Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.03.08


Elizabeth van Nes Ditmars, Sophocles' Antigone: Lyric Shape and Meaning. Pisa: Giardini Editori (Biblioteca di Studi Antichi, 69), 1992. Pp. xvi + 195. $26.00. LC Cat. Card. No. 93-144282.*


Reviewed by Martin Cropp, University of Calgary.

This study, originating as a Berkeley dissertation supervised by M. Griffith, aims to explore the poetic and musical artistry of the lyrics in Antigone and to discover what, and how, the poet's shaping of his language through metre, sound and syntax contributes to the meaning of the play. Between an Introduction devoted mainly to method and a short Conclusion are seven chapters discussing the Parodos, five stasima and Antigone's so-called Kommos (Creon's dochmiac/iambic lamentations at the end are passed over except for a brief discussion in this connection, pp. 120-1, and a metrical scheme in Appendix A). D. states two basic assumptions at the outset. First, poetry's formal elements can carry a quasi-musical meaning which is more directly accessible to our response than verbal meaning. Secondly, the tragic Chorus is not univocal in its lyric utterances and can transcend its corporate prosopon so as to deepen and universalise, even problematise, the significance of the drama; the lyric mode is, almost by definition, the vehicle for this (there is "a larger world of lyric", 96), and its depth and indeterminacy were particularly congenial to Sophocles, who in this case wrote a play which "is amoral in the sense that Job is ... a probing work, not indifferent to questions about morality but looking for answers on a deeper level." In her Conclusion D. acknowledges Winnington-Ingram's differentiation between the 'Aeschylean' tragedy of Creon and the 'Sophoclean' tragedy of Antigone, characterises the play's odes as providing a foil for the heroine's enigmatic figure and fate (she fits none of the explanatory models which the choral lyrics explore), and stresses that Antigone's recognition of her fate occurs within the lyric process of the 'Kommos'.

D.'s exploration goes beyond previous work on the Sophoclean Chorus in its thoroughness. H. A. Pohlsander's Metrical Studies in the Lyrics of Sophocles (Leiden, 1964) provides technical support but excludes inferences about content from metrical form and some preliminary observations on sound -- and metrical effects in Antigone were made by B.H. Fowler, CM 28 (1967) 163-171 (not mentioned by Ditmars). R. W. B. Burton's chapter on Antigone in The Chorus in Sophocles' Tragedies (Oxford, 1980) makes some attempt to reinforce interpretation with observations on form but his comments on particular odes are never exhaustive and sometimes cursory. Other works focus on content rather than form, e.g. R. Coleman, "The role of the Chorus in Sophocles' Antigone", PCPS 198 (1972), 4-27; P. E. Easterling on the Second Stasimon, in Dionysiaca (Cambridge, 1978), 141-158; R. P. Winnington-Ingram on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Stasima in Sophocles: an Interpretation (Cambridge, 1980), 91-116; C. Gardiner, The Sophoclean Chorus (Iowa City, 1987). This record is in part a reflection of the large obstacles which such work faces, at least two of which are fully recognised by D. First, verbalising these effects in scholastic prose is a difficult and cumbersome business (a job here for hypermedia?). Secondly, given our inability to know the musical and choreographic dimensions of tragic lyrics we can only resolve to do our best without them (so D., p. 2); but operating with hope and (say) 20% vision may lead to some nasty accidents, and D. perhaps does not remind us often enough that music and/or movement may have been the key to what we (mis)perceive as metrical oddities -- such as inconsistencies between metrical pause and sense-pause (D., pp. 12-14) or the absence of a distinct metrical character in an ode (as D., p. 90, sees the Third Stasimon). Thirdly, can perceptions of meaning in form, in this arena at least, ever be truly independent of preconceptions about verbal and dramatic meaning? D. makes the comparison with music and contends that "at least a part of our response, however small, can be direct, can be a response, that is, to formal elements that do not need translation" (4). That may be theoretically true, although it is not obviously true that an untranslatable effect is a 'meaning', nor that musical meaning (insofar as it is analogous with verbal meaning) cannot and does not need to be translated between different musical systems or between musical and verbal systems. But even if theoretically true, it may not be true in any very useful way for our approach to Sophoclean lyrics because their verbal meaning is so pervasive. In practice, D.'s discussions start from context and content, and proceed to observations on the poetry in a way which tends to suggest that the latter are reinforcements of the former. To reinforce interpretation in this way, and to understand the poetic technique, are both of value in themselves; but this is a limitation in method.

