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Seifert, Jaroslav

Jaroslav Seifert

Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert (1901–1986) became the first Czech writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Yet this 1984 honor was also bestowed in recognition of Seifert's unique situation in the former Czechoslovakia, and was awarded after he had spent nearly three decades as a dissident writer unable to publish any new works in his country. His fearless challenges to Czechoslovakia's Communist, authoritarian regime made him a national hero, however, and the Nobel committee commended his work as "a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man," according to New York Times writer Christopher Lehmann–Haupt.

Son of the Proletariat

The longstanding hostility between Seifert and the Soviet–allied Communist regime that endured in Czechoslovakia until 1989 was all the more remarkable given Seifert's own embracing of Marxist ideology early in his career, and before that the genuine working–class background from which he hailed—out of which, Communist theory held, the most dedicated and ideologically pure comrades came. Born on September 23, 1901, he grew up in Zizkov, a suburb of the Czech capital, Prague, and his father Antonín was a blacksmith in a factory. Leaving school and eschewing a university education, Seifert began writing at a young age, and his first volume of poetry, Mesto v slzách (A City in Tears), appeared in 1921. In Prague during this era, he joined a number of similarly young and exuberant Czech writers and artists who sought to rid Czech culture from centuries of German influence. When that first volume was published in 1921, Seifert was living in a newly independent nation that was just three years old at the time and had finally extricated itself from the clutches of the Austro–Hungarian empire, dissolved in the aftermath of World War I.

Seifert published several more volumes of verse over the next decade, including Samá láska and Na vlnách TSF (On Radio Waves), which appeared in 1925. The latter work showed a new literary direction that he and fellow writer Vítezslav Nezval were ardently championing at the time, and which they called "poetism." Seifert's verse in Na vlnách TSF exemplified this "poetism," showing a sort of mischievousness in form and content and an almost overwhelming affection for life and its beauty.

Grew Disillusioned with Reds

Seifert was a member of the early Communist Party in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. Intrigued by the revolutionary new era underway in the Soviet Union, the world's first Communist state, he traveled to Moscow in 1925 and returned on another visit a few years later. But it was also a time of change in the Soviet Union, with party leader Josef Stalin moving to seize control after the 1924 death of Vladimir Lenin, and ruthlessly eliminating dissent along the way. From Prague, Seifert watched these events not as a poet but as a journalist, with which he supplanted his income, for various left–leaning publications. These included the newspaper Rudé právo (Red Rights) and a journal called Proletkult (Proletarian Culture), and he also edited a Communist illustrated weekly called Reflektor between 1927 and 1929. That same year, however, he was ousted from the Czechoslovak Communist party for voicing his opposition to its leaders' decision to align with the Stalinist Soviet counterpart.

In the 1930s, Seifert continued to write or edit various Prague–based publications, including the theater monthly Nova scena and Ranni noviny, a daily newspaper. His poetry continued to evolve, and for a time he briefly dabbled in surrealist verse. Titles published during this era include Jabliko zklina (An Apple in the Lap) in 1933 and Ruce Venusiny (The Hands of Venus), which won him the Czechoslovakian State Prize for Literature in 1936. In 1938, Czechoslovakia's two decades of independence came to an abrupt end when Nazi Germany invaded. Seifert's poetry took a drastic, and courageous turn at this point. "It was during the Nazis' reign that he first earned not just popularity but the loving devotion of his readers," explained a fellow Czech writer, Josef Skvorecky, in a 1985 issue of the New Republic. "In book after book full of both linguistic beauty and encoded messages—clear to the Czechs, impenetrable to the Nazi censor—the poet boosted the morale of his nation. His poetry inspired fellow Czechs with love for their country and its ancient and picturesque capital."

In the final days of World War II and the German occupation, Seifert very nearly became one of the many who did not survive the war years and their terrors. As the Germans made a final stand, he and other Rudé právo journalists were taken from the basement, where they were still putting out the newspaper under the most arduous of conditions. They were marched to the train station, where scores of Germans were boarding trains to flee Czechoslovakia as Soviet troops neared, and told to wait against a wall, where they would be shot as soon as a wave of German families had departed by train. Inexplicably, a half–hour later, they were told to go. Later, the news came on the radio that Nazi Germany had officially capitulated. Seifert later captured this day in a chapter of his 1981 volume of memoirs, Všecky krásy světa.

