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||George Seferis (1900-1971; original name Giorgios Stylianou Seferiadis) Birth date: February 29, 1900, according to the old, Julian calendar; March 13, 1900, according to the Gregorian (western) calendar|
Greek poet, essayist, and diplomat who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. Seferis is considered to be the most distinguished Greek poet of the pre-war generation of the 1930s. In his work Seferis combined the language of everyday speech with traditional poetic forms and rhythms. Seferis spent much of his life outside Greece in diplomatic service. Recurrent theme in his poetry is exile and nostalgia for the Mediterranean and his birthplace, Smyrna.
"Your music is this life
George Seferis (Georgios Seferiadis) was born in Izmir (formerly Smyrna), Turkey. His father, Stelios (Stylianos) Seferiadis was a lawyer and also a poet. "He appreciated honours and titles, high society and important connections," recalled the novelist George Theotokas, who studied under him. "In society he behaved like a man of the world, an affable European; with his family, though, I realised he could be different: austere, an authoritarian Anatolian-Greek father of the old school." Seferis's mother, Despo (Despina) Tenekidou was the daughter of a prosperous landowner. "A saintly woman with a boundless capacity of love," he wrote after her death in his diary. "I can never think of her in a drawing room; I always see her either on the seashore or among the vineyards and the trees."
Smyrna became a major source of inspiration for Seferis during his career as a poet. The ancient city on the Aegean Sea is one of the cities claiming to be the birthplace of Homer. Seferis started to compose poems at the age of 14. The family moved in 1914 to Athens, where he graduated from the First Classical Gymnasium in 1917.
From 1918 Seferis was a reluctant student of law at the Sorbonne in Paris, completing his doctoral requirements in 1924. During these years he continued to write verse and familiarized himself with contemporary French poetry. In Paris he had also an affair with Jacqueline Pouyollon, his first great love. After breaking up with her, Seferis wrote the poem 'Denial,' which was published in his first collection of poems, Strofi (1931, The Turning Point). Later the poem was set to music by Mikis Theodorakis. When Smyrna was retaken by the Turks in the early 1920s, Seferis felt he was in exile. The disaster marked a turning point in his life. He decided to enter the diplomatic service.To perfect his English, he traveled to London.
Upon graduating he obtained a post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He served in London as vice-consul, and as consul in Albania in the 1930s. While in England he discovered the poetry of T.S. Eliot, whose style greatly influenced him. Seferis's translation of Eliot's 'Difficulties of a Statesman,' 'Marina,' and 'The Hollow Men' in 1936 were later followed by a modern Greek translation of The Waste Land (1949) and Murder in the Cathedral (1963). Making a distinction between copying and translation, he said: "I think that when I translate Greek texts into our own contemporary language and when I translate from foreign languages, I an doing two different things. Therefore I need two different words to indicate the difference."
As a poet Seferis debuted with Strofi, which appeared in a private edition. Seferis rejected his previous dominating rhetorical tone and used sophisticated rhymes and imagery. The poet's deep acquaintance with symbolism was apparent in this work, as in his second collection, I Sterna (1932, The Cistern).
In the following collections Seferis left lyricism behind and assimilated what he had learned from Cavafy, Eliot, and Ezra Pound. In Mithistórima (1935, Mythical Narrative) he achieved a style that influenced greatly the development of Greek verse, but he also bridged a gap between traditional and modern expression. Seferis used the vernacular, the language spoken by literate Greeks, and combined his own experiences with history. Most of the characters were taken from Homer's Odyssey, but Seferis drew also from other myths, those of the Argonauts, the Oresteia, Prometheus, Andromeda, Adonis and the vegetation myth. Mythistorima's twenty-four sections are narrated by travelers who are at once present-day exiles and ancient, Homeric figures. "We were searching to rediscover the first seed / so that the ancient drama could begin again." (from Mythistorima, 1935)
In 1941 Seferis married Marika Zannou, who had two young daughters from her previous marriage. They had met on vacation in 1936. She was a striking beauty, athletic-looking and slim. At that time Seferis had ended his relationship with Loukia ("Lou") Fotopoulou; a highly educated woman who lived apart from her husband; she died in 1939. Marika was first married to Andreas Londos, a former officer, who went back to navy after working in odd jobs without regular income.
