Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: An introduction to Six Poets of Modern Greece, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Alfred A. Knopf, 1961, pp. 3-27.
[In the following essay, Keeley and Sherrard discuss six contemporary Greek poets, including Sikelanianos.]
When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, two poets, Dionysios Solomos and Andreas Kalvos, had already begun to give expression to the re-awakening consciousness of the Greek people. Throughout the nineteenth century other poets followed these pioneers, all working in a tradition whose roots, set in the age-old demotic Greek heritage, were native and local in the best sense. The prolific master Kostis Palamas, writing his major work round the end of the century, was perhaps the most influential of these. In a way, his work marks a turning point. The strongly romantic and optimistic temper of the nineteenth century, which Palamas fully expresses, now gives place to new attitudes. On the one hand, Anghelos Sikelianos, while remaining essentially faithful to the local Greek tradition, seeks to give it new depth by incorporating into his poetry the intellectual vision of ancient religious traditions. On the other hand, the Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy introduces an element of matter-of-fact irony which, gently but effectively, confronts the reader with a human situation that, whatever else it may be, is neither romantic nor optimistic.
From the point of view of the native Greek tradition in which Solomos, Kalvos, and Palamas all wrote, the poetry of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), a selection from which opens this anthology, might scarcely seem to be Greek at all. Its background is very different from that of these other poets. Indeed, to begin with, it scarcely appears to have any real background of its own, and the early poems in the main do little more than reflect the fashionable literary attitudes of the last decades of the nineteenth century. Behind them one can discern the compound but somewhat etiolated shadow of such figures as Gautier, Henri Murger, Huysmans, Wilde and Pater: aesthetic, feminine, haunted by a sense of corruption, indifferent to if not scornful of nature, fastidious, devoted to art as the expression and stimulant of fine sensations, and looking upon works of art as little more than a superior and sophisticated form of aphrodisiac:
I do not want real narcissi—nor lilies do I like, nor real roses: the banal, the common gardens they adorn, their flesh gives me bitterness, fatigue, and pain— I am bored with their perishable charms. Give me artificial flowers—the glories of metal and glass— which neither wither nor rot, with shapes that do not age. Flowers from the splendid gardens of another country where Theories, and Rhythms, and Knowledge live.
Flowers I love kneaded of glass and gold of faithful Art the faithful gifts; with colours more beautifully tinted than those of nature, and wrought with mother-of-pearl and enamel, with leaves and stems ideal. They draw their grace from wise and purest Aestheticism; they do not sprout in the filth of earth and mud.
If they have no aroma we shall douse them with fragrance, we shall burn before them oils of perfume.
Some of the early poems have a certain elegance and polish, but they all share, as we have noted, one central weakness: Cavafy wrote them without possessing any real personal background, without having made his own a “landscape” of figures, of visibilia, with wider terms of reference than those provided by the rootless fin de siècle aestheticism whose moods and attitudes he sought to express. It is always one of the major tasks of a poet to provide himself with such a “landscape,” and when society possesses a tradition, the images and symbols of which are common to the great majority of the people, this task is relatively simple; when there is no such tradition, it is considerably more difficult. Collective myths, collective terms of reference, lose their hold, the poet no longer shares any recognized background of imagery with the rest of society, and, whether he likes it or not, he is forced more and more into isolation. If at the same time, as is often the case, he is unable to discover for himself any purpose that transcends his individuality, and has therefore nothing left to value but what concerns the life of the senses only, his poetry is in danger of becoming the mere indulgence of private sentiment and emotion.
It was in a situation such as this that Cavafy found himself. Condemned—whether by choice or by fate is not the question—to that kind of aesthetic life which had been the interest of those figures under whose influence he wrote his first poems, how, in giving expression to this life, could he yet avoid falling back on the already debased language and imagery of an effete romanticism? Where could he find the landscape of figures, the visibilia, adequate to his purpose? As we have suggested, Cavafy had no relationship with the Greek demotic tradition on which poets like Solomos and Sikelianos, for instance, could draw with such fruitfulness; to pretend that he had would merely have meant substituting one alien background for another. In any case, the Greek demotic tradition was fundamentally heroic and patriotic, and as such was hardly likely to appeal to Cavafy, who, a colonial Greek, was little concerned with the political destiny of a new Greece; his pessimistic vision foresaw a future of conquest, decay, and death from which relief could be found only in present aesthetic pleasure, in a stoic reserve, and in the recollection of a past already long since perished.
