Seifert, Jaroslav (23 September 1901 – 10 January 1986)
Jaroslav Seifert (23 September 1901 – 10 January 1986)
University of Chicago
See also the Seifert entries in DLB 215: Twentieth-Century Eastern European Writers, First Series and DLB Yearbook: 1984.
BOOKS: Město v slzách: První verše (Prague: Komunistické knihkupectví a nakladatelství R. Rejman, 1921);
Samá láska (Prague: Večenice, 1923); translated by Paul Jagasich as Only Love (Hampden-Sydney, Va.: [N.p.]., 1994);
Na vlnách T.S.F., by Seifert and Karel Teige (Prague: Nakladatelství V. Petra, 1925); revised and published as Svatební cesta (Prague: Melantrich, 1925); translated by Paul Jagasich as Honeymoon Ride (Hampden-Sydney, Va.: P. Jagasich, 1990, 1992);
Slavík zpívá špatně: poesie (Prague: Odeon, 1926); translated by Paul Jagasich as The Nightingale Sings Badly (Hampden-Sydney, Va.: P. Jagasich, 1990, 1992);
Hvězdy nad rajskou zahradou, feuilleton (Prague: Nakladatelství Pokrok, 1929);
Poštovní holub: básnž, 1928–1929 (Prague: R. škežík, 1929);
Jablko z klína (Prague: F. J. Müller, 1933);
Ruce Venušiny (Prague: Melantrich, 1936);
Zpíváno do rotačky (Prague: Melantrich, 1936);
Básníku Karlu Tomanovi, k dni 25. února 1937: [verše u příležitosti šedesátých narozenin Karla Tomana] (Prague: Kmen, 1937);
Faro, sbohem: básně, verše a říkánky (Prague: Melantrich, 1937);
Osm dní (Prague: Melantrich, 1937); translated by Paul Jagasich and Tom O’Grady as Eight Days: An Elegy for Thomas Masaryk, with Seifert’s 1985 acceptance speech for his honorary doctorate from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia [bilingual edition] (Iowa City: The Spirit That Moves Us Press, 1985);
Podzim v Cechách 1937 (Prague-Smíchov: K. Neubert, 1937);
Zhasněte světla: lyrické glosy (Prague: Melantrich, 1938);
Malá romance o knížeti Oldřichovi a jeho Boženě (Prague: Bílá Labut’, 1940);
Vějíř Boženy Němcové (Prague: František Borový, 1940); translated by Paul Jagasich as Božena Nemcová’s fan (Hampden-Sydney, Va.: P. Jagasich, 1990, 1992);
Světlem oděná (Prague: František Borový, 1940, 1941; London, Editions týdeník “Čzechoslovák,” 1942); translated by Paul Jagasich and O’Grady as Dressed in Light (Baltimore, Md.: Dolphin-Moon Press, 1990);
Malá romance o Ctiradovi a Šárce (Prague: Čin, 1941); translated by Paul Jagasich and Yvonne Jagasich as A short love song about Ctirad and Šárka (Hampden-Sydney, Va.: P.Jagasich, 1990, 1991);
Fabloò se strunami pavučin (Prague: Nakladatelství Novina, 1943);
Kamenný most (Prague: František Borový, 1944);
Přilba hlíny (Prágue: Práce, 1945);
Mozart v Praze: třináct rondeaux (Prague: Jaroslav Picka, 1946); translated by Edith Pargeter as Mozart in Prague: thirteen rondeaux (Prague: Orbis, 1970); translated by Paul Jagasich as Mozart in Prague: thirteen rondels [bilingual edition] (Iowa City, Iowa: The Spirit That Moves Us Press, 1985); published as Mozart v Praze: deset rondeaux (Prague: Jaroslav Picka, 1948);
Dokud nám neprší na rakev (Prague: Práce, 1947);
Romance o mládí a o víně (Prague: Vytiskl Jaroslav Picka, 1947);
S obláčky hroznu: verše o víně (Prague: [N.p.], 1947);
Petřín: 1945–1948 (Prague: Jaroslav Picka, 1948);
Romance o víně (Znojmo: Knihtiskárna Václav Kotek, 1948);
Ruka a plamen (Prague: František Borový, 1948);
Pozdrav Františkovi Halasovi (nad kresbami Fraòty Bídla) (Prague: V Divadle hudby, 1949);
Romance o králi Václavu IV ([S.l.]: [N.p.], 1949);
Šel malíř chudě do světa: verše kobrazům Mikoláše Alše (Prague: Drustevní práce, 1949); translated by Paul Jagasich as Starving Artist So Sees the World (Hampden-Sydney, Va.: Hampden-Sydney College, 1990);
Píseò o Viktorce (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1950); translated by Paul Jagasich and Yvonne Jagasich as Song about Viktorka (Hampden-Sydney, Va.: Hampden-Sydney College, 1990, 1991);
Dílo, 7 volumes (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1953–1970);
Maminka (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1954);
Prsten Třebonské Madoně (Prague: Jaroslav Picka, 1954);
Koulelo se, koulelo (Prague: Státní nakladatelství dětské knihy, 1955);
Romance o mládí (Vysoké Mýto: The private and not-for-profit press of Jaroslav and Věra Hoskový, 1955; Prague: Vydala Topičárna, 1955);
Pozdrav Petru Bezručovi (Olomouc: Matouš Jurák, 1955);
Chlapec a hvězdy: verše kobrazům a obrázkům Fosefa Lady (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1956);
Věnec sonetů (Prague, 1956); translated by J. K. Klement and Eva Stucke as A wreath of sonnets [authorized poetic rendition] (Toronto: Larkwood Books, 1987);
Zrnka révy (Mělník: Vydal Důmosvěty, 1956);
Prague výbor veršžz let 1929–1947 (Prague: Československžch umelcž, 1958);
Koncert na ostrově (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1965);
Odlévání zvonů (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1967); translated by O’Grady and Paul Jagasich as The Casting of the Bells (Iowa City: The Spirit That Moves Us Press, 1983);
Halleyova kometa, verše (Prague: Státní nakladatelství knihy, 1967), translated by Paul Jagasich as Halley’s Comet (Hampden-Sydney Va.: Hampden-Sydney College, 1987);
Zpěvy o Praze (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1968);
Pražský hrad (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1969);
Morový sloup (Prague: [N.p.], 1975); published as Morový sloup a jiné verse (Köln: Index, 1977); published as Morový sloup, 1968–1970 (Prague: [N.p.], 1979); translated by Ewald Osers as The Plague Column [bilingual edition] (London & Boston: Terra Nova Editions, 1979);
Deštník z Piccadilly: verše (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1979; Munich: Poezie mimo domov, 1979); published as Děštník z Piccadilly: verše, 1978 (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1981); published as Děštník z Piccadilly, 1979 (Prague: [N.p.], 1980); translated by Osers as An Umbrella from Piccadilly (London: London Magazine Editions, 1983);
Královský letohrádek (Mohelnice: Věra a Václav Krupkovi, 1979);
Všecky krásy světa: příbehy a vzpomínky, 4 volumes (Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1981; Munich: Index, 1981);
Býti básníkem (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1983);
Knížka polibků (Zürich: Konfrontace, 1984);
O patetickém a lyrickém stavu ducha = On the Pathetic and Lyrical State of Mind [bilingual edition] (Stockholm: Nobel Foundation, 1985);
Morový sloup: Verše z let 1968–1970 (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1984).
