George Seferis Essay - Critical Essays

Seferis, George (pseudonym of Georgios Stylianou Seferiadis)

Seferis, George (pseudonym of Georgios Stylianou Seferiadis) 1900–1971

A Nobel Prize-winning Greek poet, Seferis wrote with striking imagery and lyricism about the Hellenic world of culture, past and present. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

What interests me about Seferis is his tone of voice in his poems. It is something to do with the building up of context inside a poem, and now that we have a broad mass of his poems to live with, one can see this power of context building up in whole collections and sequences of poems and from year to year, so that one can speak of something having a resonance in the whole context of the poetry of George Seferis. (p. 172)

Seferis' tone of voice (I am going to speak of him as if he existed only in poetry) is at once riveting to the attention. There is something very serious and very complicated about it. It obeys the important rule that poetry now has to be at least as serious, and speak of realities at least as complicated, as prose is capable of doing. (p. 173)

You cannot separate Seferis' tone of voice from the forms and the examples available to him. If you ask how a certain seriousness, a richness of tone that breaks through weaknesses, becomes available to a poet, there will always be an answer in terms of the progress of the poet's own work…. But where do the possibilities of verse come from? They belong to a particular moment in the language and a particular moment in the art of poetry. There is no poet who belongs more to his own language than Seferis; it is true of him—in a way it would not be true of Yeats—that he has created the Greek in which he speaks. But the possibilities of writing in such a tone and such a form as he has done belong to the modern movement and its masters all over Europe. No poetry could be more completely Greek than the best poetry of Seferis, and it is quite certain he has exploited veins of possibility in the Greek poetry of earlier generations that only an equally learned poet could ever rediscover, but he is a European poet in the same sense as Eliot or Quasimodo, which Yeats is not; he is a poet who became possible only because of the central traditions of European poetry in the late nineteenth century. (pp. 174-75)

There is no point in comparing stray lines of Seferis' poems with the work of individual European poets who are close to him. What is interesting is how he has reached such a point of easy compression, the kind of language he was already using with ease in Mythistorema…. Seferis in his early poems … is surely one of those who have had to write bad poetry in order to write good; who have had first to express a fineness of reaction, a hungry sharpness of the intellectual senses, in a full, unblushing way that, under the pressure of birth, was bound to appear to the world mannered and frail. A young poet must recapitulate in himself those stages of the history of earlier poetry that have done most to make his future work possible. But the technique is modern; it is Seferis from the beginning. The imagism and the half-rhymes, and above all the governing rhythm of the voice, as early as The Cistern in 1932, and (except for the half-rhymes) even in his first book, Turning Point, in 1931, are absolutely modern and his own. (p. 176)

[In] a certain sense in the poetry of George Seferis, you can see all the stages [of European poetry] in one man: first the mannerism, the dandy technique, and the confused fullness of feelings; then the liberated art, the freedom of language that could not have been built on any other beginnings.

This is not a question of particular conscious influences, or of a shared subject matter. If that is what you are looking for, it is impossible to see backward through the poems of George Seferis. Poems like his could not exist if they were not opaque. The writings of a poet are not simply original achievements of an individual genius; indeed, the more the poet seems to us a genius, the more certain it is that his work began in the lives and societies and lifework of earlier poets, even if he does not know their names, even if he cannot read their languages…. There are certain foreign writings that influenced [his] tone fundamentally, whether by direct or indirect knowledge. Of these the most important is Rimbaud and the most obvious is Eliot, although my personal impression, which I suggest very diffidently, is that Eliot was himself too perfect and too peculiar a poet to have been a fruitful influence on the poetry of other writers in his own time. The same might have been true of Rimbaud in his own time.

The world of Seferis' poems is clearly stated in Mythistorema. In that sequence, his first masterpiece, he wrote for the first time with a brush that made clear, economic marks on the page and left no traces on the air, as Basho puts it. The world of each poem is self-contained, but the poems belong together. In this they are very like the prose poems of Rimbaud….

