“The Cistern” is a lyric poem of twenty-five stanzas (if one counts the blank twenty-third stanza); each stanza contains five lines. The variable rhyme scheme utilizes off-rhyme in a resourceful and modern way.
“The Cistern” is prefaced with a quotation from the Cretan painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco, who worked in Toledo, Spain. The quotation is from the artist’s inscription to his View and Plan of Toledo (c. 1609). The significance of the quotation has to do with the artist’s poetic license to change reality to fit his aesthetic purposes. El Greco thought it “preferable” to shift the hospital’s position and aspect to fit the painting’s composition. “As for its actual position in the town,” he says, “that appears on the map.”
The poem’s cistern is no ordinary reservoir to catch rainwater. The reader knows immediately that this cistern exists only in the mind; its symbolism is resonant in the opening line: “Here, in the earth, a cistern has taken root.” Though it is an organic part of the landscape, the cistern gathers only “secret water” for one’s interior life.
Above it the world goes on, time passes, and human cares and joys resound on its dome like “pitiless night.” The cistern is as unconcerned about the world as the heavens are about mortals: “The stars/ don’t blend with its heart.” In pursuing their “destined suffering,” human faces light up for a moment and die out. Caught up in “the pulse of nature,” man bends toward earth like roses, thirsty with love, but “turns to marble at time’s touch,” returning to the earth and “sweetened” in his grave.
Though the world does not touch it, the cistern gathers human suffering, replenished by “pain, drop by drop.” It hoards tears, “the groan of each body in the air,” hopes that fail “at the edge of the sea.” It “casts its nets far into a world” and feeds on the “bitter undulation” of human passion, taking away the embraces it once gave. In sleep one comes close to the cistern’s hidden “garden where silver drops,” but only in “the cave of death” is one able to talk to “the black roots.”
The cistern is closer to “the root of our life/ than our thoughts and our anxiety.” The regard of others or one’s own pain does not affect this inner resource of one’s being, for the cistern is “nearer than the spear still in our side.” That one is unable to express this inner resource is a “crime,” because if one could, perhaps he or she “might escape” both the painful knowledge and the hunger with which life leaves one.
Suffering is what intimates to men and women that they have this inner resource. The “body’s bitterness” nourishes “our souls” so that beauty may “bloom in the blood of our wound.” In this rebirth, which is a kind of death, everything may “become as it was at first,” like a snake shedding its skin. Then one may find “Great and immaculate love, serenity.”
Even though the cistern is known, “the blind earth/ that sweats from the effort of spring” drags human beings from the cool of the cistern back into the “Flames of the world.” They know that “ ‘We are dying! Our gods are dying,’ ” but are as powerless as the statues who watch “the crowds of death pass by.” (Here, a stanza consisting entirely of ellipses represents the silent procession of the dead.) When the dead have passed, the “magic spells” have been broken, but one’s vision of the thirst-quenching cistern has already taught him or her the value of “silence,” even in the midst of “the flaming city.”
“The Cistern” is considered the culmination of George Seferis’s early period, before the influence of T. S. Eliot’s free verse and dramatic method have taken hold, as in Mythistorema (1935). The cinquains experiment with off-rhyme and a line resembling English pentameter, showing Seferis to be turning away from the traditional Greek pendecasyllabics and other formal restrictions, toward a rhythm more suitable to the modern Greek idiom.
Nevertheless, the language of “The Cistern” is abstract in a way that Seferis never repeats. The narrator speaks from a spiritual height, aloof from any specific scene or direct human experience. As Zissimos Lorenzatos says, in The Lost Center and Other Essays in Greek Poetry (1980): “the language is hardly audible. It has surrendered. In the end, you find you have received the poem’s message without anyone having given it to you.” There is power in the poem, but it is the power of seduction rather than persuasion; the reader must surrender to the poem as Seferis has surrendered to the language.
“The Cistern” is full of phrases that attribute human feelings to inanimate things. The characters, if they can be called that, are all abstractions. The cistern is an organism with a life of its own; it has “taken root” and has a heart. The day “grows, opens and shuts,” like a flower. In such metaphors, the symbol is asserted rather than achieved.
Abstractions are personified. Night is “pitiless,” cares “tread,” joys “move by,” fate has a “quick rattle,” the fates “have woken gently,” hope “may follow,” expectation is “open-eyed,” shadows are “mournful,” the earth is “blind” and “sweats,” warmth is “tame” or “calmly avoided fear” or “knocked on sleep to ask” directions. One also hears of “the wind’s breath,” “the skin of silence,” “the root of our life,” “the thirst of love,” “the pulse of nature,” and “the effort of spring.”
What human presences do arrive on the scene are ghostly: “faces light up, shine a moment/ and die out.” Otherwise, they appear only as bodies, living or dead: “Man’s body bends to earth,” “the groan of each body,” “the body’s bitterness,” “a body hidden” in “the cave of death.” Bodies may appear only in parts: “fingers eyes and lips,” eyes that “roll in a gutter,” the victim “full of eyelids,” “palm on the temple,” “Faces that go!” When the narrator addresses an unspecified “you,” who “bent humbly, naked curve,/ white wing over the flock,” the erotic possibility of a human presence dissolves in the apostrophe to the abstraction of “Great and immaculate love, serenity.”
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