For much of his life, Jaroslav Seifert worked as a journalist, and he wrote countless newspaper articles. During the decade after World War II, Seifert was under attack, vilified by the adherents of Socialist Realism, and withdrew from public life. His publications were limited to editing the works of various Czech authors, to translating—his translation of the biblical Song of Songs is outstanding—and to writing poetry for children.
Seifert’s memoirs, titled Všecky krásy světa (all the beauties of the world), were first published in Czech in Toronto in 1981; a parallel edition under the same title, with minor deletions and alterations, was published shortly afterward in Prague. Seifert also produced children’s literature in Maminka: Yybor básni (1954).
The critic René Wellek once observed, “Lyrical poetry was always the center of Czech literature.” One reason for this is that poets have probably expressed the concerns and aspirations of the Czech people better than writers in other genres.
Jaroslav Seifert was the author of nearly thirty volumes of poetry, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1984. He was a member of one of the most remarkable groups of poets in the history of Czech literature, along with Vítězlav Nezval, Konstantin Biebl, František Halas, and Vladimír Holan. They were all born around the turn of the century, began to write when Czechoslovakia gained its independence after World War I, and took part in the numerous literary movements that flourished during the next two decades. They also lived through World War II, which their work records in depth, as well as the imposition of Communism on Czechoslovakia. Seifert survived the period of Stalinism, participating in the Prague Spring of 1968. He was honored by the government in 1966 and was named a National Artist; he served as acting chairman of the Union of Czechoslovak writers in 1968; and he was its chairman in 1969-1970. In addition, he received state prizes for his verse in 1936, 1955, and 1968. Holan, Halas, Biebl, and Nezval all died before Seifert; he was the last surviving member of this extremely talented group of poets, dying at the age of eighty-four.
Seifert was remarkably popular in Czechoslovakia, both as a poet and as a symbol of freedom of expression for writers under an oppressive regime. In 1968, he condemned the Soviet invasion of his country and was one of the original signers of the Charter 77 Civil Rights movement.
In Western European countries and the United States, there has been some confusion about Seifert’s emphasis on women, on the sensual love for them and their beauty, which he consistently expressed in his poems from 1930 onward. Sensuality, sexuality, love: These are often thought to be asocial, purely private concerns. In Eastern Europe, however, they assume a much greater importance. They are central to that domain where the individual man or woman still has freedom, where the state is unable to intrude, and where a human being is able to wrest a small, habitable space from a hostile environment. There he is able to express love, intimacy, and his most positive values. Love becomes a form of protest and of personal commitment, even of heroism. Seifert was able to express this theme in language that is not abstract but very concrete and specific, not moralistic or sanctimonious but frequently erotic. This is the unique synthesis of Seifert: The poems appear to be about specific experiences, but at the same time they are always more than this. He could define heaven and hell in these concrete terms, from “Jen jednou” (“Once Only”):
The notion of love is often defined in terms of its opposite:
Those who have left
and hastily scattered to distant lands
must realize it by now:
The world is horrible!
They don’t love anyone and no one loves them.
We at least love.
So let her knees crush my head!
A passage such as this one might be misread by a Western reader, who lives in a democracy and assumes a sharp dividing line between private life and society; this dichotomy is upheld by democratic laws, rights, and institutions. In a totalitarian society, however, the division is abolished. The individual must create his freedom and positive values by his own efforts on a daily basis.
In another passage, love is again defined in terms of its opposite. Here it is opposed to war, presumably World War II; once again the love is not escapist, but raised to a higher level of generalization and affirmation:
The many rondels and the songs I wrote!
There was a war all over the world,
and all over the world
And yet I whispered into bejewelled ears
verses of love.
It makes me feel ashamed.
But no, not really.
Although such a passage might seem, on a superficial level, to mock feats of armed resistance, it should be read carefully. The love here is raised to a principle, it is almost a weapon used against war. Seifert is modest and shies away from large claims or abstract words; usually he seems whimsical, his agile verse leaps from image to image, but the reader should not be fooled by the self-demeaning manner. The jeweled earrings do belong not only to a soft, attractive body (here unseen, carefully removed from the picture) but also to an object of intense devotion, menaced by the war but momentarily beyond its reach.
This theme of love also has its special style. It closely resembles the alert and highly agile style that Seifert developed in his last three volumes. It is flexible and allusive, moves in unexpected directions, and is always surprising. Seifert is an extremely subtle poet. The translations of his work vary widely in quality; different translations of the same passage in Czech can give rise to totally different interpretations—what might seem whimsy to one reader may appear to be sharp irony to another, and the American or English reader relying on translations of Seifert should beware. The unique style of Seifert’s last volumes is characterized above all by intimacy, also by freedom and sensuality. He harks back to his style during the period of Poetism, with its Surrealist and Dada overtones, but it has more depth and follows the contours of thought, the rhythms of intimate impulse and feeling, with far greater closeness and fidelity. As Seifert told a French interviewer near the end of his life:
As one grows older, one discovers different values and different worlds. For me, this meant that I discovered sensuality. . . . All language can be thought of as an effort to achieve freedom, to feel the joy and the sensuality of freedom. What we seek in language is the freedom to be able to express one’s most intimate thoughts. This is the basis of all freedom.
Style, too, can be a function of a principle of love, of those most positive values that Seifert opposes to political repression. Professor Eduard Goldstücker, chairman of the Czech Writers’ Union in 1968 and subsequently exiled, emphasized Seifert’s consistent role as a poet of resistance when he wrote in 1985: “Seifert’s poems were always in the front line of resistance. In those dark years [of occupation by the Germans] he became the poet of his people, and he has remained so until this day.”
French, Alfred. The Poets of Prague: Czech Poetry Between the Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Provides the larger context for Seifert’s work in its formative phase, including poems by all the major poets of his generation in translation and the original Czech for comparison.
Gibian, George. Introduction to The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert. North Haven, Conn.: Catbird Press, 1998. A brief biography that focuses primarily on Seifert’s literary activities and explores his literary ancestry and evolution as a poet. In a country in which poetry is highly regarded, Seifert achieved the status of a national poet who was widely respected and loved.