The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem “Mr. Stratis Thalassinos Describes a Man” is a five-part poem in which the Nobel Prize-winning Greek poet George Seferis describes the stages of the life of a man: child, adolescent, young man, and man. These stages of life can be seen as the development of all people, keeping in mind that the poet, writing in June, 1932, was not cognizant of later, less gender-identified language. Translated from the original Greek, the poem has a narrative style, does not include rhyme, and features recurring images of the Greek physical landscape, as well as references to Greek mythology and the Greek Orthodox Church.

Seferis was born in Smyrna (now zmir), Asia Minor, which was then inhabited by Greeks, and was later raised in Athens. He went to law school in France and prepared for a dual career as poet and diplomat. As a thirty-year-old man on assignment in London, Seferis wrote this poem to describe the dreams and aims of youth as they matured into adulthood.

Although Seferis was known later as a nationalistic poet, his youthful poems vibrate with a sensuality and awareness of the physical body, of nature and the effects of natural elements on human life. In this poem the combination of abstract ideas and concrete images makes his poetry accessible to people of any culture and from any age. This universality is one of the reasons for which Seferis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963. In his acceptance speech Seferis described his work: “Poetry has its roots in human breath—and what would we be if our breath were diminished? Poetry is an act of confidence—and who knows whether our unease is not due to a lack of confidence?” Seferis deserves a place among the great poets of the twentieth century because he read and translated Paul Valéry, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell and added his voice to theirs.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Seferis uses the common vernacular language of educated Greeks in his poetry, and the translation continues this device. With this language he combines his own experiences with images of the Greek landscape and history to bridge the gap between ancient legends and the present. The first section of the poem sets the scene in which the poet meets the man whose life he is to describe. Thus the point of view taken by the poet is outside the main action of the poem; rather, the poet relates the life story of the fictional character, Stratis Thalassinos, whose life is a symbol of every man’s life.

The man has been watching a flame all day to keep himself alive because a woman has left him. Here one of the main symbols of the poem is introduced, that of a woman: “You know I love a woman who’s gone away perhaps to the nether world.” Here also is the first mythological reference, which alludes to at least one myth, that of Persephone, who descended to the underworld. Women reappear during successive stages of the man’s life.

The second section of the poem is brief and describes the time of youth: learning about the body and nature. The second main symbol of the poem is introduced: trees. “It was the roots of the trees that tormented me when in the warmth of winter they’d come and wind themselves around my body.” For the child, thinking about trees deep in the ground protected and comforted him. Trees are an important symbol in Greece, where the weather is quite hot part of the year, and the shade of trees is welcome for travelers. They are a sign of the resurgence of life, of nature’s bounty, and fertility. Their absence is a sign of death and decay.

In the third section of the poem the obsession with women is revealed, and Thalassinos relates that he put away his childhood after this time: “the roots of the trees no longer came to me.” The man has his first taste of the sea and later falls in love with a girl on a hill. The third major image of the poem is introduced, namely the sea, an eternal image for Greeks, whose lands are surrounded by water. The third section of the poem is vivid in its description of life in a Greek village; the details of the poem highlight the simple rural atmosphere: an old woman, a pot of carnations, a girl, and a cottage. The poet uses color to dramatic advantage by...

(The entire section is 962 words.)