Παρασκευή, 20 Απριλίου 2018

Kostis Palamas

Kostis Palamas                                              ΚΩΣΤΗΣ ΠΑΛΑΜΑΣ
Born 1859                                                       Died 1945   

Athens First Cemetery: Section 14, Number 236-8

Others, who wander far in distant lands may seek
On Alpine Mountains high the magic Edelweis;
I am an Element Immovable; each year,
April delights me in my garden, and the May
In my own village

Kostis Palamas has come to represent the spirit of an entire generation. His poetry is often sublime and always accessible. It has been popular; he was nominated for the Nobel Prize 14 times. Along with Georgos Drossinis and Ioannis Polemis, and other poets of the New Athenian School, he championed the use of demotic  Greek over katharevousa, the formal language adopted by educated Greeks after the revolution, a language which had become more contrived and archaic as time went on. His imaginative focus was the landscape and the people of Greece, their mythology, their folk lore, and their history. When he died in 1943, his funeral sparked a massive protest against the German occupation. 

 His Life:
Kostis Palamas was born on January 13th 1859 in Patras to a family from Messolonghi. Orphaned at 6, he lived with his uncle in that historic lagoon city. Its unique landscape left an indelible mark: 

I have the sweetness of the lake and have
The bitterness of the great sea. But now
Alas! my sweetness is a little drop;
My bitterness, a flood. For the cold winter,
The great corsair, has come with the north wind,
Death's king. My azure blood has slowly flowed
Out of my veins and gone to bring new life
To the deep seas. A shroud weed-woven wraps me…
 (from What the Lagoon Said)

 Palamas left Messolonghi in 1875 at the age of 17 to enroll in the Athens School of Law, but realized quickly that law was not for him. He had already fallen in love with poetry. From 1879 he began writing in newspapers and the periodicals of the day and in 1886 he published his first collection entitled Songs of my Fatherland (Τραγούδια της Πατρίδος μου).  Hymn to Athena (Ο Ύμνος στην Αθηνά) in 1889 and The Eyes of the Soul (Τα μάτια της ψυχής ) in 1992 followed. Almost immediately he began to acquire a following, - and criticism from many for his exclusive use of the demotic, the spoken language of the people.

 His response to those whom he considered pedants
I labored long to create the statue for the Temple
… And I created it. But narrow men who bow
To worship shapeless wooden images, ill clad,
With hostile glances and with shudderings of fear,
Looked down upon us, work and worker, angrily.

My statue in the rubbish thrown!  

Luckily, Palamas had begun his career when the prejudice against the use of the demotic in poetry was already crumbling. It seemed a far too cumbersome and awkward a medium for the expression of the personal feelings Romantic poetry demanded.  In the very early days of the state, a return to some form of ancient Greek for all Greek speakers, whether inside or outside of the country, had seemed progressive. (1) But after 1870, as other Balkan countries were developing and promoting their own national identity and singing the songs of their folk heroes in the language of the people, there was an increased yearning in Greece for a more truly national voice. Folk songs that had once been denigrated by Greek linguistic conservatives as barbaric were becoming popular and were being popularized by members of the New Athenian School.

In his defense of the demotic, Palamas had argued that a language is ‘owned’ by the people who actually speak it and a poet had every right to create or use words from any source, something that was anathema to the purists who wanted only  ancient Greek words and ancient Greek endings.(2)
Palamas won the national Filadelfeios poetry prize in 1889, and again in 1890. In the 1890s he wrote the words to the Olympic Hymn, (3) for the Olympics held in Athens in 1896. It is now sung at the opening and closing ceremony at every Olympics.

In 1897, Palamas was made secretary of Athens University. He would hold this post until 1926. The university was full of katharevousa ‘die hards’. It is said that when he took up the post, the rector of the University said “I hope, Mr Palamas, that now you have gained this valuable position that you will now cease to write poetry.” (4)
In 1898 The death of his young son Alkis elicited one of his most poignant and well known poems:
Neither with iron,
Nor with gold,
Nor with the colors
That the painters scatter,
Nor with marble
Carved with art,

Your little house I built
For you to dwell for ever;
With spirit charms alone
I raised it in a land
That knows no matter nor
The withering touch of Time.
With all my tears,
With all my blood,
I founded it
And built its vault....

Palamas and the Hairy Ones
By 1900, demotic had become the preferred language of Athenian poetry but the same could not be said of prose. Katharevousa was used in law courts, the Church, newspapers, the civil service, and academia. (It is still the language employed by the Greek Orthodox Church.) The fight for the demotic in prose was a long one. In 1872 an indignant Andreas Laskaratos(5) had called the proponents of katharevousa ‘pedants and enemies of the nation,’ men who purposely created an ever increasing divide between the elite and the less educated citizen who, while he might comprehend to some extent katharevousa, would never adopt its stilted speech patterns. In schools children were forced to absorb this unfamiliar formal language instead of learning to express themselves well in their own every day speech, a situation that continued until 1976 when demotic was officially declared to be the language of the nation . (6)

But back in 1901, Palamas was in the middle of the increasingly nasty language debate and was condemned by scholars during the so called Gospel Riots, riots in protest against a demotic translation of the New Testament. Students and their professors rampaged in the streets for days in defense of katharevousa and eight demonstrators were killed.(7)  Our mild mannered poet and secretary was reviled by the students as one of the 'Hairy Ones', as demoticists were called by their detractors.

But through it all Palamas continued to write and to be appreciated – over 20 poetry collections in all. 

In 1926 he was elected a member of the Athens Academy and in 1930, he became its president. His last collection The Nights of Fimios (Οι νύχτες του Φήμιο) was published in 1935

His Death

 Even in the winter’s heart, the almonds are a blossom (Hundred Voices)

Costis Palamas died at age 83 on the 27th of February 1943. His friends (8) gathered at his house in the Plaka on that February evening and covered his frail body with almond blossoms. The funeral was held during the terrible days of the Nazi occupation; his funeral procession was as massive as his grave is modest. This funeral became the focal point of a massive rally against the German occupation. 

Archbishop Damaskinos presided, and the poet Angelos Sikelianos, placed his hands on the coffin as he began his eulogy:
Sound the paean!... Awesome flags of freedom unfold in the air… on his coffin hangs all of Greece 

The funeral ended with the defiant crowd singing the outlawed Greek National Anthem.


1     See Adamantios Korais

2      Oddly, katharevousa was never regulated by any official body and did not even become Greece’s ‘official’ language until 1968 when the backward looking colonels declared it to be so during their military dictatorship. Katharevousa’s  great proponent, the liberal republican Adamantios Korais, had explicitly rejected the idea of the imposition of  ‘top down’ committee on language standards as too authoritarian.  Instead, he envisioned a Greece in which poets and prose writers would legislate themselves and guide the language by example, while respecting the opinion of the majority. That certainly never happened. Instead the language issue became a war…

3     To hear the Olympic Hymn click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVT-WNbSZig

5    Andreas Laskaratos was a satirical poet who was excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church and considered it an accolade. See http://churchesingreece.blogspot.gr/2013/12/a-is-for-anathema.html

7    For the Gospel Riots, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_riots

8      Theotokos, Sikelianos, Myrivilis, Katsimbalis and Ioanna Tsatsos

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