Seamus Heaney's Cure at Troy
Politics and Poetry

Marianne McDonald

University of California
San Diego

Professor John Dillon pointed out the classical allusions in Seamus Heaney's The Haw Lantern.[1] Heaney is able to take the life-blood of the ancient classics and make it flow in the veins of modern poetry; both are enriched by the transfusion. His is not unique among Irish poets to have his work invigorated by the classics.

Irish writers have been influenced by the classics for a long time, beginning with ancient Irish monks working with the Greek manuscripts. Many playwrights have been singularly affected. J. M. Synge, Oliver St John Gogarty, Sean O' Casey, and W. B. Yeats, all take from both the Greeks and Romans. Brian Friel wrote Living Quarters: After Hippolytus in 1977; his Translations is riddled with Greek and Latin quotations (there is a brief lexicon for the classical phrases at the end of the text in the Faber and Faber paperback edition), and Wonderful Tennessee has parallels with Euripides' Bacchae. In my Ancient Sun Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage, I point out the parallels between Tom Murphy's The Sanctuary Lamp and Aeschylus' Oresteia. Now we have ten treatments of Greek tragedy by six Irish poets since 1984: Tom Paulin's The Riot Act (1984), based on Sophocles' Antigone; and his Seize the Fire (1989), based on Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound; Aidan Carl Mathews' Antigone (1984), and Trojans (1994) based on Euripides' Trojan Women; Brendan Kennelly's Antigone (1985), Medea (1991), and The Trojan Women (1993); Desmond Egan's Medea (1991: simply a translation); and Derek Mahon's The Bacchae (1991); besides Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy (1990), after Sophocles' Philoctetes.[2]

Western cultures use the classics, as they use their own literary tradition, to colour their modern productions. This is the language of the educated, although that education is rapidly disappearing. Nevertheless, it is still alive and well in Ireland. It is appropriate that the Irish who were taught to associate the classics with the British occupiers have, particularly in the last ten years, taken over the classics to express their own national concerns. As part of the colonial policy the Irish were often construed as barbarians, but now they take the works of civilisation and as a civilised people themselves are using them to express their aspirations. The classics become poetic weapons and tools for discourse: microphones for the new dialogues.

Here I concentrate on Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy: After Philoctetes by Sophocles.[3] This is a play that proceeds from, and ends in, optimism. It is a version that truly urges and believes, and hopes "for a great sea-change /On the far side of revenge/...that a further shore is reachable from here." Here we can note some parallels with the use of sea-change, and also the forgiveness urged by Prospero, likewise an island-bound victim, in Shakespeare's Tempest. Ariel sings to Ferdinand about his father Alonso, saying he "doth suffer a sea-change /Into something rich and strange" (1.ii.400). Prospero says to Ariel:

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier mov'd than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance (V.i. 21-28). Heaney's play echoes this sentiment.

Heaney has about the same number of lines as the Sophoclean original, but he has altered the text in many places. The most obvious insertions are those by the chorus at the beginning and the end of the play, and this places us in the middle of the Irish problem:

Heroes. Victims. Gods and human beings.
All throwing shapes, every one of them
Convinced he's in the right, all of them glad
To repeat themselves and their every last mistake,
No matter what.
                                     People so deep into
Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.
People so staunch and true, they're fixated,
Shining with self-regard like polished stones.

And their whole life spent admiring themselves
For their own long-suffering.
                                                       Licking their wounds
And flashing them around like decorations.
I hate it, I always hated it, and I am
A part of it myself.
                                       And a part of you,
For my part is the chorus, and the chorus
Is more or less a borderline between 
The you and the me and the it of it (pp. 1-2).

This is an exposition that not only locates the chorus in its mediating function, but lays out the theme of the play: a focus on the wound, rather than the cure. The play is about a man with a wound, and he will be cured at Troy. But Troy is a place only discussed in the play: Philoctetes' intent is finally to go there, but the wound and Lemnos are what is shown. It is obvious that this is Ireland and the Irish who have suffered.

