Foundations of demoticism
The first Greek to grapple with the split identity of the Greek language strictly in terms of poetry was Dionysios Solomos, recognized today as the founder of modern Greek poetry. The story of his achievements begins in 1822, when Spyridon Trikoupis, a well-known Greek diplomat, historian, and libertarian, paid the young aristocrat a visit at Solomos’s birthplace on Zakynthos, one of the Ionian Islands. Trikoupis’s self-assigned mission was to find and promote a Greek poet who would speak out for a liberated Greece in the Greek vernacular. The Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire had begun in 1821. Solomos had recently published a slender volume of poetry in Italian (Rime improvvisate, 1822), and Trikoupis knew him to be a man with revolutionary sympathies.
During one of their first meetings, Solomos (who demanded that they speak only of poetry) recited his most recent Italian composition. After an uncomfortable silence, the young poet demanded a response. Trikoupis answered by assuring Solomos that he would certainly secure an undisputed position among the great Italian poets. The diplomat added, however, that “the Greek Parnassus has not yet found its Dante.” Dante had released Italian literature from the strictures of Latin and had solidified the written foundations of his native Tuscan (the lingua vulgaris which eventually became modern Italian) through his bold and expert style. Five centuries later, Solomos struggled against the use of katharevousa to rescue the Greek vernacular from possible extinction as a written form of expression. For centuries, Italy and Greece had dragged along the linguistic chains of their ancestry: the one in classical and church Latin, the other in an imitation of the formal (unspoken) dialect of Plato and Demosthenes. Solomos’s early exposure to Dante’s victory over Latin proved decisive for the future development of a poetic idiom which, for the first time, reached out to the vast majority of Greeks, who neither understood nor had any hope of understanding katharevousa, the language of the few.
At the time of Trikoupis’s first visit, there was still a significant language barrier for the young...
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