Seferis, George (13 March 1900 – 20 September 1971)
George Seferis (13 March 1900 – 20 September 1971)
Martha E. Klironomos
San Francisco State University
BOOKS: Strophe (Athens: Hestia, 1931);
Sterna (Athens: Hestia, 1932);
Mythistorema (Athens: Kastalia, 1935); translated by Mary Cooper Walton in Mythistorima and Gymnopaidia (Athens: Lycabettus Press, 1977);
Dialogos pano sten poies (Athens: Sergiade, 1939);
Emerologio Katastromatos [Logbook I] (Athens, 1940); Emerologio Katastromatos B [Logbook II] (Athens: Ikaros, 1945); and Emerologio Katastromatos C [Logbook III] (Athens, 1955);
Poiemata 1 (Athens: A & M, 1940); third edition, enlarged (Athens: Ikaros, 1961; sixth edition, enlarged again, 1965; enlarged again, 1967);
Tetradio gymnasmaton (1928-1937) (Athens: [Sepheres], 1940);
Dokimes (Cairo: Gioule, 1944); second edition, enlarged (Athens: Phexe, 1962);
Seferis: Choix de poèmes traduits et accompagnés du texte grec, Collection de l’lnstitut français dAthènes, no. 2, translated by Robert Levesque (Athens: Ikaros, 1945);
Erotokritos ([Athens]: I. M. Skazike, 1946);
Kichle (Athens: Ikaros, 1947);
Poiemata, 1924-1946 (Athens: Ikaros, 1950);
Treis meres sta monasteria tes Kappadokias, Kappadokia, no. 8; Ekdoseis tou Gallikou Institoutou Athenon, no. 78 (Athens: Institut français dAthènes, 1953);
Kypron, hou m’ethespisen (Athens: Ikaros, 1955);
Gia ton sefere; Timetiko afierma sta trianta chronia tes strofe (Athens, 1961);
Ho Poietes D. I. Antoniou (Athens: K. Michala, 1961);
Gia ton Sephere: Timetiko aphieroma sta trianta chronia tes Strophes, by Seferis and Nora Anagnostake (Athens, 1961);
Delphoi (Athens, 1963); republished as Delphi, Little Art Book, translated by Philip Sherrard (Munich: Knorr&Hirth, 1963);
Discours de Stockholm, Collection de l’lnstitut français d’Athenès (Athèns: Institut français d’Athenès, 1963);
Parallages pano sto vivlio: Homilia tou Giorgou Sephere sta gallika, sto Panepistemio tes Varkelones, gia ta enkainia tes 13es Ektheses Palaiou Vivliou, 15 Septemvriou 1964 ([Athens?]: Ethniko Kentro Vivliou, 1964);
Poiemata: Pempte ekdose (Athens: Ikaros, 1964);
Th. S. E: Selides apo hena Hemerologio (Athens, 1965);
Ekloge apo tis “Dokimes,” Vivliotheke Ellenon kai xenon syngrapheon, no. 164 (Athens: Ekdoseis Galaxia, 1966);
He Apokalypse tou Ioanne (Athens: Ikaros, 1966);
Tria krypha poiemata (Greece, 1966); bilingual edition, Three Secret Poems. Tria krypha poiemata, translated by Walter Kaiser (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969);
Hoi gates t’ae Nikola (Athens, 1969);
Dekaochto keimena ([Athens]: Kedros, 1970);
Glôsses ston Artemidôro ton Daldiano (Leukosia, Cyprus, 1970);
Xestratismata apo tous Homerikous hymnous (Leukosia, Cyprus, 1970);
Cheirographo Sep. 41 (Athens: Ikaros, 1972);
Vradia Sephere: demosia syzetese sten Athena, 22 Noemvriou 1971, Hetaireia meletes Hellenikon provlematon, no. 3 (Athens: Kedros, 1972);
Hoi hores tes “Kyrias Herses” (Athens: Hermes, 1973);
Meres tou 1945-1951 (Athens: Ikaros, 1973);
Meres, 7 volumes (Athens: Ikaros, 1973-1990);
Hexi nychtes sten Akropole (Athens: Hermes, 1974);
Epi aspalanthon: Politeia, 616: Hena poiema, mia stase zoes ([Athens]: Mneme, 1975).
Editions in English: The King of Asine: and Other Poems, bilingual edition, translated by Bernard Spencer, Manos Valaoritis, and Lawrence Durrell (London: John Lehmann, 1948);
Selected Poems of George Seferis, translated by Edmund Keeley (1956);
Calligram, translated by Rex Warner ([Richmond, U.K.]: Miniature Press, 1960);
Poems, translated by Warner (Boston: Nonpareil, 1960; London: Bodley Head, 1960);
On the Greek Style: Selected Essays in Poetry and Hellenism, translated by Warner and Th. D. Frangopoulos (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966; London: Bodley Head, 1967);
Collected Poems, 1924-1955, bilingual edition, translated, edited and introduced by Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967); republished (London: Cape, 1973);
The Land within a Wall: (A Poem); and Towards a Precipice: (A Declaration), Echoes from Greece, no. 2, translated by John Richmond (Montreal: Anthelion Press, 1969);
A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951, translated from the Greek MSS. by Athan Anagnostopoulos (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1975);
Mythistorima and Gymnopaidia, bilingual edition, translated by Mary Cooper Walton (Athens: Lycabettus Press, 1977);
Collected Poems of George Seferis, translated by Keeley and Sherrard (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981); republished as Complete Poems of George Seferis (London: Anvil Press, 1989);
George Seferis: Complete Poems (London: Anvil Press, 1995).
