The mythical content of the North collection opens with a North African child-of-the- earth living in an ‘Irish’ habitat. Allegory is in the making: the confrontation between Antaeus and Hercules is announced; they will meet in combat in the final poem of Part I.  As the end of the story is already known we are reconciled to the inevitable defeat of Antaeus and whatever he stands for. Heaney himself  spelt out both the allegory and its irony: ‘elevation’ is impossible for Antaeus and, by extension, for Ireland’.

A ‘giant’ figure from Greek/ North African mythology was invincible in combat as long as he retained contact with the earth that renewed his strength whenever he fell. Antaeus describes what makes his system tick but foresees the challenge of a more skilful combatant who might find the means to bring him down.

Earth-contact renews Antaeus’ life-force: I rise flushed as a rose each day. He is a practised wrestler, contriving in combat a fall in the (wrestling-) ring to replenish his strength. Contact with sand acts as a magic potion: operative/ As an elixir.

Suckled by the ground below the giant cannot, dare not be weaned/ Off, live apart from earth’s long contour and the living blood of her river veins.

Antaeus’ environment is deliberately more Irish than African: a womb-like location (girded with root and rock) set in a narrative enriched by the vocabulary of child-rearing: wombed/ cradled/ nurtured in the darkness. Nature is his personified mother providing life juices to his every artery as if he were still conjoined (small hillock).

Antaeus is confident he can defeat all-comers (Let each new hero come not least the Johnny come lately Hercules on his latest ‘labour’ (the golden apples and Atlas) amidst the mountains that form ‘the roof of the North African world’). Only by defeating Antaeus in a final decider can Hercules qualify to rise, god-like, into that realm of fame/ Among sky-born and royal.

The standard wrestling technique of pinning the opponent on his back will only benefit Antaeus (renew my birth) so Hercules’ sole ploy, to be avoided at all cost (let him not), is to starve Antaeus of contact with earth and by raising him aloft realise the paradox (my elevation, my fall).

The unidentified Hercules, hero and apprentice god from Antiquity, was set 12 Labours the 11th of which was to pick 3 golden apples from the garden of Hera close to Mt Atlas in North Africa; he was destined to meet and overcome Antaeus on his journey;

  • flush: red colour in the cheeks;
  • ring: roped area in which wrestling bouts take place;
  • operative: functioning, effective;
  • elixir: magic potion;
  • wean off: cause to move gradually from one stage to the next e.g. a baby from breast feeding to solid food;
  • gird: surround, encompass;
  • womb: place in a woman’s body where offspring are conceived and gestate;
  • cradle: cushion, protect;
  • nurture: rear, provide for;
  • throw: a wrestling move that succeeds in unbalancing the opponent;
  • elevation: distance above the ground, promotion;
  • Five quatrains; line length and rhyme scheme combine: abba cddc/ first and last lines based on 6 syllables, the inner pair on 10 syllables;
  • 6 sentence structure offering variable rhythms via mid-line punctuation and enjambment;
  • the first 2 stanzas add to the assonances of the rhyme scheme via [ei] Antaeus/ arrange/ veins/ cave later cradled/ fame;[ai] I lie/ I rise/ fights [ʌ] flushed/ rub [ɒ] on/ operative/ cannot/ / Off/ long contour [ɪ] in/ ring/ operative/ elixir/ river; [i:] elixir/ weaned/ here; in (1) note the variant sounds of vowel (a) and alliterative effect of front-of-mouth [s/z] and [f]; in (2) velar plosive [k] elixir/ cannot/ contour/ cave;
  • stanza (3) introduces trill [r] 5 times alongside assonant [uː] root/ wombed; [ɜː] girded/ nurtured; in (4) the [i] 0f artery becomes the [i:] of each/ hero/seeking; [æ] is injected: apples/ Atlas/ pass alongside [e] that carries through to the end: wrestle/ realm/ well/ let elevation; a beat of nasal consonant [m] can be heard between wombed and the final line my; [θ] voiceless dental fricative is prominent in (5): throw/ birth/ earth alongside [ai] sky/ my/my;
  • NC (p55) refers to the 2 Antaeus poems as an allegory of colonisation; the creation of a Sleeping Giant figure that will emerge again one day; he also quotes Heaney as suggesting that the poem can be read as an allegory of poetry as much as of politics (ibid);
  • MP (p129) deems the poem a lugubrious start to the collection … at its most pessimistic the allegory asserts that being earth-bound Ireland’s aspirations and ambitions will always remain beyond its reach; it can never escape the little destiny attributed to it in the later poem Whatever You Say Say Nothing);
  • 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: fourteen 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;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • 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;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment