Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

Giorgos Stylianou Seferiades, who would later take the pen name George Seferis (seh-FEHR-ees), was born into a Greek community in Smyrna, Ottoman Empire (now zmir, Turkey), at the start of the twentieth century. Interested in poetry even as a child, Seferis moved with his family to Athens at the beginning of World War I. In 1917, Seferis graduated from the First Classical Gymnasium and shortly thereafter went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. Although technically a student of law, Seferis continued to write poetry, and he came under the influence of the French Symbolists, including such leading figures as Charles Baudelaire, Jules Laforge, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and, most notably, Paul Valéry.{$S[A]Seferiades, Giorgos Stylianou;Seferis, George}

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After receiving his degree and traveling widely throughout the early 1920’s, Seferis took a position with the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1926. His service as a diplomat would eventually take him to Athens, London, and Korçë (Koritsa), Albania. While working as vice consul for the Greek diplomatic service in 1931, Seferis was exposed to the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, two of the most influential poets writing in English during the early and mid-twentieth century. Seferis was particularly attracted to the dramatic voice of Eliot, and he published Greek translations of The Waste Land (1922) and Murder in the Cathedral (1935); these works were collected into Seferis’s volume T. S. Eliot in 1936. At about the same time, Seferis also began publishing poetry of his own, releasing Turning Point in 1931 and The Cistern in 1932.

The Cistern, a lyric poem of twenty-five five-line stanzas (one of them containing nothing but dots), already reflects the profound influence of Eliot. Rhythms are more typical of English pentameter lines than traditional Greek pendecasyllables (fifteen-syllable lines that had been common in Greek poetry since the Byzantine period), and both the poem’s free verse and its imagery appear to be closely modeled upon the works of Eliot. The theme of The Cistern is that the artist’s vision arises out of human suffering and contemplation rather than an objective depiction of the world. The cistern that gives the poem its title is both a repository for the collected sorrow of humanity and a source of sustenance for those who thirst for passion or art.

In the mid-1930’s Seferis returned to Athens, where he published two more volumes of poetry, Mythistorema in 1935 and Gymnopaidia in 1936. He began the poems in Mythistorema even as he continued to translate Eliot’s poetry, and he again adopted a narrative style similar to that of The Waste Land. At the same time, however, Seferis was borrowing freely from ancient Greek images and mythology, often combining classical elements with settings or allusions familiar to those who lived in modern Greece. The result is a poetic world in which past and present are united. In Mythistorema, allusions to such classical figures as the Argonauts, Orestes, and Astyanax appear repeatedly—even as Seferis prefaces the collection with a couplet by the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, dedicates another to the modern composer Maurice Ravel, and includes in a third allusions to the wedding ceremony of the Orthodox church. Another major work, Book of Exercises, published in 1940, contains the first appearance of Stratis Thalassinos (Stratis the Sailor), a literary persona that Seferis would adopt a number of times in his later poetry.

In 1941 Seferis married Maria Zannou. Shortly thereafter, Greece surrendered to Nazi Germany, and Seferis joined the Greek government-in-exile. He spent the war years in Egypt, Africa, and Italy, returning to Greece in 1946. He again went to London as consul to the Greek embassy in 1951, a trip that gave Seferis the opportunity to form a lasting friendship with Eliot. While ambassador to Great Britain from 1957 to 1962, Seferis played a major role in negotiating the independence of the island of Cyprus.

In 1963, Seferis became the first Greek to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His reputation grew among the international community as his works were translated into numerous languages. In the last two decades of his life, he was awarded honorary degrees by Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton Universities as well as by the University of Thessaloniki (Salonica) in northeastern Greece. He returned to Athens, where he became an outspoken opponent of the military dictatorship of George Papadopoulos. Seferis died in 1971 from complications following stomach surgery.

George Seferis left behind works that combined clarity of style with the rich imagery that he borrowed from Eliot and the French Symbolists. Embracing all of Greek history at once, his poems take their inspiration equally from classical legend, Byzantine folk literature, and the modern Greek landscape.

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