OTHER: Apologismos henos dialogou (Athens: Ta Propylaia, 1939)–includes selections by Seferis;
Kalvou: he lyra ([Alexandria]: Ekdoseis Neoalexandrinon, 1942)–includes selections by Seferis;
Six Poems from the Greek of Sekilianos and Seferis (Rhodes [Greece], 1946)–includes selections by Seferis.
TRANSLATIONS: T. S. Eliot, Th. S. Eliot (Athens, 1936);
Sidney Keyes, E eremia (Athens, 1954);
Eliot, Phoniko sten ekklesia (Athens: Ikaros, 1963);
Antigraphes (Athens: Ikaros, 1965);
He Apokalypse tou Ioanne (Athens: Ikaros, 1966);
Eliot, He ereme chora kai alla poiemata (Athens: Ikaros, 1973).
Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963, George Seferis is one of the most important poets and literary critics of Greece; his views on the Greek demotic folk tradition and literary canon determined the course of modern Greek letters for the better part of the twentieth century. Seferis, nom de plume of Giorgos Seferiadis, was born on 13 March 1900 in Smyrna (now Izmir), Turkey, the son of Stelios and Despo Seferiadis. The Seferiadis family left Smyrna in 1914 for Athens, where Stelios Seferiadis taught law at the University of Athens. After Seferis finished his secondary schooling in Athens, he pursued a law degree in Paris from 1918 to 1924, briefly visiting London from 1924 to 1925.
Spending the formative years from the ages of eighteen to twenty-five abroad, he remained attentive to the literary movements of the day, especially symbolism and surrealism, and was exposed to the work of many influential writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, and T. S. Eliot. In 1931 with the publication of his first poetry collection, Strophe (Turning Point), Seferis embarked on his career as a poet. In this work and in his later poetry collections, which include Mythistorema (1935, The Mythical Story), Logbooks I–III (Emerologio Katastromatos, 1940; Katastromatos B, 1945; and Katastromatos C, 1955), Kichle (The Thrush, 1947), and Tria krypha poiemata (1966; translated as Three Secret Poems, 1969), he solidified his status as one of the most revered national poets of Greece. Seferis’s experimentation with symbolist and modernist poetics and his exclusive use of demotic Greek as the linguistic medium of choice earned him a privileged place in the collective oeuvre produced by his generation of poets, known in Greek literary criticism as “the Generation of the 1930s.” Poets in this literary circle include 1979 Nobel Prize laureates Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, Andreas Embirikos, and Nikos Engonopoulos.
The linguistic medium in which Seferis chose to write both his poetry and his literary essays is of particular importance and should properly be included in the ongoing debate (among Greek literati) that has commonly been referred to as the “Language Question,” one that, according to Robert Browning, spanned the years from the 1770s to the 1970s. The debate has entailed a struggle among Greek literati over which linguistic register would best serve the needs of the nation: purist Greek, the katharevousa (an active participle which literally means “purifying”), or demotic Greek, the vernacular language as it evolved from the ancient and Byzantine epochs to the end of the period of Ottoman rule. An artificial language, purist Greek was initially conceived to “purge” Greek principally of Turkish loanwords that had been absorbed into the language over the course of four centuries of interim Ottoman rule (1453-1821). The adoption of purist Greek reflected an effort not only to erase the evolution of the language during this period but also to reintegrate certain morphological forms drawn from ancient Attic into the modern Greek language.
By Seferis’s generation, even though katharevousa was still used in the public sphere, the demoticist platform had become consolidated in poetry and literary criticism. Poetry has always been a privileged medium in the Greek tradition because of the primacy of orality and the latent development of textuality in Greek letters. Since Seferis wrote verse in demotic Greek, following the path set by poets Dionysios Solomos, Kostis Palamas, and Angelos Sikelianos, he was also an heir to an illustrious Greek folk tradition, one that was equated with the notion that Greek was the language of the people and, as such, a reflection of a national ideal. Seferis became one of its strongest advocates in his literary essays, endeavoring to advance the discourse concerning Greek Neo-Hellenism, which he defined as an evolving literary tradition that spanned the ancient to the modern periods.
Along with other exponents of the “Generation of the 1930s,” Seferis published his literary criticism extensively in some of the most important literary journals in Greece, such as Ta Nea Grammata (New Letters), and is credited with advancing the genre to a new level of rigorousness and sophistication, the influence of which was felt for the better part of the twentieth century. Seferis was also an accomplished translator, publishing his translation of Eliot’s poetry in The Waste Land and Other Poems (1936) as well as Antigraphes (1965), a volume of translations of poets primarily of the symbolist and modernist traditions, such as William Butler Yeats, Valéry, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, André Gide, and W. H. Auden.