But one can say that Seferis' tone is more serious and more arresting than that of Rimbaud in these poems. He is more closely involved in his poem, and one has the impression it involved him from long before the point where you begin to overhear it. More important, you are involved also, nor can you ever be sure that the world is not yours: it is not quite a dream world but the real, ordinary world seen in the mirrors of a dream…. This is the secret of Seferis' tone of voice: everything in his mind that is not the poem is presupposed. We are always in the center of myths that we never understand because the whole story has never been told, the implications cannot be unraveled; probably, in fact certainly, if the lines of implication in Mythistorema were pursued to infinity they would contradict each other…. This poetry is more profound than the language of existentialism because there is no question that it matters; the self of the poet has a solidity and innocence—if that is the word—of a small boy. But at the same time the self is completely adult: only that he finds himself … in the center of [the] poem and has the godlike power of speaking about it. The myths extend outward in every direction into the bones of the language. They are not really stories at all; they are part of our consciousness of the language. In this they are like the central situations of Graham Greene or Conan Doyle that those writers have chosen to elaborate and rationalize into novels: journeys on great trains, the hunted criminal, the hound on the moors, the fog and the violin. It is the language, I believe, that contains the thoughts we inherit. (pp. 179-81)

The grief and the condemnation that Seferis has on very few occasions expressed in his poems have the force of powerful art: his poetry is an organ, not a flute. The rage and the despair of certain poems are Miltonic, but it is never like the anger of Brecht, a unified sensibility. Seferis is in the language like an alchemist among potions; however black his theme and his pronouncement, there are always other elements in the darkness, the solution is never resolved. That is because his myth is equivalent to the Greek language itself, and the force of his despair, whether it is public or personal, has the inevitability of something that belongs to the language itself: it is ourselves, we cannot alter it. I hope I am not speaking mystically about this: unless I am mistaken, as a foreigner may be, it is an objective matter. It is simply that Seferis is so true to the language he uses, his tone is so true to it, that the moral and aesthetic values that truly belong to the language are present to the reader in his use of it, in the same inevitable way as certain values are present in the Iliad almost in spite of the epic form of the poem. This is a mark of absolutely genuine language; it is often found in popular art, but I believe seldom in European poetry. Eliot imposes values of his own, even in the Four Quartets. The aesthetic and social values of Yeats' poetry are often flatly contrary to the sense of the English language. Seferis' tone of voice has a complicated purity about it that depends on his language always being quite genuine; everything in the poem, and the increasing weight of context that bears on each fresh line as you hear it, rings completely true…. There is a level at which the language of Seferis is simple, but with the apparent simplicity of ballads and chronicles, which is not simple at all. (pp. 185-86)

The general sense of Seferis' poetry is tragic, but it no more excludes his own people than the work of Shakespeare. A poet identifies with a wide range of humanity and reality by his identification with the breadth of his native language. In English the modern example is James Joyce. The economy and the intense power of Seferis' style as it has developed have limited his range. He is not a writer of Shakespearean comedies or of works like Ulysses, nor would that have been possible for a Greek writer of his generation; but the substance of breadth is there, and his writing has not ceased to develop, even at this time. There is a generosity of spirit in his poems that, if I may say so, is very Greek, even when his voice is one of black lamentation…. (p. 187)

Peter Levi, S. J., "Seferis' Tone of Voice," in Modern Greek Writers, edited by Edmund Keeley and Peter Bien (copyright © 1972 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 171-89.

The fascination of [Seferis's] poetic journal is in its density and depth of feeling. [A Poet's Journal: Days of 1945–1951] is not a record of events (though it covers a specific period) but a series of notes, apparently desultory, about the impact of man, nature and historic time upon a profoundly sensitive and educated writer, the greatest modern Greek poet. It would not be unfair to compare this work in its delicacy, passion and astuteness with that of the Valéry we meet with in the "Notebooks." Both the Frenchman and the Greek were determined to write poetry of deep but controlled feeling and metaphysical subtlety….

[With George Seferis] Greek literature crossed the great divide into Europe and laid its firm claim upon the European consciousness, becoming a part of it. This is not to decry the great Greek poets of the last 50 years—far from it. But their sensibility remains Greek in the Balkan sense, and their work while brilliant is metropolitan Greek in spirit. They were not, as Seferis was, essentially cosmopolitan souls (Cavafy is the one exception), and one wonders whether Seferis's Smyrniot connections did not give him the same angle of vision as Alexandria's did for Cavafy. That, and the roving life of a diplomat. He always grew ironic over himself as a wanderer, and the persona or double he choose for himself (just as his admired friend Eliot chose "Prufrock," just as Pound chose "Mauberley") was "Stratis Thalassinos," an ironic seaman-traveler. He looked upon the impermanence and folly of life with the detached eye of a man who knows that he is leaving it, that his ship will be sailing in a few hours. He did not worry much about death—it was a voyage like any other; he was living in the midst of it. But he felt how provisional life was, and how absurd.

