Greek Poetry Since 1820 Analysis

Foundations of demoticism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

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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An isolated struggle for expression

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In 1824, one year after the appearance of Solomos’s The Hymn to Liberty, Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869) published ten poems in a volume titled I Lira (lyre) and in 1826 another collection of ten poems under the title Lirika (lyrics). These two thin books represent his only contribution to Greek poetry, but of their generation, these twenty poems had an impact on twentieth century Greek poetry second only to that of Solomos. Kalvos, also from Zakynthos, was born six years before Solomos, in 1792. Kalvos’s mother was an aristocrat of the Zantiot landed gentry, while his father was a villager who could not adjust to the aristocratic way of life. When Kalvos was only ten years old, his father took him and his younger brother away from their birthplace and their mother to live in Livorno, Italy. Kalvos never saw his mother again. After his father’s death in 1812, Kalvos settled for a short time in Florence, where he worked as a private tutor. There, he met Ugo Foscolo, the eminent Italian-Greek poet and libertarian, who hired Kalvos as his personal secretary.

In 1816, Kalvos dedicated his first poem to Napoleon Bonaparte. What is significant about his first composition is not the dedication or the subject matter, but the poet’s decision to write in Greek. Kalvos had no formal knowledge of written or spoken Greek; his everyday means of communication was Italian. As a result, the diction of the poem is strained and uneven, mixing elements of demotic, classical, and purist Greek. Still, the poem embodies a potency of expression that foreshadows Kalvos’s later achievements.

By 1820, Kalvos had lived in Zakynthos, Italy, Switzerland, and England, where he parted company with Foscolo. Kalvos then returned to Florence to become a member of the Carbonari, the most radical and progressive political force in Italy at the time. He was so active that the Italian government banished him from the country in the year of his return. Having gone back to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1821, Kalvos immediately involved himself with the movement for Greek independence. There, among the Philhellenes, he attempted to coordinate a revival of classical Greek culture with the movement for Greek independence.

By then twenty-nine years old, Kalvos had spent his most impressionable years among devoted if not fanatic European intellectuals. For these French and English Philhellenes, the independence of Greece symbolized a return to the ancient glory that had spawned Western civilization. While in Europe, Kalvos shared this political fervor. In his poetry, however, Greece was to be transformed into a spiritual landscape of magical and mythical elements.

In 1824, while still residing in Geneva, Kalvos issued I Lira. It is noteworthy that these ten poems were accompanied by detailed commentary, footnotes, and a lexicon, all in French. It was important to Kalvos that his audience be international and that his poems communicate universal messages, even though they expressed patriotic sentiments in support of the Greek revolution. His second collection, Lirika, was published in 1826 in Paris, where he lived for one year before his first return to Greece after twenty-four years of an active but difficult absence. Kalvos went directly to Nafplion, the first capital of the new state and a hotbed of political activity. He was, however, quickly disillusioned and left after a few days. His abrupt departure from Nafplion marked the end of his involvement with the movement for Greek independence. Embittered by the political infighting that he encountered in Nafplion, he also stopped writing poetry.

For the next twenty-six years, Kalvos lived in Corfu (not far from Solomos), where he taught, wrote philosophical articles, and eventually became a professor at the Ionian Academy. Little else of his life there is known except that his temperament was irascible, and his poetic silence was absolute. In 1852, after having been expelled from the Ionian Academy, Kalvos departed once again, this time for Great Britain, where he spent the last years of his life. In this self-imposed exile, he married an Englishwoman, helped her run a girl’s school, and translated religious texts into English for the Anglican Church. Kalvos died in 1869 and was buried in Louth, England.

In his poetry, Kalvos attempted to release his exile’s longing for a free fatherland. His idealistic vision of Greece was rooted in the austere mythological world of Pindar. Often Kalvos mentions the Olympian gods—not for ornament but to indicate the living presence of a timeless mythic reality. His twenty odes extol the struggle for liberty, the virtue of a heroic death, and similarly exalted themes characteristic of the Romantic poetry that was flooding Europe throughout the early nineteenth century. Kalvos’s distinctive genius emerged not from his subject matter but from his unique mode of expression. He confronted the same problem that challenged Solomos—isolation from the mother tongue—but Kalvos’s solution was drastically different.

Whereas other poets of this period tried to unite form and romantic emotion in harmony, Kalvos accentuated their opposition. In contrast to the harmonic, lilting flow of Solomos’s poems, Kalvos’s odes were classically concise and rigid. He utilized a strict verse form (unrhymed stanzas of four seven-syllable lines and a last line of five syllables) modeled after the Pindaric odes. With severe formal simplicity, Kalvos expressed his intense longing for an end to his own exile.

