Jaroslav Seifert 1901–1986
Czech poet, memoirist, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Seifert's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 34 and 44.
The winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize for Literature, Seifert is widely considered to be the national poet of Czechoslovakia as well as one of the foremost Czechoslovakian literary figures of the 20th century. Respected for his courage and integrity in the face of the political repressions of both the Nazi and the Communist eras, Seifert was a prolific author, publishing more than thirty volumes of poetry over a span of sixty years. His verse, thought to embody the spirit of the Czechoslovakian people, is infused with Czech history, literature, and culture, and frequently pays homage to Seifert's hometown, the capital city of Prague. Seifert is considered a major influence by many contemporary Czech literary figures and, during his lifetime, was revered throughout the country as a symbol of national identity.
Seifert was born to working-class parents in a suburb of Prague. During the 1920s he helped found the Devétsil Art Association and travelled to Russia and Paris, where he worked on translations of the works of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. An early member of the newly-formed Czechoslovakian Communist Party, Seifert had already released several books of poetry when he was expelled from the Party in 1929 for protesting its policies and leaders. Joining the Social Democratic Party, he published frequently over the following decade and gained notoriety during World War II as an author of anti-Nazi resistance poetry. After the war, he served as editor of the Trade Union newspaper Práce and was sternly denounced by the Communist government for failing to write poetry espousing the doctrine of Soviet socialist realism; in 1956 his work was briefly banned from publication due to a speech he made in support of artistic freedom. During the 1960s Seifert published sporadically due to his continued support of political reform and because, as acting president of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, he refused to issue a statement supporting the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, an operation that ended the period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Soon after, the Writer's Union was officially dissolved, and Seifert refrained from publishing for nearly a decade. He further antagonized the Communist government of Czechoslovakia by signing the Charter 77 manifesto, an intellectual treatise demanding expanded political freedom; consequently his work was officially banned once again. Illicit "padlock" editions of Seifert's poetry abounded, however, and he garnered national popularity and international attention as a leading Czech dissident. The government ban on Seifert's work was lifted in 1981, and in 1984 the poet was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Seifert, who was in poor health for much of his later life, was unable to attend the ceremony and despite this new-found recognition by the Czechoslovakian government, his son and secretary were "discouraged" from attending. Seifert died in a Prague hospital following a heart attack in 1986. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Seifert won the Czechoslovakian State Prize for several works, including Ruce Venušiny (1936) and Maminka (1954), and was awarded the title National Artist of Czechoslovakia in 1966.
The earliest collections of Seifert's poetry, Město v slzách (1920) and Samá láska (1923), were of the "proletarian" school of poetry and celebrated the common person and socialism. In the mid-1920s Seifert came under the influence of French Dadaism and practiced "poetism," an exuberant poetic style that emphasized wordplay, abandoned ideology, and extolled the joys of living. Na vlnách T.S.F. (1925) and Slavík zpívá špatně (1926) are representative collections of this period. Seifert rejected poetism in the 1930s, employing a voice that was unique in its lyrical, concise, conversational style. In such collections as Jablko z klína (1933), Ruce Venušiny, and Zhasněte světla (1938), he began to incorporate the conversational idiom now frequently found in modern Czech poetry. Seifert established himself as national poet with the volume Přilba hlíny (1945), in which he identified himself with the Czech people's grief and sense of betrayal over World War II. For example, some of the poems in the collection evoke four days in May 1945 when the people of Prague rose up against the remainder of the occupying Nazi army. In the post-war era, Seifert's poetry began to reflect the history and cultural heritage of Czechoslovakia, as in Píseň o Viktorce (1950), a ballad recalling the nineteenth-century Czech novelist Božena Němcová. Perhaps his best known work, Morový sloup (1977; The Plague Monument, also translated as The Plague Column), has as an overriding image a column erected to commemorate the Black Death—a symbol Seifert employs to express the survival of the Czech people in the face of political terror. Other works in English translation include Odlévání zvonů (1967; The Casting of Bells), Deštnik z Piccadilly (1978; An Umbrella from Piccadilly), and The Selected Poems of Jaroslav Seifert (1986), a volume containing a wide representation of Seifert's poetry as well as prose excerpts from his memoirs, Všecky krásy světa (1981).
