Mythistorema is a sequence of twenty-four lyric and dramatic poems in free verse. The title is a colloquial word for “novel” that combines the ideas of myth and history. The author’s note states: “MYTHISTOREMA—it is its two components that made me choose the title of this work: MYTHOS, because I have used, clearly enough, a certain mythology; ISTORIA [both “history” and “story”], because I have tried to express, with some coherence, circumstances that are as independent from myself as the characters in a novel.”
The poem’s narrator, like that of a novel, moves freely among various points of view and identities, yet his voice is always distinctive. This voice, linking past and present in a tone of tragic nostalgia, is the coherent center of the poem.
The sequence begins with a kind of preface to the poems that follow. The narrator and his fellows have been on a journey “to rediscover the first seed,” to renew “the ancient drama.” They have waited in vain for “the angel” (also translated as “herald” or “messenger”) to show them the way. Bodies and spirits broken, they returned with “these carved reliefs of a humble art.”
Their “limbs incapable, mouths cracked,” they can no longer draw water from the source of inspiration, the “well inside a cave.” The seekers are like cave dwellers whose reality is an illusion, as in Plato’s myth of the cave. The ropes of the well “have broken; only grooves on the well’s lip” remind them of their “past happiness,” when it was “easy for us to draw up idols and ornaments.” Now, however, “the cave stakes its soul and loses it” in the oppressive “silence, without a drop of water.”
The narrator describes waking from a dream with a “marble head in my hands.” It has become part of him, though he cannot tell what it is trying to say to him. It has exhausted him and mutilated his hands. Poem 4 begins by quoting Socrates: The way a soul “is to know itself” is to look into a soul. This suggests that the marble head, “stranger and enemy,” is to be identified with the narrator. Similarly, the singing and seeking of Jason and his Argonauts are identified with the narrator; all will die unremembered, and in this there is an ironic “Justice.”
Poem 5 questions the ability of memory and imagination to give present substance to one’s personal (and cultural) past. We try to recall “our friends,” but it is only hope that deceives us into thinking “we’d known them since early childhood,” before they “took to the ships.” In art, one tries to depict the ships, but only in sleep does one approach them and “the breathing wave”; what one actually seeks is “the other life” of imagination wedded to experience that the friends stand for, “beyond the statues.”
One who found the ancient “rhythm of the other life” in his art was the “old Friend,” French composer Joseph-Maurice Ravel. Far from the Greek landscape, in a room “lit only by the flames from the fireplace” but radiant with the “distant lightning” of imagination, he animated the broken statues and “tragic columns” into “a dance among the oleanders/ beside new quarries.” Though the artist will die, hope and light “will spring” from his art.
Modern humanity exists in a parched and stagnant period of alienation and exile, writing letters to fill “the gap of our separation,” unable to speak to one another, though bound by a hope that the “Star of dawn” (Venus) offers love, joy, and peace. Feeding on “the bitter bread of exile,” the wanderers...
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pay for their “decision to forget” their homeland, as they wonder: “Who will accept our offering, at this close of autumn?”
The exiles ask what their souls seek in wandering “from harbor to harbor.” They cannot forget who they are long enough to enjoy earthly or heavenly beauties, flying fish or stars. They find work moving “broken stones,” but cannot express their “broken thoughts” in foreign tongues. They breathe the memory of home “with greater difficulty each day” and swim in new seas with no sense of community, alienated from their own bodies. Yet they continue “non-existent pilgrimages unwillingly” to find the beautiful islands “somewhere round about here where we are groping.”
A sense of urgency impels the narrator to continue the journey without waiting for his friends to return from known islands or “the open sea.” To renew his purpose and power, he strokes rusted cannons and oars “so that my body may revive and decide.” Like “Odysseus waiting for the dead among the asphodels,” he had hoped to make contact with Adonis and gather his own soul, “shattered on the horizon,” but found only enervating silence.
Poems 11 through 14 shed a “little light from our childhood years” in the present darkness before moving to an island one might see in any Greek harbor today, for “the same landscape recurs level after level/ to the horizon.” Here Odysseus and his men land to mend their oars, yet they forget that the sea “unfolds a boundless calm” and set out with “broken oars.” The sea, “once so bitter,” is “now full of colors in the sun.” The radiance of the “red pigeons in the light,” which are like Homeric birds of omen, inscribes “our fate” in “the colors and gestures of people/ we have loved.”