Just how Cavafy lighted on the “landscape” through which he could speak with greater point and freedom, it is difficult to say. But it may have been that in the modern Alexandria in which he lived there were enough visible reminders of and associations with an older Alexandria to stimulate his curiosity and to suggest that recherche du temps perdu which his poetry was increasingly to become. It may have been that in the mixed races and the confusion of tongues, in the Christian churches and the pagan ruins, in the bustle of the port and in the bargaining of merchants in bazaar and market of his contemporary environment, there was enough to lead Cavafy to discover, largely through reading, a whole vanished world in which he could see, as in a mirror, the faithful reflection of that human condition which it was his desire to portray. At all events, behind the mercantilism of present-day Alexandria, Cavafy began to discern the lineaments of the great hellenistic Alexandria, the capital of the Ptolemies, centre of a flourishing kingdom and a rich terrain, peopled by Greek, Jew, Egyptians, by all the races of the Middle East. The Alexandria which Cavafy “discovered” was in fact the crown and focus of that extraordinary hellenistic world which included also such famed cities as Antioch and Jerusalem, Seleukeia and Ephesus, and numbered kingdoms like those of Syria, of Media, of Commagene, and of Macedonia itself, from which, with the conquests of Alexander the Great, all had begun. It was a curious, chequered world, knit mainly by the common Greek language. “Then he was that best of things,” Cavafy was to write, “a Hellene: mankind has no quality more precious.” And in a mock-serious poem he celebrates the expedition which gave the word Hellene the status it had in the world of which Alexandria was the centre:
And from that amazing all-Greek expedition, the victorious, the brilliant, the much talked of, the glorified as no other has ever been glorified, the incomparable, we ourselves emerged: the great new hellenic world.
We: the Alexandrians, the Antiochians, the Seleukeians, and the countless other Greeks of Egypt and of Syria, and those of Media, and of Persia, and all the rest. With the far-reaching domination, with the many-sided activity of prudent assimilation, and the Common Greek Tongue which we carried into Bactria, to the Indians.
It was in this hellenistic Alexandrian world, then, that Cavafy found the “landscape” through which he could express himself with pertinence and urbanity. Out of it he was to build his “myth” of a personal and at the same time perennial human condition, that of the tired, rapacious, over-refined man who is the generic hero of his poems, homo Europaeus, as we might call him, of our not so late humanist period. For that after all is the principal figure that emerges from behind the many masks which Cavafy gives him: the sick guest of an aesthetic city, of a Greco-Roman asylum, full of selfish desires and absurd vanities, ageing into impotence and ugliness, purified by every longing, sapped by every depravity, all sentiment and all fatigue, devoted to fate and pain as the morphinist to his drug, lonely, hollowed out, old as the ages, all nostalgia, animal and sage, all bare, with no ambitions, gnawed by the dread of death, by the relentless dance of time that sweeps all that he loves into oblivion, and finding relief only in his art where he can watch with something approaching a detached irony the spectacle of a life of pleasure, folly, misfortune, vice, and sybaritic elegance which he now can never again enjoy. The poems included here, all in Cavafy's mature voice, express different aspects of his aesthetic city and the life of which it was the centre.
We have suggested that Cavafy, in creating his own landscape and his own tradition, remained isolated from both the contemporary Greek scene and the main currents of the Greek tradition; in contrast, Anghelos Sikelianos (1884-1951), turned to exactly those sources that Cavafy had ignored.
There are two main aspects to the poetry of Sikelianos. On the one hand, there is the lyric assertion of the natural world and of the human body as part of it. On the other hand, there is the austere vision of the seer who knows that the natural world is full of tragedy and suffering and that the true centre of man's life is elsewhere. There is a refusal to deny the senses, a suspicion of all renunciation and asceticism; and there is the lifting up, as it were, into an intensity of contemplation in which all earth-life is forgotten. There is the celebration of, and the insistence on, the holiness of life's spontaneous manifestations and energies; and there is the formal and hieratic awareness of a divine order, a conviction that man's failure to realise and to conform his life to this order leads to ultimate calamity. Both aspects belong to the total experience of the poetry, and the poems that follow have been selected with this in mind.
The first group in this selection are from among Sikelianos's earlier poems, and for the most part are representative of the first aspect of his poetry: the lyrical assertion of the natural world and its beauty. They are simple, direct, unaffected. Things are seen with a clear eye, with clear senses, with feelings undulled by custom and fixed routine. There is an immediate and reciprocal relationship between the poet and the world he describes, the lands and seas of Greece. Nature and natural events are felt as part of the poet's own subjective experience; the poet's life and the life of nature mingle:
The lightning I encountered before it left the cloud. At the sound of the thunder-bolt echoed the first heart-beat of my joy; at light awakenings, at the sudden rustle of leaves, at the full peal of bells, at the night quietness of crickets, at the first talk in the road at morning, at the first windows of the fishermen opening, at the rising deep from the trees of many birds, at dawn scents, and at the sudden ring of the breeze which sounds in space, at the spring's gush which fills the golden pitcher of my love!