In addition to a long-standing association with some of the most revered literati of Greece–including George Katsimbalis, George Theotokas, and Manos Valaoritis–Seferis established friendships with many internationally acclaimed writers, such as Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Eliot, and Auden. Miller, who met Seferis on a trip to Greece during the outbreak of World War II in Europe, immortalized Seferis in his well-known travel book, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941). Miller’s perceptive account of Seferis highlights not only Seferis’s cosmopolitanism but also his preoccupation with his own national culture:
He is the arbiter and reconciler of conflicting schools of thought and ways of life. He asks innumerable questions in a polyglot language; he is interested in all forms of cultural expression and seeks to abstract and assimilate what is genuine and fecundating in all epochs. He is passionate about his country and his people, not in a hidebound chauvinistic way but as a result of patient discovery following upon years of absence abroad.
After he completed his law degree, Seferis entered the diplomatic service, in which he made his professional career, first in Athens, where he worked in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1926 to 1931 and then in the Greek Consulate in London from 1931 to 1934. He was consul at Koritsa in Albania from 1936 to 1938. Subsequently, in 1938 he became press attaché to the Department of Press and Information in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served in this capacity until the end of the Ioannis Metaxas dictatorship in January of 1941. Among his responsibilities during this period was to issue press communiqués on behalf of the Greek government to foreign news correspondents. Upon the Nazi invasion of Greece on 6 April 1941, Seferis issued one of his most passionate statements to the foreign press, in which he remarked:
This morning Greece withstood the aggression of a great Empire, which adds 80-90,000,000 of its inhabitants to the 45,000,000 of those who attacked us at the Albanian front.... We are a small nation, but have vast experience. We recognize that the fate of certain nations is always to oppose certain forces of evil. It is not the first time that Greece fulfills this destiny.
–translated by Martha Klironomos
Seferis married Maria (Maro) Zannou in April 1941, directly after which he, like other members of the Greek government, fled the Greek mainland for the island of Crete and subsequently went into exile. After a brief stay in Egypt, he went on to South Africa, where he worked in the Greek Embassy in Pretoria from 1941 to 1943. From there, he went to Italy in 1944 and returned to Athens after the liberation in 1945, where he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until 1948. He was later appointed counselor to the embassies in Ankara (1948-1950) and London (1951-1952), ambassador to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq (1953-1956), and finally ambassador to England (1957-1962). In 1957 he was made a member of the Greek delegation to the United Nations in New York during talks over the Cyprus conflict. After this final post, he retired from the diplomatic service and returned to Athens in 1962.
By virtue of the various diplomatic positions he had held in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs during his lengthy career from 1926 to 1962, Seferis was an astute observer of Greece’s most tragic national crises: political unrest resulting from internal domestic politics during the 1920s and 1930s in the aftermath of the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 (the expulsion of Greeks from ages-old territory in Asia Minor); the Albanian campaign (1940-1941); the Nazi occupation (1941-1943) and the ensuing Greek Civil War (1946-1949); and the Cyprus conflict during the 1950s, reactions to which abound in his private journals, the series Meres (1973-1990), as well as his political and autobiographical journals and essays, such as Political Journals and Manuscript Sept. ’41.
Seferis’s first poetry collection, Strophe, carries a double nuance in Greek, meaning both “turning point” and “strophe” as a mode of versification. Several contemporary Greek critics hailed the work, quite literally, as a “turning point” in modern Greek poetry; they viewed the collection as an example of a Greek poet following the path trod by his European counterparts in experimenting with form and breaking away from conventional modes of versification. In retrospect, however, this judgment seems cast too hastily, for the verse of earlier Greek poets, such as Constantine Cavafy and Kostas Karyotakis, had already exhibited signs of moving away from conventional modes of versification in Greek poetics and embracing aspects of modernism, especially its predilections for aestheticism and decadence.
In Strophe, Seferis still adhered to the staid convention of rhymed verse; yet, he varied his technique, alternating between disciplined metric patterns and prosaic forms. Using a linguistic register that was reflective of his social class, he introduced a diction that also paid homage to his literary predecessors–Homer; Vincentzos Kornaros, seventeenth-century Cretan Renaissance poet of the Erotokritos; and nineteenth-century Ioannis Makryannis, whose Memoirs Seferis went on to hold in his lectures and literary criticism of the 1940s as an exemplary model of the demotic folk tradition. Demonstrating a newfound self-consciousness toward words, Seferis also played in Strophe with the notion of the open-ended text, making use of signifiers that called into question a fixed meaning in language, using techniques and principles typical of European “symbolist” verse, the power of suggestion and evocation in language.
“Denial” and “The Mood of a Day,” two of his best-known poems from this collection, illustrate the confluence of symbolist techniques with contemporary Greek poetic expression. In “Denial,” a rhymed poem written in a tightly controlled metric pattern, Seferis generates a particular fleeting mood set against the backdrop of an enigmatic seashore:
On the secret seashore
white like a pigeon
we thirsted at noon
but the water was brackish.
