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George Seferis

George  Seferis

George Seferis

(Greece, 1900)

George Seferis was born in Smyrna in 1900 and died in Athens in 1971. In 1931 he published, at this own expense, a collection of poetry with the ambiguous title Strophe (meaning both part of a poem and "turning-point"). The collection contained thirteen short poems, most of them in traditional metre and rhythm, and a more extensive poem, the cryptic "Erotikos Logos", in 96 rhymed 15-syllable verses, which vividly brings to mind Erotokritos, the celebrated Cretan 17th century poem.

What became clear from the first appearance of this poet, who had already spent some years in Paris and in London studying law and English, was his desire to shed new light on the existing poetic landscape, overshadowed as it was both by the patriarchal figure of Palamas and by the ghost of Karyotakis. Many poems appear to follow the dictates of "pure" poetry, such as those found in the work of the French poets Mallarme and Valery. There are, however, also what were called "impure" poems, with "lower", more common speech forms, written in everyday language with corresponding subject matter. Today, seventy years later, most of the poems in Strophe (Turning-Point) retain their vigour. Some in fact are quite familiar to the public at large as they have been put to music, as have many of Seferis´later poems. One such poem is "Denial", which, thanks to the music of Mikis Theodorakis, has probably become the best known poem in all of Modern Greek poetry. The Cistern, Seferis´next work, is a lyrical poem of 125 verses. It was published in 1932, while the poet was working in the diplomatic corps in London. It appears, however, that The Cistern, no longer expressed Seferis´artistic needs, as the poet was now searching for new poetic directions. He had, during Christmas of 1931, been introduced to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, whom he was to meet in person twenty years later. There followed a long period of anguished experimentation - it was during this period that he translated The Waste Land into Greek - until, in March of 1935, his Mythistorema appeared. Mythistorema (whose title - from the Greek words for"myth" and for "history"´- is particularly significant) is a composite poem comprising 24 sections in free verse - a poem that contains the basic concepts and recurring themes of the poetry to follow: "common", almost unpoetic speech (Seferis was later to declare that what interested him primarily was to speak "plainly" and "without affectation"); a familiar, narrative but also dramatic voice; a continued intermingling of history and mythology (the poem resounds throughout with echoes of the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922) as everyday figures (those called "friends" and "comrades") parade through the poem in the company of mythical "personae" and symbolic figures. Everything takes place in "typical" Greek landscapes, sometimes recognisable, while the mythical subject matter (drawn chiefly from Homer and the tragic playwrights) appears fragmentarily, "peaks" of myths, as the poet himself would say, nevertheless capable of providing (in the manner of the "mythical method") stability and clarity to the emotion possessing the poet. This is Seferis´most definitive poem and the most truly representative text of Greek Modernism. It continues today to retain its effectiveness and to a certain extent its inherent cryptic nature. In the spring of 1940 two more collections came out: Book of Exercises and Logbook I, containing poems written between 1928 and 1940. The five years between 1935 and 1940 were a critical period, both in terms of Seferis´ own life story and in the history of Greece. He served as Consul to Albania in the city of Korytsa for a brief period, where he felt extremely isolated, while in 1936 General Metaxas imposed a dictatorship in Greece along the ideological lines of Mussolini´s fascism and of Nazism. As a diplomat, Seferis felt himself trapped in the cogwheels of dictatorship, as seen in the confessional work Manuscript´41, but nevertheless he did not resign his post. Certain poems, particularly in the second collection, reveal this dilemma and also the oppressively stifling circumstances he was living under. There is no lack, however, of poems filled with poetry and existential angst, such as "Nijinsky", inspired by the vision of the great dancer, or the better-known "The King of Asine", in which the poet, while strolling through the ruins of the Homeric king´s castle, contemplates, among other things, the eventual disappearance of a work´s creator, the "void" that will unavoidably cover his actual person. The German invasion and occupation of Greece, his flight, along with the Greek government, to South Africa and to Egypt, the horrors of war, the political intrigues and clashes between Greeks - precursors of the impending Civil War - were the experiences that served as the subject matter for Logbook II, which came out, in a first version, in Alexandria in 1944. But now was also the time when he began to feel deeply the influence of the climate of cosmopolitanism and of greater Hellenism, as it was expressed in the poetry of the Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy, whom Seferis discovered during this period. The decade from 1947 to 1957 was a particularly successful one for Seferis. In 1947 he brought out his most mature work, The Thrush - taken from the name of a small boat that sunk in the waters off the island of Poros, a three-part "musical" composition, where personal and erotic memories are freely interwoven with the traumatic memories of WWII and the tragedy of the Civil War. In 1953 Seferis discovered Cyprus, a place "where the miracle still works", and in 1955 he brought out Logbook III,I containing poems inspired by the ancient and modern history of the island. Many of the poems, "Helen", "Salamis of Cyprus", "The Demon of Fornification", "Engomi", are considered classics. During this same decade he was placed in the highest diplomatic positions. He served first in Ankara in 1947, and had the opportunity to visit his birthplace, Smyrna, to which he had not returned since 1914. He later served in Beirut as acting ambassador to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, and in 1957 he was appointed ambassador to London, where he was to finish his diplomatic career. In 1963 Seferis became the first Greek author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his Three Secret Poems (1966) the poet, "the desolate mind [that] has been the end", sums up his work and his life, accepting the fact that "everything that has passed has fittingly passed". His views on poetry, the Greek language and literature and on popular cultural traditions, his critical studies of T.S Eliot, Dante, Cavafy and others, are included in the three volumes of his Essays - texts of unusual sensitivity and perspicacity, considered by some critics to be equal in merit to his poetry. Of particular interest are his journals (Days), his letters, and his early novel Six Nights on the Acropolis. On the subject of his being awarded the Nobel Prize, Seferis said that through its choice the Swedish Academy "wished to express its solidarity with Greece´s ever-vital intellect" and to honour a "language spoken for centuries but having at present a limited number of speakers". This viewpoint reflects Seferis´deep-seated belief in the current dynamic interrelationship between the ancient and modern Greek language and literature, between the diachronic power of Greek civilisation and its modern expression, and finally between tradition and innovation. It was, moreover, only through tradition that the demand for renewal of Greek poetry in the early 1930s was able to be realised, and Seferis´modernism and innovations were in large part characterised by the revitalisation and imaginative use of the Greek tradition. Seferis, the poet from Asia Minor, estranged from his homeland at a very early age, perpetually feeling like a refugee, died during the Colonels´ Dictatorship, a government that only months before he had denounced internationally as tyrannical and dangerous. His funeral turned into one of the largest mass demonstrations against the military junta.

© Yoryis Yiatromanolakis

in Greece Books and Writers. Athens, Ministry of Culture-National Book Centre of Greece and Agra publications, 2001.

Publications (selection):
Poems Trans. Rex Warner. Boston,Little, Brown and Company,1960.
Poems Rans. Edmund Keeley. Princeton,Princeton University Press, 1967.
The land within the wall Trans. John Richmond. Montreal, Anthelion Press, 1969. Rex Warner. Boston,Little, Brown and Company,1960.
Collected poems Trans. Edmund Keeley. Princeton,Princeton University Press, 1981.
Days of 1945-1951 Trans. Athan Anagnostopoulos. Cambridge, The Belknap Press ( Harvard University Press ), 1974.
Mythistorhma and Gymnopaidia Trans. Mary Cooper Walton. Athens, Lycabettus, 1977.
The king of Asine and other poems Trans. Bernard Spencer. London, Lehmann, 1948.
Three secret poems Trans.Walter Kaiser. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1969.

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