Friday, September 5, 2014


George Seferis

In a backstreet
somewhere behind the American Embassy
on Sloane Avenue by Draycott Place
wandering in Mayfair
to find a place of quiet in the city
there was a Greek flag flying
from the portico of a Georgian tenement
and on the wall a blue plaque
honouring Seferiades:

“George Seferis 
Greek Ambassador
Poet and
Nobel laureate
lived here

I imagined Durrell & Miller
popping by for dinner
and took a photograph

Another of my literary genealogies. George Seferis, or Seferiades (Google insists this must be "saferides" and takes you down all sorts of strange, uncharted diversions, through unsecure websites, along Ubertracks...), was born in Smyrna in 1900, moved to Paris in 1918 to study law, and entered the Royal Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1925 - interesting how many 20th century poets and authors used the diplomatic service for their stipend and their travel permit. He served in England from 1931 to 1934, then for three years in Albania, before accompanying the Greek government into exile in Crete, then Egypt, South Africa and Italy, finally returning to liberated Athens in 1944. After the war he was posted to Ankara, served a second period in London in the early 1950s, before being appointed as Minister to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan ad Iraq and completing his distinguished career as Royal Greek Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1957 to 1961 - the years of that plaque - at which time he retired to Athens with his collection of honorary doctorates, from Cambridge, Oxford, Salonika and Princeton.

Clearly the travels fed the writings, but they also fed the meetings with other distinguished writers, many of whom became close friends. Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell were among the closest, and Lawrence's zoological brother Gerald as well. Seferis makes cameo appearances in several of their books. Miller's "Colossus of Moroussi" merely mentions him; the book is a characterisation, not of that ancient statue that straddled the Mediterranean, but of another Greek poet, Giorgos Katsimbalis, and it is Katsimbalis who makes up the touring party with Xan Fielding and Seferis in Paddy Leigh Fermor's "Mani". Every one of that foursome constitutes a writer of brilliance whom you should take a look at, if you have never yet done so.

Seferis also has the dubious distinction of being one of those (sadly very many) Nobel Literature Prize laureates of whom no one in the English-speaking world has even heard, much to our discredit, and even more to our loss, for he was a truly great poet, and a truly great man into the bargain. Diplomacy was only his outer life, in the same way that banking was for Eliot and insurance for Kafka; and his love of Greece continued in a different form of poetry and politics after his retirement, when he became an outspoken critic of the military junta that ruined Greece in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His funeral in September 1972 prompted one of the largest and most emotional mass demonstrations ever staged against the dictatorship, and was instrumental in bring down the junta. What was it Auden said about poetry effecting nothing?

From “Mythistorima”

And if the soul
is to know itself
it must look into a soul:
the stranger and enemy, we’ve seen him in the mirror.

They were fine, my companions, they never complained
about the work or the thirst or the frost,
they had the bearing of trees and waves
that accept the wind and the rain
accept the night and the sun
without changing in the midst of change.
They were fine, whole days
they sweated at the oars with lowered eyes
breathing in rhythm
and their blood reddened a submissive skin.
Sometimes they sang, with lowered eyes
as we were passing the dry island with the Barbary figs
to the west, beyond the cape
of the barking dogs.
If it is to know itself, they said
it must look into a soul, they said
and the oars struck the sea’s gold
in the sunset.
We went past many capes many islands the sea
leading to another sea, gulls and seals.
Sometimes unfortunate women wept
lamenting their lost children
and others raging sought Alexander the Great
and glories buried in the heart of Asia.

We moored on shores full of night-scents
with birds singing, waters that left on the hands
the memory of great happiness.
But the voyages did not end.
Their souls became one with the oars and the oarlocks
with the solemn face of the prow
with the rudder’s wake
with the water that shattered their image
The companions died one by one,
with lowered eyes. Their oars
mark the place where they sleep on the shore.

No one remembers them. Justice.

For years it has been difficult to find Seferis' poetry in English translation, other than in expensive bound volumes. Now the Internet has rectified that. PoemHunter has several and, though it is negligent in not naming the translator, I believe these are by Edmund Keeley, Professor of English at Princeton, now retired.

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