Jaroslav Seifert 1901-1986
Czech poet, essayist, memoirist, and journalist.
The following entry provides information on Seifert's career from 1985 through 1998.
Recipient of the 1984 Nobel Prize for Literature and one of the most beloved and widely read Czech poets, Jaroslav Seifert's literary career spanned over sixty turbulent years and produced over thirty volumes of poetry. Having survived the Nazi, Stalinist, and Communist oppression, Seifert is singular in representing what William Harkins calls “the two great eras of Czech literature in the twentieth century”—the period of modernist innovation in the 1920s and the “thaw” of the 1960s. From his role as a leading proponent of the Czech avant-garde to his somber fugue-like meditations on Czech history, Seifert has been an important voice in literature. Seifert was awarded the Czechoslovakian State Prize for Literature in 1936, 1954, and 1968, and was named National Artist of Czechoslovakia in 1964.
Jaroslav Seifert was born on September 23, 1901, in Žižkov, a suburb of Prague. The son of a Catholic blacksmith, Seifert dropped out of school in order to become a journalist. At age 19, Seifert co-founded Dev˘etsil and was an early proponent of the Poetist movement. Poetism rejected art as an institution and celebrated everyday objects and popular pastimes; it perceived the everyday world as poetry itself. Although the members of Devětsil were active Marxists, their poetry was not explicitly political; Devětsil insisted that art has no purpose beyond being art and that daily life itself is art. Seifert published his first book of poems in 1921. He married Marie Ulrichova in 1928 and had two children. In March 1929, along with six other writers, Seifert signed a manifesto deploring Bolshevik tendencies in the Czech Communist Party and was subsequently expelled from the Party. Seifert joined the Democratic Socialist Party, and worked for Social Democratic and trade union newspapers throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936, Seifert received the State Prize for Literature. Despite his fame, when the Communists consolidated control of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Seifert was blacklisted and forbidden to practice journalism. In 1950, the Communist regime criticized Seifert's poem Song of Viktorka as a “misuse of poetry.” Refusing to be a “poetic collaborator,” Seifert supported his family by writing volumes of children's verses and focusing on uncontroversial themes such as childhood, music, and the city of Prague. Throughout his life, Seifert spoke out against oppression. At the Second Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in April 1956, Seifert called for an end to state control of literature. With the Prague Spring of 1968, Seifert served as President of the Union of Czech Writers from 1968 until 1970, when Soviet forces dissolved the union and Seifert was forced to publish abroad through samizat publishing houses. In 1977, the year his masterpiece, The Plague Column, was published through samizat, he was one of the first to sign the Charter 77 human rights manifesto in response to the government's persecution of musicians. In 1984, Seifert became the first Czech to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died on January 10, 1986.
From 1921 to 1983, Seifert wrote over thirty volumes of poetry of that celebrated the redemptive power of everyday life. Seifert's poetry combined the traditions of Bohemian Baroque music and Czech folk culture with innovations inspired by the European and Russian avant-garde. His earliest work, Město v slzách (The City in Tears, 1921) focuses on the working-class daily life in which he grew up. Samá láska (Nothing But Love, 1923), Na vlnách T.S.F. (On the Waves of the Wireless, 1925), Slavík zpívá špatně (The Nightingale Sings Poorly, 1926), and Poštovní holub (Carrier Pigeon, 1929) reflect Poetism's fascination with startling the senses. Seifert's Poetist work is characterized by mixing media and genres (e.g., visual, aural and linguistic puns), paradox, irony, playfulness and sensuality. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the Nazi invasion, Seifert became a nationalist poet, producing work that, as Josef Škvorecký notes, was “full of both linguistic beauty and encoded messages—clear to the Czechs, impenetrable to the Nazis.” Seifert's lyric poetry during this time responded to the death of Tomás Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's first president (Osm dní [Eight Days], 1937), denounced the consequences of the Munich Agreement (Zhasněte světla [Put Out the Lights], 1938), and celebrated the defeat of the Fascists (Přilba hlíny [Helmet of Clay], 1945). Works such as Jablko s klína (An Apple From One's Lap, 1933), Ruce Venušiny (The Arms of Venus, 1936), Jaro sbohem (Farewell, Spring!, 1937) abandon Poetist experimentation and focus on national traditions, the beauty of Prague and the Czech landscape. Světlem oděná (Clothed in Light, 1940), Kamenný most (The Stone Bridge, 1944) and Praha (Prague, 1956) represent Prague as a symbol of national pride and Czechoslovakia's survival. Seifert's work at this time (Ruka a plamen [The Arm and the Flame], 1943, and Šel malíř chudě do světa [A Penniless Painter Went Out into the World], 1949) celebrates Czech writers and artists. His poems, Vějír Boženy Němcové (Božena Němcová's Fan, 1940) and Písen o Viktorce (Song of Viktorka, 1950), use the nineteenth century romantic novelist, Božena Němcova, and one of her heroines, Viktorka, to symbolize the strength of the Czech national tradition. In the 1950s, Seifert wrote children's verses, most notably Maminka (Mother, 1954). Three volumes of poetry in published in the 1960s—Koncert na ostrově (Concert on the Island, 1965), Halleyová kometa (Halley's Comet, 1967) and Odlévání ní zvonů (The Casting of Bells, 1967) focus on the harshness of life and the poet's disillusionment. Seifert describes this work as “chillingly naked.” Seifert's masterpiece, Morový sloup (The Plague Column, or The Plague Monument, 1977), is an evocative meditation on the political and spiritual pestilence that has ravaged his homeland and its people, including himself. Seifert wrote poetry (Deštník z Piccadilly [An Umbrella from Picadilly], 1979; Bytí básníkem [To Be a Poet], 1983) well into his eighties. In 1981, he published his memoirs, Všecky krásy světa (All the Beauties of the World). Seifert once said, “If anyone else remains silent, this may be a tactical maneuver. If a writer is silent, he is lying.” Seifert resisted silence and was the voice of the Czech people for over sixty years.
When Jaroslav Seifert received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984, only three volumes of his poetry had been translated into English, and possession of some of his books was a crime in Czechoslovakia. Rudé Právo (Red Justice), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, criticized Seifert's early works as “silly and harmful to the workers' cause.” The Communist-controlled government denounced Seifert as a disloyal, bourgeois escapist, condemning Seifert's Song of Viktorka as a “misuse of poetry” that “ridiculed everything that our working people hold dear.” And yet, Seifert received the State Prize for Literature for 1936, 1954 and 1968, and was named National Artist in 1964. As Czech poet Pavel Kohut noted, “He is not liked by the state, but they cannot silence him because he is so famous. He's really a voice of the people.” The lack of translations, and difficulty translating Seifert's precise rhythms, puns, assonances and specifically Czech allusions have made it difficult for English-speaking critics to assess Seifert's work. Critics such as Jan Vladislav compare Seifert's poetry to Mozart's music, which both “conceal hidden depths beneath [the] transparent, melodious surface.” Critics praise Seiefert's poetry for its sensuality and humor, accessible yet provocative style, and its subversive celebration of Czechoslovakia's cultural heritage. Morový sloup is considered Seifert's masterpiece. Edward Možejko writes, “[I]f Seifert had left only The Plague Monument to posterity, he would have assured himself a lasting place in Czech literature.” To Czech critics, Seifert is a national figure who, as Miroslav Holub says, “represented the nation's positive spirit, consistently, steadfastly, and to the end.” Milan Kundera praises Seifert's poetry as “tangible proof of the genius of the nation, the only glory of the powerless.” For Vaclav Havel, Seifert's “poetic work has long become common property, that is, everyone who is the least bit interested in literature got it under his skin.” He writes that Seifert “embod[ies] the best tradition of a responsible civic stance of a writer in this country.” The Nobel Prize agreed, citing Seifert's work as “endowed with freshness, sensuality and rich inventiveness, provid[ing] a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man.”