Editions and Collections: Sedm princezen, with others, includes Seifert’s “Povídka hřích a pokání” (Prague: Vydavatelstvo Družstevní práce, 1943);
Světlem oděná (Prague: František Borový, 1946; Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1962); published as Světlem oděná a Kamenný most (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1978);
Kamenný most (Prague: František Borový 1947, 1949); published as Kamenný most a jiné verše (Plzeò: Petit, 2001);
Svatební cesta (Prague: František Borový, 1947);
Mozart v Praze: třináct rondeaux (Prague: Jaroslav Picka, 1951; Prague: Výdal Spolek českých bibliofilů v nakladatelství Československý spisovatel, 1956; Prague: Orbis, 1970; Přerov: Olomouc, 1971; Olomouc: Matouš Jurák, 1973; Prague: Anthropos, 1991); published as Mozart v Praze: deset rondeaux (Prague: Jaroslav Picka, 1951);
Milostná píseò: vybrané básně (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1954);
Píseò domova: výbor z díla (Prague: Státní nakladatelství dětské knihy, 1954, 1958);
Maminka (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1955; Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1966, 1975, 1986);
Maminka: výbor basní (Prague: Státní nakladatelství dětské knihy, 1955; Prague: Státní nakladatelství dětské knihy, 1960, 1961; Prague: Albatros, 1971, 1985);
Píseò o Viktorce (Prague: Vytiskl Jaroslav Picka, 1955; Prague: Státní nakladatelství dětské knihy, 1967; Pardubice: Era, 1977, 1978, 1982; Prague: Vydali Jiří Corvin a Jiří Lata, 1983; Prague: Nadace Lyry Pragensis, 1996); published as Z Písné o Viktorce (Prague: Vydali Jiří Corvin a Jiří Lata, 1983);
Sklenice vína; Frenstátská romance tříkrálová; Taneční hodiny: básně o víně (Prague: Orbis, 1955);
Ty, lásko, pozdravena bud!, selection compiled by A. M. Píša (Prague: Mladá fronta, 1955);
Chlapec a hvězdy: verše kobrazům a obrázkům Josefa Lady (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1958);
Ješte jednou jaro [includes sound disc] (Prague: Pro členy Klubu přátel poezie vydalo Nakladatelství Československý spisovatel, 1961);
Na tváři lehký žal, hluboký v srdci smích: Pásmo z poetických veršů a proz Vítězslava Nezvala, Faroslava Seiferta a Konstantina Biebla, edited by Alena Vostrá (Prague: Dilia, 1964);
Polibek na cestu: výbor milostné lyriky (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1965);
3 knihy lyriky: Poštovní holub, Jablko s klína, Ruce Venušiny (Prague: Státní nakladatelství krásné literatury a umění, 1966);
Dva světy: Dvakrát pět básní z rukopisú ’Faroslava Seiferta a Vladimíra Holana (Sumperk: Okr. Knihovna, 1966);
Prsten Třebonské Madone (České Budějovice: Nakladatelství České Budějovice, 1966);
Koncert na ostrové (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1967);
Pozdrav Petru Bezručovi (Přerov: Olomouc, 1967);
Osm dní (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1968; Prague: Melantrich, 1970–1971; Prague: Nadace Lyry Pragensis, 1997);
Nejkrásnějsí bývá sílená (Prague: MF, 1968);
Vidím zemi širou (selected poetry by Seifert, František Branislav, and František Hrubín) (Prague: Siréna, 1968);
Odlévání zvonů (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1969);
Halleyova kometa, verše (Prague: Albatros, Liberecké tiskárna, Liberec, 1969);
Chlapec a hvézdy (Prague: Albatros, 1970);
Slavík zpívá špatně, by Seifert and Vítězslav Nezval, Snídaně v tráve, and František Lazecký, Fenom vzlyk temnot (Prague: Vyšehrad, 1971);
Morový sloup (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1973; Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1984);
Vejír Boženy Němcové (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1976);
Morový sloup (Prague: Vilém Šmidt, 1978);
Světlem oděná a Kamenný most (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1978);
Faro, sbohem (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1980);
Morový sloup: 1968–1970 (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1981);
Dvě básně = Two poems = Två dikter, translated into English by Ewald Osers; translated into Swedish by Josef Brettschneider and Harry Järv (Stockholm: Charta 77 Foundation, 1981);
Zápas s andělem: výbor z veršů (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1981);
Všecky krásy světa: příbehy a vzpomínky (Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1981; Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1982; Prague: Eminent, Knižni klub, 1999);
Svatební cesta: Básnická sbírka (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1982);
Býti básníkem (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1984);
Ruce Venušiny (Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1984);
Koncert na ostrově; Halleyova kometa; Odlévání zvonů (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1986);
Romance o víně (Prague: Melantrich, 1986);
Pražské imprese (poems by Alexandr Paul, Seifert, František Halas, Josef Hora, and Miroslav Korecký (Prague: Panorama, 1987);
Vejíř Boženy Němcové; Prilba hlíny; Ruka a plamen; Píseò o Viktorce (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1987);
Věnec sonetů (Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1987);
Město v slzách; Samá láska; Svatební cesta; Slavík zpívá špatně; Poštovní holub (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1989);
Čas plný písní (Prague: Odeon, 1990);
Jablko z klína; Ruce Venušiny; Faro, sbohem (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1990);
Tichý dvojhlas: z korespondence ceského básníka Faroslava Seiferta a slovenského herce Ladislava Chudíka, correspondence between Seifert and Ladislav Chudik (Prague: Dita, 1992);
Deštník z Piccadilly: verše (Prague: Aulos, 1993);
Nejkrásnějsi bývá sílená (Prague: Mladá fronta, 1996);
Ruce Venušiny (Prague: Labyrint, 1998);
Morový sloup: verše z let 1968–1970: definitivní úprava textů srpen 1979 (Prague: Mata, 1998);
A sbohem (prepared by Vladimir Justl) (Prague: Ikar, 1999);
Třeba vám nesu růže (Prague: Mladá fronta, 1999);
Město v slzách; Samá láska (Prague: Akropolis, 2001);
Diváme se na paty větru. Výbor zpoezie let šedesátých (Prague: BB art, 2001);
Ruka aplamen; Píseò o Viktorce: (tři verze) (Prague: Akropolis, 2002);
Na vlnách TSF; Slavík zpívá špatně; Svatební cesta; Básné a libreta do sbírek nezarazeně (1924–1928) Překlady, G. Apollinaire, Zavražděný básník, Prsy Tiresiovy, Paris (Prague: Akropolis, 2002);
Morový sloup; Deštník z Piccadilly; Býti básníkem; Dodatky (Prague: Akropolis, 2003);
ŠSel malíř chudě do světa. Maminka. Chlapec a hvězdy. Koulelo se, koulelo. Dodatky (Prague: Akropolis, 2003);
Hvězdy nad Rajskou zahradou. Publicistika 1921–1932. Dubia. Společná prohlášení (Prague: Akropolis, 2004);
Koncert na ostrové. Halleyova kometa. Odlévání zvonů. Dodatky (1966–1970) (Prague: Akropolis, 2004).
Editions in English: From the cycle Plague Column, translated by Ewald Osers (London: Menard Press, 1974);
The Plague Column [bilingual edition], translated by Lyn Coffin (Silver Spring, Md.: SVU, 1980);
An umbrella from Piccadilly, translated by Osers (London: London Magazine Editions, 1983);
The Casting of Bells, translated by Paul Jagasich and Tom O’Grady (London: Faber & Faber, 1986);
The Selected Poetry of Jaroslav Sefert, translated by Osers (New York: Macmillan, 1986; London: Deutsch, 1986);
The Early Poetry of Jaroslav Sefert, translated by Dana Loewy (Evanston, 111.: Hydra Books & Northwestern University Press, 1997; London: Turnaround, 1999);
The Poetry of Jaroslav Sefert, translated by Osers and George Gibian, revised edition (North Haven, Conn.: Catbird Press, 1998).
