World Literature

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)

 

 

Jaroslav Seifert. Seifert, Jaroslav, photograph. AP Images.

 

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.

His new writings were published mainly privately or abroad, the best known of which was The Plague Column, published in Czech in 1977 by the emigre 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.

 

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 JUnger (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.

 

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.

 

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 surrealistic 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 homeland 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.

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

Hajek, Igor. ‘‘All the Beauty of the World—or What’s Left of It.’’ Scottish Slavonic Review (1984).

Pisa, A. M. ‘‘Jaroslav Seifert.’’ Cin (1931).