Citing the small amount of Seifert's poetry and related criticism that has appeared in translation, many commentators have found it difficult to understand the implications of Seifert's work in its translated form. Critics note that what Seifert called his poems' "inner rhythms"—as well as the many ethnic nuances and allusions—have not been captured adequately by translators. Nevertheless, his poetry has been praised for its sensuality, its humor, and its accessible conversational style. Seifert's poetic representations of Prague and Czechoslovakia have been regarded as important celebrations of the nation's cultural heritage. Perhaps the highest praise accorded Seifert was found in his Nobel Prize citation, which honored him for work "which, endowed with freshness, sensuality, and rich inventiveness, provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man."
Město v slzách (poetry) 1920
Samá láska (poetry) 1923
Na vlnách T.S.F. (poetry) 1925
Slavík zpívá špatně (poetry) 1926
Hvězdy nad rajskou zahradou (essays) 1929
Postovni holub: Básně, 1928–1929 (poetry) 1929
Jablko z klínà (poetry) 1933
Ruce Venušiny (poetry) 1936
Jaro sbohem (poetry) 1937
Osm dní [Eight Days: An Elegy for Thomas Masaryk] (poetry) 1937
Zhasněte světla (poetry) 1938
Světlem oděna (poetry) 1940
Kamenný most (poetry) 1944
Přilba hlíny (poetry) 1945
Ruka a plamen (poetry) 1948
Píseň o Viktorce (poetry) 1950
Maminka (poetry) 1954
Koncert na ostrově (poetry) 1965
Halleyova kometa (poetry) 1967
Odlévání zvonů [The Casting of Bells] (poetry) 1967
Morový sloup [The Plague Monument; also published as The Plague Column] (poetry) 1977
Deštnik z Piccadilly [An Umbrella from Piccadilly] (poetry) 1978
Všecky krásy světa (memoirs) 1981
Býti básníkem (poetry) 1983
The Selected Poems of Jaroslav Seifert (poetry) 1986
SOURCE: An introduction to The Plague Column, Terra Nova Editions, 1979, pp. ix-xix.
[Parrott was an English diplomat and educator who specialized in Eastern European literature, music, and art. In the following essay, which he wrote on November 25, 1978 as the introduction to The Plague Column, he provides an overview of Seifert's career.]
A régime which attempts to silence its country's greatest living poet sins against high heaven. In Vienna they may have thrown Mozart into a pauper's common grave, but at least they did not stop him from publishing his music. In Prague, at the age of 77, Jaroslav Seifert, today and for the last twenty years, indisputedly the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to An Umbrella from Piccadilly, London Magazine Editions, 1983, pp. 1-5.
[In the following essay, Osers briefly summarizes Seifert's literary career and life.]
In Czechoslovakia, as in most of Eastern Europe, the writer—and, more particularly, the poet—is a public figure. People seem to care about their poets' views and ideas; they want to know where their poets stand on the great issues of the day. Even people who do not normally read poetry will be familiar with the major names. Whenever a new volume of poetry is published—and news about publication and distribution dates invariably seems to leak out—queues will form outside bookshops...
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SOURCE: "Prague through Parisian Eyes," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4221, February 24, 1984, p. 195.
[Scruton is an English philosopher, educator, and critic. In the following review of An Umbrella from Piccadilly and The Casting of Bells, he argues that Seifert's writings are representative of Czech literature, but notes that many of the subtleties and nuances of his work get lost in English translation.]
During the first republic, the Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert was editor of various Communist Party publications, but left the Party in 1919, on perceiving the true character of [Party leader Clement] Gottwald. When the communists seized power in...