OTHER: Revoluční sborník Devětsil, edited by Seifert (Prague: Večernice, 1922);
Jaroslav Vrchlický: Básně, compiled by Seifert (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1953);
Píst’ala panova: malý výbor z lyrických básni Jaroslava Vrchlické’eho, compiled and edited by Seifert (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1953);
Stanislav Kostka Neumann: Básně, compiled by Seifert (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1955);
Vítězslav Hálek: Básně, compiled by Seifert (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1955);
Maminka: pro střední hlas a klavír, music composed by Ludvík Podést, lyric by Seifert (Prague: Státní Nakladatelství Krásné Literatury, Hudby a Umění, 1956);
VerŠe o Praze, selected and compiled by Seifert (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1962);
Introduction to Prague: the Golden City, by Karel Plicka (London: Hamlyn, 1965);
Božena Němcová, Dopisy lásky, compiled by Rudolf Havel, translated from German by Havel and Seifert (Prague: Odeon, t. Stráz, Vimperk, 1971);
Mahulena, krásná panna: slovenské pohádky a povésti Boženy Némcové, commentary by Seifert (Prague: Albatros, 1983);
A View from Charles Bridge, musical recording, compact disc, text for vocal portion of Symphony no. 6: Prague by William Thomas McKinley by Seifert (Woburn, Mass.: MMC Recordings, 2003).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS-UNCOLLECTED: “Zvyšeným hlasem,” Listy, 1, no. 1 (1968): 3;
“Mitteilungen über Prag,” Du, no. 12 (1985): 24;
“Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Altstädter Ring,” Du, no. 12 (1985): 76–79;
“Mozart in Prague,” Paris Review, 46, no. 172 (2004): 131.
The lyrical voice of Jaroslav Seifert spanned, and often spearheaded, every important poetic movement and responded to nearly every major political event in the turbulent history of Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century. He is hailed as one of the most important poets in modern Czech literature for the beauty and pathos of his verse and the resoluteness of his antiauthoritarian beliefs. His themes, styles, and forms are varied and versatile; yet, his verše is marked always by terseness, passion, and unpretentious language. The sophisticated scholar of poetry can find in Seifert a master of the lyric form; yet, Seifert’s poetic idiom and themes are broadly intelligible and appealing. Seifert’s poetry is a history of a century of changing European artistic movements and political events and reflects a gently ironic and compassionate attitude to life and its vicissitudes–from the proletarian-themed civic poetry of his early career to formal experiments as a member of the breakaway avant-garde movement Poetism in the latter 1920s; from his antiwar poetry in the 1940s to melancholy introspective odes of the 1950s; from softly erotic poetry extolling the virtues of simple sensual pleasures written in the heady days of the 1960s to tight and empathetic verše with which he confronted his mortality in the 1980s. For the Czech readership of the twentieth century, there was no shortage of cataclysmic events to which to respond. Seifert’s poetry offered clarion comfort, courage, and spiritual succor to the Czech people and to the wider world. When the beloved president of the First Czech Republic, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, died in September 1937, Seifert eulogized him in a series of verses. The collection of eight poems, Osm dni (1937, Eight Days; translated as Eight Days: An Elegy for Thomas Masaryk, 1985) was so popular that it was published in six editions in 1937. The poems reflect Seifert’s personal grief at the loss of the man, but their candor granted a young nation a means by which to mourn their leader.
Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984, two years before his death, “for his poetry which endowed with freshness, sensuality and rich inventiveness provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man.” The motivations for the award echoed the deep sentiments of beleaguered Czech readers, for whom Seifert’s poetry stood as respite–often contraband–from the anxieties of imposed values. Seifert’s importance in literature is not restricted to his clarity as a dissident voice against totalitarian regimes, though the political dissent of his poetry, prose, and journalistic writing is not to be undervalued. Seifert’s voice can be cited as one that disarms ideological impositions with its active protest against the oppressive status quo. In his 1984 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Seifert, reflecting upon his long career, calculated the import of the lyric voice in and of itself as a voice that can inspire social change:
The lyrical state of mind is capable, however paradoxical it may seem, of contributing as one of several forces to the return of wisdom to our civilization–capable, for example, of contributing to technology’s being guided anew by reason: a reason that, naturally, is united with life and with nature in ways other than through rational abstractions–in other words, a reason that would differ from our present, rational, utilitarian reason and its conceptual thinking.
Seifert’s emotionally charged poetry speaks of the sensual prizes of life, of love, physical and spiritual, of the ephemera of childhood and the pangs of old age, of the clumsiness of desire. It actively contrasts the poetic to the abstract, the lyrical to the rational, not as thematic or dialectical arguments, but as ways of being or thinking, staking out the territory of play as a mode of existence. His poems celebrate life’s everydayness; his language cradles mundane objects as jewels. Above all else, Seifert’s poetry, as much of Czech literature, takes upon itself the charge to respond to impersonal history with personal humanism. Seifert’s colloquial yet eloquent poetic language reflects that of the community in which he was raised, and his poetry often has as its theme and protagonist the city in which he lived all his life.
Seifert was born in Prague on 23 September 1901 in the working-class neighborhood of Žižkov. Today, as Prague expands, the suburb of Žižkov has become a more integral part of the city and is undergoing a transformation, making it an increasingly popular address of choice. At the time of Seifert’s birth, however, Prague, though the Austro-Hungarian empire’s industrial center, was its third-place capital, behind Vienna and Budapest, and Žižkov was a district filled with the city’s working poor.
The Czechoslovakia of Seifert’s youth remained in the thrall of the Habsburg dynasty. The cultural renewal known as the “National Revival”–apotheosized in the construction of the National Theatre (Národní divadlo) in 1868–ushered in a strong, if still tentative, national consciousness and, in tandem with it, a sense of the importance of a specifically Czech literature; still, the Habsburg rule over the Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia) was vigorous. Well into the twentieth century the official, chancellery language of Prague was German; censorship was regularly leveled upon texts by Austrian authorities; and Czechs were conscripted to fight wars for the empire. As a gesture toward artistic independence from Germanic cultural dominance, many young Czech writers at the turn of the twentieth century looked outward to French poetry and prose for inspiration and inward to their own folk heritage and traditions.
Seifert was raised in this environment of increasing tension between Czech nationals and Austro-Hungarian administrators. His father worked as the manager of a local general store. His mother was doting, though prone to melancholy. Seifert’s father was an active advocate of socialist ideals; his mother was a deeply devout and romantic Catholic. Both were loving parents, but their ideological differences shaped the young Seifert. In “Reminiscences,” an essay collected in The Poetry of Jaroslav Siefert (1998), he wrote of these stark differences between his parents, revealing one of the possible sources of his poetic synthesis of social conviction and emotional force:
My parents reacted to life differently, but in harmony and not without self-sacrifice, and, during the war, not without going hungry. I remember well how my stomach used to growl. My mother surely found moments of contentment when she threw herself on the cold, moist stones of the floor of the church in Žižkov, and told the Virgin Mary openly about her troubles, trying, probably in vain, to hang on the Virgin’s long, beautiful hands a rosary made of her tears. And I would walk back and forth between the two of them, from Red Flag meetings to “Thousandfold we Greet Thee” in a single day or evening.
While the family was by no means well off, they did scrape together enough funds to send Jaroslav to gymnasium, or preparatory secondary school, a luxury to which not many boys of Žižkov had access. At the age of sixteen, Seifert, deeply influenced by the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the plight of the proletariat class at home, became an impassioned socialist. He left his secondary-school studies early in order to devote himself to political causes and used his talent for writing to become a journalist. At this time too, when the Czech lands were still under imperial rule, Seifert wrote his first serious poetry. His enthusiasm for the potential of socialism and anarchism to bring independence and to combat what Seifert saw as social injustices brought on by imperial rule is clear in his juvenilia; his more tender lyrical voice is not yet honed. Following the demise of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy after World War I and the exultant declaration of a free Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, Seifert’s activities continued in the name of socialism. With the official establishment of a Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ) in 1921, Seifert rapidly joined. His earliest prose writing of note was for leftist newspapers and journals, the most important among them being the Communist newspaper Rudé právo (Red Right, sometimes translated Red Truth), which began publication in September of 1920 (and which continues to be the main organ for leftist views today). Seifert continued to write poetry, but he earned himself a name for his assertive prose.
