Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert (1901–1986) became the first Czech writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Yet this 1984 honor was also bestowed in recognition of Seifert's unique situation in the former Czechoslovakia, and was awarded after he had spent nearly three decades as a dissident writer unable to publish any new works in his country. His fearless challenges to Czechoslovakia's Communist, authoritarian regime made him a national hero, however, and the Nobel committee commended his work as "a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man," according to New York Times writer Christopher Lehmann–Haupt.
Son of the Proletariat
The longstanding hostility between Seifert and the Soviet–allied Communist regime that endured in Czechoslovakia until 1989 was all the more remarkable given Seifert's own embracing of Marxist ideology early in his career, and before that the genuine working–class background from which he hailed—out of which, Communist theory held, the most dedicated and ideologically pure comrades came. Born on September 23, 1901, he grew up in Zizkov, a suburb of the Czech capital, Prague, and his father Antonín was a blacksmith in a factory. Leaving school and eschewing a university education, Seifert began writing at a young age, and his first volume of poetry, Mesto v slzách (A City in Tears), appeared in 1921. In Prague during this era, he joined a number of similarly young and exuberant Czech writers and artists who sought to rid Czech culture from centuries of German influence. When that first volume was published in 1921, Seifert was living in a newly independent nation that was just three years old at the time and had finally extricated itself from the clutches of the Austro–Hungarian empire, dissolved in the aftermath of World War I.
Seifert published several more volumes of verse over the next decade, including Samá láska and Na vlnách TSF (On Radio Waves), which appeared in 1925. The latter work showed a new literary direction that he and fellow writer Vítezslav Nezval were ardently championing at the time, and which they called "poetism." Seifert's verse in Na vlnách TSF exemplified this "poetism," showing a sort of mischievousness in form and content and an almost overwhelming affection for life and its beauty.
Grew Disillusioned with Reds
Seifert was a member of the early Communist Party in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. Intrigued by the revolutionary new era underway in the Soviet Union, the world's first Communist state, he traveled to Moscow in 1925 and returned on another visit a few years later. But it was also a time of change in the Soviet Union, with party leader Josef Stalin moving to seize control after the 1924 death of Vladimir Lenin, and ruthlessly eliminating dissent along the way. From Prague, Seifert watched these events not as a poet but as a journalist, with which he supplanted his income, for various left–leaning publications. These included the newspaper Rudé právo (Red Rights) and a journal called Proletkult (Proletarian Culture), and he also edited a Communist illustrated weekly called Reflektor between 1927 and 1929. That same year, however, he was ousted from the Czechoslovak Communist party for voicing his opposition to its leaders' decision to align with the Stalinist Soviet counterpart.
In the 1930s, Seifert continued to write or edit various Prague–based publications, including the theater monthly Nova scena and Ranni noviny, a daily newspaper. His poetry continued to evolve, and for a time he briefly dabbled in surrealist verse. Titles published during this era include Jabliko zklina (An Apple in the Lap) in 1933 and Ruce Venusiny (The Hands of Venus), which won him the Czechoslovakian State Prize for Literature in 1936. In 1938, Czechoslovakia's two decades of independence came to an abrupt end when Nazi Germany invaded. Seifert's poetry took a drastic, and courageous turn at this point. "It was during the Nazis' reign that he first earned not just popularity but the loving devotion of his readers," explained a fellow Czech writer, Josef Skvorecky, in a 1985 issue of the New Republic. "In book after book full of both linguistic beauty and encoded messages—clear to the Czechs, impenetrable to the Nazi censor—the poet boosted the morale of his nation. His poetry inspired fellow Czechs with love for their country and its ancient and picturesque capital."
In the final days of World War II and the German occupation, Seifert very nearly became one of the many who did not survive the war years and their terrors. As the Germans made a final stand, he and other Rudé právo journalists were taken from the basement, where they were still putting out the newspaper under the most arduous of conditions. They were marched to the train station, where scores of Germans were boarding trains to flee Czechoslovakia as Soviet troops neared, and told to wait against a wall, where they would be shot as soon as a wave of German families had departed by train. Inexplicably, a half–hour later, they were told to go. Later, the news came on the radio that Nazi Germany had officially capitulated. Seifert later captured this day in a chapter of his 1981 volume of memoirs, Všecky krásy světa.
An Internal Literary Exile
After the war's end, the situation seemed promising in Czechoslovakia, despite the presence of Soviet troops. After 1946, Seifert edited Kytice (The Bouquet), a literary monthly. It was shuttered in 1948 when Czechoslovak Communists moved to consolidate power and then firmly established a Moscow–aligned, one–party socialist state. But his first serious brush with trouble came after the 1950 publication of Písen o Viktorce (The Story of Viktorka). Based on a minor character in the work of Bozena Nemcova, a Czech literary pioneer of the late nineteenth century, the poems failed to meet appropriate state–proclaimed guidelines. "Authoritarian conservative critics such as Ivan Skála used this book as a pretext to attack Seifert for not devoting his work to building a new communist society and other socially committed subjects," noted Zelinsky in the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. "For a time he was also ostracized by the literary community."