His temperamental relationship with T. S. Eliot will not elude anyone who knew them both, for they had much in common. They were both great critics, and they both worked coolly and quietly like great surgeons ("hastening slowly"). Both were mystics and savants. When Eliot speaks of "getting every ounce of tradition behind each word" one thinks of Seferis, so deeply steeped in the ancient Greek tragedies, and yet so modern in his approach. (p. 6)

Lawrence Durrell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 7, 1974.

Few countries have had as painful a time in the 20th century as Greece; no poet has expressed Greece's pain better than George Seferis. With a visceral understanding of the plight of his native land (like an "umbilical cord that connects mother and child"), Seferis' poetry never loses sight of Greece ("Wherever I travel Greece wounds me"). Bold in style, utilizing a minimum of words ("I want no more than to speak simply"), his poetry draws from a reservoir of history and mythology. Seferis is the only Greek Nobel laureate in literature (1963), so honored for his "deep feeling for the Hellenic world of culture."

But Seferis was not parochial in perspective. While rooted in the Greek soil, Seferis' vision was not limited to the Hellenic world. He was influenced by T. S. Eliot and translated a number of Eliot's works into Greek…. Seferis' sense of the tragic pervades his poetry, tempered in intensity only by allegory: "And if I talk to you in fables and parables/it's because it's more gentle for you that way; and horror/really can't be talked about because it's alive."

It is difficult to know Seferis the man through his poetry….

A Poet's Journal offers fresh insight into the life of Seferis. How, I wondered, could he reconcile his life as a poet with that of a diplomat serving a government whose hands were stained with Greek blood? The Journal shows the poet in the raw during a time that is the rawest, and in terms of human loss and suffering, the most tragic in modern Greek history. Seferis writes about the same postwar Greece—torn by civil war—that Kazantzakis so vividly portrays in The Fratricides, so that we understand the most frigid of Cold War history on the poet's level, see his reaction to the chaos and death that engulf him….

Damning the present, Seferis has no illusions about finding a paradise lost. His poem "The King of Asine" (1940) tells of the "permanent despair" experienced in searching for "ancient monuments" to overcome "contemporary sorrow." His despair leads neither to nihilism nor paralyzing frustration: "no problem can be solved by marking time; you must forge ahead or break." (p. 19)

Throughout Seferis' poetry, one finds a tension between a feeling of rootedness in Greek traditions and a sense of exile from the contemporary human condition. "Seferis" is a pen name—a contracted form of his family name, Seferiades—and the etymology of "sefer" connotes journey or wanderer. The wandering Odysseus searching for his identity is an important motif in Seferis' poetry. (pp. 19-20)

There seems little doubt that Seferis was a political conservative. But such a label inadequately describes the psyche of the poet. Despite his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde life of poet-diplomat, Seferis reacted to the political by an esthetic articulation of the tragic. Furthermore Seferis' respect for the individual transcends simply analysis; it is a respect deeply imbued with classical Greek tradition ("The free man, the just man, the man who is the 'measure' of life; if there is one basic idea in Hellenism, it is this one"). Moreover Seferis' popularization among Greek resistance writers today can hardly be attributed to his politics. (Seferis' persona takes on its most paradoxical guise when one considers that his poetry has become a major influence on the music of rebel composer Mikis Theodorakis.) Seferis' genius rested in his ability to capture in simple but moving images a suffering Greece. Most important, Seferis did so in a style peculiarly Greek,… steeped in classical imagery, fostered by the experiences of the Greek people.

Seferis is difficult for historians to evaluate because he expresses intense emotion without a sophisticated understanding of events. Only in passing—usually slighting references—does Seferis' journal mention the politicians and politics of the day…. For Seferis, his sense of the tragic is harnessed to the hope that his poetry will somehow awaken his people to a "Greekness" shattered by present politics. (p. 20)

James Goodman, "Poet Diplomat," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 7, 1974, pp. 19-20.