The Parodos and the First and Second Stasima are less problematic than the play's later lyrics (or at least the problems of interpretation in them are more clear-cut) and so more open to metrical and stylistic interpretation. D.'s discussions of them are well-focussed, showing successfully and in considerable detail how rhythm, sound-effects and phrasing enhance the Parodos's mood, narrative, imagery and Aeschylean tone. The First Stasimon she presents rather persuasively as relaxed in tone, presenting a little superficially an optimistic, Protagorean account of the relationship between morality and politics ("the cheerful virtuosity of this showpiece will come to seem hollow in the light of the developing action", 63); dactylic and iambic rhythms (reminiscent of the Parodos), perspicuous syntax, and the absence of complex imagery contribute to the slightly simplistic effect. The deeper level of thought in the Second Stasimon is again convincingly matched by D. with such effects as the knell-like repetitions of - u - - (E)KTO\S A)/TAS, etc.) in the line-ends of the second pair; here, though, it must be noted that such observations are consistent with any reasonable interpretation of the ode and do not specifically support D.'s argument (interesting in itself) that Sophocles is here suggesting a modified view of A)/TH by suppressing its traditional moral determinants (pp. 67-74). D. supports this on pp. 77-79 by showing that some of the explanatory elements present in the Second Stasimon of Aeschylus's Septem are absent from the Second Stasimon of Antigone. The argument is rather cursory (largely in the form of a Table) and I find unconvincing (if I understand it correctly) her further suggestion (pp. 84- 85) that when the Chorus (604-610) echo Antigone's argument (450ff.) about the strength of divine nomos they are trying to characterise her religious/moral position as an example of A)/TH working as LO/GOU A)/NOIA.

D. follows Kitto in seeing a unitary sequence in the passage from lines 781 to 987, starting with the Third Stasimon and ending with the Fourth, and hinging on the 'Kommos', especially its climactic last stanza where Antigone recognises the full weight and isolation of her role as inheritor of her family's suffering. There are rich analyses (91-95, 118-125, 148-150) of rhythmic and verbal effects, and of the links in meter and imagery, between these three lyric passages. D. argues well that "the effects of pure sound are more impressive in the first stanza of Antigone's Kommos than anywhere else in the play" (p. 121). If the Chorus in reflecting on Eros identify the last and most transcendent of the great powers to be seen at work in the play, while also indicating the limitations in both Creon's and Haimon's emotional armouries, the Eros-Ode is also the last moment where the Choral voice maintains an element of detached universality; after this, they grapple directly (and ineptly) with Antigone's demands for consolation in the 'Kommos'. This line of interpretation is generally persuasive, but perhaps underestimates the Chorus's critical view of Antigone. D. is eventually constrained to argue that when they comment on Antigone's final speech (929-930) "it may be that we hardly hear what the chorus say" (p. 117). There is something of a vacuum in D.'s interpretation when it comes to the speech itself. She comments briefly (125-6) on its structural relationship with what surrounds it but not on its substance, even though she groups it with the 'Kommos' as part of the play's "static climax" framed by the Third and Fourth Stasima and maintains that "to hear [Antigone] speak after she has sung with such speech-like eloquence must be one of the intensest moments of the play" (p. 126). Lines 904-920 are (wrongly, I think) dismissed as an interpolation (p. 110), and this makes it easier than it should be for D. to minimise the antagonism between Chorus and heroine while maximising Antigone's near-lyric self-absorption in her final moments, as if the speech is no more than a coda to the 'Kommos'.

D. provides thoughtful and suggestive comments on the dense and oblique poetry of the Fourth and Fifth Stasima, though her argument is not easy to summarise. In the Fourth Stasimon she recognises the Dionysiac element which Segal and Sourvinou-Inwood have stressed, and suggests that the Ode's multiplicity of meaning and resistance to simple interpretation are themselves indicative of a kind of meaning -- the absence of an easy, paradigmatic understanding of Antigone's fate (she has become associated with universal forces which transcend the practicalities of the remaining action), and perhaps the shifting of Antigone herself to become 'part of a story'. Similarly in the Fifth Stasimon D. accepts Henrichs' detection of allusions to Eleusinian cult at several points but sees their implications as being indeterminate: Antigone might be achieving Eleusinian happiness through death, but equally she might be unable to achieve the mediation between life and death which belongs to the god Dionysus. (The nature of the Ode as a prayer for purification, sung at a time when the Chorus are hoping for Antigone's release, perhaps needs more recognition than it gets in this analysis). For both of these controversial Odes D. provides some valuable reflections on recent interpretations. Their difficulties inevitably mean that her formal analyses remain tentative and contingent, but there are suggestive observations (e.g.) on rhythmic echoes of the 'Kommos' in the Fourth Stasimon suggesting a similar failure of consolation in both.

D.'s work can fairly be considered as an essay rather than a definitive commentary, and as such it deserves the attention of all those interested in Tragic poetry. The book is well-produced, with text and metrical scheme for each Ode preceding each chapter and metrical schemes usefully divided between 'Realisation' and 'Type'. D. largely follows the Oxford Text of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson, noting divergences but with minimal discussion of controversial points.


* Avail. from P.T. Dana, 2117 Derby St., Berkeley CA 94705.