An Internal Literary Exile

After the war's end, the situation seemed promising in Czechoslovakia, despite the presence of Soviet troops. After 1946, Seifert edited Kytice (The Bouquet), a literary monthly. It was shuttered in 1948 when Czechoslovak Communists moved to consolidate power and then firmly established a Moscow–aligned, one–party socialist state. But his first serious brush with trouble came after the 1950 publication of Písen o Viktorce (The Story of Viktorka). Based on a minor character in the work of Bozena Nemcova, a Czech literary pioneer of the late nineteenth century, the poems failed to meet appropriate state–proclaimed guidelines. "Authoritarian conservative critics such as Ivan Skála used this book as a pretext to attack Seifert for not devoting his work to building a new communist society and other socially committed subjects," noted Zelinsky in the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. "For a time he was also ostracized by the literary community."

For a time, Seifert turned to writing children's literature, a necessary refuge for writers whose work failed to fit in with the ideological standards of Communism. The restoration of his literary reputation among fellow Czech and Slovak writers came in 1956, when authorities began cracking down on dissent. Thousands were being arrested, and Seifert took a courageous stand at a meeting of the official writers' association of Czechoslovakia. "If an ordinary person is silent . . . it may be a tactical maneuver," he told the assembled writers, according to Skvorecky's New Republic article. "If a writer is silent, he is lying."

The response from the state was swift: publication of any new work from Seifert was suspended. From this point onward, Seifert occupied a unique position in the cultural life of his country. Revered by students, workers, and fellow artists for his political courage, he was rendered mute by the state, but refused to flee to the West, as other prominent figures had done. Instead he remained behind the Iron Curtain, a dissident writer within his own country. His career languished, and though one courageous publisher managed to secretly print his books by backdating the publication stamps, they were not sold in any of Prague's numerous official bookstores. Furthermore, Seifert stopped writing altogether for a number of years, after a misdiagnosis and unnecessary operation took a toll on his health. He returned to poetry again only in the mid–1960s, and in a far freer–verse form that his earlier efforts.


Led Writers Union to Final Showdown

The change in Seifert's style coincided with a new and hopeful mood in the country, as more moderate Communists had gained some measure of control within the Party and managed to enact some economic and social reforms. This period of liberalization was a short–lived one, however, and ended abruptly in August of 1968 when Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia from the east to reassert Soviet control. In the midst of the turmoil, a 67–year–old Seifert took a taxi to the National Writers Union office, hobbled in on crutches, and stood for election as president. He served in the post until the Union was formally dissolved by the government, after refusing to endorse the official government version of the Soviet invasion.

Once again, Seifert became persona non grata in Czechoslovakia, though not among the populace, who quietly commended him for his courage. He was one of the original 243 signers of the momentous Charter 77 human rights manifesto, a 1977 declaration from prominent Czechs of their opposition to authoritarian Communist rule in the country. His works were widely read, though only in secret samizdat form, which meant they were privately, often crudely printed and the editions passed among friends and sympathizers. One volume of verse, Morovy Sloup, was somehow smuggled out of the country and issued by a West German publishing house. It later appeared in English translation as The Plague Column.


Honored with Nobel Prize

Only in 1981, on the occasion of Seifert's eightieth birthday, did the regime appear to concede that the poet was a literary figure of significant stature in the country. After years of an official publication ban, an edition of Morovy Sloup was issued, followed a year later by Všecky krásy světa (All the Beauties of the Earth), his memoirs in lyrical sketch form. The announcement of his Nobel Prize honor reignited controversy, however. The win was announced in rather terse terms in the state–controlled press, but then the Charter 77 signers who had recommended Seifert's name to the Nobel–deciding Swedish Academy were harassed and even jailed. When well–wishers began streaming to Seifert's house to congratulate him, agents of the internal intelligence service stationed themselves outside to check everyone's identity cards.

Seifert was too frail to travel to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony, but his win was celebrated around the world. Back home, however, the Czechoslovak Communist apparatus issued statements hinting that the choice of Seifert was less about his poetry than an attempt to discredit the Soviet Bloc, but the significance of Seifert's honor was not lost on anyone. "Seifert's Nobel Prize is treasured by the Czechs," explained writer Roger Scruton in a London Times article, "not because it was a fitting recognition of literary merit, but because it was the first true sign that the 'unofficial' culture is internationally acknowledged as the true culture of Czechoslovakia, and acknowledged, not through the work of fast–living exiles, but through the heroic labour of those still at home."