On the golden sand
we wrote her name;
but the sea-breeze blew
and the writing vanished….
–(from Collected Poems (CP), translated by Edmund Keeley
and Philip Sherrard)
The poem lent itself to another symbolist poetic practice, musicality; it was put to music by renowned composer Mikis Theodorakis. His interpretation of “Denial” and other later poems, such as “Epiphany, 1937,” during the 1960s and 1970s popularized Seferis’s poetry. Through such modes, poetry was made accessible to a mass audience: these modes illustrate the dominance of the oral tradition in Greek popular consciousness throughout several epochs of its evolution. The distance between high and low culture in the Greek context is markedly shorter than it is in the European and Anglo-American traditions; while Anglo-American and European literature attained aesthetic autonomy by the modernist period, in Greece, according to Gregory Jusdanis, it still remained part of the social praxis.
Unlike the disciplined metrical pattern that distinguishes “Denial,” by contrast, the poem “The Mood of a Day” inducts prosaic forms. Recalling the mood of a distinct moment in an undisclosed, foreign, urban place, the narrator becomes continuously displaced by fragmented thoughts of other voices. Beyond the specific case of Seferis, this technique has been viewed as an example of how modernism problematizes the idea of representing a fixed form of reality, which some critics, such as Brian McHale, have interpreted as a broader crisis in epistemology:
New houses dusty clinics exanthematic windows coffins-
Has anyone considered the suffering of a
sensitive pharmacist on night duty?
The room in a mess: drawers windows doors open
their mouths like wild animals;
a tired man lays out the cards, searches, astrologizes,
He worries: if they knock at the door who will open it? If
he opens a book whom will he look at? If opens
soul who will look? Chain- (CP)
As evidenced in this early poetry, Seferis’s affinities lay with the tenets of symbolism. He remained, at the same time, critical of the avant-garde artistic movements, such as surrealism, which he viewed as “facile poetry,” as he later stated in “Dialogue on Poetry” (1938), one of his series of dialogues with Konstantinos Tsatsos, a professor of philosophy at the University of Athens on literature, art, and culture. In “Letter to a Foreign Friend” in On the Greek Style (1966), Seferis conveys the reason that writers such as Eliot appealed to him during this period. “After the outburst of dadism and the experiments of surrealism which I had witnessed in France,” he explains, “after these tremendous... explosions of the ego which had brought into the atmosphere... the sort of electrical tension one finds in tropical climates just before the advent of the rains, the renewal of the dramatic tradition which I found in Eliot brought me back to a temperate zone.”
What particularly distinguishes Seferis is his use of symbols. The employment of symbols throughout his oeuvre, at times readily decipherable ones (“stones,” “statues,” “landscape”), at other times obscure ones intelligible only to himself (“swans,” “angelic and black, light”), was the trademark of a practice Seferis’s critics associated with the symbolist movement in European and Anglo-American literary and artistic circles. In its adherence to such principles, symbolist poetry, just as many other modernist texts, lent itself to multiple interpretations. These elements were most closely associated with the ideas of “pure poetry” and evolving definitions of symbolism, as represented in the work of contemporaries such as Valéry and Eliot, to whom Seferis has often been compared.
Seferis’s experimentation with symbolist practice, however, was devoid of the same ideological charge that had initially motivated other exponents of the practice–such as Valéry, Yeats, and Eliot–according to Arthur Symons’s contention in his influential study The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1919), in which he views this artistic school as a reaction to scientific pragmatism: “in its revolt against exteriority, against rhetoric, against a materialistic tradition; in this endeavour to disengage the ultimate essence, the soul, of whatever exists and can be realized by the consciousness; in this dutiful waiting upon every symbol by which the soul of things can be made visible; literature bowed down by so many burdens, may at last attain liberty, and its authentic speech.”
With the publication of Sterna (1932; The Cistern), Seferis demonstrates the beginnings of what became his stock metaphors and symbols: landscape, stones, shattered fragments and statues, which acquired a more specific ideological charge in his more mature poems, Mythistorema, Logbooks I-III, and Kichle. This ideological charge was endemic of a set of values that defined Greek national identity in relation to ancient Greek culture and language, and Seferis played an instrumental role in defining the essence of the claim of modern Greece to that illustrious tradition.
In the poem “Mycenae” (1935), from the collection Gymnopaidia, the narrator, presumably a modern day Orestes (I, who’ve followed so many times / the path from killer to victim, / from victim to punishment... that night of return / when the Furies began whistling [CP]) refers to the stones at the ancient archaeological site in Mycenae and conveys their overwhelming impact on him:
Whoever lifts these heavy stones sinks
I lifted these stones for as long as I could
I loved these stones for as long as I could
these stones, my fate. –translation by Klironomos
The stones in these lines have been interpreted by critics over the years to signify the burden of the ancient past on modern Greek consciousness. The narrative consciousness in “Mycenae” is predisposed to look upon antiquity as being inextricably linked to modernity, as a matter of its destiny or “fate”; yet, it remains a past that is enigmatic and virtually unidentifiable: Bodies sunk into the foundations / of the other time, naked. Eyes / fixed, fixed on a point that you can’t make out, much as you want to... (CP).
