The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

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 suggesting the color of each person and place mentioned: the white cottage, the girl with red eyes in a black dress. The most telling image in this stanza is the black cock, who could have prevented the death of the old woman. Here the poet also makes an allusion to the superstition and folklore traditions of the island people, and at the end of the stanza a final theme of the poem is introduced, that of grief and death. Once met, both the woman and innocence are left behind. The man returns to the sea and dreams “of a very old olive tree weeping.” Here the tree assumes the man’s grief.

The life of the young man recalls the voyages of the Greek sailor Odysseus. Yet this is not primarily a poem of sea adventures; these voyages lead the man back to women, this time in the form of prostitutes in Constantinople. The exotic images of Turkey, fruit and nut trees and secret gardens, are combined with descriptions of the luscious women to create a scene of idleness and sex. Although the man indulges himself with the woman, he cannot forget that even at the end of this pleasure, there will be grief and death. He recalls the younger woman he met before his voyages: “the broken pitcher in the cool afternoon” symbolizes once again the insubstantiality of love.

Once man has known woman, known travel and adventure, his life is complete. The last long section of the poem is fully in prose. It provides a dense summary of the voyages of Thalassinos as he travels the world trying to understand the meaning of life. The Christian parable of Lazarus is mentioned, as well as scholarship and the attempt of humanity to know itself and the world. What is life, after all, but all these things: women, travel, adventure, life, and death. Finally, in the end of the poem, the man recalls an encounter with a young couple who could see nothing but each other in each other’s eyes, and he envies them their innocence and single pointedness. He says, “they’re the only people I’ve ever seen who didn’t have the grasping or hunted look that I’ve seen in everyone else. That look that classes them either with a pack of wolves or a flock of sheep.”

The final lines of the poem find the man, Stratis, and also the poet, longing for an end of life in which all the previous images of the poem come together in an idyllic portrait: a pine tree by the sea, shade, a bit of wind at evening that makes a song. This would be the way to end life and face eternity. This is the greatest hope of Stratis Thalassinos, despite all the torments—to be one with nature at the last. Then one could rise again to a new life. Christian imagery is recalled, though this is not a fervent evangelism. The last lines of the poem, “it doesn’t really matter,” imply that a man’s greatest security is found in the physical world that he knows so well: the sea and especially the trees.

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Themes