The Nobel win fueled interest in Seifert's works in translation. At the time of his win, just three volumes of his poetry existed in English translation. Critics note, however, that his verse is difficult to render in a language other than Czech in a correspondingly exquisite style. Seifert died in Prague on January 10, 1986, just a little over a year after his Nobel honors, survived by his wife since 1928, Marie, and children Jana and Jaroslav. During his long career he rarely gave interviews to foreign journalists, but did so on the Nobel Prize occasion. Two journalists from Time magazine, Henry A. Grunwald and John Moody, came to visit him, and asked if he had any message for American readers. "Read our poetry," Seifert advised. "If it is possible. It is a bit touchy to speak about these things. Your people should appreciate their liberty."


Periodicals

Booklist, April 14, 1998.

Harper's, May, 2003.

New Republic, February 18, 1985.

New York Times, December 20, 1984.

Time, October 22, 1984; December 17, 1984.

Times (London, England), January 28, 1986.


Online

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 14, 2005).

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Seifert, Jaroslav

Jaroslav Seifert, 1901–86, Czech poet. Starting as a revolutionary "proletarian" poet, Seifert soon began to emphasize fantasy and enchantment as antidotes to modern technological civilization. After signing an anti-Stalinist manifesto, he was expelled from the Communist party, and his verse then addressed itself more directly to social themes. Seifert was a signatory of the Czech Charter 77 manifesto. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984.

See E. Osers, tr., An Umbrella for Piccadilly (1983).

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Seifert, Jaroslav

Jaroslav Seifert

BORN: 1901, Prague, Austro-Hungary

DIED: 1986, Prague, Czechoslovakia

NATIONALITY: Czech

GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction, essay

MAJOR WORKS:
Halley's Comet (1967)
Casting of Bells (1967)
The Plague Column (1970)

Overview

The winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature, Seifert is widely considered to be the Czech national poet as well as one of the foremost Czech literary figures of the twentieth century. Respected for his courage and integrity in the face of the political repressions of both the Nazi and the Communist eras, Seifert was a prolific author, publishing more than thirty volumes of poetry over a span of sixty years. His verse, thought to embody the spirit of the Czech people, is infused with Czech history, literature, and culture and frequently pays homage to Seifert's hometown, the Czech capital city of Prague.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Former Communist Resists the Nazis Seifert, son of a working-class family, published his first volume of poems in 1921 and, together with other young intellectuals, joined the newly formed Czechoslovakian Communist Party. In 1929, when that party's leadership changed its course to reflect developments in the Soviet Union—most notably the rise to power of Joseph Stalin—seven of the foremost writers among its members, including Seifert, protested publicly and were expelled. After his break with the Communists, Seifert worked as a literary editor, mostly on social democrat periodicals, and published one collection of poems after another. During the Munich crisis of 1938—when the great powers of Europe essentially gave Hitler free rein in “reclaiming” the Sudetenland, a largely German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia—and the subsequent catastrophes that shattered the country, leaving its people dominated by Nazi Germany, Seifert became a spokesman for Czechoslovakian nationalism and penned many poems urging resistance.

Disloyalty and Treachery—or an Independent Mind? During the immediate post–World War II period, Seifert directed an eclectic review, the Bouquet, but this was shut down in 1948 when the Communists seized power. The new authoritarian government silenced Seifert and many other writers for failing to promote the slogans of social realism. A series of poems by Seifert in 1950 honoring his native village and rural novelist Bozena Nemcova, a greatly admired Czech novelist and female rebel of the classic period of Czech literature, earned him the denunciation of official critics as “disloyal,” “bourgeois,” “escapist,” and “a traitor to his class.” Seifert then turned to writing children's literature, a genre to which his direct, simple style was well suited. One of these efforts, Maminka, has become a classic of Czech literature, epitomizing, according to Alfred French in Czech Writers and Politics, 1945–1969, “a whole trend of literature away from the monumental to the humble; from public themes to private; from the pseudoreality of political slogans to the known reality of Czech home life which was the product of its past.” This turn to the private, in a way, prefigured the “apolitical politics” that would characterize the resistance to authoritarian rule that developed with the Charter 77 group in 1977 and thereafter.

The Dean of Czech Letters In 1956, when the Soviet regime in Czechoslovakia tightened controls on artistic freedom, Seifert spoke out at a writers' association meeting on behalf of imprisoned and silenced writers. His speech had little immediate effect beyond infuriating the establishment sufficiently to suspend publication of his new works, but the poet was from that time on generally regarded as the dean of Czech letters, a man from the old days whose contemporaries were almost all dead, who could always be counted on to speak the truth.

