Human on My Faithless Arm, Episode 6: a “Chorus” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy
Philoctetes on Lemnos, Jean Germain Drouais, 1788
Welcome to Episode 6 of Human on My Faithless Arm, an anthology of recitations with commentary. The poems presented here are those I recite each night to my infant daughter, Auden.
This episode features a “Chorus” spoken late in Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles’s Philoctetes. You can listen to it here:
I first encountered this poem as the epigraph to each issue of the wonderful and much-missed magazine DoubleTake.
The text is legible here.
As you listen to Episode 6 I hope you will picture in your mind’s eye the terrible image of a father looking down at his 10-month-old and saying, as I do so many times a week, “Human beings suffer, / they torture one another, / they get hurt and get hard….” When you picture that, I hope you will ask yourself, as I do, what is the nature of this instruction? Who is it for, really?
And if you’ve been listening along now through the preceding episodes, you may be wondering why I would recite to my tiny little baby girl so many poems centered on death and dying. One answer is that Auden (or any child of mine) can only hear the poems that her father has memorized—in the same way that I can only be myself with her, even when that self is a performance.
Poor Auden might be said to have inherited the grave poems in my head just as she has inherited my ungainly wide feet and ugly toes. I could have deliberately restocked the library in my head over the months Auden was in the womb, but if I had done so, I would be giving her each night a portion of an inheritance that is less authentic to me and to my own experience of life (and death) poetry (and death).
With regard to the origin of Heaney’s “Chorus,” I can find no direct warrant for this passage in the translations of Sophocles I have consulted. It seems to me that in this passage Heaney is seizing his occasion as an adaptor of Sophocles—much as I seize my occasion, as an adaptor of the conventions of fatherhood—in order to instruct his audience directly, much more directly than Frost or Plath or Poe. (This didactic strain in Heaney’s “Chorus” has more in common, to keep our reference points within Human on My Faithless Arm, with John Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”); I believe that the powerful directness of Heaney’s “Chorus” was generated in direct proportion to his calculated risk that the very terms of what he wrote might have reduced the powers of the passage. The taking of that risk is moving, to me.
One last anecdote. Isn’t it wonderful how Heaney pretends to speak as a group, rather than as an individual? Aren’t we all tiring, just a bit, of the poetry of the individual speaker? I was recently standing next to a famous poet at a party when he said, with obvious relish, regarding a course on the Lyric poem he was about to teach, “This is what we do”—meaning that poets are centrally the producers of lyric poems. I was stunned and saddened, though not surprised, to hear someone so well-regarded declare this position, because to me it suggests such a diminished role for poets, who in the not so distant past actively pursued dramatic and narrative and other kinds of work, and were better artists for these labors.
In Episode 7 of Human on My Faithless Arm, I will introduce and recite Philip Larkin’s great “An Arundel Tomb.” Is what will survive of us, love? Will you join me if I promise not to answer that question?
Daniel Bosch is Lecturer in English at Emory University and Senior Editor of Berfrois.