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SOURCE: "On the Pathetic and Lyrical State of Mind," in Les Prix Nobel, Nobel Prize Foundation, 1985, pp. 228-37.
[Below is Seifert's Nobel lecture, which he intended to deliver at the Nobel Prize awards ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, in December 1984. Seifert was unable to attend the ceremony due to a chronic heart ailment. In his lecture he discusses the role of poetry and pathos in Czech society and in the world in general.]
I am often asked, particularly by foreigners, how one can explain the great love of poetry in my country: why there exists among us not only an interest in poems but even a need for poetry. Perhaps that means my countrymen also possess a greater...
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SOURCE: A review of Ruce Venušiny, in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 1, Winter, 1985, p. 125.
[Below, Lee offers a highly favorable assessment of Ruce Venušiny (Hands of Venus).]
Until last October's Nobel Prize announcement, Jaroslav Seifert (b. 1901), one of the best Czech poets of this century, had not had the recognition he deserves due to the official censure he has faced in his country and the paucity of translations abroad. His career spans more than sixty years of sustained creativity, beginning with the avant-garde period of poetism and surrealism and continuing through the present day. The best of Seifert's poetry is represented in this volume,...
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SOURCE: "Jaroslav Seifert, Nobel Prize-Winner for Literature, 1984," in Quadrant, Vol. XXIX, Nos. 1-2, January-February, 1985, pp. 42-3.
[In the essay below, Lewis provides a brief overview of Seifert's life and career, noting that the poet "has refused to allow his artistic integrity to by compromised" by Czechoslovakian censorship.]
Few People will have heard the name of Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert before he won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. His work is little known beyond the confines of his native Czechoslovakia and the few scattered Czech émigré communities in Western Europe, Canada, USA and Australia. Moreover, Seifert's output consists almost...
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SOURCE: "The Czech Nobel Laureate Jaroslav Seifert," in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 173-75.
[Harkins is an American educator and critic who specializes in Slavic Studies. In the essay below, he provides a brief overview of Seifert's career.]
The award of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature to the aging Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert naturally raised many questions—hardly new ones. The Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy has demonstrated a striking preference for lyric poetry in recent years, a preference that the reading public scarcely shares. At least five prizewinners from the past eighteen years have been poets, not counting Seifert...
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SOURCE: "Poets and Power: Jaroslav Seifert," in Index on Censorship, Vol. 14, No. 2, April, 1985, pp. 8-12.
[In the excerpt below, Vladislav relates the problems of censorship faced by Seifert while living and publishing in Communist Czechoslovakia.]
[The Swedish Academy's decision in 1984] to give the Nobel Prize to an 'unknown' Czech poet puzzled many people, and the Czechoslovak authorities had not the slightest interest in trying to remedy the situation. On the contrary, despite their statements claiming that the recipient of the prize, poet Jaroslav Seifert, was greatly and universally respected, his works published in large quantities, Czechoslovakia's official...
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SOURCE: "The Word Hangs Back," in The New York Times Book Review, June 30, 1985, p. 33.
[In the following review, Heim offers a mixed assessment of An Umbrella from Piccadilly.]
The Nobel Prize for Literature comes in several varieties. There is the prize that confirms universal recognition, the prize that plays politics, the prize that celebrates the visionary orientation Alfred Nobel originally meant to promote. And from time to time the Swedish Academy awards a prize that seems calculated to redress an oversight; it virtually introduces an author to the world.
Several years ago the judges awarded such a Nobel Prize to the Polish poet and essayist...
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SOURCE: "Jaroslav Seifert—The Good Old Drinking Poet," in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, Vol. 4, 1985, pp. 283-98.
[A Czechoslovakian-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic, Škvorecky has resided in Canada since fleeing his homeland after the 1968 Soviet invasion. In the essay below, he discusses Seifert's poetry in relation to the social climate in Czechoslovakia, noting the Czech government's official views on Seifert throughout his career. Škvorecký notes in particular the impact in Czechoslovakia of the Swedish Academy's decision to award him the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature.]
