Greece.

About the Book:

Burial at Thebes (cover)Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, finds out that both of her brothers are dead, having fought on opposing sides of a battle. The one who fought for Thebes is given a proper burial, while the other is left, by decree of King Creon, uncovered and exposed, without his last rites. Antigone defies Creon’s orders, knowing she will be unable to live with herself if she allows her own brother to be treated in such a manner. The Burial at Thebes (or Antigone, as the play is typically titled) deals with Antigone’s fate.

My Thoughts:

I’ve never read Antigone in any translation but Heaney’s, which was lovely. It’s not a long play–only 74 pages in comfortably sized font and with generous margins and spacing–and I was surprised by how little actually happened. Most of the play is philosophical, with characters arguing with one another about the broader implications of Antigone’s actions. I actually preferred it this way. It was an interesting look at what the Ancient Greeks believed, and it was fascinating to think about how relevant many of the comments are even today.

There were a couple of lines that stuck out as especially good advice. The first comes from Haemon, Creon’s son, and the second from the Chorus:

If a river floods
The trees on the bank that bend to it survive.
If a skipper doesn’t slacken sail in storm
His whole crew ends up clinging to the keel.
So. Swallow pride and anger. Allow yourself
To change.

(pp. 43-44)

Bear with the present; what will be will be.
The future is cloth waiting to be cut.

(p. 73)

Heaney’s translation is easy to read. He phrases the lines with a touch of poetry, so that they flow like especially articulate sentences. His version of Antigone did not feel stilted in the least. If you’d like to read or revisit Antigone, I’d highly recommend checking out The Burial at Thebes. I’m interested, now, to read another translation and see how they differ!

Your Turn!

Do you have a favorite translation of a particular book?

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  • http://coffeeandabookchick.blogspot.com Coffee and a Book Chick

    Sounds like a great translation – the two selections that you’ve included are great examples, not to mention, great advice as you said. I particularly like the first one.

    • Erin

      It was very well done — modern, but not too much so, and just poetic enough.

  • http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com Charlie

    I read Antigone for my school drama class and loved it, very interesting play and I was sorry we ended up jilting it for another. I’ve got a copy of this version to read in a few months and I’m looking forward to it. Nothing much does happen, as you say, but the content is good enough that it doesn’t matter.

    • Erin

      I’m interested to read another translation, since I think Heaney’s wasn’t strictly a translation (more of a version). I actually just picked up a copy translated by Robert Fagles, whose Odyssey translation I listened to last year.

  • http://www.thebooknerdclub.blogspot.com mummazappa

    I love Antigone, I studied it at school for English Lit and remember loving it. I’ve got a copy lying around here somewhere, your post has inspired me to give it a re-read.

    • Erin

      We never did this one in school — we did Aeschylus instead of Sophocles. I definitely think it’s worth revisiting, especially since plays are so short!

  • http://www.linussblanket.com Nicole

    I have heard that Heaney’s translations are beautiful. I think he did Beowulf as well. Antigone’s story doesn’t sound familiar to me, it’s probably not one I had to read.

    • Erin

      I just got Beowulf out of the library! I liked The Burial at Thebes for how short and simple it was.

  • http://www.theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com The Literary Omnivore

    I love Heaney’s translation of Beowulf; he’s quite good at what he does.

    • Erin

      I just got that one out of the library, then discovered there’s an audio version as well, so either way, I think Heaney’s Beowulf is in the cards for me in the near future. He is, it seems, quite talented at his work!

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I’ve not read this either, but it sounds like something that I might really enjoy. Thanks for the great review and for inspiring me to try it!

    • Erin

      The nice thing is, it’s so short that it won’t take you long to read it! There’s something satisfying about finishing a book in an hour :-)

  • http://senior-common-room.blogspot.com Annie

    I’m not certain translation is quite the right word for it as it’s somewhat freer than that, but Heaney’s telling of ‘Beowulf’ is wonderful. Some friends and I read it out loud when it first came out and it simply rolls round the mouth. With literature like that which is primarily oral reading it in that shared way really works.

    • Erin

      Thanks for pointing that out, Annie. I’ve seen both “translation” and “version” used in reference to The Burial at Thebes, though the more I read the more it sounds like “version” is maybe more appropriate. I’m thinking of listening to it, since Heaney himself reads the audiobook. I listened to The Odyssey last year and found that those oral texts really work well when you listen to them. It must have been fun to read Beowulf aloud with other people!

  • http://lifetimereadingplan.blogspot.com/ LifetimeReader

    This is such a wonderful book. I’ve loved Antigone since high school–and in fact often think about how she is similar to Jane Eyre. And I love Heaney–as a poet and as my teacher. I’m always so happy when other people read this version and enjoy it!

    • Erin

      Ooh, now I can’t wait to read Jane Eyre! It should be coming up in the next month or so for me. I’ll keep your comparison in mind!

  • http://reviews.rebeccareid.com Rebecca Reid

    I really need to reread Sophocles! I read Antigone and Oedipus Rex in high school and liked them. I think I’d prefer to read a translation before a retelling though. I’ve heard great things about Heaney’s retellings, though, so I’m looking forward to tackling his BEOWULF at some point sooner rather than later…

    • Erin

      I just found myself a copy of an actual translation (the Fagles) of Sophocles’ three Theban plays. I’m curious to read the “real” Antigone as well as to revisit Oedipus Rex, which I read in high school as well. I have Heaney’s Beowulf waiting in the wings!