His earliest poetry was published in journals run by more-established yet vanguard modernist poets, such as S. K. Neumann and Josef Hora. It had as its themes those one would expect to find in an idealistic young poet compelled by a social conscience. Seifert soon amassed a respectable corpus of verses, but these simple lyric poems extolling the proletariat (published in Seifert’s first collection, 1920, Město v slzách [City in Tears]) also showed that the poet’s zeal for revolution was matched by the emphasis he placed on sensual pleasures–the touch of lovers, the ignition of a kiss. A fine example of this combination of the deliberative and the lyric is contained in the poem “Sinful City.” With its biblical repetition and diction, the poem reads as a modernist’s secular hymn to the worker’s city:
The city of factory owners, boxers, millionaires,
the city of inventors and of engineers,
the city of generals, merchants, and patriotic poets
with its black sins has exceeded the bounds of God’s
and God was enraged.
A hundred times He’d threatened vengeance on the town,
a rain of sulphur, fire, thunderbolts raining down,
and a hundred times he’d taken pity.
For he always remembered what once he had promised:
that even for two just men he’d not destroy his city,
and a god’s promise should retain its power:
just then two lovers walked across the park,
breathing the scent of hawthorn shrubs in flower.
The final couplet of the poem is exemplary of Seifert’s politics in poetic action: his critique of a Prague modernized to the point that it is mobilized against its citizens is amended by the hope that two lovers, righteous because of their sensate love, can keep this Sodom from destruction. Though Seifert’s judgmental conviction in this poem gives way in time to mature empathy and his didacticism segues subtly to compassionate directness, the sentiments expressed in “Sinful City” and in his first published volume are those typical of his entire corpus: that which is just is that which extends from love.
The title of his second volume of poems, Samá láska (1923, Love Alone, translated as Only Love, 1994), bears out the poet’s faith in love as the central ethical agent and tends, against the backdrop of his first, more darkly toned collection, to dwell on the myriad beauties of the city. Despite their subtle differences, both collections, Město v slzách and Samá láska, reflect Seifert’s close connection with the artistic movement known as Devětsil. From the time it was founded in 1920 until its dissolution in 1931, Devětsil comprised painters, sculptors, architects, dramaturges, directors, prose writers, photographers, musicians, dancers, choreographers, composers, journalists, and theorists who, despite their diverse talents and fields of expertise, were united in their belief in the need for radical social change. In addition to Seifert, the movement counted among its members poets František Halas, Jiří Wolker, and Vítězslav Nezval. Literally, Devětsil means nine strengths and invokes the nine muses of the arts. Devětsil is also the name for the butterbur, a plant very important in Czech folk medicine, known, particularly, for its potency against the plague. The two major connotations of the term evince the marriage that Devětsil’s proponents proposed between folk values and applied art as curatives for the ills of contemporary society. In this vein, the Devětsil group of poets and critics were dedicated to the promulgation of what they referred to as “proletarian poetry.” (It is perhaps a common irony that those who called for the “liberation” of the working classes were themselves sons and daughters of the haute bourgeoisie. Seifert was the only one among the “proletarian poets” of Devětsil who was actually from the working class.) Proletarian poetry was meant to provide a voice in solidarity with the struggle of the workers of the world. It was to reflect the concerns of the underclass in a poetry that would not only inform the greater public of the plight of the poor but would also inspire the underclass to rise up for social change. Devětsil’s proletarian poets were radical in their political views, and they were dedicated to colloquial expression (for example, the poetry of Seifert at this time alludes rhythmically to popular folk songs); yet, their poetry remained formally and stylistically traditionalist. In addition to his proletarian poetry, Seifert was responsible for editing, or co-editing, the movement’s leading publications, Disk (Disc, 1922), Pásmo (Zone, 1922), and Revolučni sborník Devětsil (Revolutionary Miscellany Devětsil, 1922).
Proletarian poetry decidedly did not participate in the influx of experimental modernist, specifically avant-gardist, styles that found their way into the young Czechoslovak Republic from all over Europe. In the same year that Devětsil débuted, the writer Karel Čapek published his watershed translations of contemporary French poetry. Francouzská poezie nové doby (1920, French Poetry of the New Age) brought the Parisian avant-garde to an eager Czech public and provided an exciting model for the dynamic possibilities of poetry to Seifert and his colleagues. At the same time, the innovative interplay of socialism and modernism available in Soviet Constructivism and Dada’s aesthetics of performance and its playful attitude toward language made a profound impression on certain members of Devětsil–Karel Teige, Nezval, and Seifert foremost among them. With the addition of a uniquely Czech streak of lyricism into this mix of foreign stimuli, Poetism was born. The movement’s 1924 manifesto declares: “there now arises a new style and with it a NEW ART: one which stops being art, which is ignorant of traditional prejudices, which takes in each promising hypothesis, sympathizes with experimentation, and whose methods are as rich and unprepossessing as life itself” (Teige, “The Poetist Manifesto”). The manifesto gives a succinct history of its provenance and project:
Poetism was born with the collaboration of several authors from the Devětsil group. It was, above all, our reaction against the governing ideological poetics–a protest against romantic aesthetics and traditionalism and our abandonment of the hitherto dominant precepts of “art.” We sought out in films, the circus, sport, tourism, and in life itself the expressive possibilities which were not to be found in mere pictures and poems. And so is born the picture poem, poetic puzzles and anecdotes, lyrical films. The authors of this experiment: Nezval, Seifert, Voskovec and, if you please, Teige would like to include all the flowering manifestations of poetry–quite detached from literature–and by this we mean the poetry of Sunday afternoons, holiday outings, lively cafés, the intoxication of alcohol, lively tabloids and spa-town promenades and the poetry of quiet, night, calm and peace.
By 1925, Seifert had another volume of poems to his credit, Svatební cesta (1925, Honeymoon; translated as Honeymoon Ride, 1990). Svatební cesta showed the growing influence of avant-garde poetics. Especially evident was the influence of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in the compilation’s clipped lines and communist avowals. But with the publication of his 1925 avant-garde opus, Na vlnách T.S.F. (1925, Over the Waves of TSF, or On the Waves of TSF, the letters T.S.F. being the French acronym for télégraphie sans fil, or wireless radio), the allegiance to a specifically Poetist program, exemplified in the “obrazová báseò” (picture poem), was clear. Na vlnách T.S.F. was a collaborative effort: the poems were composed by Seifert alone, but decisions on their page layout, typefaces, and type sizes were made in league with Teige; such collaborative efforts, it should be added, were also a badge of Poetism’s avant-garde sensibilities, ones that reduced the cult of the author and stressed instead the “common need” of poetry as joyful outburst, pure pleasure, intoxication. The poems evince the legacy of modern French poets, especially Guillaume Apollinaire, whom Seifert much admired (and whom he also tried his hand at translating into Czech), Dadaism, and Soviet Constructivism, but here was something truly unique among international avant-gardes. Seifert and Teige’s typographical experimentation become as much of the poetic material as the semantic and symbolic life of the words; yet, for all their provocation, these picture poems retain a deep lyrical attitude not available in the experiments of other national vanguard movements. Typical in its lyrical charm, and one of the most successful of the poems of Na vlnách T.S.F., is “Poěitadlo” (1925, Abacus).
is like an apple from Australia -
are like 2 apples from Australia how I love this abacus of
Almost fifty years later in Všecky krásy světa (1981, All the Beauties of the World, also referred to as All the Beauty in the World), Seifert would look back at the poems of this period with a measure of gentle mockery at his youthful moxie: “So, Mr. Petr [the book’s publisher], across the precipice of time and life, I offer you my hand. We are both old now. But how pleasant it is to remember the times when one was young, when one took pleasure in everything new, did not think about death, and was not afraid of anything.”
