Other Literary Forms
Although verse was Dionysios Solomos’s major form of expression, he published two works of prose. Dialogos (1824) is Solomos’s defense of the demotic language of Greece, a kind of rebuttal to Adamantios Koras and other proponents of the katharevousa, the purist tongue. Solomos asserted that the language of the people belongs only to them, and no external forces can change it. It was also part of his credo that the poet, as a custodian of the language, must enrich and ennoble it from within. The twenty-five or thirty pages of Dialogos (one part of the work has been lost), written in the form of a conversation between a poet, a friend, and a philosopher, have served as the prototype of modern Greek prose. Solomos’s other prose work is I yineka tis Zakynthos (1927, 1944; The Woman of Zakynthos, 1982), an enigmatic, fragmentary work set at the time of the fall of Missolonghi.
Dionysios Solomos is the national poet of modern Greece. The first four stanzas of his The Hymn to Liberty were proclaimed by King Otto in 1865 as the Greek national anthem, and Greek schoolchildren have been learning and memorizing Solomos’s verses for more than 150 years. His use of demotic Greek—the spoken language of everyday life—prepared the way for the extraordinary flowering of Greek poetry in the twentieth century.
Solomos has been the subject of studies in Italian, Dutch, French, German, Romanian, and Turkish, as well as English. The critic M. Byron Raizis has estimated that scholarly works on Solomos “approach the one-thousand mark.” Because, in the early years of his apprenticeship, Solomos wrote in Italian, he has been especially interesting to Italian poets and critics.
Solomos’s contemporaries acknowledged him as the founder of modern Greek poetry: He took it upon himself to become a Greek Dante, a poet who would use the vernacular, the language of the people, in order to praise his countrymen’s struggle for liberation, in order to sing of the pains, the values, and the joys of the land of his birth. What Alexander Pushkin, who was born a year later, came to mean to the Russians, Solomos came to mean to the Greeks. Like Alexander Pushkin’s lyrics, Solomos’s Romantic verse lauded freedom and castigated tyranny. Solomos is regarded as the quintessence of the national genius; it is no wonder that upon his death, the Greek poet was given a state funeral which was followed by public mourning throughout Greece.
It is not only for his poetry, then, that Solomos is important. He was the bard of the Greek War of Independence; he introduced Romanticism to Greece; and, perhaps most important, he gave dignity to demotic Greek, the language of the people, at a time when pretentious literati in Greece were working hard to impose the purist tongue on the recently freed, tormented country.
In contemporary Greece, Solomos’s appeal transcends ideological boundaries: He is loved by conservatives, for he represents that old spirit of the disciplined artist, the pioneer of Hellenic values; the leftists honor him for praising the virtues of struggle and for dramatizing the plight of the oppressed; the Greek Orthodox Church has embraced him for praising the religious values of his land and for his acceptance of the Church’s role in the war of liberation from the Turks; finally, he is admired by Greek youth, who respond to the youthful energy and simplicity of his patriotic and romantic verse. Solomos’s achievement as a Greek poet is unquestioned and unshakable.
After the fall of Constantinople in May, 1453, Greece, under oppressive Ottoman rule, remained for nearly four hundred years a cultural wasteland. When Crete fell to the Turks in 1669, the Solomos family migrated to the Heptanesian island of Zakynthos, having first been honored by the Venetian administrators in Crete with titles of nobility. After one generation, Count Nicholas Solomos, the poet’s father (acknowledged as Count by the Venetian authorities of Zakynthos), succeeded in acquiring the tobacco monopoly of the island, and in a few years, the shrewd businessman amassed a large fortune. Dionysios Solomos was born to Count Nicholas in 1798; at his birth, his father was sixty-one and his mother, the count’s maid, only seventeen years old. When Solomos was seven years old, he came under the tutelage of an Italian priest, Santo Rossi, then living in exile on Zakynthos because of his liberal views. Father Rossi taught the precocious boy not only the Italian language but also the culture and the literature of Italy.
