Seamus Heaney, “Antaeus”

Antaeus (poem via the blog of Anita Mathias)
Seamus Heaney

   When I lie on the ground 
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring 
   To rub myself with sand.

   That is operative
As an elixir. I cannot be weaned
Off the earth's long contour, her river-veins.
   Down here in my cave

   Girdered with root and rock
I am cradled in the dark that wombed me
And nurtured in every artery
   Like a small hillock.

   Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:
He must wrestle with me before he pass
   Into that realm of fame

   Among sky-born and royal.
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
   My elevation, my fall.

Born of Earth and Ocean, Antaeus wielded a power more raw than divine. As long as he maintained contact with the Earth, he could win any wrestling match, granted his mother’s power. He could not and did not dream of ascent of any sort. Self-sufficient through his natural heritage, he harbored a strange resentment, a prideful nemesis to any ambition.

Antaeus was beaten by Hercules when Hercules realized the source of his strength. Hercules lifted him off the ground, crushing him in a bear-hug as he elevated him. Did Hercules understand what he had done? Heaney voices Antaeus, allowing him to speak the marriage of Earth and Ocean. If thrown to the ground, Antaeus rose as roses do in the morning; sand acted as an elixir for him. “The earth’s long contour, her river-veins” continually nurtured him. One might think Antaeus spoiled, a “mama’s boy,” as he did not need tools nor the company of others. In his cave, “girdered with root and rock” he remained “cradled in the dark that wombed [him],” fed just as the earth tends to its hills, its features.

The very concept of heroism entails an attack on Antaeus, the notion that this Earth is all one needs. Antaeus is mortal; he lives through this principle. One might attack his self-sufficiency, arguing it is more of a gift than the product of rationality. That much is true, but it is not clear Hercules understands what he does. Certainly, Hercules does not understand that the same spirit which seeks obstacles to overcome also wants to create devices, make plans, seeks to know. Sometimes, that same spirit chastens itself, learning acceptance.

Antaeus, for his part, does not understand the virtues of restraint. He too is a trained killer, only understanding human ambition as fruitless. Those he kills earn a fame like those “sky-born and royal;” they are remembered for their magnificent failure, but do not become gods or rulers. Antaeus serves as a most natural check on hubris. What he does understand is that the world around him changes entirely with his defeat. On the one hand, you could say “My elevation, my fall” is the normalization of hubris. Man must do more than strive, as he must remake the entire world. On the other hand, knowing that, whether or not Antaeus has actually been defeated remains an open question.

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