In the 1920s, in addition to writing poetry, Seifert translated works by Paul Verlaine and Aleksandr Blok, arguably the most important Symbolist poets of their nations. Seifert traveled extensively through Europe, with lengthy stays in Paris, a city that was host to many pioneering Czech artists, such as the painters Toyen, Jindřich Štyrský, and Josef Šíma in the mid 1920s. He was an active contributor to several journals for which he wrote reviews–of literature, film, and plastic arts– and, most significantly, feuilletons. The feuilleton (a short work, often published as part of a newspaper) has a long and meaningful history for the Czechs. As a genre at the cusp of literary or creative writing and fact-based journalism, the feuilleton has been called upon throughout Czech history to express the emotional desires and political will of the Czech nation. Seifert’s participation in feuilleton writing can be seen as indicative of his debt to the traditional Czech mode of dissension.
Fueled by his leftist convictions but also by his growing misgivings over the communist experiment, Seifert made journeys to the Soviet Union in 1925 and then again in 1928. Both times, he returned disappointed by what he saw as the reality of communism in action. Seifert’s next collection, Slavík zpívá špatně (1926, translated as The Nightingale Sings Badly, 1990), manifests a sobered poet, one whose ideological fervor has been tempered by his firsthand experience. Of special note in the landmark volume is the sense that the poet has a special responsibility for illuminating the dark side of intoxication, the hangover after the joyful revolution. This excerpt from the poem “Moskva” (1926, Moscow) is representative of Seifert’s new concerns, and the new tone necessary to convey them:
Cups without wine,
flags dipped to the past,
a sword that recalls
from whose hand it had dropped.
Rotten rings, a mildewy diadem,
a corsage that’s fragrant still,
the disintegrating robes of dead tsarinas
and eyeless masks, the look of death and damnation.
The quiet pain of these lines is profoundly unlike the anger extant in the poems of Seifert’s first two collections. Instead of a voice of judgment leveled upon the world’s corruptibility, Seifert’s voice is tempered and evinces an awareness of the inevitability of corruption; righteous rage is now modified by resigned grief. The simple, charming breasts of Seifert’s 1925 “Počitadlo” have become ambiguous only one year later: “Why, the pointless beauty of some foolish women / isn’t worth an apple.”
In 1929 Seifert joined several other writers and artists of the Czech Communist Party in broadcasting their disappointment with the party’s direction. Of special concern among the signatories of this dissenting opinion was the emerging hard line that the Communist Party was taking toward cultural expression. After the publication of the letter, Seifert was expelled from the same party he had joined with such vigor at its inception. He turned instead to the Social Democratic Party, the party of moderation, and the party from which the Czech Communist Party had seceded in 1921. This move meant Seifert’s alienation from his stalwart communist colleagues and friends of the avant-garde, and not long after the publication of the letter, Seifert was expelled summarily from Devětsil as well.
Poštovní holub (1929, The Carrier Pigeon) continues Seifert’s poetic awakening. His themes turn more and more on the losses universally experienced in life: the loss of childhood experienced at every moment of passing life, the lingering traces of death that can be felt even at life’s most passionately charged moments. At every turn there is loss, but with every loss is the visitation of renewal, and this renewal is no less a gift, even if it too is to be lost. The poem “Píseò” (1929) is exemplary of what can be viewed as his archetypical poetic attitude:
We wave a handkerchief
every day something is ending,
something beautiful’s ending.
The carrier pigeon beats the air,
with hope or without hope
we’re always returning.
Go dry your tears
and smile with eyes still smarting,
every day something is starting,
something beautiful’s starting.
Seifert’s elegiac turn is reproduced in his next few collections, Jablko z klína (1933, The Apple in from Your Lap), Ruce Venušiny (1936, The Arms of Venus), and Faro, sbohem (1937, Farewell Spring). With each collection, Seifert shows a more honed poetic voice and a more mature poetic sensibility. He perfects the balance between an abiding sorrow, a heartbreak with the world, and a heartening celebration of life’s quotidian joys that would be the hallmark of his poetry, and he galvanizes his tight poetic style centering on the rhythm of song, a tactic evident as early as his juvenilia. These volumes from the 1930s constitute the core of Seifert’s career lyric persona and shaped his reputation as Czechoslovakia’s most astute poet. Indeed, Seifert was one of the first of Europe’s poets to speak out, in poetic form, about the atrocities of Joseph Stalin’s purges, intimating also the extent of the media’s collusive power. The poem “The Moscow Trial” was published in the Social Democratic newspaper Pravo:
What you can read in the newspapers
Is a play, not to be believed
And the scenes, from which come horror, fear
Are whispered from the prompter’s box.
What you can read in the newspapers
Is a play, let the world amuse itself.
Only the end–the smell of human blood
Is, unfortunately, however, genuine.
As the Czech nation was on the brink of war, many relied upon Seifert’s by-now-familiar voice for inspiration.
Seifert’s poetry written at the outset of the Nazi invasion, with its loving praise of the beauty of the Czech people, their country, and their language, such as the above-mentioned Osm dní, written in the wake of President Masaryk’s death; Zhasněte světla: lyriché glosy (1938, Put out the Light: Lyrical Glosses); and the three volumes of poems, written underground during the German occupation of the Czech lands during World War II (1938–1945), are calls for Czechs to gather courage and to endure, even in the face of horrors such as the retributive destruction of the town of Lidice and its inhabitants by Nazi occupiers in 1942. (See Seifert’s “The Dead of Lidice,” translated by Ewald Osers in “The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert) The poem appeared originally in the collection Přilba hlíny (1945, A Helmetful of Dirt).
Such contributions sealed Seifert’s place in Czech culture as an emissary of his people. A telling example of Seifert’s increasingly symbolic place in the Czech literary pantheon is his participation as a pallbearer at the reburial of the exhumed remains of the great national Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha. Mácha was originally buried in the town of Litoměřice, an area which was, in 1938, problematically part of the disputed Sudetenland, or, in Czech parlance, pohraničí (borderlands). Only ten days before the German occupation of these territories, as a result of the infamous Munich accord of 1938, the poet’s remains were quickly secreted away. Mácha was reburied in Prague with much pomp and circumstance on 7 May 1939. Seifert’s high profile at the restitution of the national poet was laden with national symbolism. The torch had been passed.
Seifert was a tireless guardian of “Czechness” during the Nazi occupation, his cultural stewardship extending to the allegorical retelling of Czech national legends and paeans to his beloved golden city, Prague, and he continued his “public service” as editor of the daily (underground) newspaper Národní práce (National Labor, or National Work). With the victory of Allied troops in 1945, and Czechoslovakia’s liberation, Seifert renewed his “above-ground” journalistic activities with gusto. After 1945, Seifert took up the post of editor of the daily trade paper Práze (Labor, or Work). But perhaps the most important poetic accomplishment in Seifert’s literary oeuvre of this period is the 1946 work Mozart v Praze (translated as Mozart in Prague, 1970). The thirteen rondeaux (or rondelles) that make up the cycle take up the subject of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s bittersweet life in Prague, a city that took him in after his native Vienna had rejected him. It was a topic amply suited to a city emerging from internal exile. The technical craftsmanship displayed in these poems is that of a virtuoso. The rondeau, of French medieval provenance (the earliest examples date from the thirteenth century), is a highly fixed and musical form requiring strict adherence to patterns of rhyme and repetition. It was first developed as sung, or lyric, secular poetry and had as its usual subject matter romantic love; it was later introduced into church services as a sacred, hymnal form, by dint of its popularity and proven ability to articulate deep longing and devotion. Of its formal fixtures the rondeau requires as its constitutive core what is called the rentrement (the repetition, or “reentry,” in refrain form) of the opening lines of the poem. The rhyme scheme is also restricted: only two rhymes may be used for the rondeau. Beyond the homage to Mozart on the thematic level of the poem, Seifert’s execution of the rondeau form pays tribute to Mozart’s seemingly effortless musical genius. Contrary to intuition, it is not despite the formal limitations of the rondeau form, but by dint of them that Seifert is able to produce his thirteen tight and weightless poems in honor of Mozart and Prague.
