The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Cistern” is a lyric poem of twenty-five stanzas (if one counts the blank twenty-third stanza); each stanza contains five lines. The variable rhyme scheme utilizes off-rhyme in a resourceful and modern way.

“The Cistern” is prefaced with a quotation from the Cretan painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco, who worked in Toledo, Spain. The quotation is from the artist’s inscription to his View and Plan of Toledo (c. 1609). The significance of the quotation has to do with the artist’s poetic license to change reality to fit his aesthetic purposes. El Greco thought it “preferable” to shift the hospital’s position and aspect to fit the painting’s composition. “As for its actual position in the town,” he says, “that appears on the map.”

The poem’s cistern is no ordinary reservoir to catch rainwater. The reader knows immediately that this cistern exists only in the mind; its symbolism is resonant in the opening line: “Here, in the earth, a cistern has taken root.” Though it is an organic part of the landscape, the cistern gathers only “secret water” for one’s interior life.

Above it the world goes on, time passes, and human cares and joys resound on its dome like “pitiless night.” The cistern is as unconcerned about the world as the heavens are about mortals: “The stars/ don’t blend with its heart.” In pursuing their “destined suffering,” human faces light up for a moment and die out. Caught up in “the pulse of...

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The Cistern Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Cistern” is considered the culmination of George Seferis’s early period, before the influence of T. S. Eliot’s free verse and dramatic method have taken hold, as in Mythistorema (1935). The cinquains experiment with off-rhyme and a line resembling English pentameter, showing Seferis to be turning away from the traditional Greek pendecasyllabics and other formal restrictions, toward a rhythm more suitable to the modern Greek idiom.

Nevertheless, the language of “The Cistern” is abstract in a way that Seferis never repeats. The narrator speaks from a spiritual height, aloof from any specific scene or direct human experience. As Zissimos Lorenzatos says, in The Lost Center and Other Essays in Greek Poetry (1980): “the language is hardly audible. It has surrendered. In the end, you find you have received the poem’s message without anyone having given it to you.” There is power in the poem, but it is the power of seduction rather than persuasion; the reader must surrender to the poem as Seferis has surrendered to the language.

“The Cistern” is full of phrases that attribute human feelings to inanimate things. The characters, if they can be called that, are all abstractions. The cistern is an organism with a life of its own; it has “taken root” and has a heart. The day “grows, opens and shuts,” like a flower. In such metaphors, the symbol is asserted rather than achieved.


(The entire section is 427 words.)