The narrator recalls a lover sleeping, her shadow lost in “the other shadows” of dreams. Living the sensual life the gods “gave us to live,” he pities the solipsists who speak to cisterns and wells and drown in the echo of “the voice’s circles.”
In the voice of Orestes, the exile describes life, this “time of trial,” as a chariot race, circling endlessly, observed by “the black, bored Eumenides,” who are unforgiving. He longs for the race’s end, but goes on because “the gods so will it.” He despairs: “there’s no point in being strong” because “no one can escape” to the sea. A premonition of battle and death warns that the boy who saw the light must also “study the trees” that bear the wrinkles of the fathers so that he will know all of life.
Poems 18 through 22 bear the heaviness of grief. The speaker is “sinking into the stone”; all he had loved has vanished and collapsed; he laments having let life pass through his fingers “without drinking a single drop.” All is uphill, and friends “who no longer know how to die” are “a burden to us” (poem 19). Bound to a rock, a wound in his breast for the vulture and the hawk, he asks how far the stones sinking into time will drag him. He is troubled by death, unlike the trees that breathe “the black serenity of the dead” or the statues with their static smiles (poem 20). Setting out, the travelers saw the broken statues but refused to believe that life could be so “easily lost.” Now they are more like statues every day, “brothers in stone,” though they have not “escaped the circle” as have the ancient dead, who, risen again, “smile in strange silence” (poem 21). Wandering among the “broken stones” for “three or six thousand years,” the travelers try to remember “dates and heroic deeds.” What they seek, however, is to know how “to die properly” (poem 22). Unlike the friends who “no longer know how to die,” they hunger for a heroic death.
The last two poems offer first a glimmer of hope in the almond blossoms and the gleaming marble, which seem just “a little farther,” “a little higher”—then tragic resignation as the travelers admit the failure of their struggle. In death, these “weak souls among the asphodels” cannot offer hope to the future “victims,” but they can offer the serenity of death: “We who had nothing will teach them peace.”
“Mythistorema” was a turning point in modern Greek poetry, largely because of its language. For a hundred years, Greek poets had been divided between the literary (katharevousa) idiom and the spoken (demotiki) idiom. The purists tended to see ancient Greece through the eyes of post-Renaissance Europe, while the demotic poets concentrated on modern Greece. George Seferis aimed for a vision of ancient Greece as experienced in the contemporary Greek landscape, and this is reflected in his elegant demotic idiom. In Modern Greek Poetry (1973), Kimon Friar writes that Seferis “has used only those words in the living demotic tongue which have his own touch and weight and has honed them into what perhaps may be the purest and leanest of modern Greek idioms.”
This is reflected in Seferis’s use of the mythical method, legendary figures appearing in modern harbors, to show the connection, as well as the distance, between then and now. In the years before writing Mythistorema, Seferis was taken with T. S. Eliot’s essay on James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, which argued that the mythical method could be used instead of narrative to show “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.”
The use of metaphor in the poem underscores this parallel between the ancient and the modern. The extended or “epic” metaphor of the odyssey to the beautiful islands, or Orestes’ chariot race, combines with the mythical method to form a modern allegory.
As Walter Kaiser writes in his introduction to Three Secret Poems (1969), “For Seferis, the Greek sun is this ultimate paradox, both life-giver and death-bringer, desired and feared, ‘angelic’ and ‘black.’” “You stare into the sun,” says Seferis in another poem, “then you are lost in the darkness.” This use of chiaroscuro (light and dark imagery) is essential to Seferis’s poetry, a device that is both metaphorical and thematic.
The controlling tone is a tragic nostalgia (a good Greek word for the “ache to return home”). This tone was what first drew Seferis to Eliot, whose The Waste Land (1922) Seferis was translating while writing Mythistorema. In On the Greek Style (1966), Seferis comments that Eliot’s poetry gave him something “inevitably moving to a Greek: the elements of tragedy.”
The tragic element, combined with a use of dramatic monologue that is similar to Eliot’s, gives Seferis’s narrator his distinctive voice, freeing him to move from first to third person or to become Jason, Orestes, or Odysseus as the poetic occasion demands. Yet the voice remains consistent, linking the personal with the universal, the historical with the mythical. As Philip Sherrard has pointed out in The Marble Threshing Floor: Studies in Modern Greek Poetry (1956), however, “The human person is the centre of the scene, it is he who as a concrete, living, suffering and perplexed being, speaks. He is not simply a device.”