During the years of the short-lived Third Czechoslovak Republic (the Second Czechoslovak Republic was instated in November 1938 and lasted until the Nazi invasion of 1939) from 1945 until the communist takeover of 1948, Seifert combined what he perceived as his journalistic duties with his literary ones, and served in positions of prestige: as editor of the literary journal Kýtice (The Garland) he was entrusted with compiling definitive selections of the best works of lauded Czech poets, including Jaroslav Vrchlický, and he was the editor in charge of a poetry series named Klín (Wedge).
Amid a changing political climate (with many Czechs who may not have contemplated communism as a viable choice before the war feeling betrayed by the “West” and the Munich accord now looking to the “East”), the Czechoslovak Communist Party took control of parliament. In 1948, under the leadership of Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia was officially declared a “people’s democracy,” and steps were taken to align the administrative, legal, and governmental branches into a communist system based in Marxism-Leninism as it was practiced in Stalin’s Soviet Union; Czechoslovakia became a satellite state appended to the U.S.S.R. As in the Soviet Union, the program of socialist realism was declared the only legitimate form of creative expression. Socialist realism, as described in the official communiqué of the Congress of Soviet Writers, “demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.” It became abundantly clear that under the new communist regime, Seifert’s decidedly unsocialist, realist voice would not be welcome.
The voices of many other dissidents had no place in the new order. The 1950s were witness to a host of show trials ending in the execution of “enemies of the people,” among them avant-garde poets who had espoused revolution but had since found disfavor among the Communist elite. Though Seifert did not experience such grievous measures, his creative and civic activities were sharply curtailed. As all legally distributed newspapers were now organs of the government, Seifert, not a party member, was banned from authorized journalism. His work was shunted into politically uncontroversial activities. He wrote artless pieces, such as Koulelo se, koulelo (1955, Round and Round), that found their way to official publication in the state press for children’s literature.
Other works of these years are fascinating, if tempered: Šel malíř chudě do světa: verše kobrazům Mikoláše Alše (1949; translated as Starving Artist So Sees the World, 1990) is a series of poems that imitate in verbal form the visual art of Mikuláš Aleš, an extremely popular painter of folk and national themes whose works grace such important sites as the National Theatre. With Chlapec a hvězdy: verše kobrazům a obrázkům Josefa Lady (1956, A Boy and the Stars: Verses to the Images of Josef Lada), Seifert adds his name to a celebrated Czech lineage. Josef Lada was a much beloved populist artist and the famed illustrator of many best-selling books of literature, foremost among these the notorious stories by Jaroslav Hašek about the “good soldier Švejk,” stories and images that stand even today as iconic anthems of the Czech personality. In a similar gesture of creative response to cherished Czech cultural iconography, Seifert wrote his Píseò o Viktorce (1950; translated as Song About Viktorka, 1990). Here he retells a theme from Božena Němcová’s Babička (The Grandmother), a novel generally considered to be the pinnacle of Czech national literature. Despite Seifert’s devotion to the Czech national cause as evidenced in his work, critics still found his output wanting: it was patriotic, yes, but unengaged. Upon the publication of Píseò o Viktorce, Seifert was accused of cynically exploiting the wealth of the Czech cultural tradition to avoid committing himself to the common project of building a communist society.
The rigidity of critical response eased somewhat after 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. In these postwar and post-Stalin years, Seifert’s poetry was published once again. In 1954, Seifert wrote one of his most intimate and accomplished volumes of poetry. In the poems of Maminka (Mother), notably in its title poem, the poet encounters his childhood with sentiments deeply dependent upon a sensate memory. For Czech audiences, the poems of Maminka, with their highly personal “lyric I,” at once specific and universal, are fixed as Seifert’s best known and best loved.
When, in the mid 1950s, Seifert was disabled by illness from which he was never to fully recover, an already quieted voice now was further muted. However, his social commitment to freedom of expression and the special role and responsibility of creative artists to exercise this freedom moved Seifert to break his silence. In 1956 Seifert spoke out against the oppression of the Soviet regime and called for public contrition for the crimes committed during the Stalin era. At the Second Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, it came as something of a surprise to the assembled crowd when Seifert took the floor. Bowed as he was by illness, his appearance at the writers’ congress was astonishing in itself; his speech, however, was nothing short of a revelation. Seifert emphasized the need for autonomy in the arts, for doing away with state controls on creative speech, and, perhaps most courageously, stated his camaraderie with those writers and artists imprisoned by the regime for their unsavory political views. Seifert targeted his most striking comments at the very core of Soviet communist rhetoric and called for the false discourse to become honest practice: “May we be truly the conscience of our people. Believe me, I am afraid we have not been that for quite a few years; we have not been the conscience of the masses, the conscience of millions; we have not even been the conscience of ourselves…”
For almost a decade after his inspirational speech before the writers’ congress, no new work appeared from Seifert, though the state sponsorship of his collected works continued. Political pressures as a result of his outspoken cultural dissent kept Seifert hemmed in, and an abiding illness took its toll; these combined forces resulted in Seifert’s retreat from public life. As he convalesced, a series of unprecedented changes in Czechoslovakia occurred after 1956. With the death of Stalin and the revelation of his regime’s crimes, strictures on the scope and matter of public expression were gradually eased, and the nation was free to bestow upon Seifert one of its highest honors: in 1964 he was named National Artist. The following year Seifert finally broke his silence and published his first poems to appear in almost a decade. In Koncert na ostrově (1965, Concert on the Island) he demonstrated his unmistakable lyricism and showed himself to be a remarkably changed technician. Gone were the “folksy” regulated rhymes of the bulk of Seifert’s poetry to date; instead, the poems Seifert gave his readers in the 1960s, and through to the end of his life, did away with prosodic decoration, the melodically inclined affect of metaphor, and the refuge of traditional poetic forms, relying singularly on the momentum of free verse. This was a radically stark poetry. The climate of Czechoslovakia in the mid 1960s seemed to call for mellifluous idylls, what with the sexual, political, and artistic revolutions of the Prague Spring, but the literature produced in the mid to late 1960s, exemplified by the work of the Prague playwright Václav Havel (later president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic), the poetry of Miroslav Holub, and the prose of Milan Kundera, instead presented a sobered and wry sense of the absurd farce of history and the individual’s place in the world stage.
Seifert’s stylistic innovation in the impressive and imposing collections Halleyova kometa (1967, Halley’s Comet), Odlévání zvonů (1967, Casting of Bells), and Morový sloup (written 1968–1970, but not published until 1977; translated as The Plague Column, 1979) once again showed that, though he was installed as a national icon, he was by no means a known entity but a flexible poet with artistic currency. The poetry of this trilogy was haunted by the dual and dueling themes of the wages and rewards of being human: death, war, and loss on the one side, and the vital and immortal power of poetry, love, and sensuality on the other. Prague–the city of nostalgia and trauma–continued to be the fond against which these forces were examined. These were themes that had called Seifert from the beginning of his poetic career; yet, within the new poetic environment of free verše and an abstinence from ornament, Seifert’s lyric takes on a stronger ethical challenge and a more meditative tenor than it had before:
When bubonic plague was raging in Prague
they laid the dead around the chapel.
Body upon body, in layers.
Their bones, over the years, grew into
in the quicklime whirlwind of clay.
For a long time I would visit
these mournful places,
but I did not forsake the sweetness of life.
I felt happy in the warmth of human breath
and when I roamed among people
I tried to catch the perfume of women’s hair.
On the steps of the Olšany taverns
I used to crouch at night to hear
the coffin-bearers and grave-diggers
singing their rowdy songs.
But that was long ago
the taverns have fallen silent,
the grave-diggers in the end
buried each other.
When spring came within reach,
with feather and lute,
I’d walk around the lawn with the Japanese cherries
on the south side of the chapel
and, bewitched by their aging splendour,
think about girls
silently undressing at night.
I did not know their names
but one of them,
when sleep would not come,
tapped softly on my window.
And who was it that wrote
those poems on my pillow?
Sometimes I would stand by the wooden bell tower.
