Πέμπτη, 23 Μαΐου 2019

George Seferis

George Seferis - Seferiadis

Section 12, Number 65

George Seferis led two lives. From 1927 he was a successful civil servant, rising steadily in the ranks to become ambassador to the United Kingdom during the four years before he retired in 1961. He was also a lyric poet of great sensitivity and, in 1963, two years after his retirement he received the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize for literature. In spite of his career, or perhaps because of it, he would describe himself as ‘non political’ but, in 1968, he felt compelled to break his own rule of silence and condemn Greece’s 1967 military dictatorship in no uncertain terms. When he died in Athens in 1971, his funeral in the First Cemetery turned into a mass protest against the ruling junta.

His Life

The Formative Years

Giorgos Seferiadis was born in 1900 into an educated family in Vourla, a town 35 kilometers west of Smyrna in Turkey. His father Stelios was a respected
lawyer, poet, and translator as well as a staunch supporter of the demotic over katharevousa, the stilted ‘pure’ language favoured at that time. Like so many liberal Greeks still under Ottoman control, he was also a Venizelist.

Giorgos spent his formative years in Vourla. The family moved to Athens in 1914 where he completed his secondary education and then on to Paris, enabling him to study literature and law at the Sorbonne. It was his father’s wish that he prepare for a career in the Greek civil service. 

Seferis at 21

He was in Paris in 1922 when the long held ‘Great Idea’ of Greece’s expansion into Asia Minor turned to ashes along with Smyrna and the town where he was born. The devastating psychological impact of Smyrna’s loss affected all Greeks, but imagine the effect on a sensitive 22 year old who, until then had been an ex-pat by choice, and was now an exile in earnest.

 It is no accident that so much of his poetry is about exile and loss.

Vourla after the Asia Minor holocaust

In 1924, Seferis went to England to learn English, a  necessary prerequisite for his future career. He did not regard this as an impediment to his poetic aspirations. On the contrary, he thought that it provided a necessary balance. (1) He returned to Athens in 1925, was admitted to the Royal Greek Ministry of Foreign affairs the following year, and became a full-fledged diplomat in 1927, serving in Athens until 1931 and then in England from 1931 to 1934.

 Seferis-Seferiadis: What’s in a Name?

These were important years for his poetry. Strofi, (The Turning Point) was published in 1931, when he was stationed in London, a collection that was acclaimed in the literary circles that mattered. It was at this juncture that he adopted his pen name Seferis, a name which so closely mirrors his birth name as to cry out for consideration.  His friend Rex Warner would attribute the similarity to his love of ‘easily penetrable disguises’, but I like to think of it as a vital organizing principle for someone of his sensibilities.  Seferiadis could be fully engaged in real time as, press secretary, consul, and leave it to his poetic alter ego Seferis  to  ‘explore the same  ideas and feelings but from a very different perspective.(2)
T.S. Eliot and Seferis

Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life. (Seferis when interviewed in later life)

Seferis was influenced by many, but his encounter with the poetry and poetic theory of T.S. Eliot was a revelation. The Wasteland had a profound influence on his own writing. Eliot’s imaginative landscape, oblique symbolism, and dramatic presentation, were all absorbed into his work but in a very special way.

Rather than a wasteland as a backdrop, Seferis used Greece. I do not think any other Greek poet has used the Greek language in quite the same way as Seferis. In his work, the landscape is an extended metaphor in which myth and history are conflated, present loss and exile are part of a larger pattern, and Time hardly exists at all. In a single short poem like Blind (Typhlos) he raises Mycenaeans, Homer, classical Greeks, and Ottoman occupiers from the ‘dead’ landscape and makes them ‘equal players’ in the drama playing out in real time. (3)

He could do this for two reasons, One, because he could safely assume that readers in the western world were capable of ‘reading’ his terrain, -that they had a grounding in the classics. (Once in a while as a little prompt, he offers help with a quotation.)

Secondly, because Greeks are particularly aware of and identify with their cultural history and, for virtually all Greeks, no event in history is ever fully buried in the past, Seferis’ poetic world tapped into the mother lode of the Greek national psyche!

1935 and On

1935 was a milestone: Mythistorima was published. Both his treatment of contemporary angst and his control of his symbolic landscape to examine ‘eternal questions’ are already masterful, and his major themes of an ‘exploration’ or Odyssean journey frustrated by the seemingly inexorable rules of history and/or  of existence are already in place to be mined and examined again and again. From Still Another Well in Mythistorima where ropes have broken; only grooves on the well’s lips remind us of our past happiness to The Cats of saint Nicholas (his last poem) in which cats destroy the enemy but die leaving no trace on the surface, Seferis’ world teems with loss.

His hero-soul-narrator-persona is constantly faced with the same dilemma of  
existence, of meaning, and the dilemma is never resolved. The recognition that the present, no matter how difficult or tragic, emulates and resonates with the past offers a kind of existential consolation, a way of looking at life, but no real way out.