WW II Seferis accompanied Greek government officials into exile, living
in Crete, Egypt, South Africa, and Italy. While in Alexandria, he met Lawrence Durrell several times. Durrell rated Seferis alongside Eliot. His poem, 'Letter to Seferis the Greek' appeared in the collection A Private Country
(1942): "O my friend, history with all her compromises / Cannot disturb
the circuit made by this, / Alone in the house, a single candle burning
/ Upon a table in the whole of Greece." Most of their lives, the two
writers exchanged letters, but for a period, the Cyprus conflict cooled
their friendship. When Durrell accepted the position of Press and
Information Director in Cyprus, Seferis concluded that he supported the
policy of the British Government. Especially annoyed he was by the
attempts of the British propaganda to present Greek Cypriots as being
not of Greek origin but of Phoenician origin. ('Dwellers in the Greek Eye (George Serefis and Lawrence Durrell)' by George Thaniel, in Scripta Mediterranea 8-9, 1987-1988, pp. 21-22).
Some of Seferis's best poems date from the war years,
including 'Last Stop' from 1944, written in the Italian village of Cava
dei Tirreni: "Man frays easily in wars; / man is soft, a sheaf of
grass, / lips and fingers that hunger for a white breats / eyes that
half-close in the radiance of day / and feet that would run, no matter
how tired, / at the slightest call of profit. . ." (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) Both Seferis and Cavafy
shared similar background as Greeks living abroad, but reading Cavafy's
poetry had no uplifting effect on Seferis. "Cavafy, in different
circumstances, was not robust enough to be of help," Seferis said. (Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World, edited by Anna Lillios, 2004, p. 126)
His return to war-torn Athens was filled with feelings of sadness. On
Friday, January 12, 1945 he wrote in his diary: "Yesterday I made the
rounds of the wounded city: Athenas, Piraeus, September Third, St.
Constantine streets, Kanningos Square. Ruins, ruins; houses blown up,
shattered, in that eerie and dreadful humor man's works assume when
they're broken up and made useless." (A Poet's Journal: Days of 1945-1951, translated by Athan Anagnostopoulos, 1974, p. 3)
After the war Seferes held diplomatic posts in Lebanon
(1953-57), Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, and served as the Greek ambassador
in London from 1957 to 1962. "Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me," he
once said. Seferis's first publication in English, The King of Assine and Other Poems, came
out in 1948. During the Cyprus crisis in the 1950s, he contributed
to the negotiations that resulted in the London Agreement (1959),
making Cyprus independent of British rule.
Seferis's years as a diplomat in several countries made him a modern
Odysseus. The theme of wandering was further developed in the persona
of Stratis Thalassinos in three collections, Logbooks, written in Albania, South Africa and in Italy (1940-65). The last collection, Logbook 3,
was dedicated to the people of Cyprus. "I find it more honorable and
"moral" . . . for . . . someone to craft a fine table, for
example, than to leave the hammer and chisel to go to a coffeehouse and
talk politics," he wrote once in a letter to the novelist George
Theotokas. (The Iron Storm: The Impact on Greek Culture of the Military Junta, 1967-1974 by Thomas Doulis, 2011, p. 58)
Seferis retired from governmental service in 1962 and settled in Athens, where he lived in comfortable retirement. Although throughout his career as a diplomat Seferis had displayed outward conformity, in 1969 he declared his opposition to the Papadopoulos dictatorship after the military coup of 1967, becoming popular with the younger generation in Greece. Seferis also expressed his fears about the triumph of commercial culture and once told of his dream in which the Parthenon was auctioned off to become an advertisement, "every column a gigantic tube of toothpaste." Seferis died on September 20, 1971. Thousands of young people escorted his coffin, to honor him as a spokesman for freedom. His widow cut off her hair and flung it into his grave. "I am fully conscious that we do not live in a time when the poet can believe that fame awaits him, but in a time of oblivion. This doesn't make me less dedicated to my beliefs, I am more so."
For further reading: The Marble Threshing Floor by P. Sherrard (1956); Modern Greek Poetry by K. Friar (1973); Love and the Symbolic Journey in the Poetry of Cavafy, Eliot and Seferis by C. Capri-Karka (1982); My Brother George Seferis by J. Tsatsos (1982); Form,Cycle, Infinity: Landscape Imagery in the Poetry of Robert Frost and George Seferis by Rachel Hadas (1985); War in the Poetry of George Seferis by K. Kapre-Karka (1986); George Seferis by R. Beaton (1991); George Seferis: Waiting for the Angel, A Biography by Roderick Beaton (2003); Seferis and Elytis as Translators by Irene Loulakaki-Moore (2010) - Note: Like Odysseus Elytis (Nobel Prize in 1970) Seferis published poems in the 1930s in the literary review Ta Nea Grammata. Suom.: Suomeksi Seferikselta on käännety runoja mm. teoksiin Kaksikymmentäyksi Nobel-runoilijaa (1976), Nobel-kirjailijat: maailmankirjallisuuden mestarit: 4 (1977), Tätä runoa en unohda (1977), Kourallinen valoa: nykykreikkalaisen runouden antologia (1997).