Although Kalvos had a thorough knowledge of classical Greek, the vernacular was a foreign language to him. His twenty poems are studded with words and phrases borrowed from classical lexicons and old texts. Though the syntax is basically demotic, his inclusion of archaisms and grammatical elements of classical Greek reveal his need to create his own rules out of a language that had many conflicting personalities: classical, Byzantine, purist, demotic. The undercurrent of Kalvos’s lyrical genius infuses this awkward, artificial language with poetic substance and vitality.

Though Kalvos was far from prolific, and his devotion to the art of poetry short-lived, his work served as a stepping-stone for many Greek poets of the twentieth century. Odysseus Elytis was one of the first modern Greek poets to discuss the contemporaneity of Kalvos’s unusual technique, while George Seferis speculated as to what new peaks of poetic expression Kalvos would have reached if he had continued to write for the duration of his life. Kalvos finally received recognition as a major national poet when his burial place was moved from Great Britain to Zakynthos in 1960, a year that was officially declared as the Year of Kalvos.

Kostis Palamas

Kostis Palamas (1859-1943), a native of the Greek mainland (Missolonghi), is one of the greatest poets in the history of modern Greek literature. With his first publication of poems in 1886, he quickly surpassed his contemporaries and established himself as a central figure in Greek letters. In the poetry he wrote between 1880 and 1920, Palamas embodied the living heritage of Solomos and consolidated what his Ionian predecessor had left unfinished.

Throughout these years, Greek literary life broadened its perspectives beyond the limits of the Romantic school and the aging followers of Solomos. As founder of the New School of Athens, Palamas pioneered new directions in the development of a contemporary demotic poetry. Recognizing humanity’s spiritual and social fragmentation in his own time, Palamas attempted to reconcile the divisive forces of twentieth century history through his poetry and critical studies in Greek and world literature.

While other poets at the turn of the century were able to adopt surface elements of the works of Solomos or the European Romantics, Palamas aspired to integrate the essence of these influences into the main body of his work. One of his greatest desires was to bring the demotic tradition into the mainstream of European art and literature. Palamas achieved his goal by looking in two complementary directions. For linguistic continuity, he turned to Solomos and the evolution of the demotic tradition, which, for Palamas, could be traced back from Solomos through The Epic of Digenis Akritas (1100-1150) to the epic narratives of Homer. Palamas’s philosophical perspective, which is consistent throughout his work, emerged from a lifelong adoration of Goethe, who stirred Palamas to poetic inspiration and discipline much as Dante had awakened Solomos to his final purpose.

Although Romantics such as Lord Byron and Victor Hugo continued to influence Greek literature toward the end of the nineteenth century, of greater immediacy and impact for Palamas were the French movements, Parnassianism and Symbolism, while in his later years Palamas turned to the lyric mysticism of Rainer Maria Rilke. One could go on for pages listing the poets and thinkers whose works Palamas knew better and more intimately than any of his contemporaries in Greece. This vast accumulation of knowledge is unified by his ability to synthesize and subordinate these influences to the demands of his deep visionary voice.

After having published his first book of poems Tragoudia tis patridos mou (songs of my homeland), in 1886, Palamas titled his next volumes O imnos tis Athinas (1888; hymn to Athena) and Ta matia tis psychis mou (1892; the eyes of my soul), the latter a phrase borrowed from Solomos. This last choice of title indicates how strongly Palamas felt about establishing a bond of continuity between his own efforts and those of his Ionian predecessor. Unlike the epigones of Solomos, Palamas’s works were not mere imitations of the father of Greek poetry; instead, Palamas used Solomos’s works as stepping-stones to radical innovations in the poetry of his own time.

With Iamvi ke anapesti (iambs and anapests) in 1897, Palamas broke from the traditional demotic form of the fifteen-syllable line and, for the first time, introduced Symbolism into Greek poetry. In addition, the stanzaic structure of these poems (three quatrains each, composed of four interchanging anapestic and iambic lines) reveals the unmistakable mark of Kalvos. Indeed, Palamas was the first poet-critic not only to recognize Kalvos publicly as a major Greek poet, but also to acknowledge his poems as a determining influence on his own work.

In 1904, Palamas published I asalefti zoi (Life Immovable, 1919, 1921), a large collection of poems that included many written a decade earlier. At a critical stage in the evolution of a Greek poetic idiom, these new poems confirmed a world of poetic truth in a lyrical realization of the Greek poet’s personal and historical endurance. The volume constituted Palamas’s first mature attempt to create a unified metaphysical domain. In reference to these poems, the foremost scholar of Palamas, Thanasis Maskaleris, has maintained that “the whole collection is a song of all life elevated to the harmony and immutability of poetic sublimation.”