"Yet another obscure East...
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SOURCE: A review of The Casting of Bells, in Slavic Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 171-72.
[A Czechoslovakian-born American educator and critic, Salzmann specialized in Slavic Studies and anthropology. In the review below, she offers praise for Seifert, but laments the degree to which his translators distorted his verse in the English-language version of Odlévání zvonů (The Casting of Bells).]
Publication of an English translation of a work by a poet who subsequently is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is a significant event, and it was particularly so in the case of Jaroslav Seifert, the 1984 Nobel laureate, whose extensive poetic work is...
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SOURCE: "Unpolitical but Not Innocuous," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4361, October 31, 1986, p. 1222.
[Enright is an English poet, novelist, essayist, and editor. In the review of Selected Poetry below, he discusses political aspects of Seifert's poetry, briefly comparing his verse to that of Czeslaw Milosz.]
Born in 1901, Jaroslav Seifert became something that, as [the editor and co-translator of Selected Poetry] George Gibian notes, we don't seem to have in the West: a national poet. But the price to pay for a national poet is high, calling for the kind of shared feeling born out of decades of war, invasion, occupation and suffering. In such...
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SOURCE: "Public and Private Poetry," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 149-55.
[Cotter is an American educator and critic. In the excerpt below, he offers a mixed assessment of The Selected Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert.]
National poets are just about extinct as a species. Some literary conservationists may regret their passing; most readers will hardly notice. Their existence made the task of the selection committees for the Nobel Prize for Literature easier: find a country, then pick a poet. One of the last of their kind, Jaroslav Seifert of Czechoslovakia, received the award in 1984 in recognition of his contribution to Czech poetry. From his...
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SOURCE: "A Song under All Circumstances," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1987, pp. 209-27.
[Holub is a Czechoslovakian scientist who writes poetry and prose. In the essay below, he praises Seifert's poetry and describes him as "a poet who gave others strength."]
"I believe, or, to be perfectly frank, I just assume that what is normally called poetry is one great mystery of which the poet, and indeed every single poet, unveils a greater or a lesser part. Then he puts down his pen or covers his typewriter, turns pensive and towards nightfall he dies. As for instance [Vitězslav] Nezval."
As for instance [Jaroslav] Seifert....
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SOURCE: "Between Dream and Reality: The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert," in Scando-Slavica, Vol. 33, 1987, pp. 63-79.
[In the following essay, Możejko examines the different stages of Seifert's career.]
Jaroslav Seifert made his literary debut in 1921, barely four years after the first publication of T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, and one year prior to the appearance of The Waste Land. Franz Kafka was still alive and living in Prague. In the same year, another Czech writer and Seifert's contemporary, Karel Čapek, wrote his play, R.U.R., which gave the world a then strange, but now familiar, term: "robot".
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SOURCE: A review of The Selected Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, in The Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 90-3.
[In the following review, Werner offers a mixed assessment of The Selected Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, questioning whether his work is worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature.]
[The Selected Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert] tries to answer two questions: who was Jaroslav Seifert and did he deserve the Noble Prize in Literature? When he won the award in 1984, Seifert was largely unknown outside of Czechoslovakia, but within his native country his poetry was immensely popular (if not always officially sanctioned) and he...
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SOURCE: A review of A Wreath of Sonnets, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 476-77.
[In the following review of A Wreath of Sonnets and a French-language anthology of Seifert's verse, Banerjee offers praise for the poet's oeuvre.]
Outside Czechoslovakia, the award of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature to Jaroslav Seifert (1901–86) was greeted with a yawn of indifference and a few winks hinting at the political inspiration behind the honor. Seifert was, after all, a lifelong Social Democrat from a victimized country, and he had gained world attention as the head of the Czech Union of Writers in the defiant months that followed...
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