How can you gather together
the thousand fragments
of each person?
What's wrong with the rudder?
The boat inscribes circles
and there's not a single gull. (Lost Worlds)

And yet…
His own life was not a wasteland. He loved conversation, and American jazz.  He met his future wife Maro in 1935.  The affair was complicated at first. She was married with two children whom her husband, even after her divorce, threatened to remove entirely if she married Seferis. They continued regardless. In the same year, Seferiis met Henry Miller  and Laurence Durrell. He had a talent for friendship. This was just the beginning of a list of friends whom he would acquire and who would remain an important part of his life, people like W. H. Auden, Steven Runciman, Eugene McCarthy, E.M. Forster, and Robert Graves,  and Patrick Leigh Fermor, to name just a few. 

Seferis and Maro

He was consul in Albania between 1936-8 and he and Maro married in 1941 because of the immanent German invasion of Greece. Seferis had to join the government in exile and she could accompany him only as a wife.(4)  

Maro and George in Johannesburg

Seferis worked for the Greek Government in exile in Crete, Egypt, in South Africa, and on to Italy in 1944. He returned to a liberated Athens in 1944 in time to experience at first hand from his house on Kydathinaion street in the Plaka the shots fired during the horrendous Dekembriana, the turning point in that it made civil war inevitable. The following year he acted as the secretary to Archbishop Damaskinos when he was regent.

In Feb 1947 he was awarded Palamas Prize for poetry. It was the first public recognition of his contribution to Greek letters. 1948 saw the publication of The King of Asine: and Other poems, a collection that was well received in Greece and abroad. All the while, he occupied diplomatic posts in Greece, Ankara and London. While in London in 1951, he finally met T.S. Eliot and the two became friends. 

In 1953, Seferis visited Cyprus for the first time and was enthralled. This made the ensuing Cyprus crisis all the more painful for him because he was involved in the negotiations and the result was not to his liking. He believed that Cyprus should have been united with Greece.

Then came the Nobel Prize. The Committee’s word choice is interesting. He was awarded as a “representative Hellenic poet: "for his eminent lyrical writing, inspired by a deep feeling for the Hellenic world of culture." His graceful acceptance speech is worth reading. (5)

Many honours followed hard upon the Nobel award including honorary doctoral degrees from the universities of Cambridge (1960), Oxford (1964), Salonika (1964), and Princeton (1965). While based in Athens, Seferis travelled extensively during the sixties giving lectures, poetry readings and assisting in the translation of his poetry into English. (6)


When the military dictatorship began in 1967, Seferis did not speak out publicly, but he did protest by not publishing, nor did he accept the invitation to give the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard when he was invited to do so in 1967. In 1968 in New York, Seferis raised some eyebrows by refusing to comment publicly on the political situation because he “didn’t consider it proper to criticize his government while a guest on foreign soil, safely outside the boundaries of the government’s displeasure.”

Once home, he did break his silence on March 28, 1968.  In part, his statement said:

 Everyone has been taught and knows by now that in the case of dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy, but tragedy awaits, inevitably, in the end. The drama of this ending torments us, consciously or unconsciously — as in the immemorial choruses of Aeschylus. The longer the anomaly remains, the more the evil grows.

I am a man without any political affiliation, and I can therefore speak without fear or passion. I see ahead of me the precipice toward which the oppression that has shrouded the country is leading us. This anomaly must stop. It is a national Imperative.

Seferis died on September 20,  1971 while the Junta was still in power. Thousands attended his funeral procession and, in protest against the dictatorship, repeatedly sang in unison the words of his poem Denial set to the music of  Mikis Theodorakis whose music had been banned by the colonels. It was a fitting epitaph in so many ways.


His Grave

Section 12, Number 65
Maro died in the year 2000 at the age of 102

The Map


(1)He wrote on July 23. 1932: To learn a language; that is also something. And to earn your living without being a burden to someone; that is certainly something. There is my balance.
(2) When the terrible events of the Dekemvriana occurred in December 1944, Seferiadis the diplomat looked out his window on Kydathinaon Street , heard  the gunshots, and wrote in his diary “black day”.  Seferis would write Blind (Typhlos) , about the same event. 
Sleep is heavy on December mornings
Black life the waters of Acheron
without memory, without even a laurel sprig.
Awakenings rip gashes in forgetfulness as in flogged skin, etc
Sleep is heavy on December mornings.
And each December is worse than the one before.
One year, Parga; the next year, Syracuse;
dug-up bones of ancestors, quarries
full of exhausted people, invalids, without breath;
and       the blood is bought, and the blood is sold
and the blood is divided like the children of Oedipus,
and the children of Oedipus are dead.
He would remain George Seferiades all through his professional life, but the name Seferis is of course, of the one he is remembered by, - and the single name that is engraved on his tombstone.
(3)  From Blind

(4)Maro discussed this situation during an interview. She left her two daughters in what she considered to be the safe hands of Penelope Delta, a friend. What she could not have known was that Penelope would commit suicide the day the Germans invaded Greece. Her children became the charges of her former husband’s sister.
(6) The fact that Seferis himself was so involved in the translation of his poetry creates an interesting dilemma for other translators of his poetry.