BORN: 1900, Smyrna, Asia Minor
DIED: 1971, Athens, Greece
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Turning Point (1931)
The Cistern (1932)
Tale of Legends (1935)
Logbook III (1955)
Three Hidden Poems (1966)
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963, George Seferis is one of the most important poets and literary critics of Greece; his views on the Greek demotic, or common, folk tradition and literary canon determined the course of modern Greek letters for the better part of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Son of a Law Professor. George Seferis, pen name of Giorgos Seferiadis, was born on March 13, 1900, in Smyrna (now izmir), Asia Minor (now Turkey), the son of Stelios and Despo Seferiadis. The family left Smyrna in 1914 for Athens, where Stelios Seferiadis taught law at the University of Athens.
Successful Experiments with Poetics While Greece Was in Turmoil. After Seferis finished his secondary schooling in Athens, he pursued a law degree in Paris from 1918 to 1924, briefly visiting London from 1924 to 1925. Spending the formative years from the ages of eighteen to twenty-five abroad, he remained attentive to the literary movements of the day, especially those of symbolism and surrealism. Meanwhile, Greece was torn apart by political struggles. After World War I (19141918), the centuries-old Ottoman Empire (which controlled much of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa), began to collapse. This left a power vacuum in the areas that are now Greece and Turkey. Ethnic Greeks and ethnic Turks fought each other to win territory. The Greeks got half-hearted support from Britain other allies, who were drained and weary after World War i. The Turkish got the upper hand in the Greco- Turkish war, and the Greek population fled Asia Minor (now part of Turkey). After chasing them across the country, the Turks had hundreds of thousands of refugees cornered in the port city of Smyrna. Despite orders from the Turkish leaders not to harm noncombatants, the Turkish army massacred the Greeks and burned the city to the ground while British ships in the port refused to help or even take in the refugees. The event looms large in Greek history.
In 1931, with the publication of his first poetry collection, Turning Point, Seferis embarked on his career as a poet. in this work and in his later poetry collections—The Cistern (1932), The Mythical Story (1935), Logbooks I-III (1940), The Thrush (1947), and Three Secret Poems (1966)—he solidified his status as one of the most revered national poets of Greece. Seferis’s experimentation with symbolist and modernist poetics and his exclusive use of demotic, or common, Greek as the language of choice earned him a privileged place in the collective body of work produced by his generation of poets, known in Greek literary criticism as ‘‘the Generation of the 1930s.’’
Advancing Literary Criticism. Along with others of the ‘‘Generation of the 1930s,’’ Seferis also published his literary criticism extensively in some of the most important literary journals in Greece. He is credited with advancing the genre to a new level of rigorousness and sophistication, the influence of which was felt for the better part of the twentieth century. Seferis was also an accomplished translator, publishing his translation of T. S. Eliot’s poetry in The Waste Land and Other Poems (1936) as well as Antigraphes (1965), a volume of translations of poets primarily of the symbolist and modernist traditions, such as William Butler Yeats, Paul Valery, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Andre Gide, and W. H. Auden.
Astute Political Writings. By virtue of the various diplomatic positions he had held in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs during his lengthy career from 1926 to 1962, Seferis was an astute observer of Greece’s most tragic national crises, including the terrible aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War. The Albanian campaign of 1940 and 1941 was immediately followed by the Nazi occupation of Greece from 1941 to 1943. The ensuing Greek civil war from 1946 to 1949 was followed by the Cyprus conflict during the 1950s. Reactions to these crises abound in Seferis’s private, political, and autobiographical journals, such as his Political Journals and Manuscript Sept. ’41.
Political Crisis Reflected in Poetry. Seferis’s poetry also reflected the crises. In the aftermath of the destruction of Smyrna and the displacement of more than a million refugees into Greece, Greek society was burdened by a great sense of defeat and loss. The twenty-four poems that make up the collection The Mythical Story (1935) were written in the context of this psychological defeatism. Although Seferis does not explicitly refer to the evacuation of Smyrna, his birthplace, fleeting images in the poem recall scenes from this tragic episode in recent history that had become embedded in Greek popular memory. In Logbook II (1944), written in the period of World War II (during which Seferis was in exile) and thereafter, he presents a cluster of poems that thoughtfully deal with the theme of the destructiveness and futility of war.
The Nobel Prize and Other Honors. Seferis won the Nobel Prize in 1963, the first Greek national to win any of the five annual prizes since the Swedish Academy began issuing the awards in 1901. Seferis received several honorary doctoral degrees from Cambridge (1960), Oxford (1964), the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (1964), and Princeton University (1965). Seferis also become an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was appointed honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association in 1966. He was invited to become Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard for the academic year 1969-1970. Although he was honored by the invitation, he declined because he was uncomfortable with the idea of lecturing at Harvard at a time when exercising the freedom of expression had been prohibited in Greece. At the time, Greece was under the control of a repressive military junta.