After the death of his father, Solomos (accompanied by Rossi) was sent to Italy for a more sophisticated, more systematic education. In 1807 and 1808, in Venice and Cremona, the youth studied Latin and Italian philology. He was introduced to liberal ideas, to Romantic aestheticism, and to the works of Vergil, Dante, and Petrarch, who were to influence his poetry. In the period from 1812 to 1814, he wrote his first Italian verse. The fall of 1815 found the seventeen-year-old Solomos studying law at the University of Pavia. Although he received his first certificate of law, literature was his consuming interest. In Milan in 1817, Solomos met the famous poet and translator of Homer, Vincenzo Monti. Legend has it that the young Greek got into an argument with Monti over a certain passage in Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320). “Nobody should rationalize so much,” Monti chastised the youth. “One should feel, feel.” Solomos’s reply has been repeated with pride by his biographers: “First the mind must understand vigorously, and then the heart must feel warmly what the mind has comprehended.”
Solomos’s return to Zakynthos in August, 1818, presented him with a challenge: How could he thrive intellectually in a place that did not have the cultural fervor of the Italy of his adolescence? There were some intellectuals on the island, but not of the caliber of Ignazio Baretta, Mateo Butturini, or Vincenzo Monti. Nevertheless, Zakynthos was not intellectually barren: Andreas Kalvos, a contemporary of Solomos and a great poet himself, was born in Zakynthos, though there is no indication that he ever met Solomos. The island, too, was the birthplace of Ugo Foscolo (a half-Greek poet who wrote in Italian, a giant of the Romantic movement), whom Solomos did befriend, as in due course he befriended several other Zakynthos intellectuals.
Italian gave way to the Greek language in Solomos’s verse soon after his return to Zakynthos. His sonnets and religious poetry still manifested his Romantic tendencies, along with the techniques of prosody that he had learned in Cremona and Venice. He had not yet achieved the mastery of the demotic which would distinguish his later verse.
Solomos’s serious Greek verse began, in fact, when Spyridon Trikoupis visited Zakynthos. Trikoupis was a politician and the foremost historian of the Greek War of Independence. A relative of the Greek leader Alexandros Mavrokordatos, Trikoupis had come to Zakynthos to meet Lord Byron. When Trikoupis met Solomos, at the end of 1822, the latter read him his Italian “Ode per prima messa.” Trikoupis fell silent for a moment and then told Solomos that what their country needed was a Greek poetry. “Greece is waiting for her Dante,” exclaimed Trikoupis. Solomos must have been both flattered and challenged. He had not actively joined the fight against the Turks, partly because of his reclusive personality and partly because the Greek revolutionaries, though heroic, were cantankerous and uneducated villagers. There is no indication, in fact, that the poet ever visited the Greek mainland. The meeting with Trikoupis, however, sparked in the young poet a patriotic sense of literary duty. Though he never forsook his Italianate learning, he turned to Greek themes and the Greek language.
Some six months after meeting Trikoupis, Solomos completed the 158 quatrains which constitute The Hymn to Liberty. The long poem (whose first stanzas became the Greek national anthem) reenacts scenes from the Greek War of Independence and exalts the glory of Greece and of Greek freedom. Solomos’s diligent effort to improve his Greek and to become the Greek poet par excellence must have also been inspired by the publication of Claude Fauriel’s Chansons populaires de Grece (1824), in which the Frenchman praised the Greek language as “the most beautiful of the European languages and the one . . . suited to perfection.” Fauriel further prophesied that “modern Greek will soon be a language which, without resembling ancient Greek more than it now resembles it, will have no reason to envy it.” Years later, Solomos would collaborate with Fauriel.
In 1928, when most of Greece had been liberated, Solomos moved from Zakynthos to the island of Kerkyra (Corfu). By then, Solomos had become famous throughout Greece, and on Corfu, he found the solitude that he sought. There, he pursued more vigorously his studies in the German Romantic movement, in particular the works of Friedrich Schiller. Though a more prolific decade was behind him, the decade that followed was to be more impressive in terms of the quality of his work. On Corfu, Solomos honed and refined his poetry, working on his fragmentary The Woman of Zakynthos, on Eleftheroi poliorkimenoi (the free besieged), and on To Kritikos, revising his Lambros, and writing his serene “Funeral Ode” and “To an English Lady.”
Temperamental, especially during his years on Corfu, Solomos manifested a disquieting propensity to leave his works incomplete. An extreme perfectionist, he destroyed almost as many manuscripts as he was able to complete. Kostis Palamas, Solomos’s successor as the poet of the Greek people, discerned a duality in Solomos’s nature: the dedicated, patient, profound creator opposed to the impetuous, bored, immature man who could not complete his work when he felt disheartened and unsatisfied. Other critics, in examining his character, have pointed to the...
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