Seifert reemerged in the mid-1960s at the forefront of the drive among Czech writers to support the liberalization and de-Sovietization of the Communist regime, a national movement known as the Prague Spring. The liberalization of the Prague Spring, however, was cut short by a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, assuring that Soviet rule would continue until the bloodless revolution of 1989. The following October, the National Writers Union elected Seifert president to replace the exiled Eduard Goldstucker, but the country's leaders dissolved the union in 1970. Seifert refused to join a new government-backed writers union and was one of the first to sign the Charter 77 human rights manifesto. Consequently, the poet was again out of favor, and for a decade the Czech authorities published no new work of his.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Seifert's famous contemporaries include:

Jacques Roumain (1907–1944): The Haitian poet and novelist credited with introducing the “Afro-Haitian” voice to literature.

Ernst Jünger (1895–1998): A German author who details his experiences as an officer during World War I in the memoir Storm of Steel.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977): A Russian American novelist most famous for his extremely controversial novel Lolita.

Erich Fromm (1900–1980): A renowned German American social psychologist.

Joseph Stalin (1878–1953): The dictatorial leader of the Soviet Union from the late 1920s until his death in 1953.

His new writings were published mainly privately or abroad, the best known of which was The PlagueColumn, published in Czech in 1977 by the émigré publishing house Index in Cologne, West Germany, and later translated into English. A single, long poem, it celebrates the monument erected by the people of Prague soon after the end of the Thirty Years' War in thanks for deliverance from the plague.

The Nobel Prize In view of Seifert's great popularity and the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Czech officials relented and allowed the publication of an edition of The Plague Column in 1981. A year later, they also allowed Seifert's memoirs, All the Beauties of the World, to be released. Two years after that, in 1984, Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In fact, during the last years of his life, Seifert enjoyed a unique position among his fellow writers: He had been a dissident and published abroad, yet he was, at the end of his long career, acceptable to the Prague regime. “He is not liked by the state, but they cannot silence him because he is so famous,” exiled Czech poet Pavel Kohout told United Press International on the day of the Swedish Academy's announcement of the 1984 Nobel Prize winner, adding, “He's really a voice of the people.” Seifert died in relative seclusion in 1986, three years before the monumental shift in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern bloc countries that has been termed the “Revolution of 1989”—a shift that signaled the end of Soviet hegemony and, indeed, the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union itself.

Works in Literary Context

Seifert's career as a poet ranged from an intensely lyrical period when he began writing in the 1920s, to a surreal-istic phase in the 1930s, to vehement patriotism during the Nazi occupation, and, finally, to a meditative, philosophical stage toward the end of his life. But throughout, his themes remained constant: celebration of his home-land and his native Prague, a deep concern for the suffering of others, and a sensuous delight in the beauty of the physical world and the love of women. Critics credit his appeal as a poet to his work's utter simplicity and unpretentiousness and its haunting and lyrical qualities.

From Proletarian Poetry to Pure Poetry and Beyond As a young man, Seifert passed through the then-dominant phase of “proletarian” poetry, as revealed in his first two collections, The City in Tears and Nothing but Love; these were celebrations of the common person and the bright future of socialism. He also embraced the succeeding “pure poetry” phase, with its emphasis on exotic and playful imagery, as evidenced by On Radio Waves and The Nightingale Sings Badly. Seifert's poetic maturity reputedly began with the cycle of poems The Carrier Pigeon and peaked with Jablko z klina, a collection in which the clever manner and fireworks of earlier works had been abandoned for a new style, one notable for its sincerity and directness and for its cultivation of natural, unaffected images rendered in fresh, at times almost colloquial, language. Love, including its sensual aspects, a frequent theme in Seifert's earlier collections, is his main subject in An Apple from the Lap and continues to dominate his next collection, The Hands of Venus.

In the years leading up to and following the Prague Spring, Seifert published the trilogy that is perhaps his best-known work: Halley's Comet, Casting of Bells, and The Plague Column. These poems evoked themes that had called to Seifert from the beginning of his poetic career; yet, within the new poetic environment of free verse and an abstinence from ornament, Seifert's lyric takes on a stronger ethical challenge and a more meditative tenor than it had before. As a result, the trilogy represents the strongest, most effective, and most critically acclaimed work of Seifert's long and prestigious career.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Even though Seifert experienced many problems in his native Czechoslovakia, including a fair bit of political disfavor, his entire body of work demonstrates his love for his country. He frequently invokes the characters, places, and traditions of Czechoslovakia in order to enliven his poetry and to honor his heritage. Here are a few other examples of art that expresses or addresses national feeling:

This Is the Army (1943), a musical play directed by Michael Curtiz. This American musical was designed to boost morale during the long and difficult World War II years. Future president of the United States Ronald Reagan was one of the stars of the film.

