Oct 142012
 

Antaeus

A ‘giant’ figure from Greek/ North African mythology, Antaeus was invincible in combat as long as he retained contact with the earth that renewed his strength whenever he fell. Antaeus clarifies the myth but foresees the advent of a more skilful combatant who will find the means to bring him down.

Antaeus knows that earth-contact renews his life-force: I rise flushed as a rose each day. He is a practised wrestler; in combat he cunningly contrives a fall in the (wrestling-) ring to replenish his strength; sand acts as a magic potion: operative/ As an elixir.

This ‘child’ giant is suckled by Earth; he cannot, dare not be weaned/ Off, live separate from earth’s long contour and the living blood of her river veins.

His environment is more Irish than African: a womb-like cave Girded with root and rock. The narrative is enriched with the vocabulary of child-rearing: wombed/ cradled/ nurtured in the darkness. Mother-Earth’s personification is reinforced (her every artery); he is as if breast-fed from Earth’s nipple-like small hillock.

Antaeus is confident he can resist all-comers: Let each new hero come specifically Hercules in search of the golden apples and Atlas (the Atlas Mountains are ‘the roof of the North African world’). Only by defeating Antaeus in combat can Hercules qualify to rise, god-like, into that realm of fame/ Among sky-born and royal.

Antaeus would hope to avoid (Let him not) the ploy that Hercules might use to defeat him, namely starving him of contact with earth and carrying him aloft so that, paradoxically, his elevation becomes his fall.

  • The unidentified Hercules, a hero from Antiquity, apprentice-god, 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 fight Antaeus on his journey;

  • 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;

  • the mythical confrontation between Antaeus and Hercules is announced; they will meet in combat in the final poem of Part I;

  • a component of ‘myth: as the end of the story is known we are already reconciled to the inevitable defeat of Antaeus and the Ireland he stands for;

  • the huge irony spelled out by SH, is that ‘elevation’ is impossible for Antaeus and, by extension, for Ireland’;

  • the allegorical content of North provides the North African child-of-the- earth with an ‘Irish’ habitat’;

  • 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);