Jaroslav Seifert Seifert, Jaroslav (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Město v slzách [The City in Tears] 1921

Samá láska [Nothing But Love] 1923

Na vlnách T.S.F. [On Waves of the Wireless] 1925

Slavík zpívá špatně [The Nightingale Sings Poorly] 1926

Poštovní holub [Carrier Pigeon] 1929

Jablko s klína [An Apple from One's Lap] 1933

Ruce Venušiny [The Arms of Venus] 1936

Zpivano do rotacky [Sung Into the Rotary Press] 1936

Jaro sbohem [Farewell, Spring!] 1937

Osm dní [Eight Days] 1937

Zhasněte světla [Put Out the Lights] 1938

Vějír Boženy Němcové [Božena Němcová's Fan] 1940

Světlem oděná [Clothed in Light] 1940

Ruka a plamen [The Arm and the Flame] 1943

Kamenný most [The Stone Bridge] 1944

Přilba hlíny [Helmet of Clay] 1945

Dokud nam neprsi na rakev [As Long As It's Not Raining on Our Coffins] 1947

Šel malíř chudě do světa: verše obrazkum Mikoláše Alše [A Penniless Painter Went Out into the World: Poems Accompanying the Work of Mikoláše Alše] 1949

Písen o Viktorce [Song of Viktorka] 1950

Mozart v Praze: Trinact rondeaux [Mozart in Prague: Thirteen Rondels] 1951

Maminka [Mother] 1954

Chlapec a hvezdy [The Boy and the Stars] 1956

Praha [Prague] 1956

Koncert na ostrově [Concert on the Island] 1965

Halleyová kometa [Halley's Comet] 1967

Odlévání ní zvonů [The Casting of Bells] 1967

Morový sloup [The Plague Column] 1977

Deštník z Piccadilly [An Umbrella from Piccadilly] 1979

Bytí básníkem [To Be a Poet] 1983

Všecky krásy světa [All the Beauties of the World] (memoir) 1981

O patetickém a lyrickem stavu ducha [On the Pathetic and Lyrical State of Mind] (speech) 1985

Jan Vladislav (essay date April 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vladislav, Jan. “Poets and Power: Jaroslav Seifert.” Index on Censorship 14, no 2 (April 1985): 8-12.

[This historically-grounded article describes the Communist regimes attempts to suppress the writing of Jaroslav Seifert, the samizdat or émigré publishing houses used to disseminate censored literature, and Seifert's importance as a literary and historical figure.]

Following his 1984 Nobel Prize, the communist authorities in Prague now claim poet Jaroslav Seifert as one of their own; only a year earlier, possession of his books was deemed a crime. ‘Force does not tolerate another force,’ wrote Gustave Flaubert in connection with the planned...

(The entire section is 3766 words.)

George Gibian (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibian, George. “The Poetics of Prague: Literary Images of a City.” In The Achievement of Josef Škvorecký, pp. 171-81. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

[This essay considers how Seifert's poetry uses and reflects upon the Czech capital Prague.]

The action in Josef Škvorecký's most famous novel, The Cowards, takes place not in Prague, but in a small town very reminiscent of his own Náchod. Nevertheless, the presence of the capital is very palpable. For the young heroes of the novel, Prague is a magnet gleaming somewhere in their future. They look forward to going to Prague now the war is nearly over and the Germans are gone. Prague is...

(The entire section is 4384 words.)

Malynne M. Sternstein (essay date June 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sternstein, Malynne M. “Sensuous Iconicity: The Manifestoes and Tactics of Czech Poetism.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 31, no. 2 (June 1998): 77-100.

[In this selection from a scholarly essay, the author draws upon the linguistic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce to examine how Seifert's early poetry contributes to the Poetism movement and to Czech surrealism.]

The concerns expressed in the early decades of the 20th century by movements in the vanguard of European literature revolved commonly around renewing the “sense” or “power” of the poetic word. Although these attempts were informed by coincidental...

(The entire section is 7178 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Saman, Paul A. “Jaroslav Seifert's Political Profile.” Proceedings of the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference 4, no. 1 (1986): 104-13.

Biographical essay providing an overview of Seifert's politics, with particular attention to his struggles against government control of his work.


Coffin, Lyn. “On Jaroslav Seifert.” Concerning Contemporary International Poetry 17, no. 2 (1987): 183-88.

Brief introduction to the poet's work, accompanied by translations of Seifert's poetry.

French, Alfred. Czech Writers and Politics, 1945-1969. New York:...

(The entire section is 346 words.)