The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 1312 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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,...

(The entire section is 469 words.)