After he returned to Greece, because of mounting public pressure, Seferis issued his first public statement condemning the junta in what had hitherto been two years marked by the regime’s repressive measures, including widespread censorship, political detentions, and torture. Seferis’s statement was made on March 29, 1969, on the BBC and distributed to every newspaper in Athens. Defying martial law, he called for an end to the dictatorship. He regarded the widespread curbing of liberties a national ‘‘humiliation’’ and concluded that ‘‘We have all learned that in dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy, yet tragedy lurks, inexorably in the end.’’
George Seferis, however, did not live to see the end of the junta. He died in Athens, after extensive hospitalization, on September 20, 1971. His funeral in Athens drew a vast crowd and was linked to the protest movement against the dictatorial regime of his native Greece. The junta fell from power in 1974.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Seferis's famous contemporaries include:
Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong (1901-1971): American jazz trumpeter, he was an innovative and therefore primary influence in the advancement of jazz music.
Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957): Greek novelist best known for The Last Temptation of Christ (1951) and Zorba the Greek (1946).
Luis Bunuel (1900-1983): Spanish filmmaker who worked mainly in Mexico and France. Bunuel is considered one of the most important directors in the history of cinema.
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949): American author who won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gone with the Wind.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965): English-American poet, dramatist, and literary critic, he was instrumental in advancing literary theory and contributed one of the most definitive and representative works in history with The Waste Land (1922).
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who have also included themes of the past within the context of their own cultures:
Hunger of Memory (2004), an autobiography by Richard Rodriguez. In this nonfiction work, the author revisits his Mexican American background experiences, particularly in American Catholic schools.
Morning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography (1994), an autobiography by Morning Dove (Christine Quintasket). In this sprawling narrative, the author revisits life with the Colville Confederated Tribes and explores what ''kept us going.''
Nisei Daughter (1979), an autobiography by Monica Itoi Sone. In this tender and often humorous account, Japanese American author Sone revisits her prewar and World War II days as a resident of Seattle and as an internment camp evacuee.
The Republic of Poetry (2006), poems by Martin Espada. These poems explore the politics of Latin American loyalty and freedom.
Works in Literary Context
In his early years abroad, Seferis was exposed to the work of many influential writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme, Paul Valery, and T. S. Eliot. In early collections like Turning Point (1931), Seferis also presents a diction that pays homage to his literary predecessors: Homer, seventeenth-century Cretan Renaissance poet Vincentzos Kornaros, and nineteenth-century poet Ioannis Makryannis. It is Makryannis’s Memoirs that Seferis went on to hold in his lectures and literary criticism of the 1940s as an exemplary model of demotic Greek folk tradition. It is in his themes and style, however, that Seferis returns to being a symbolist taking much influence from modernist poets like Eliot.
Themes of Recovery of the Antique Past. The idea of the need for a recovery of antiquity permeates Seferis’s poems. It is both the textual tradition (the study of history) and the preserving of collective consciousness (group awareness) of history that concern Seferis. His poems ‘‘The King of Asine’’ from the collection Logbook I (1940) and ‘‘Mycenae’’ from the collection Gymnopaidia (1935) best illustrate his interests. ‘‘The King of Asine,’’ for example, is based upon an obscure textual reference in Homer’s Iliad and features the contemporary poet in search of the lost king, walking among ruins at an archaeological site. The poet attempts to interpret these broken fragments, to give meaning in his present to the archaeological ruins of the past.
Seferis recalls how the understanding of the ancient past underlying the discourse of European Hellenism since the nineteenth century was founded upon the reading of fragments. In this case, he deciphers stone fragments to contemplate the existence of those who had once lived there. But those ancient peoples remain remote and inaccessible now. The stones instill in him a void, and he concludes that only through nostalgia can the past revive: ‘‘nostalgia,’’ as Seferis puts it, ‘‘for the weight of a living existence’’ brings the fragments back to life and renders them meaningful to modern consciousness.
Preoccupation with History and Myth. Seferis’s preoccupation with history and myth in his poetry and his translation and explication of Eliot’s work in his literary criticism of the 1930s and 1940s prompted many critics of his day to proclaim the so-called influence of Eliot on Seferis. His early poems, for instance, convey a use of literary devices that were often closely associated with Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Imagery of broken stones and fragments and arid landscapes were interpreted as metaphors for the spiritual emptiness and emotional vacuity of the narrators of the poems.
