Heaney presents a version of C.P. Cavafy’s poem Tα δ’ άλλα εν Άδου τοις κάτω μυθήσομαι
Set in Ancient classical times the poem reports a conversation between an important figure governing a Greek province whose honesty confesses he has things to hide and a sophist ‘philosopher’ unlikely to offer concrete alternative. Only one of the protagonists accepts without question that the afterlife will be spent below in Hades.
The title reproduces the last words spoken by Ajax in Sophocles’ drama before he impaled himself on his sword.
A powerful, well-read man (proconsul) approves a line just read from an ancient scroll to be true and beautiful. Sophocles at his most philosophical. He believes the disgraced Ajax will have the opportunity to confess his shame and clear his conscience in the underworld.
With things of his own to hide he, too, will one day depart this world and longs to enter a place where those present need hide nothing (happy to be seen for what we are).
He and the provincial ruling class he heads are controlling (we’re like sentries guarding), have dirty secrets to hide (every locked-up hurt and secret), indulge without respite in private dealings (we all cover up here, day and night). Much better a Hades where everyone may come clean (let things out frankly and completely.
Skilled at undermining the views of others with smirking superiority (a slow half-smile), the sophist is predictably counter-suggestive: how can the living possibly know what happens after death … or whether there is any such place where dead souls meet and talk … and even if there is a Hades, whether matters of conscience (such things) are on their agenda … whether the dead have any interest in anything much (can be bothered with the like at all).
The ball is back in your court, Mr Proconsul!
- proconsul: provincial governor in ancient times;
- scroll: ancient document on parchment; Sophocles: Greek tragedian ( 495 BC – 405 BC) seven of whose plays have survived in complete form, thanks to scribes who copied originals onto scrolls;
- sentry: soldier keeping guard or controlling access;
- hurt: emotional distress, physical harm;
- cover-up: attempt to prevent people discovering the truth about serious mistakes;
- down there: in Hades, after death:
- sophist: a classical teacher of rhetoric trained in/ adept at the philosophical art of counter-suggestion amongst a group regarded a weavers of clever but fallacious arguments;
- slow half smile: sardonic, insincere smirk;
- the like: similar things;
- Constantine Cavafy is the last poet of international stature in the collection: parents from Constantinople, born in Alexandria, Egypt; lived 1863-1933; native Greek speaker; spent 7 years in England. Despite journalistic ambitions, he worked in a relatively modest job within Public Works in Egypt. His inner life was clearly his richest asset. He gained his reputation as one of the most influential Greek poet of the 20c after his death. His interests in classical Greece and philosophy are factors here.
- Ajax’s suicide, also recounted by Dante, results from his shame at having, as he thought, taken revenge on and slaughtered leading Greek figures only to discover he had been tricked into killing sheep. Disgraced and therefore unburiable he was ultimately defended by Odysseus and received a proper funeral.
- 12 lines split 9/3; lines based largely on 11 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- sentence 1 provides in-line echoes: pro-/ scroll (/most); true beautiful; Sophocles/ philosophical edged with final [ʌ] proconsul/ beautiful/ philosophical;
- the following sentence offers [ʊə] talk/ more; [i:] we’ll/ seen/ we carried in to (3) Here we’re/ secret/ completely; [e] sentries/ every/ let;
- the [ɪ] of the sophist recurs is/ if/ things; paired [ai] smile/ like and [ɔː] talk/ all; alliterative sibilant effect is overtaken by [t] and dental fricative [ð] That/ there/ they / bothered;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- for example, the final triplet is especially rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bi-labial plosives [b] [p], breathy [w] [h] and sibilant variants [s] [z];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
- An alternative version reads as follows:
“The Rest I Will Tell to Those Down to Hades”
“Indeed,” said the proconsul, closing the book, / “this line is beautiful and very true. / Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood. / How much we’ll tell down there, how much, / and how very different we’ll appear. / What we protect here like sleepless guards, / wounds and secrets locked inside us, / protect with such great anxiety day after day, / we’ll disclose freely and clearly down there.” / “You might add,” said the sophist, half smiling, / “if they talk about things like that down there, / if they bother about them any more.” Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard in C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Princeton University Press, 1992