Jaroslav Seifert 1901–1986
Czech poet, memoirist, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Seifert's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 34 and 44.
The winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize for Literature, Seifert is widely considered to be the national poet of Czechoslovakia as well as one of the foremost Czechoslovakian literary figures of the 20th century. Respected for his courage and integrity in the face of the political repressions of both the Nazi and the Communist eras, Seifert was a prolific author, publishing more than thirty volumes of poetry over a span of sixty years. His verse, thought to embody the spirit of the Czechoslovakian people, is infused with Czech history, literature, and culture, and frequently pays homage to Seifert's hometown, the capital city of Prague. Seifert is considered a major influence by many contemporary Czech literary figures and, during his lifetime, was revered throughout the country as a symbol of national identity.
Seifert was born to working-class parents in a suburb of Prague. During the 1920s he helped found the Devétsil Art Association and travelled to Russia and Paris, where he worked on translations of the works of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. An early member of the newly-formed Czechoslovakian Communist Party, Seifert had already released several books of poetry when he was expelled from the Party in 1929 for protesting its policies and leaders. Joining the Social Democratic Party, he published frequently over the following decade and gained notoriety during World War II as an author of anti-Nazi resistance poetry. After the war, he served as editor of the Trade Union newspaper Práce and was sternly denounced by the Communist government for failing to write poetry espousing the doctrine of Soviet socialist realism; in 1956 his work was briefly banned from publication due to a speech he made in support of artistic freedom. During the 1960s Seifert published sporadically due to his continued support of political reform and because, as acting president of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, he refused to issue a statement supporting the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, an operation that ended the period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Soon after, the Writer's Union was officially dissolved, and Seifert refrained from publishing for nearly a decade. He further antagonized the Communist government of Czechoslovakia by signing the Charter 77 manifesto, an intellectual treatise demanding expanded political freedom; consequently his work was officially banned once again. Illicit "padlock" editions of Seifert's poetry abounded, however, and he garnered national popularity and international attention as a leading Czech dissident. The government ban on Seifert's work was lifted in 1981, and in 1984 the poet was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Seifert, who was in poor health for much of his later life, was unable to attend the ceremony and despite this new-found recognition by the Czechoslovakian government, his son and secretary were "discouraged" from attending. Seifert died in a Prague hospital following a heart attack in 1986. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Seifert won the Czechoslovakian State Prize for several works, including Ruce Venušiny (1936) and Maminka (1954), and was awarded the title National Artist of Czechoslovakia in 1966.
The earliest collections of Seifert's poetry, Město v slzách (1920) and Samá láska (1923), were of the "proletarian" school of poetry and celebrated the common person and socialism. In the mid-1920s Seifert came under the influence of French Dadaism and practiced "poetism," an exuberant poetic style that emphasized wordplay, abandoned ideology, and extolled the joys of living. Na vlnách T.S.F. (1925) and Slavík zpívá špatně (1926) are representative collections of this period. Seifert rejected poetism in the 1930s, employing a voice that was unique in its lyrical, concise, conversational style. In such collections as Jablko z klína (1933), Ruce Venušiny, and Zhasněte světla (1938), he began to incorporate the conversational idiom now frequently found in modern Czech poetry. Seifert established himself as national poet with the volume Přilba hlíny (1945), in which he identified himself with the Czech people's grief and sense of betrayal over World War II. For example, some of the poems in the collection evoke four days in May 1945 when the people of Prague rose up against the remainder of the occupying Nazi army. In the post-war era, Seifert's poetry began to reflect the history and cultural heritage of Czechoslovakia, as in Píseň o Viktorce (1950), a ballad recalling the nineteenth-century Czech novelist Božena Němcová. Perhaps his best known work, Morový sloup (1977; The Plague Monument, also translated as The Plague Column), has as an overriding image a column erected to commemorate the Black Death—a symbol Seifert employs to express the survival of the Czech people in the face of political terror. Other works in English translation include Odlévání zvonů (1967; The Casting of Bells), Deštnik z Piccadilly (1978; An Umbrella from Piccadilly), and The Selected Poems of Jaroslav Seifert (1986), a volume containing a wide representation of Seifert's poetry as well as prose excerpts from his memoirs, Všecky krásy světa (1981).
Citing the small amount of Seifert's poetry and related criticism that has appeared in translation, many commentators have found it difficult to understand the implications of Seifert's work in its translated form. Critics note that what Seifert called his poems' "inner rhythms"—as well as the many ethnic nuances and allusions—have not been captured adequately by translators. Nevertheless, his poetry has been praised for its sensuality, its humor, and its accessible conversational style. Seifert's poetic representations of Prague and Czechoslovakia have been regarded as important celebrations of the nation's cultural heritage. Perhaps the highest praise accorded Seifert was found in his Nobel Prize citation, which honored him for work "which, endowed with freshness, sensuality, and rich inventiveness, provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man."