In “Mythistorema 3” the burden of the past is represented in the form of a heavy marble head that exhausts the narrator, presumably Orestes again, for the epigraph, “remember the baths where you were murdered,” is taken from Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers, a cry uttered by Orestes to his father, Agamemnon, at his father’s grave site. As in “Mycenae,” the burden of the past in “Mythistorema 3” has a negative connotation, for it alludes to the cycle of violence and destruction that has plagued the house of Atreus because of its excessive hubris, meant to serve as a didactic example from which parallels can be drawn to the present age. But the debilitating effect of the weight of this tradition is conveyed as being one of dismemberment and mutilation:
I woke with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it
It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the
so our life became one and it will be very difficult for it
to disunite again.
I look at the eyes: neither open nor closed
I speak to the mouth which keeps trying to speak
I hold the cheeks which have broken through the skin.
I don’t have any more strength.
My hands disappear and come toward me
Consciousness of the past as it weighs on the modern psyche had defined the essence of Greek national identity since the early stages of Greek nation building in the nineteenth century. The adoption of an historical model, which held antiquity as the point of origin and as an illustrious ideal, permeated all facets of Greek national culture from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries in its forms of political and social organization, educational institutions, and modes of artistic expression. It was based on a model of continuity, which sought to link the various epochs of Greek history, from the ancient and Byzantine to the modern, and which–according to Michael Herzfeld, Loring Danforth, and Jusdanis–had imprinted itself in Greek national consciousness as far back as the Greek Enlightenment and consolidated itself within intellectual circles after the formation of the nation-state in 1830 within the evolving epistemologies of disciplines such as philology, historiography, folklore, and pedagogy.
Adherence to such an historical model postulated, above all, a comparison between the ancients and moderns–the cultural achievements of the former toward which the moderns continuously strived. Yet, the disparity between the culture of the ancients versus the moderns in Greece, as unrealistic as it was, provoked an “anxiety of influence” within the consciousness of the modern literati, as articulated in the two aforementioned poems by Seferis.
Consciousness of the past as it weighs on the modern psyche was not typical only of Seferis’s generation, however, as it had been a familiar trope in modernity in the theorizing of its relationship to the antique past. In European Romanticism, for example, the well-known painting The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments (circa 1778-1780) by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli displays an ancient fragment of a large foot being contemplated by the contemporary artist. Fuseli projects the ineffectuality of the artist in grappling with the ruins of a formidable and authoritative classical tradition that remains remote and distant to modern consciousness. The artist here, according to Timothy Webb, is not overcome by nostalgia for a golden and superior past, but rather appears dejected and overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy when he compares himself to that tradition. Such an image conveys what Webb has interpreted as a “symptom of a cultural crisis that was experienced especially by writers and artists for whom the Greek achievement was both an unreachable ideal and a system that could not now be reassembled or understood as a whole. Fuseli’s artist experiences, it seems, that burden of the past that has been increasingly identified with the artistic self-consciousness of the modern writer.”
Though Seferis’s poetry bewails the burden of the past, it also affirms its indebtedness and inextricable link to the past. Seferis articulated his reverence to the antique past through the conscious integration of the Classics into his poetry, in collections such as Mythistorema, Logbooks I-III, and Kichle, and in the parallel development of his position in his literary criticism. His experimentalism with formalist techniques in poetic verse in these collections employed, even further, signature techniques most closely associated with Anglo-American and European modernism–not only extended use of the fragmented and open-ended text, but also partial quotes, epigraphs, and literary allusions to the ancient Greek textual tradition.
The twenty-four poems that make up the collection Mythistorema were written in the context of the psychological defeatism that inundated Greek society in the aftermath of the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922, which culminated in the destruction of Smyrna and the displacement of more than a million refugees into Greece. Although in “Mythistorema 8” Seferis does not explicitly refer to the evacuation of Smyrna, his birthplace, fleeting images in the poem recall scenes from this tragic episode in recent history that had become embedded in Greek popular memory:
What are they after, our souls, traveling
on the decks of decayed ships
crowded in with sallow women and crying babies
unable to forget themselves either with the flying fish
or with the stars that the masts point out at their tips?
Grated by gramophone records
committed to non-existent pilgrimages unwillingly,
they murmur broken thoughts from foreign languages.
What are they after, our souls, traveling
on rotten brine-soaked timbers
from harbor to harbor?
Shifting broken stones, breathing in
the pine’s coolness with greater difficulty each day,
swimming in the waters of this sea
and of that sea,
without the sense of touch
in a country that no longer is ours
nor yours. –(CP)
Deriving from the words mythos (myth) and istoria (history), Mythistorema (which means novel in Greek), draws on the ancient Greek textual tradition of such writers as Homer and Aeschylus to dramatize the experience of war and exile not only in this moment but also throughout the many millennia of Greek history. For Seferis the Classics are not merely an authoritative and canonical tradition to which a poet pays homage, but also a stabilizing factor to cope with the social and political divisions that had fraught Greek society in the post-1922 era.
