Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 892
Mythistorema is a poem about the continuity of past and present as it is preserved in personal experience and cultural memory. More specifically, it is about the attempt to discover the heroic past of ancient Greece in the modern landscape. For Seferis, this attempt is a contemporary odyssey, an imaginative journey through the Greek experience, both ancient and modern, which consists of a shared spiritual and historical experience of suffering and disaster. Kimon Friar’s translation of the title of this work “The Myth of Our History,” suggests that the poem is the story of this shared experience, part myth and part history.
Memory and imagination are the vehicles of this journey, which is really an act of understanding. The narrator’s quest in search of the origins of his Greek identity unifies the poem’s imagery of the sea, which can be, like life, both embittering and soothing. Seferis has commented that “the bows of ships have a special place in the imagery of our childhood, as perhaps do the shapes of footballs or the photos of deceased relatives for other people.” When the narrator tries to recall friends who have sailed away, both memory and imagination fail him; only while sleeping in cellars that smell of tar, like the hold of a ship, does he come close to them and “the breathing wave.” His true search, however, is for the life of imagination wedded to experience, which the friends represent: “we search for them because we search for the other life,/ beyond the statues.”
The broken stones and statues of Greece, the landscape and cultural artifacts that come down to the present, remind one that one’s suffering is neither unique nor uniquely modern, and stir memory and imagination to link one’s tragedy with the eternally recurring tragedy of myth and history.
The broken statues that appear throughout the poem—first as an ambiguous inspiration and burden in the form of a marble head found in a dream, and finally as the “brothers in stone” who “smile in strange silence”—communicate with one, though one does not always know what they are saying. Once one has grasped them, however, they become part of one, difficult “to disunite again.” Like Ravel’s music, they say that it is possible to recapture “a rhythm of the other life, beyond the broken/ statues.” They are mirrors of the soul in which it is possible to see “the stranger and enemy”; they break down the barrier between present and past, erasing such illusory oppositions as waking and dreaming, weird and familiar, I and thou. The marble head—the narrator—is a modern Odysseus, Jason, or Orestes. The only difference is that “the ancient dead have escaped the circle and risen again/ and smile in strange silence” to teach serenity. It is this silence that is invoked at the end of the poem, for like them, those who are here will teach “peace” to those who come after.
Water imagery is always associated with the imaginative journey. Modern life is a life of exile. Like refugees caught up in disaster, one is unable to appreciate the beauties along the way, “sorry” to “let a broad river pass through [one’s] fingers/ without drinking a single drop.” Life itself offers abundance, but in this exile most people are too concerned with searching and suffering to appreciate it. Once, waters “left on the hands/ the memory of great happiness” when human “souls became one with the oars and the oarlocks”; now, one hopes only to be remembered, like Elpenor, by an oar marking one’s grave.
The modern landscape is parched; the rivers, wells, and springs of inspiration have dried up: “only a few cisterns—and these empty—that echo, and that we worship.” The cistern, a personal and cultural reservoir of faith and inspiration, is an important symbol that Seferis developed in “The Cistern.” Modern Greeks, says Seferis, tend to worship echoes of the past instead of creating anew, like Ravel, “a rhythm of the other life.” To quench its spiritual thirst, to get rid of “the ‘Waste Land’ feeling,” as Seferis called it, modern humanity journeys in self-imposed exile toward the beautiful islands “somewhere about here where we are groping.”
Given modern inertia, the narrator wonders how anyone ever had faith in the future. To marry and to have children now seem “enigmas inexplicable to our souls.” Nowadays, going to “the harbors on Sunday to breathe,” one sees “the broken planks from voyages that never ended,/ bodies that no longer know how to love.” Some know of the cisterns, like the poet, but “drown in the voice’s circles” without enjoying the reward of simply living. Only the serenity of death awaits them, and on this tragic note of failure, the poem ends.
It has been said that poetry is the art of delineating the limits of human failure. If the quest for the seed of the ancient drama has failed, the poem has not. For just as the past is inherited in fragments, so the poem passes “the myth of our history” to posterity. Given that all souls are seekers by nature, it is inevitable that the journey will be repeated, but our failure, like that of those who came before us, can be instructive: “We who had nothing will teach them peace.”