Finally, it was in his long visionary poem, O dodekalogos tou giftou (1907; The Twelve Words of the Gypsy, 1964), that Palamas made his most sustained contribution to modern Greek poetry. Published in 1907, thirty-six years before his death in 1943, these twelve cantos of brilliant metrical diversity bring together the wisdom, lyricism, and visionary acuity that Palamas had been striving for in his constant struggle for self-expression and universal transference. The Gypsy-Musician, the protagonist of the poem, records his metamorphosis as a symbol for freedom and art, against the historical background of Byzantine Greece prior to the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. First, through an agonizing process of renunciation, he becomes a Greek patriot who finally embraces a mystical vision that allows him to become a true Hellene—a citizen and teacher, not of one nation, but of all the world. Palamas’s preoccupation with the universal emerges with great intensity throughout the poem. Once again, it is the poet’s lyric genius that provides this poem with its greatest source of energy and impact. Permeating the poem is a dreamlike flow of time that foreshadows much of modern poetry’s conscious disorder and disregard for the classical concept of chronological narrative. The Twelve Words of the Gypsy is an epico-lyrical dream narrative, certainly the first of its kind and quality in modern Greek literature.

By the time he died in 1943, Palamas had published eighteen volumes of poetry and nearly 2,500 essays and articles concerning Greek and world literature. Some critics...

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Generation of 1930

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In 1931, at the age of thirty-one, Seferis published a small book of poems titled Strofi (Turning Point, 1967). In its subject matter and tone, Turning Point signaled the first significant turn away from the unrelenting, romantic despair of the previous generation; in spirit and sensibility, these poems were much closer to the tragic dignity of Cavafy. In fact, throughout his life, Seferis considered Cavafy to be his truest and, sometimes, most overwhelming forerunner. Seferis became the primary force in the modernization of Greek poetry for the next twenty-five years.

George Seferis

George Seferis (the pen name of Giorgos Stylianon Seferiades) was born in 1900, in Smyrna, a...

(The entire section is 5855 words.)

Postwar years

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The horror of World War II and the civil war that followed was also visible in the work of Sinopoulos’s contemporaries—Manolis Anagnostakis (1925-2005), Miltos Sahtouris (1919-2005), Eleni Vakalo (1921-2001), Nikos Karouzos (1924-1990), Aris Alexandrou (1922-1978), and Ektor Kaknavatos (born 1920). Along with Sinopoulos, these were foremost among the poets known as the First Postwar Generation. Like Sinopoulos, they were affected by the Symbolist trends of the previous generation, although they wrote largely in free verse and were interested in more experimental forms and diction.

Manolis Anagnostakis

Manolis Anagnostakis was a schoolboy during the war years, and came of age toward the end of the...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Second Postwar Generation

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Second Postwar Generation spent their childhood in war and civil war, but came of age in the mid to late 1950’s. Some of the notable poets of this generation are Kiki Dimoula (born 1931), Nikos Fokas (born 1927), Vyron Leondaris (born 1932), and Titos Patrikios (born 1928). These poets were interested in keeping and developing the Greek tradition, but after the disruptive years of war were also interested in allying themselves with international poetry movements.

The 1960’s and 1970’s

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the late 1960’s, politics once more played a crucial role in the development of Greek poetry. The 1950’s and early 1960’s had been a period of relative calm, as Greece set about rebuilding the infrastructure shattered by World War II and the civil war. On April 21, 1967, a right-wing military junta seized power in a coup d’état. One of the new government’s first actions was the enforcement of strict censorship. Some major poets, such as Karouzos, continued publishing, as did Elytis, who avoided the censor by publishing abroad, but the majority of Greek poets, following the example of Seferis and Ritsos, countered the new strictures by refusing to publish their work.

In November, 1969, the Junta government...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

The 1980’s onward

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The generation of the 1980’s saw a greater diversity of poetic themes and forms than ever before. Among its foremost poets were Nikos Davettas (born 1960), Thanassis Hatzopoulos (born 1961), Yorgos Houliaras (born 1951), Dyonisos Kapsalis (born 1952), Ilias Lagios (born 1958), Stratis Paskalis (born 1958), Haris Vlavianos (born 1957), and Spiros Vrettos (born 1960).

In the 1990’s, Dimoula’s work gained attention for its linguistic playfulness and specifically Greek themes—particular appealing for readers who are wary of the threat of Greece’s losing its cultural and linguistic integrity with the increasing homogenization of Europe. In an era when the Greek language is seen as vulnerable to the onslaught of...

(The entire section is 244 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Beaton, Roderick. Introduction to Modern Greek Literature. Rev. ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 2004. The second revision of the volume published in 1994, which had the distinction of being the first book-length study of modern Greek literary works—those published since 1821. Greek quotations are translated into English. Maps.

Bien, Peter, et al., eds. A Century of Greek Poetry, 1900-2000. Bilingual edition. Westwood, N.J.: Cosmos, 2004. Includes 456 poems by 109 poets, including Greece’s two winners of the Nobel Prize. This collection is especially significant because many of the poets are relatively unknown outside...

(The entire section is 500 words.)