George Seferis

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

George Seferis earned distinction as a literary critic and translator in addition to his achievements as a poet. His collection of essays, Dokimes (1947), is regarded as one of the finest volumes of modern Greek literary criticism. His other principal prose works include Treis meres sta monasteria tes Kappadokias (1953; three days in the monasteries of Cappadocia), Delphi (1962; English translation, 1963), Discours de Stockholm (1964), and ‘E glossa sten poiese mas (1965). A selection of his essays was published in English as On the Greek Style: Selected Essays in Poetry and Hellenism (1966). Seferis translated T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922; as E Erema Chora kai alla poiemata) and Murder in the Cathedral (1935; as Dolophonia sten ekklesia) into Greek, an achievement called “brilliant.” Following Eliot’s death in 1965, Seferis published a brief commemorative diary of their friendship. Seferis also “transcribed,” as he put it, the biblical Song of Songs and the Revelation of Saint John the Divine into modern language. Finally, Seferis’s A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951 was published in English in 1974.


George Seferis initiated a new spirit in Greek poetry with the publication, in 1931, of his first book, Turning Point. Influenced by the styles of French and English poets, Seferis freed his verse from the excessive ornamentation which then encumbered Greek poetry, creating a simple, direct style in the modern idiom and bringing Greek poetry into a closer relationship with the modernism of Western Europe. Insisting that poetry should be written in the language of everyday speech, he exploited the forms, themes, and diction of folk verse. Very much aware of his heritage, he integrated the mythology and history of Greece with the situation of his country and of humanity in general in the twentieth century. Like Eliot, Seferis weaves a complex tapestry of allusion in deceptively simple language; like Eliot, he universalizes his profound sense of alienation, so that his poetry, though distinctively Greek, speaks to readers of all nationalities. The Greek sense of tragedy that informs Seferis’s work is not out of place in the twentieth century.


George Seferis was born Giorgos Stylianou Seferiades in Smyrna (now ızmir), Turkey. The city was largely populated by Greeks then, and Seferis’s memories of it served as an inspiration to him for the rest of his life. It was in Smyrna that he wrote his first poetry, at the age of fourteen. Shortly thereafter World War I began, and the Seferiades family left for Athens. There, Seferis continued his secondary schooling at the First Classical Gymnasium and was graduated in 1917. His father, who also wrote a few poems and made a few translations, was an expert on international law and became a professor at the University of Athens in 1919. Seferis set out to follow in his father’s footsteps, studying law at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1918 to 1924. During this period, he became familiar with French poetry, especially the works of Paul Valery, Jules Laforgue, and other Symbolists, while continuing to write a few poems of his own.

After obtaining his degree at the Sorbonne, Seferis spent a year in London; anticipating a career in the Greek foreign service, he hoped to perfect his English. Thus, seven crucial years in Seferis’s young manhood were spent away from Greece. In 1922, while Seferis was abroad, the city of Smyrna was burned and the Greek population there displaced. The “home” to which he had clung in his memories had ceased to exist, and he began to see himself in an Odyssean light, as a wanderer in search of home. After his return to Athens, he began a long career as a diplomat, working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While serving as vice-consul in London in 1931, he first became acquainted with the works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, which would play an important role in the development of his art. In the same year, he also published his first book of poetry, Turning Point, a volume that heralded the beginning of a new generation of poetry in Greece. His second volume, The Cistern, appeared in 1932; then, between 1934 and 1936, while Seferis was living in Athens, two more volumes of his poetry were published, Mythistorema and Gymnopaidia.

From 1936 to 1938, Seferis served as consul in Koritsa, Albania, and then became a press attaché to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He married Maria Zannou in 1941. As the Nazis rolled over Greece, Seferis joined the government in exile, spending the war in Cairo, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Italy. After Greece was liberated, he returned to Athens, receiving the Palamas Prize for Poetry in 1946. He worked there until 1948, when he became consul attached to the Greek embassy in Ankara. In 1951, he was appointed to the same position in London, where he became a personal friend of Eliot. In 1953, he was promoted to ambassador to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq and took up residence in Beirut. During his three years as ambassador, he visited Cyprus on several occasions, visits that would prove important not only in inspiring his later poetry but also in his diplomatic role as a member of the Greek delegation to the United Nations during the 1957 discussion concerning Cyprus.

Seferis was rewarded for his efforts with the ambassadorship to Great Britain. During his tenure there, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, and in 1963, a year after he retired, he became the first Greek to receive the Nobel Prize. Many other awards soon followed, including honorary doctorates from Oxford, Thessaloniki, and Princeton. He was made an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association in 1966. Living in Athens at the end of his life, Seferis published very little, except for his Three Secret Poems. In March, 1969, he courageously attacked the Greek military dictatorship in a public statement; in the same year, he published one of his last poems, “The Cats of St. Nicholas,” in an anthology of antigovernment poetry and prose, Eighteen Texts. He died in the fall of 1971 of complications following an operation for a duodenal ulcer. His funeral provoked a large public demonstration against the ruling junta, with thousands of people shouting “Immortal!” “Freedom!” and “Elections!”


George Seferis revitalized Greek poetry and brought it into the mainstream of twentieth century Western poetry. In his work, the long tradition of Greek poetry is wedded to the European avant-garde, producing (in the words of the Nobel Prize committee) a “unique thought...

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