Themes and Meanings
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,...
(The entire section is 892 words.)