1997-11-15: The Norton Book of Classical Literature

The Norton Book of Classical Literature (1993)

Ed by Bernard Knox (1914-2010)

This is a broad anthology covering Greece and Rome, from Homer to St Augustine. There is a great deal of interesting work, primarily selections, representing a variety of translators.

The commentary is mainly useful in providing background on the pieces. However, there is rather a lot of explanation of the various meters, and the ways that translators dealt with them, which I found tedious. Perhaps I read it too superficially.

I was somewhat surprised to see that Cicero’s work is not represented. Perhaps the editor does not consider his work literature.

Knox deliberately made a broad selection, not only the “big names”. This left little room (even in 866 pages) for complete works. For instance, the only complete Greek play is Sophocles’ Antigone; of course, that is an excellent choice.

The introduction to Antigone contains some interesting comments:

George Steiner in his Antigones, a profound analytic discussion of the impact of the play on the modern consciousness, describes it as the one literary text that expresses “all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These are fivefold: the confrontation of men and women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and god(s).” And he singles out the scene between Antigone and Creon as one in which “each of the five fundamental categories of man’s definition and self-definition through conflict is realized, and … all five are at work in a single act of confrontation.”

I’m not so sure this fivefold categorization is accurate, but it is interesting. Here is the passage mentioned, when Antigone has been caught after burying her brother against Creon’s decree:

Creon [wheeling on Antigone]:  You, with your eyes fixed on the ground–speak up. Do you deny you did this, yes or no?

Antigone:  I did it. I don’t deny a thing.

Creon [to the sentry]:  You, get out, wherever you please–you’re clear of a very heavy charge. [sentry leaves; Creon turns back to Antigone] You, tell me briefly, no long speeches–were you aware a decree had forbidden this?

Antigone:  Well aware. How could I avoid it? It was public.

Creon:  And still you had the gall to break this law?

Antigone:  Of course I did. It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least, who made this proclamation–not to me. Nor did that justice, dwelling with the gods beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men. Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions. They are alive, not just today or yesterday:  they live forever, from the first of time, and no one knows when they first saw the light.

These laws–I was not about to break them, not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride, and face the retribution of the gods. Die I must, I’ve known it all my life–how could I keep from knowing?–even without your death-sentence ringing in my ears. And if I am to die before my time I consider that a gain. Who on earth, alive in the midst of so much grief as I, could fail to find his death a rich reward? So for me, at least, to meet this doom of yours is precious little pain. But if I had allowed my own mother’s son to rot, an unburied corpse–that would have been an agony! This is nothing. And if my present actions strike you as foolish, let’s just say I’ve been accused of folly by a fool.

Leader:  Like father like daughter, passionate, wild … she hasn’t learned to bend before adversity.

Creon:  No? Believe me, the stiffest stubborn wills fall the hardest, the toughest iron, tempered strong in the white-hot fire, you’ll see it crack and shatter first of all. And I’ve known spirited horses you can break with a light bit–proud, rebellious horses. There’s no room for pride, not in a slave, not with the lord and master standing by.

This girl was an old hand at insolence when she overrode the edict we made public. But once she’d done it–the insolence, twice over–to glory in it, laughing, mocking us to our face with what she’d done. I am not the man, not now:  she is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free.

Never! Sister’s child or closer in blood than all my family clustered at my altar worshipping Guardian Zeus–she’ll never escape, she and her blood sister, the most barbaric death. Yes, I accuse her sister of an equal part in scheming this, this burial.

[to his attendants] Bring her here! I just saw her inside, hysterical, gone to pieces. It never fails:  the mind convicts itself in advance, when scoundrels are up to no good, plotting in the dark. Oh but I hate it more when a traitor, caught red-handed, tries to glorify his crimes.

Antigone:  Creon, what more do you want than my arrest and execution?

Creon:  Nothing. Then I have it all.

Antigone:  Then why delay? Your moralizing repels me, every word you say–pray god it always will. So naturally all I say repels you too. Enough. Give me glory! What greater glory could I win than to give my own brother decent burial? These citizens here would all agree, [to the chorus] they’d praise me too if their lips weren’t locked in fear. [pointing to Creon] Lucky tyrants–the perquisites of power! Ruthless power to do and say whatever pleases them.

Creon:  You alone, of all the people in Thebes, see things that way.

Antigone:  They see it just that way but defer to you and keep their tongues in leash.

Creon:  And you, aren’t you ashamed to differ so from them? So disloyal!

Antigone:  Not ashamed for a moment, not to honor my brother, my own flesh and blood.

Creon:  Wasn’t Eteocles a brother too–cut down, facing him?

Antigone:  Brother, yes, by the same mother, the same father.

Creon:  Then how can you render his enemy such honors, such impieties in his eyes?

Antigone:  He’ll never testify to that, Eteocles dead and buried.

Creon:  He will–if you honor the traitor just as much as him.

Antigone:  But it was his brother, not some slave that died–

Creon:  Ravaging our country!–

Antigone:  No matter–Death longs for the same rites for all.

Creon:  Never the same for the patriot and the traitor.

Antigone:  Who, Creon, who on earth can say the ones below don’t find this pure and uncorrupt?

Creon:  Never. Once an enemy, never a friend, not even after death.

Antigone:  I was born to join in love, not hate–that is my nature.

Creon:  Go down below and love, if love you must–love the dead! While I’m alive, no woman is going to lord it over me.

The Antigone translation is by Robert Fagles. I have not used his line breaks, to save myself a little trouble.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email