For a time, Seifert turned to writing children's literature, a necessary refuge for writers whose work failed to fit in with the ideological standards of Communism. The restoration of his literary reputation among fellow Czech and Slovak writers came in 1956, when authorities began cracking down on dissent. Thousands were being arrested, and Seifert took a courageous stand at a meeting of the official writers' association of Czechoslovakia. "If an ordinary person is silent . . . it may be a tactical maneuver," he told the assembled writers, according to Skvorecky's New Republic article. "If a writer is silent, he is lying."
The response from the state was swift: publication of any new work from Seifert was suspended. From this point onward, Seifert occupied a unique position in the cultural life of his country. Revered by students, workers, and fellow artists for his political courage, he was rendered mute by the state, but refused to flee to the West, as other prominent figures had done. Instead he remained behind the Iron Curtain, a dissident writer within his own country. His career languished, and though one courageous publisher managed to secretly print his books by backdating the publication stamps, they were not sold in any of Prague's numerous official bookstores. Furthermore, Seifert stopped writing altogether for a number of years, after a misdiagnosis and unnecessary operation took a toll on his health. He returned to poetry again only in the mid–1960s, and in a far freer–verse form that his earlier efforts.
Led Writers Union to Final Showdown
The change in Seifert's style coincided with a new and hopeful mood in the country, as more moderate Communists had gained some measure of control within the Party and managed to enact some economic and social reforms. This period of liberalization was a short–lived one, however, and ended abruptly in August of 1968 when Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia from the east to reassert Soviet control. In the midst of the turmoil, a 67–year–old Seifert took a taxi to the National Writers Union office, hobbled in on crutches, and stood for election as president. He served in the post until the Union was formally dissolved by the government, after refusing to endorse the official government version of the Soviet invasion.
Once again, Seifert became persona non grata in Czechoslovakia, though not among the populace, who quietly commended him for his courage. He was one of the original 243 signers of the momentous Charter 77 human rights manifesto, a 1977 declaration from prominent Czechs of their opposition to authoritarian Communist rule in the country. His works were widely read, though only in secret samizdat form, which meant they were privately, often crudely printed and the editions passed among friends and sympathizers. One volume of verse, Morovy Sloup, was somehow smuggled out of the country and issued by a West German publishing house. It later appeared in English translation as The Plague Column.
Honored with Nobel Prize
Only in 1981, on the occasion of Seifert's eightieth birthday, did the regime appear to concede that the poet was a literary figure of significant stature in the country. After years of an official publication ban, an edition of Morovy Sloup was issued, followed a year later by Všecky krásy světa (All the Beauties of the Earth), his memoirs in lyrical sketch form. The announcement of his Nobel Prize honor reignited controversy, however. The win was announced in rather terse terms in the state–controlled press, but then the Charter 77 signers who had recommended Seifert's name to the Nobel–deciding Swedish Academy were harassed and even jailed. When well–wishers began streaming to Seifert's house to congratulate him, agents of the internal intelligence service stationed themselves outside to check everyone's identity cards.
Seifert was too frail to travel to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony, but his win was celebrated around the world. Back home, however, the Czechoslovak Communist apparatus issued statements hinting that the choice of Seifert was less about his poetry than an attempt to discredit the Soviet Bloc, but the significance of Seifert's honor was not lost on anyone. "Seifert's Nobel Prize is treasured by the Czechs," explained writer Roger Scruton in a London Times article, "not because it was a fitting recognition of literary merit, but because it was the first true sign that the 'unofficial' culture is internationally acknowledged as the true culture of Czechoslovakia, and acknowledged, not through the work of fast–living exiles, but through the heroic labour of those still at home."
The Nobel win fueled interest in Seifert's works in translation. At the time of his win, just three volumes of his poetry existed in English translation. Critics note, however, that his verse is difficult to render in a language other than Czech in a correspondingly exquisite style. Seifert died in Prague on January 10, 1986, just a little over a year after his Nobel honors, survived by his wife since 1928, Marie, and children Jana and Jaroslav. During his long career he rarely gave interviews to foreign journalists, but did so on the Nobel Prize occasion. Two journalists from Time magazine, Henry A. Grunwald and John Moody, came to visit him, and asked if he had any message for American readers. "Read our poetry," Seifert advised. "If it is possible. It is a bit touchy to speak about these things. Your people should appreciate their liberty."
Booklist, April 14, 1998.
Harper's, May, 2003.
New Republic, February 18, 1985.
New York Times, December 20, 1984.
Time, October 22, 1984; December 17, 1984.
Times (London, England), January 28, 1986.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 14, 2005).
"Seifert, Jaroslav." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/seifert-jaroslav
"Seifert, Jaroslav." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/seifert-jaroslav
Jaroslav Seifert, 1901–86, Czech poet. Starting as a revolutionary
poet, Seifert soon began to emphasize fantasy and enchantment as antidotes to modern technological civilization. After signing an anti-Stalinist manifesto, he was expelled from the Communist party, and his verse then addressed itself more directly to social themes. Seifert was a signatory of the Czech Charter 77 manifesto. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984.
See E. Osers, tr., An Umbrella for Piccadilly (1983).
"Seifert, Jaroslav." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/seifert-jaroslav
"Seifert, Jaroslav." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/seifert-jaroslav