The bell was tolled
whenever they lifted up a corpse in the chapel.
It too is silent now.
This excerpt from Morový sloup illustrates Seifert’s mature verse, his ability to explore the productive tension in the triangle formed by love, sex, and death without giving in to the ease of platitudinous conciliation. The same poem gives insight into the reason for Seifert’s abandonment of the poetic levity of his earlier verses and offers an unprecedented view to the poet’s critical self-consciousness:
Once a young gipsy sat down beside us.
Her blouse was half unbuttoned
and she read our hands.
To Halas she said:
You won’t live to be fifty.
To Artuš Černík:
You’ll live till just after that.
I didn’t want her to tell my fortune,
I was afraid.
She seized my hand
and angrily exclaimed:
You’ll live a long time!
It sounded like a threat.
The many rondels and songs I wrote!
There was a war all over the world
and all over the world
And yet I whispered into jewelled ears
veršes of love.
It makes me feel ashamed.
But no, not really.
A wreath of sonnets I laid upon
the curves of your lap as you fell asleep.
It was more beautiful than the laurel wreaths
of speedway winners.
The Rom fortune-teller’s words proved prescient. Seifert outlived his friends and fellow poets Halas and Černík, and the “threat” of a long life came to pass. Seifert responded to his longevity with all the vigor he could muster as the elder statesman of Czech literature. Ashamed as he was of the “follies” of his past poetics, the sense of political and cultural responsibility that had been with him at the beginning of his literary career remained. Seifert was at the forefront of the literary elite who championed President Alexander Dubček’s reforms. Among the targets of the president’s liberalizations, freedom of speech reforms for the national press (newspaper, journal, radio, and television) were arguably the most important to the health of the nation and perceived as the most dangerous to the Soviet bloc. It was Dubček’s strides in this realm that inspired Ludvík Vaculík’s “Two Thousand Words” of 1968, a document that gave the support of the country’s most prominent and influential writers and artists to Dubček’s experiment in socialist democracy. Seifert was among the most prominent of the nation’s intellectuals to sign.
In August 1968, upon the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops, Seifert, ailing as he was, had unwelcome occasion to exploit his position of esteem once again. He rallied writers together to establish an “Independent Union” to absorb the reactionary enforcement of Soviet censorship. But these efforts could not hold. The heady days of the Prague Spring and the reforms of Dubček, dubbed “socialism with a human face,” came to a violent end with the invasion. Seifert’s stock pessimism and sobered aesthetic of the 1960s were coupled now with his activities, underground, to subvert the so-called Normalization of the new Soviet-installed government under Gustav Husák. Seifert, now sixty-eight, worked tirelessly to continue independent Czech cultural activities beyond the vigilant eyes of the reenergized censors. In recognition of his efforts, his peers made him chair of the Czechoslovakian Writers’ Association in 1969, only to have that title rejected as soon as Husák’s regime was definitively established.
The catastrophic changes of 1968 compelled Seifert to speak out publicly once again in defense of human rights. Now, with many years behind him, Seifert could employ his reputation in service of the struggle for free speech. In the first years of the 1970s, he spoke out on the illegitimacy of the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. He lent his support to dissident movements and his influential signature to documents of protest. Seifert added his support to perhaps the most important and most famous document in the history of protest in Czechoslovakia: Charta 77 (1977, Charter 77). He was among the most universally respected of the more than one thousand signers of the declaration, written by Havel, that made a plea for the restitution of basic human and civic rights. Those who signed were threatened with and some were dealt serious penalties, ranging from constant surveillance to incarceration. Six activists, including Havel, were tried and found guilty of “subversion” and were sentenced to imprisonment, some up to five years. Though publication of his work was banned for the better part of the 1970s, Seifert was not personally subject to the reckoning his cohorts suffered. Seifert’s status forced even his most avid enemies to turn a blind eye to his antiauthoritarian activities, and he escaped imprisonment, pressures to emigrate, harassment, and imposing surveillance.
Yet, for a poet to lose an open rapport with his or her audience is no small matter, especially one who relies on the lyric voice not as a monologic conceit but as a testament. Seifert was officially silenced for nearly another decade. The suppression in his homeland stimulated clandestine publication of Siefert’s works there and sounded concern in international circles prompting publication of his work smuggled out of Czechoslovakia. In the 1970s and 1980s, Seifert’s works, like those of many of his outspoken colleagues, were published widely in tamizdat, or émigré publication, and circulated in samizdat (an abbreviation from the Russian samoizdátel’stvo, meaning “self-publishing house”). The practice was quite widespread. Manuscripts were copied by mimeograph, or by hand, retyped or written out laboriously, and circulated secretly, carried as contraband–in briefcases, knapsacks, or grocery bags, for instance– from point A to B. Though officials were aware of this practice and cracked down on it severely whenever such action was politically lucrative, and though samizdat carried with it severe penalties, such distribution of banned works continued through the 1980s all the way up to the momentous events of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The fate of Seifert’s Morový sloup, written 1968–1970, is exemplary of the trajectory of many of the best works of Czech literature written at the time. Morový sloup was distributed in Czechoslovakia in samizdat copies in the 1970s and openly published first in Köln in 1977. It was finally published in a sanctioned form in Prague in 1981. The practices of samizdat and tamizdat kept Seifert’s voice alive in the bleak years following the Soviet invasion. It is difficult to underestimate the role of samizdat and tamizdat for Czech literature in the 1970s and 1980s and for Seifert’s growing international reputation and his respect at home. Czech society was effectively split in twain by the reactionary undertakings against the subversive continuation of the independently minded spirit of the Prague Spring. The underground culture considered itself to be the valid legacy of the tradition of Czech literature, and culture wars raged as to the national loyalty of those who were published by the State. Only in 1979, with the work Deštník z Piccadilly (translated as An Umbrella from Piccadilly, 1983), and only after its publication earlier that year in Munich, did the Czechoslovak State allow the publication of Seifert’s work.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Prague was considered to be a bifurcated city, consisting of state-endorsed arts and activities, the polis of semblances, and then the parallel polis, the city-state of authentic cultural activity. The two lived as one entity and as worlds apart. This paradoxical situation meant that Seifert’s activities in opposition to the totalitarian regime’s curtailment of rights and freedoms of creative expression could continue unabated and even find strong community reinforcement and at the same time be strictly forbidden and gravely dangerous to perform.
The paradoxes of this life between intimate freedom and extimate unfreedom found expression in Seifert’s memoirs, Všecky krásy světa. Again published first in tamizdat in Toronto and Munich, Všecky krásy světa was granted official publication by the Czechoslovak State Publishing house a little more than a year after its tamizdat appearence, but was subject to heavy redaction reflecting the fate of many of the works that were granted official publication in the 1970s and 1980s; and the fact that the Czech reader was aware of the practice and learned how to “read between the lines” should be taken into consideration when studying these versions. A mixture of anecdote and confession, Seifert’s memoir took stock of a singularly extraordinary life lived in parallel with an extraordinary national fate. Seifert’s memoirs are key to both personal and national paradoxes. There is no critical stridency in the memoirs; Seifert for-gives and forgets all trespasses. Friends who may have betrayed him with fanatical or opportunistic allegiances to the regime are remembered only with love and gentle affection. Despite a life of much turmoil, there are no notes of bitterness in the memoir; though Seifert could have used the occasion to lustrate or admonish the sins of those who opposed him or reveal the failures of his cohorts, he writes instead only of the unexpected beauties of each soul he chanced to meet along the way. For example, of the critic F. X. Šalda, who was known to have the ability to fell careers with a negative review, Seifert says, “We believed in him. And what is most important: he taught us something. Today we look with a certain pity at young authors who look helplessly around the world of literature and find nobody to weigh their books justly. He was a beautiful human being who loved beautiful humanity and knew how to laugh magnificently, the way every free individual laughs who is convinced he is in the right.”