In extracting lessons from this rich textual heritage, Seferis imparts a didacticism, much like his predecessor Cavafy, in presenting a series of historical exempla to cope with the ills wrought on modernity. For Seferis, the continuing relevance of the model of Aeschylean justice, for instance, permeates not only Mythistorema but also poems, such as “Mycenae,” “Notes for a ’Week’ (1933)” and “The Thrush,” for, as the poet explains in “Letter on the Thrush” in On the Greek Style, Aeschylus “sets before us” the “mechanism of justice,” “this alternation of Hubris and Ate.” As Seferis said in his 10 December 1963 Nobel banquet speech, the individual who exceeds measure is punished by the Erinyes (the Fates); this “norm of justice” holds not only as a moral law but also as a law of nature.
Inspired by Homeric epic, the archetypal journey is an image that resurfaces in Seferis’s poetry, as in “Reflections on a Foreign Line of Verse” (1931) and “Mr. Stratis Thalassinos Describes a Man” (1932). But the journey takes on a specific significance in Mythistorema as a metaphor for the search for the past.
“Mythistorema 4” draws on the myth of Jason and the Argonauts in the quest for the golden fleece and that of Odysseus’s companions in their attempt to return to their homes after the conclusion of the Trojan War. The Delphic maxim “know thyself” is integrated into the voyagers’ collective consciousness and embodied in the act of their traveling:
If it is to know itself, they said
it must look into a soul, they said
and the oars struck the sea’s gold
in the sunset. We went past many capes many islands the
leading to another sea, gulls and seals.
Sometimes unfortunate women wept – (CP)
Seferis’s embracing of the continuity of time reappears in his literary essays and journals and accords with his reading of both Greek and European modernists, especially Cavafy and Eliot, whom Seferis goes on to compare in a well-known essay published in 1947. For Seferis, Cavafy’s poetry presents “no disruption of the continuity” (A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951, 1975) of historical time in his poetry. Likewise for Eliot, Seferis contends, for whom the question of history “is not that it has died, but that it is still alive. Alive, present, contemporaneous” (He ereme chora kai alia poiemata, 1973). In this sense, Seferis’s citing of Eliot’s well-known statement “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity” is saying that the use of myth and history in modern literature “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot, “Ulysses, Order and Myth” ).
Seferis’s preoccupation with myth and history in poems such as Mythistorema, as well as his translation and explication of Eliot’s work in his literary criticism during the 1930s and 1940s, prompted many critics of his day to proclaim the so-called influence of Eliot on Seferis. Seferis was not surprised by the comparison, for he believed that “there is no parthenogenesis in art... it is the assimilation that matters” (On the Greek Style). Seferis’s poems of this period also convey a use of tropes that were often closely associated with Eliot’s dystopic The Waste Land (1922), namely, the images of broken stones and fragments as well as the physical aridity of the landscape, which were interpreted as metaphors for the spiritual emptiness and emotional vacuity of the narrators of the poem, as in “Mythistorema 10”:
Our country is closed in, all mountains
that day and night have the low sky as their roof
We have no rivers, we have no wells, we have no springs,
only a few cisterns–and these empty–that echo, and that
A stagnant hollow sound, the same as our loneliness
the same as our love, the same as our bodies.
We find it strange that once we were able to build
our houses, huts, and sheepfolds.
And our marriages, the cool coronals and the fingers,
become enigmas inexplicable to our soul.
How were our children born, how did they grow strong?
Our country is closed in. The two black Symplegades
closed it in. When we go down
to the harbors on Sunday to breathe
we see, lit in the sunset,
the broken planks from voyages that never ended,
bodies that no longer know how to love. – (CP)
In response to this comparison, Seferis remarked that the “feeling” of The Waste Land “runs through all the poetic expression of our times”; but he was quick to note that in this regard Eliot was not unique, for Cavafy, whose poetry was steeped in myth and history, had preceded him in making this pronouncement. Recent critical commentary, however, has situated Seferis’s preoccupation with the landscape within the cultural politics of his contemporaries, especially the Generation of the 1930s, for whom, according to Dimitris Tziovas and Artemis Leontis, the landscape in the post-1922 period took precedence in their poetry as an aesthetic and mystical ideal after the demise of Greece’s irredentist designs in Asia Minor. The feeling of constrictedness in “Mythistorema 10” reflects this period in which the nation now was contained within newly defined geopolitical lines.
