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Seferis, George (pseudonym of Georgios Stylianou Seferiadis)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seferis, George (pseudonym of Georgios Stylianou Seferiadis) 1900–1971

A Nobel Prize-winning Greek poet, Seferis wrote with striking imagery and lyricism about the Hellenic world of culture, past and present. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

What interests me about Seferis is his tone of voice in his poems. It is something to do with the building up of context inside a poem, and now that we have a broad mass of his poems to live with, one can see this power of context building up in whole collections and sequences of poems and from year to year, so that one can speak of something having a resonance in the whole context of the poetry of George Seferis. (p. 172)

Seferis' tone of voice (I am going to speak of him as if he existed only in poetry) is at once riveting to the attention. There is something very serious and very complicated about it. It obeys the important rule that poetry now has to be at least as serious, and speak of realities at least as complicated, as prose is capable of doing. (p. 173)

You cannot separate Seferis' tone of voice from the forms and the examples available to him. If you ask how a certain seriousness, a richness of tone that breaks through weaknesses, becomes available to a poet, there will always be an answer in terms of the progress of the poet's own work…. But where do the possibilities of verse come from? They belong to a particular moment in the language and a particular moment in the art of poetry. There is no poet who belongs more to his own language than Seferis; it is true of him—in a way it would not be true of Yeats—that he has created the Greek in which he speaks. But the possibilities of writing in such a tone and such a form as he has done belong to the modern movement and its masters all over Europe. No poetry could be more completely Greek than the best poetry of Seferis, and it is quite certain he has exploited veins of possibility in the Greek poetry of earlier generations that only an equally learned poet could ever rediscover, but he is a European poet in the same sense as Eliot or Quasimodo, which Yeats is not; he is a poet who became possible only because of the central traditions of European poetry in the late nineteenth century. (pp. 174-75)

There is no point in comparing stray lines of Seferis' poems with the work of individual European poets who are close to him. What is interesting is how he has reached such a point of easy compression, the kind of language he was already using with ease in Mythistorema…. Seferis in his early poems … is surely one of those who have had to write bad poetry in order to write good; who have had first to express a fineness of reaction, a hungry sharpness of the intellectual senses, in a full, unblushing way that, under the pressure of birth, was bound to appear to the world mannered and frail. A young poet must recapitulate in himself those stages of the history of earlier poetry that have done most to make his future work possible. But the technique is modern; it is Seferis from the beginning. The imagism and the half-rhymes, and above all the governing rhythm of the voice, as early as The Cistern in 1932, and (except for the half-rhymes) even in his first book, Turning Point, in 1931, are absolutely modern and his own. (p. 176)

[In] a certain sense in the poetry of George Seferis, you can see all the stages [of European poetry] in one man: first the mannerism, the dandy technique, and the confused fullness of feelings; then the liberated art, the freedom of language that could not have been built on any other beginnings.

This is not a question of particular conscious influences, or of a shared subject matter. If that is what you are looking for, it is impossible to see backward through the poems of George Seferis. Poems like his could not exist if they were not opaque. The writings of a poet are not simply original achievements of an individual genius; indeed, the more the poet seems to us a genius, the more certain it is...

(The entire section is 2,793 words.)