“This Land Is Your Land” (1940), a folksong by Woody Guthrie. This song by the famed American folksinger celebrates the beauty of the American landscape and the sense of community he feels in sharing it with his compatriots.

Jingo (1997), a novel by Terry Pratchett. The title of this novel, about a war between two countries over a newly formed island, refers to “jingoism,” or belligerent patriotism.

Patriotism The national catastrophe at Munich in 1938 and the Nazi occupation that followed brought out Seifert's deep patriotism, reflected in some of his most acclaimed collections. These include Put Out the Lights, which expresses the poet's anxiety after the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich, Dressed in Light, a poetic tribute to Prague written by Seifert during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and The Helmet of Clay, several cycles of patriotic verses published after the war, celebrating in particular the Prague uprising against the remnants of the occupying Nazi army in May of 1945. In The Helmet of Clay, a tremendously popular collection that is generally credited with establishing Seifert as a national poet, he pits the brief violence and the eerie excitement of improvised barricades against the startling beauty of the lilacs, the acacias, and the chestnuts in bloom.

Works in Critical Context

Many commentators have found it difficult to understand the implications of Seifert's work in its translated form. Critics note that what Seifert called his poems' “inner rhythms”—as well as the many ethnic nuances and allusions—have not been captured adequately by translators. Nevertheless, his poetry has been widely praised, and is described in his Nobel Prize citation as work that, “endowed with freshness, sensuality, and rich inventiveness, provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man.”

With his patriotic poems, writes fellow Czech poet Josef Skvorecky in the New Republic, “full of both linguistic beauty and encoded messages—clear to the Czechs, impenetrable to the Nazi censor, the poet boosted the morale of the nation.” These were poems that, in the words of Listener contributor Karel Janovicky, “plucked the secret strings of the nation's soul while the Nazi censor looked on bewildered.”

Halley's Comet, Casting of Bells, and The Plague Column Seifert's stylistic innovation in the impressive and imposing collections Halley's Comet, Casting of Bells, and The Plague Column showed, as critics have noted, that, though he was installed as a national icon, he was by no means a fixed, static 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—was the background against which these forces were examined. Like earlier readers of Seifert's trilogy, more recent critics have tended to respond at least in part to Seifert's tremendous political integrity. Zdenek Salzmann, for instance, describes Seifert's role in Czechoslovakia, expressed in these volumes, as “a symbol of courage and political incorruptibility.” Meanwhile, critics such as Dana Lowey have lamented the “damaging translations” that have resulted in “misunderstandings, inaccuracies, and downright misrepresentations of Seifert's art.” Coming in for particular criticism in this regard is an early rendering of Casting of Bells by translators Paul Jagasich and Tom O'Grady.

Responses to Literature

  1. Read The Plague Column. How does Seifert both use and examine Czech history and culture in his poetry? Analyze specific passages in your response.
  2. Seifert's poetry has been praised for its simple, straightforward style, but it has also been said that Seifert is sometimes difficult to understand for non-Czech readers. Read Casting of Bells. Evaluate Seifert's style in terms of the seemingly contradictory assessment that his poetry is both extremely accessible and yet difficult to understand. Do you think it is more important for a writer to reflect the culture in which he or she works or to appeal to readers on a more universal level? Why?
  3. Using the Internet and the library, research patriotism. Then, read a couple of examples of patriotic literature. In a short essay, examine the following question: How does your school's fight song compare to patriotism and the patriotic literature you have read, in terms of its expressions of love and devotion for a place and the people who inhabit it? What are the potential problems posed by such patriotism?
  4. Using the Internet and the library, research the treatment of other writers in Czechoslovakia during the heyday of Communism and Nazism. How does Seifert's treatment compare with these other writers' treatment?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

French, Alfred. Czech Writers and Politics, 1945–1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

___. The Poets of Prague. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Harkins, William E. Anthology of Czech Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953.

Skvorecky, Josef. Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Periodicals

Hájek, Igor. “All the Beauty of the World—or What's Left of It.” Scottish Slavonic Review (1984).

Písa, A. M. “Jaroslav Seifert.” Cin (1931).

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