Modern Symbolist Style. Seferis’s early poetry shows his affinity for symbolism. Though he remained critical of the avant-garde artistic movements that relied heavily on symbolism, which he viewed as ‘‘facile poetry,’’ what particularly distinguishes his style is his use of symbols. Throughout his work there are both readily decipherable ones (‘‘stones,’’ ‘‘statues,’’ ‘‘landscape’’) and obscure ones intelligible only to himself (‘‘swans,’’ ‘‘angelic and black light’’). Scholars and critics considered this trademark practice to be associated with the symbolist movement in European and Anglo-American literary and artistic circles.
In its adherence to such principles, symbolist poetry, just as many other modernist texts, lent itself to multiple interpretations. These elements were most closely considered part of a ‘‘pure poetry.’’ They were also closely associated with the ever-changing definitions of symbolism, as represented in the work of contemporaries. These connections linked Seferis’s experimentation with symbolist practice to Valery, to Yeats, and again to Eliot.
Works in Critical Context
When Seferis won the Nobel Prize in 1963, the critical appreciation of his poetry concerning his nation and its past and present was clear: in awarding this prize, the academy was paying ‘‘tribute to the Greece of today, whose rich literature has had to wait, perhaps too long, for the Nobel laurels.’’ Much of Seferis’s work demon strates how deserving he was of this praise for his ‘‘tributes’’ to Greece, including, for example, ‘‘Mycenae.’’
“Mycenae”. In this poem from the collection Gymnopaidia, Seferis acknowledges the continuing relevance of the model of Aeschylean justice. The narrator, presumably a modern-day Orestes, refers to the stones at the ancient archaeological site in Mycenae and conveys their overwhelming impact on him, ‘‘Whoever lifts these heavy stones sinks / I lifted these stones for as long as I could / I loved these stones for as long as I could.’’ The ‘‘stones’’ in these lines have been interpreted by critics over the years to signify the burden of the ancient past on modern Greek consciousness. The consciousness (of the speaker) in ‘‘Mycenae’’ looks upon antiquity as being inextricably linked to modernity. That is its fate. Yet, it remains a past that is enigmatic and virtually unidentifiable.
At the Nobel Prize Awards banquet in his presentation speech, the permanent secretary of the academy, Anders Osterling spoke to the key symbols that distinguish Seferis’s poetry by saying that the poet had astutely interpreted ‘‘the mystery of the stones, of the dead fragments of marble and of the silent, smiling statues.’’ And echoing the reception of critics and citizens alike Osterling added, ‘‘Seferis’s poetic production is not large, but because of the uniqueness of its thought and style and the beauty of its language, it has become a lasting symbol of all that is indestructible in the Hellenic affirmation of life.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Seferis made a connection with history by observing the ruins of his ancient Greece and considering how they represented the past. Find an object at your school, home, or local museum that is from the distant past. Using all of your senses (first make sure you have freedom to touch the item), except maybe taste, describe the object. Then decide what you believe this object ‘‘represents’’ from the past.
2. Seferis was considered a symbolist poet at numerous periods in his writing life. Before researching further, consider one important object in your life (or consider what one single tattoo you would get if you could). Why did you choose this object or image? What did it make you think of? What feelings come from the object/image for you? What does your choice say about who you are? That is, how does your choice represent your personality? You may even wish to research a symbolism Web site or a dream meaning Web site to see what someone else thinks the item says about you.
3. Research the symbolist movement. What was the philosophy of the symbolists? How were you a symbolist when you completed one of the above tasks? How is Seferis a symbolist? What items does he use in his poetry and what are the associations connected to these objects?
Dimiroulis, Dimitris. The Poet as Nation: Aestheticism and Ideology in G. Seferis. Athens: Plethron, 1999.
Leontis, Artemis. Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York & London: Methuen, 1987.
Osterling, Anders, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy. 1963 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech. The Nobel Foundation, 1963.
Thaniel, George. Seferis and Friends (Some of George Seferis’ Friends in the English-Speaking World), edited by Ed Phinney. Stratford, Ont.: Mercury, 1994.
Tziovas, Dimitris. The Transformation of Nationism and the Ideologeme of Greekness. Athens: Odysseas, 1989.
Keeley, Edmund. ‘‘T. S. Eliot and the Poetry of George Seferis.’’ Comparative Literature 8, no. 3 (1956): 214-26.
Loring Danforth. ‘‘The Ideological Context of the Search for Continuities in Greek Culture.’’ Journal of Modern Greek Studies 2 (1984): 53-85.
Martha Klironomos. ‘‘Ancient anamnesis, National mneme in the Poetry of Giorgos Seferis.’’ Journal of Modern Greek Studies 20, no. 2 (October 2002): 215-39.
Greece Poetry International Web. George Seferis (Turkey, 1900). Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://greece.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=2453.
Nobel Prize Foundation. Georgos Seferis Nobel Prize Banquet Speech. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1963/seferis-speech.html.