Sophocles' emphasis is a bit different, given that he describes a war of aggression waged by the Greeks. Sophocles, as usual, concentrates on the bitter hero, one with integrity who refuses to yield (Philoctetes) in contrast to one who will compromise anything, including his honour, to survive or gain what he wants (Odysseus). In this case, what Odysseus wants is also what the group wants, and the conflict of public needs over private morality becomes apparent. Sophocles had done a variation of this in his Ajax (performed in 440; the Philoctetes is from 409 BC). It is Neoptolemus who chooses to regain his honour, after he is seduced into betrayal. The main theme for Sophocles is honour, and it is honour that he advocates. Heaney shows the pitfalls of honour coupled with the festering wound of memory. In the Trojan War, the Greeks hardly had wounds, or grudging memories, except for Helen's being kidnapped by Paris. As many noted, this was a good excuse to conduct a raid which had tempted the Greeks for years. The history of the Trojan War differs from the history of Ireland, but they meet symbolically in this story of Philoctetes' wound. It is clear that Heaney is in favour of a cure, or healing, and he uses Greek tragedy to distance and yet make familiar the major issues of conflict.

Heaney's optimism shines at the end in a speech delivered by the chorus leader. These words are not in Sophocles, but in modern Ireland:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme (p.77).

Sufferings on both sides are mentioned: the hunger-striker is a Republican who dies in protest while imprisoned by the British or Unionists. The police widow is mourning her dead husband who supported the Unionist regime. The hope is for a peaceful settlement, and a healing of the wound of hate.

We can see Yeats' image from "Easter 1916," "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart," in Heaney's "Human beings suffer, /They torture one another /They get hurt and get hard" (p.77). All these images derive from Ireland's history.

The language of Ireland is apparent: "What blather's this?" (p.56) says Odysseus taunting Philoctetes. There is the occasional witticism, such as Philoctetes' response: "No matter how I'm besieged. I'll be my own Troy. The Greeks will never take me." In Sophocles the main heroes do not speak so idiomatically, nor is there as much humorous play. In Heaney, Philoctetes cannot bear to curse Neoptolemus (p.52) but in Sophocles, if the bow is not returned, there is no doubt about the seriousness of the curse (960-61). Also Heaney's "Count your blessings and always be ready to pity other people," (p.27) is out of character for Philoctetes, and it is certainly not Sophocles, who has Philoctetes appeal for pity for himself, not others, given that suffering often follows fortune. The man who is well off should look to the evils that may be awaiting him, and in prosperity should be careful to avoid mishap (501-6). In Heaney there is a softening of Sophocles' razor-sharp brilliance with its terrifying particularities.

Heracles (played by the chorus) appears at the end of Sophocles' play to solve the insoluble (Philoctetes and Neoptolemus are about to sail home, and we know that their presence was needed at Troy for the war to end). Philoctetes bids farewell to Lemnos, and in Sophocles this is some of the most beautiful and poignant poetry ever written (1452 ff.). Heaney reduces the seventeen lines to eleven and has Philoctetes internalise the home he describes objectively in Sophocles. In Sophocles, Philoctetes addresses the cave that was his home for ten years, the nymphs, and the ocean caves that surround the island, the rain, the wind, the mountain and fountain, and the island itself surrounded by the sea. He prays they bless his voyage. Heaney transforms this:

I'll never get over Lemnos; this island's going to be the
keel under me and the ballast inside me. I'm like a
fossil that's being carried away, I'm nothing but cave
stones and damp walls and an old mush of dead
leaves. The sound of waves in draughty passages. A
cliff that's wet with spray on a winter's morning. I feel
like the sixth sense of the world. I feel I'm a part of
what was always meant to happen, and is happening
now at last. Come on, my friends (p.80).[4]

Sophocles' description was of the physical surroundings, a close description of a Greek island. Heaney intellectualises this, and one has the feeling of the end of Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium:

... set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Philoctetes is part of the past and the future: he is what Ireland should be, one that can incorporate its past and sail into the future with a secure ballast, rather than a festering wound that hinders progress.