These early poems represent a phase in the poet's growth to maturity. This growth is not that of the mind alone; it is much more organic than that. It is the growth of the whole person, body and soul together, instinct and mind together, an awakening and overflowing of an integral sense of life. At the same time there is implicit even in this early poetry what one might call a “mythological” attitude towards life, a sense that there are certain more than natural forces at work in the universe, giving meaning and reality to the world perceived through the senses. There is a supernatural world as well as a natural world, there is the invisible as well as the visible. Not that these two worlds are opposed to, or radically separated from, one another. Rather, the natural world is penetrated by the forces of the supernatural world; it is in some sense an expression of these forces. Man's life is seen as incomplete and thwarted if he fails to realize this, if he persists in living as if the natural world, that which he can observe through his senses and with his mind, is the only world. His real fulfilment and purpose can only be achieved through a growing awareness of supernatural realities, through the growth of spiritual insight. Here the other aspect of Sikelianos's poetry comes into its own, that which expresses the poet's search for and perception of a divine order. But the impulse for this search, for this act of creative understanding, comes from experience of the natural world. From direct, sensual contact with living things man draws in the vital nourishment for his own life. This is the sap that feeds his growth, that stimulates new organs of perception. Intense physical delight turns into an illumination of the mind.
Sikelianos derived what we have called the “mythological” attitude towards life, implicit even in his early poetry, from the people of Greece and their immediate tradition. The lives of the people—harsh, poor, cruel as they often were—still possessed, in the time of Sikelianos's youth, a poetry, a vitality, a feeling of reverence and wonder before creation which had been largely lost in the West (and which have since been largely lost in Greece). Above all, the people of Sikelianos's youth had preserved through the centuries a wealth of song, legend, and dance in which were enshrined the perceptions and understandings, the qualities of thought and feeling, of a way of life whose roots went far back into the past.
Participation in a tradition such as that of the Greek people is of the utmost value for the poet. Even if he is unaware of the true nature of the wisdom it preserves, his attitude towards, and his sense of, life will nevertheless be permeated by it; his poetry, although unconsciously, will reflect it. This would seem to be what happened in Sikelianos's case. He had the good fortune to be born into a Greece where the traditional memory was still alive, where the traditional pattern of life still flourished, and where he found an ancient soul and an ancient aura. Instinctively he turned towards it. He mixed his life with its life, his roots with the roots which nourished the lives of the people:
And to the people I descended; and the doors of the houses opened so quietly as if the doors of a tomb. And it was as if they embraced me returning from the grave— thus the fates the thread had woven— or as if for me the dead had come alive again: so deep in the ground did our roots mingle, so were our branches raised into the heavens.
Some of Sikelianos's most beautiful poems are those in which he draws upon and expresses aspects of the lives and customs of the Greek people as he knew them: the extract from the long poem, “The Village Wedding,” in the following selection bears witness to this.
But it is one thing to write poetry which expresses—as Sikelianos's early poetry does express—a mythological attitude towards life, and another to have full and conscious understanding of the principles upon which such an attitude depends. Or, to put this another way: Sikelianos had found in the Greece into which he was born a living tradition of ideas, images, and symbols which had been preserved, even though in a confused fashion, in the memory of the people, in their legend, poetry, and dance. He had been nourished by this tradition and this memory; they had become part of him, and his responses and attitudes had to a large extent been determined by them. Since the process had in a way been an unconscious one, his task now was to make it conscious, to discover the true nature of those ideas, images, and symbols still implicit in the people's tradition. For this tradition itself was preserving in an incomplete and fragmentary way a knowledge which on a higher level had been lost. What was this knowledge and where could it be found in its more complete form? “The problem was then for me,” Sikelianos writes of this stage in his development. “By what way and with what means could I achieve essential contact with and understanding of this tradition?”
His search for this contact and understanding led him to pre-Socratic Greece. It seemed to him that in this period the true nature of that mythological attitude towards life implicit in his early poems—as in the art, beliefs and customs of the Greek people—had been consciously formulated and enshrined. Orphism, the teaching of Pythagoras, the Mysteries of Eleusis, all bore witness to this, as did the poetry of Pindar and Aeschylus. In all these, Sikelianos saw expressed what was essentially the same understanding of life, an understanding which transcended blood-groups and clans, upheld the brotherhood of man, and preserved a sense of unity embracing not only mankind but all living things. It was an understanding which Sikelianos determined to restore through his poetry to the modern world. For now it was no longer only a question of the poet giving expression to his own lyrical experience of life. It was also a question of bringing back to contemporary man some consciousness of those supernatural realities without which, according to the poet, his life would be thwarted and incomplete. All Sikelianos's later poetry springs from his awareness of these realities and his desire to awaken once more in others something of the insight and the fulfilment they brought him. Using for the most part images and symbols of the Orphic and Pythagorean tradition, though in later life more and more completing these with the images and symbols of Christianity, Sikelianos developed a poetry that is both visionary and tragic, rhapsodic and sombre, joyous and full of sorrow. But its last word is not one of despair; for beyond the desolation of time and...
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