In “Dialogue on Poetry” (1938), Seferis articulates his generation’s move toward claiming intellectual autonomy from Europe’s sphere of influence. This movement is what underlies the distinction Seferis makes between “European Hellenism” and “Greek Neo-Hellenism,” each of which has separate and alternate claims to the antique past. What makes a work of art authentically Neo-Hellenic is its capacity, according to Tziovas and Leontis, to convey the sense of ellinikotita or “Greekness,” which Seferis defines in terms of expressing the demotic literary tradition. A product of the Renaissance, he views European Hellenism as a collective body of continental literary texts that has extracted from the Classical ideal moral, aesthetic, or political directives, categories, and typologies; it is a discourse constructed “in the realm of the intellect,” a product of the “times and the races of [its] creators,” traversing cultures, ethnicities, genres, and disciplines. He defines Greek Neo-Hellenism, by contrast, as an exclusively Greek national literary tradition, which is in the process of evolving and rediscovering its past. Because much of the typologies of European Hellenism were learned and imported into Greece by Greek intellectuals, Seferis argues that the creation of an authentic, indigenous Greek Neo-Hellenism had been prevented. He tried to counter this development in promoting and recovering the demotic tradition in his poetry and literary criticism, as his essays discussing such figures as El Greco, Makryannis, and Theophilos illustrate. Popular consciousness represented in the demotic register, the language of the people, is for Seferis a living medium. He assesses the value of the Memoirs of Makryannis, who was illiterate, in precisely these terms. In the recounting of the history of the trials of the nation during the outbreak of the revolution of 1821, the “spiritual wisdom” represented in Makryannis’s “oral” narrative, as Seferis puts it, “is the common lot, the spiritual wealth of a race, handed on through the ages from millennium to millennium, from generation to generation... persecuted and always alive, ignored and always present–the common lot of Greek popular tradition.”
The theme of the recovery of the antique past continues to preoccupy Seferis in his later poetry, but it is not merely the textual tradition that interests him but also the issues involving collective memory that are presented by archaeological remains. The poem “The King of Asine,” from the collection Logbook I, is based upon an obscure textual reference in Homer’s Iliad and features the contemporary poet in search for the lost king, walking among ruins in an archaeological site. The poet attempts, according to Klironomos, to interpret these broken fragments–which can be read as the attempt to endow meaning to the archaeological ruins themselves as well as to the textual fragment upon which the poem is constructed.
Seferis recalls how the understanding of the ancient past underlying the discourse of European Hellenism since the nineteenth century was founded upon the reading of fragments. In this case it is based upon deciphering a fragmented text as well as the ruins retrieved from archaeological excavation. In trying to determine the meaning of the fragments, he contemplates the existence of those who had once lived there but who nevertheless remain remote and inaccessible now. The fragments instill in him a “void”:
And the poet lingers, looking at the stones, and asks him-
does there really exist
among these ruined lines, edges, points, hollows, and
does there really exist the movement of the face, shape of
of those who’ve shrunk so strangely in our lives…
or perhaps no, nothing is left but the weight
the nostalgia for the weight of a living existence. – (CP)
The poet concludes that only through nostalgia can the past revive; a “nostalgia,” as Seferis puts it, “for the weight of a living existence.” Nostalgia brings the fragments back to life and renders them meaningful to modern consciousness.
In the period of World War II, during which Seferis was in exile, and thereafter, he produced a cluster of poems that cogently deals with the theme of the destructiveness and futility of war. “Last Stop” (1944), from the collection Logbook II, alludes to lines from Makryannis’s Memoirs as well as Aeschylus’s Agamemnon to illustrate the continuity of the calamity of war:
And if I talk to you in fables and parables
It’s because it’s mute and goes on growing:
Drips by day drips in sleep. – (CP)
Likewise in Kichle, the narrator, alluding to Homeric epic, speaks of how “the times / happened to be unpropitious: war destruction, exile”; (CP) and of its effect–that of the fragmentation of the self, reflected in the statues of the museum, “Because the statues are no longer / fragments. We are” (CP).
Written against the backdrop of his sojourn in Cyprus in the mid 1950s during the Enosis crisis, Seferis in the poem “Helen,” from the collection Logbook III, thematizes the futility of war. He draws on the countertradition, ascribed to sixth- and seventh-century Greek lyric poet Stesichorus, which maintained that Helen never went to Troy and that the city was only a phantom. This version of the myth was adapted by Euripides in his tragic play Helen, an excerpt of which Seferis integrates into the epigraph of the poem. The conclusion of the poem questions the premise of war and projects Helen as a metaphor for the basis upon which such violent aggression is based:
At Troy, nothing, just a phantom image.
The gods wanted it so.
And Paris, Paris lay with a shadow as though it were a
And for ten whole years we slaughtered ourselves for
all for a linen undulation, a filmy cloud,
a butterfly’s flicker, a whisp of swan’s down,
an empty tunic–all for a Helen. – (CP)
Seferis’s last collection, Tria krypha poiemata, is perhaps the most enigmatic example of his poetry and the most challenging to interpret. Recent commentary, drawing on Heideggerian philosophy and a poststructural approach, examines the rhetorical play between ideas that have been encoded in European and Neo-Hellenic thought. The poetry, according to Dimitris Dimiroulis, is thus discussed using a particular set of dialectical oppositions, such as concealment versus discovery, light versus darkness, presence versus absence, and truth versus art.
Seferis won the Nobel Prize in 1963, the first Greek national to win any of the five annual prizes since the Swedish Academy had begun issuing the awards in 1901. The Academy lauded him for his “eminent lyrical writing, inspired by a deep feeling for the Hellenic world of culture.” The Permanent Secretary of the Academy, Anders Österling, praised Seferis as a leading Greek national figure for “carrying on the classical heritage.” Because of the “uniqueness of its thought and style and the beauty of its language,” Seferis’s work, he noted, had become “a lasting symbol of all that is indestructible in the Hellenic affirmation of life.” In referring to the key symbols that distinguish Seferis’s poetry, Österling said that the poet had astutely interpreted “the mystery of the stones, of the dead fragments of marble and of the silent, smiling statues.”