In what was to be his final collection of poems, Býti básníkem (1983, To Be a Poet), a work that was given official publication by the State Publishing House (Československý spisovatel), Seifert revisits the simple euphony of his earlier poetry, perhaps consciously choosing to cap his poetic career with an homage to the poetry of popular song that had inspired his first writing. The title poem of the collection ends with one of Seifert’s most productive motifs, his Prague, and is marked by the pathetic paradox he speaks of in his Nobel address:
What bliss it is
to walk upon this bridge!
Even though the picture is often glazed
by my own tears.
Now in his eighties, Seifert was terribly ill. He lived with his daughter, son-in-law, and his also ailing elderly wife. He was confined to a wheelchair, but his physical deterioration did not stall his characteristic sense of humor or his awareness of the import of his position. Seifert’s admirers kept vigil outside his home, hoping for his recovery but aware of the imminent loss of their poet. It came as a great inspiration and symbolic succor for the Czechs, then, when a year later the world bestowed an honor upon a Czech.
In 1984, Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now hospitalized, Seifert was unable to make the journey to receive the prize in person, but plans were made to have his son-in-law and secretary travel to Stockholm on his behalf. While effectively unable to pressure Seifert to decline the prize, the Communist State showed its disapproval by denying exit visas to Seifert’s chosen proxies. The nation, however, reacted with quiet celebration.
His lecture in acceptance, O patetickém a lyrickém stavu ducha (1985; translated as On the Pathetic and Lyrical State of Mind, 1984), reveals the philosophical underpinnings of Seifert’s poetic practice. The essay is an important treatise on the place and value of poetry in the drafting of equitable, democratic, human society:
Is not passion an attempt to step beyond one’s own shadow, an attempt to return to Arcadia where reason, justice and natural instincts are as one? Is not passion but an attempt to return to that idyllic state where we feel no alien power over us and where discord between what is and what should be fades away, when reason and power, morality and politics can sit together at the same table? Is not, after all, the world of lyricism that Lost Paradise that passion strives to regain? After all, is not Poetry, Lyricism one of the main architects and interpreters of the vision of this paradise? When I say this, I, a lyrical poet by instinct, am tempted to become a lyrical poet by conscious choice.
That passion (or pathos) and reason might coexist, not in a feuding, uneasy marriage but naturally, is the ultimate in a series of paradoxes available in Seifert’s poetry, a poetry wherein it is lyricism itself that reunites readers with paradise, where, in turn, instinct is ever in harmony with justice.
In this final note too may be a clue to a custom of Seifert’s that has perturbed many of his editors and translators. Seifert was wont in his later years to revise his already completed and published poems. For Seifert’s translators, this habit has been a boon and a dilemma. The poet’s constant return to and emendation of his poems throughout his career make it very difficult to assess what constitutes an authoritative text in Seifert’s oeuvre. The translator thus is able to work with multiple texts in order to produce the most fluent translation, or he or she can be confronted with competing texts of the same poem with little guidance as to which ought to be the template. In the context of Seifert’s poetic philosophy, the revisions to which he subjected his poetry is proof of an attitude that poetry–even on the level of the individual poem–is a life’s work, not an immaculate souvenir, and as such is subject to change.
Seifert died in Prague 10 January 1986, just three years shy of the Velvet Revolution and the reinstallation of a democratic government in an independent Czechoslovakia. He was given a state funeral, an honor reserved only for national heroes, and the nation grieved openly. A poet’s funeral has a special import among the Czechs. Seifert’s early place beside the casket of Mácha represented the passing of a torch from one national idol to another. At Seifert’s own officially sanctioned and fully appointed state funeral, the brave presence of writers in internal exile, like Havel, made it clear that Seifert belonged to the authentic lineage of engaged Czech literature and was a citizen of the parallel polis. Seifert dwelt in both worlds: legitimated, though not always approved by the government, admired and beloved by the state’s detractors. In 1986 the Charta 77 foundation established the Jaroslav Seifert Prize, and it has been given annually since the year of the poet’s death.
Every decade, from the 1910s to the 1980s, Seifert spoke out, in his journalism, his addresses, and, above all, his poetry, published officially or unofficially, in the name of the people. Seifert’s poetry, in all its intimacy, has been credited with the ability to capture the Czech nation’s grief and its exuberance. In a culture that has cherished since its national inception the civic capacity of poetry, Seifert’s innate lyricism has provided the voice of and for the people for the twentieth century. Seifert’s poetic persona has proved an inspiring emblem of the integrity available in creative expression. If one can consider the enduring leitmotif of his manifold and varied poems to be the forthright expression of the soul, then what he said of his fellow poet and friend Hora is equally true for him: “The time of this ’poet of the soul’ will return. He has enough time, he can wait, if one considers his potential influence on future poets. His poetry is always present. Its beauty was never extinguished by the years.” Seifert’s tenet, “If an ordinary person is silent, it may be a tactical maneuver. If a writer is silent, he is lying,” is still imperative today, decades after his death. If one can speak of national bards in the modern age, then Jaroslav Seifert stands as the Czech people’s bona fide poet laureate.
Dario Massimi and Ladislav, Řezníček, Jaroslav Seifert, 1901–1986: nelle parole e nelle immagini = i ord og bilder = slovem a obrazem (Oslo: Biblioscandia, 1986);
Zdenék Pešat, Jaroslav Seifert (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1991);
Seifert and Oldřich Rakovec, Co všechno zavál sníh (Prague: Albatros, 1992);
Frantisek Janouch, Šel básník chudé do světa: Nobelova cena pro Jaroslava Seiferta (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1995);
Jana Štroblová, Vzpomínka na Jaroslava Seiferta (Prague: ARSCI, 2001);
Marie Seifert Jirásková and Hana Klínková, eds., S. Jaroslavem Seifertem časem i nečasem: z textů, dokumentů a fotografů knižně většinou nepublikovaných (Prague: Památnik národního písemnictví, 2001).
Jirí Brabec, “Jaroslav Seifert,” Novy zivot, 3 (1957): 251–266;
Karel Čapek, Francouzská poesie nové doby (Prague: František Borový, 1920);
Václav Cerný, Jaroslav Seifert. Náert k portrétu (Kladno: Josef Cipra, 1954);
Peter Drews, Devětsil und Poetismus: künstlrische Theorie und Praxis der tschechischen literarischen Avantgarde am Beispiel Vítezslav Nezvals, Jaroslav Seiferts und Jirí Wolkers (Munich: Otto Sagner, 1975);
Frantisek Götz, “Jaroslav Seifert,” in Jasnící se horizont (Prague: V. Petr, 1926), pp. 207–217;
Libor Knežek, Ve Frenstáte mají rádi poezii (Brno: Doplòek, 2003);
Marie Kozlíková, “Úloha oblasti vsedního v lyrice Jaroslava Seiferta,” Ceská literatura, 14 (1966): 273–292;
Jaroslav Krejcí, Zpráva o pohrbu básníka Jaroslava Seiferta: ve fotografúch Jaroslava Krejcího (Prague: Volvox Globator; Kniha: Grafika, Bibliofilie, 1995);
Marie Kubínová, “Seifertova poezie plynoucěho casu,” Ceská literatura,” 35 (1987): 306–319;
Vladimír Macura, “Faro, sbohem,” in Rozumet literature 1: Interpretace základních del ceskě literatury (Prague: SPN, 1986), pp. 308–315;
Arne Novák and William Edward Harkins, Czech Literature (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1976);
Zdenek Pesat, “Ctyri básníkovy poetiky,” in Dialog s poeziú (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1985), pp. 101–120;
Pesat, “Koncert na ostrove,” in Ceská literatura 1945–1970 (Prague: SPN, 1992);
F. X. Šalda, “O nejmladsí poezü ceské,” in Studie z ceské literatury. Soubor díla F. X. Saldy, 8 (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1961), pp. 158–168;
Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia. A Czech History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998);
Alexandr Stich, Seifertova světlem oděná: interpretace–pokus a výzva (Prague: Argo, 1998).