Greek Poetry Since 1820 Summary


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Editors’ note: This essay uses the system of transliteration recommended by the Modern Greek Studies Association, in which stress marks are eliminated. Essays in the Critical Survey of Poetry: European Poets on individual modern Greek poets use a system of transliteration that comports with the most often cataloged forms of titles and names seen in the Library of Congress. The index for Topical Essays uses the latter form to conform to all other index in Critical Survey of Poetry.

In an essay written around 1950, the poet George Seferis defined one of the major obstacles to a contemporary understanding of modern Greek poetry: The rarest thing in the world is a foreign authorwho knows Greek. Even now, according to the general perception of foreigners, and perhaps of our own people, classical Greece, Byzantine Greece, and modern Greece are countries which are unrelated and independent. Thus, everyone is limited in his own area of specialization.

As Seferis argued, in order to appreciate the full scope of modern Greek poetry one must see it as “a living art which belongs to a living tradition”—a tradition that extends from ancient Greece through the centuries of the Byzantine Empire to the renaissance of Greek poetry in the twentieth century.

Historical overview and the language problem

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Modern Greek poetry has its roots in a vernacular tradition that is unique among European literatures. Throughout its long history, the Byzantine Empire (300-1453) strongly discouraged the development of a written vernacular. Instead, the fledgling nineteenth century nation-state despots imposed the difficult and exclusive language of purist Greek (katharevousa, an artificial derivative of the classical Attic dialect of 500 b.c.e.). The language of the common person, demotic Greek, was officially nonexistent.

With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Byzantine domination gave way to Turkish rule. In addition, the Turks conquered all Greek territories formerly occupied by the Venetian Empire: Rhodes (1522), Crete (1669), and Corfu (1716). From 1453 to 1821, Greeks lived under the Ottomans. During these centuries of oppression, the demotic poetry of the Greek folk song expressed the yearnings, joys, and laments of a people who had once defined the principles of Western democracy and freedom.

Throughout the early years of the Greek state—and, with few exceptions, for most of the twentieth century—the purist tongue has been the official language of the nation, the language taught in schools and used for all official communications. Finding little of lasting value in this oligarchical tradition, Greek poets for the most part wrote in demotic, laying the foundation for a regeneration in the poetry of their new republic, which manifested itself in the twentieth century, when Greece earned two Nobel Prizes and became a leader in the art of the “poetic word.”