There are other themes in both Sophocles' and Heaney's versions that apply to Ireland, and to all human beings. What is the loyalty one owes one's friend or relative, and what is the loyalty one owes one's country? This is also the issue in Antigone. In the Philoctetes, as in the Antigone, it is the private loyalty which prevails. Teiresias in Antigone and Heracles in Philoctetes are called in to untie the respective knots.

In a letter, Seamus Heaney was kind enough to afford a glimpse at what led him to adapt this play in the way he did:

Edmund Wilson's essay, 'The Wound and the Bow,' and a fascination with the conflict between the integrity of the personal bond and the exactions of the group's demands for loyalty. A sense that the pride in the wound is stronger than the desire for a cure. A sympathy with that reluctance to shed the haughtiness of the hurt spirit for the humdrum and caritas of renewal. The intoxication of defiance over the civic, sober path of adjustment. None of the above quite rationalized at the time, of course. A liking for the play's reach into order, the way it is less prone to massage and indulge people's taste for the bloody and the barbarians, the way its politics are unthematic. All that...I do believe, though, that there's a fashion for the dionysiac which connives with rather than sets in proper proportion the passionate, ungoverned, self-willed, inured by psycho-babble, culture-of-narcissism, victim-pride, kind of daimon that is rampant at the moment. I sort of liked the golden mean talk of Heracles at the end of the play (The Cure at Troy, that is).

In addition to the speech quoted above, beginning, "Human beings suffer...," Heracles advocates:

Go, with your bow. Conclude the sore
And cruel stalemate of our war.
Win by fair combat. But know to shun
Reprisal killings when that's done.

Then take just spoils and sail at last
Out of the bad dream of your past...

But when the city's being sacked
Preserve the shrines. Show gods respect.
Reverence for the gods survives
Our individual mortal lives (p.79).

Divinities obviously speak in verse. One also thinks of the way the churches were treated when the Republic of Ireland (Éire) was established in 1921. Large Protestant churches dotted the countryside, but the Catholics allowed them to stand and remain Protestant.

The final chorus signals optimism:

Suspect too much sweet talk
But never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
That blew me here. I leave
Half-ready to believe
That a crippled trust might walk

And the half-true rhyme is love.

It is interesting "love" does not rhyme with anything, or perhaps it is a half-true rhyme with "leave" and "believe" in the fourth stanza. Love is based on leaving the obsession with the wound, inflicted by past memories, and belief is in walking away from the past and towards the future. The chorus, true to its function as a mediator between god and man, speaks somewhat in verse (Heracles, the divine, spoke only in rhyme). But love itself is a rhyme with the wish for peace, "leaving" the old grudges behind and "believing" in a future of trust and progress. We recall the Irish flag which has been interpreted as green for the Catholics, orange for the Protestants and white for love. Heaney has written a play of hope. Sophocles' sharp edges have been polished, but poetry through the green fuse drives the flower of each.

Heaney has done what we want done with the classics: his talent as a great modern poet merges with a great poet from the past. Heaney translates for moderns in a way that invigorates the ancient text and makes it relevant besides accessible.

Heaney urges restraint, and by his optimism is perhaps closest to the Greeks as interpreted by those who believe that tragedy urged catharsis, social restraint and conformity to a salutary ideal. His work seems to urge avoidance of the horrors which have been described. It is a measure of the Irish civilisation that it, like the Greek, completely integrates art into society and politics. We see a true polis where all important issues are defined in serious art as well as in the forums of power.

We often find a Christian god, and Irish wit added to the ancient text. Modern satire and history colour the new product. The particular is also enhanced by the universal, and the suffering of one person, or one country, becomes the suffering of all. An entertaining play works, and an informed future must be modelled on lessons from the past.[5]

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