In awarding this prize, the Academy said that it was paying “tribute to the Greece of today, whose rich literature has had to wait, perhaps too long, for the Nobel laurels.” Critical reaction in Greece emphasized this point: on the low visibility of the Greek poetic tradition abroad and that other worthy Greek writers—such as Palamas, Cavafy, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Angelos Sikelianos–had been overlooked throughout the years. Discussion also ensued over the factors that led to the awarding of this prize specifically to Seferis, deeming his visibility had been the result of his exposure and espousal of European and Anglo-American modernist poetics as well as the consistent promotion and dissemination of Seferis’s poetry by way of translation into English, French, Swedish, and several other languages in the years leading up to the award. The prize, moreover, spawned more comprehensive translations of his entire poetic production, especially those by Keeley and Sherrard, and the reprinting of previously published translations, especially in Sweden. The impact of the prize also had long-term effects: the induction of Seferis into the modern Greek literary canon, taught both in the original and in translation at the university level both in Greece and abroad leading to a proliferation of articles, essays, and dissertations explicating his work since the 1960s. The prestige of the prize, moreover, was a seminal factor in the naming of the George Seferis Chair in Modern Greek Literature at Harvard University in 1983.
Seferis had received several honorary doctoral degrees—from Cambridge (1960), Oxford (1964), the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (1964), and Princeton University (1965). Seferis also became an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was appointed Honorary Fellow of the Modern Language Association in 1966. He was invited to become Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard for the academic year 1969-1970. Although he was honored by the invitation, he declined because he was uncomfortable with the idea of lecturing at Harvard at a time when exercising the freedom of expression had been prohibited in Greece. Seferis witnessed the abuses of power and curbing of civil liberties wrought by the junta after it seized control of the state in 1967. Several Greek intellectuals were imprisoned or barred from writing and publishing in his homeland. According to George Thaniel (1994), in 1968 Seferis accepted an invitation from Princeton, however, to become a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study during which he had been approached by several individuals to speak against the junta. Seferis had declined the opportunity, believing that such criticism needed to be voiced in his homeland and not while he was abroad.
After he returned to Greece, because of mounting public pressure, Seferis issued his first public statement condemning the junta in what had hitherto been two years marked by the regime’s repressive measures, including widespread censorship, political detentions, and torture. Seferis’s statement was made on 29 March 1969 on the BBC and distributed to every newspaper in Athens. Defying martial law, he called for an end to the dictatorship. He regarded the widespread curbing of liberties a national “humiliation” and concluded that “We have all learned that in dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy, yet tragedy lurks, inexorably in the end.” George Seferis, however, did not live to see the end of the junta. He died in Athens, after extensive hospitalization, on 20 September 1971. His funeral in Athens drew a vast crowd and was linked to the protest movement against the dictatorial regime.
Roderick Beaton, George Seferis (River Vale, NJ.: Cosmos, 1991);
Vangelis Calotychos, “The Art of Making Claques: Politics of Tradition in the Critical Essays of T S. Eliot and George Seferis,” in Modernism in Greece? Essays on the Critical and Literary Margins of a Movement, edited by Mary N. Layoun (New York: Pella, 1990), pp. 81-136;
C. Capri-Karka, Love and the Symbolic Journey in the Poetry of Cavafy, Eliot and Seferis (New York: Pella, 1982);
Loring Danforth, “The Ideological Context of the Search for Continuities in Greek Culture,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 2 (1984): 53-85;
Dimitris Dimiroulis, O poietis os ethnos: aisthitiki kai ideologia sto G. Seferi [The Poet as Nation: Aestheticism and Ideology in G. Seferis] (Athens: Plethron, 1999);
T. S. Eliot,“Ulysses, Order and Myth,” Dial, 75 (1923): 480-483;
Michael Herzfeld, Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece (New York: Pella, 1986);
Gregory Jusdanis, Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1991);
Edmund Keeley, Modern Greek Poetry. Voice and Myth (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1983);
Keeley, “T. S. Eliot and the Poetry of George Seferis,” Comparative Literature, 8, no. 3 (1956): 214-226;
Martha Klironomos, “Ancient anamnesis, National mneme in the Poetry of Giorgos Seferis,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 20, no. 2 (October 2002): 215-239;
Artemis Leontis, Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995);
Michael H. Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine, 1908-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984);
Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York & London: Methuen, 1987);
Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (New York: New Directions, 1941);
Michael North, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991);
George Thaniel, Seferis and Friends (Some of George Seferis’ Friends in the English-Speaking World), edited by Ed Phinney (Stratford, Ont.: Mercury, 1994);
Dimitris Tziovas, Oi metamorphoseis tou ethnismou kai to ideologema tis ellinikotitas [The Transformation of Nationism and the Ideologeme of Greekness] (Athens: Odysseas, 1989).