Skip to main content Accessibility help

Homer's Reader: A reading of George Seferis

  • Ruth Padel


The reader I have in mind is a poet. My immediate interest is the example he provides of a writer's relationship with her or his reading. My aim is double: to suggest both that Homer illuminates the work of the later poet and that the later poetry can function as an interpretation of Homer which offers even to a scholar valuable ways of reading the epics, especially the Odyssey. Accordingly, I shall usually offer translations both of the modern and of the ancient Greek, since not all classicists know modern Greek intimately and those who study modern Greek do not always know the ancient language well.

Let us begin by reading one of Seferis' best-known poems. He wrote it in the Thirties and many contemporary poetic influences, both French and English, are at work in it. But I want to read it now from a special perspective, which I shall argue was crucial to Seferis through all his work. I shall read it as a search for a significant but bearable relationship in his own poetry with Homer and, through Homer, with the whole ancient poetic tradition.



Hide All


Works cited more than once

Austin, N.Archery at the dark of the moon (1975)

Bαγενάϛ, N. ' (1980)

Beaton, R.The history man’, Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora x (summer 1983) 1–2, 2344.

Bloom, H.The anxiety of influence: a theory of poetry (1973) A map of misreading (1975)

Heaney, S.Preoccupations: selected prose 19681978 (1980)

Keeley, E.Modern Greek poetry, voice and myth (1983)

Morrison, B.Seamus Heaney (1982)

Politis, L.A history of modern Greek literature (1975)

Seferis, G. (1963)

Seferis, G.A poet's journal: days of 1945–51 trans. Anagnostopoulos, A. (1974)

Seferis, G. ‘Interview: George Seferis’, in Plimpton, G., ed., Writers at work IV: The Paris Review Interviews (1977) 148178

(also available in Keeley, E., A conversation with George Seferis 1982)

Seferis, G. (1980)

Seferis, G. (2 vols.) (1981)

Seferis, G.On the Greek style: selected essays on poetry and Hellenism, trans. Warner, R. and Frangopoulos, T. (1967 repr. 1982)

Trypanis, C.Greek poetry from Homer to Seferis (1981)

1. Versions of this paper have been read in Greek and English by many people; I particularly thank Chéli Duran, Kay Cicellis, and Prof. G. Vlastos for their comments. They have also been read to audiences of specialists in modern Greek poetry and in classics. I am grateful to discussions: at the British Council in Thessaloniki and Athens, especially to comments by Prof. G. Politis, E. Keeley and Mrs A. Roufou; at Oxford (especially to Dr P. Macridge), in London (especially to Dr R. Beaton); and to members of the Cambridge Philological Society. Translations from ancient Greek are my own; those from Seferis' poems (though I have changed words here and there, usually to clarify a point brought out by the Greek), are from Keeley, E. and Sherrard, P., trans., editors, George Seferis: Collected Poems, expanded ed. copyright © 1967 by Princeton University Press (reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press). Titles of his poems I cite from their translation. I have also changed a few words in the useful but often infelicitous translation of Seferis' Journal (see ‘Works cited more than once’).

2. The search to create a new relationship with ancient poetry bedevilled Greek poetry from the late nineteenth century. Though it produced some interesting poems (e.g. Palamas' ‘The Ascraean’, c. 1900, or Sikelianos' poems round Orphism, Eleusis, Delphi, see Politis, History 195), this relationship tended still to produce dull stereotyped vision and verse. Seferis in ‘Strophe’(1931) was the initiator of a new kind of verse: new precisely in that it found a fresher, freer relation with past poetry; see Politis, History 230. Poetic vitality in the modern Greek tradition (on Solomos' creative mistranslation see below nn. 94,97) seems to be linked to innovative and relaxed relations with the early tradition. On the inadequacy and nihilism of poetry in the Twenties especially, see Politis, History 203.

3. See e.g. Robertson, M.Greek Painting(1978) 128 and figures on 91, 124. For Seferis'familiarity with the Athens museum ‘from our student days’, see Seferis, Journal 29, June 4th 1946.

4. For Seferis' knowledge of Yeats' poems and prose see e.g. his versions of ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’in Seferis, , 11–13 and 149 (his notes). In the note he cites a Yeats letter from 1936 (see below n.31) with whose ‘Don't make me a political poet’ stance he clearly identifies. He returned to this aspect of Yeats in writing his own Nobel address; see Seferis ‘Interview’ 161: ‘I felt a sort of relation with him as a human being.… because Yeats belonged to a small country with a great folklore tradition, a country which … had political turmoil … another example of a public poet who doesn't write propaganda’. Further, ibid. 172, ‘A very instructive man for me … was W. B. Yeats. After all, you see, I had endeavoured to exploit folklore much as Yeats did’.

5. See Ellman, R., Yeats, the man and the masks (1948, revised 1979) 172–74 on the beginnings of Yeats' theory of the mask, and its later complexities. It first appeared in the poem ‘The mask’ (1910). Between 1900 and 1910 it grew to replace the rose as his supreme symbol, solution to all problems including those between the living and the writing self (Ellman 187, 274). He formulated it fully in A Vision (1937) – published two years before ‘The King of Asine’ – in which he says among other things that: there are true and false masks; a mask is a rhythmical impulse; in a lyric poet who misuses it the mask is expressed in various ‘concealments’, e.g. a myth, , women or landscape (A Vision 90–9l, 106–7). But scraps of the theory emerged earlier, e.g. in Per arnica silentia lunae (1981) 27: ‘all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other life, on a rebirth as something not oneself’; 28–29 on an imaginary ancient mask from Dodona; 33, ‘The poet finds and makes his mask in disappointment… “; 41–42, ‘A poet, when he is growing old, will ask himself if he cannot keep his mask and his vision without new bitterness, new disappointment… Surely, he may think, now that I have found vision and mask I need not suffer any longer’. This last picture of the poet ‘asking himself’ about his mask could be reflected in ‘Asine’ 40–53. Perhaps amica silentia lunae, 1. 23 of Seferis' poem ‘Last Stop’, is more than a quotation from Virgil Aen. 2. 255. The questions which the ‘poets’ of Yeats and Seferis ‘ask themselves’ are related to the bitter context of ‘Last Stop“.

6. ‘To avoid certain things is deliberate with me… ’, Seferis ‘Interview’ 158. On the frigid classicizing of the bulk of nineteenth-century Greek poetry, see Trypanis, Homer to Seferis 613–14, 686, et al.

7. is released into extant literature by Archil. 58, and is continued (often, but not only, in lyric) by tragedians and Aristophanes (e.g. Eur, . Hipp. 202, Ar, . Nub. 536).

8. , a variant of (which is used once of a nest at Aesch, . Cho. 251) is used in the plural to mean ‘tent’ by Eur. and also in the O.T. The singular can also mean the body, the ‘tabernacle’ of the soul, in N.T. (e.g. 2 Ep. Pet. 1. 13) and in Sext. Sent. 320. This usage was probably Pythagorean in origin: but cf. also the use of to mean something similar in Hp. writing, at Democr. fr. 37, 187,223 DK, and in 2 Ep. Cor. 5. 1. Seferis' reading in the history of his language was very wide, see ‘Interview’ 158: ‘In my youth I worked very much over the Greek language. Glossaries, old texts, mediaeval texts, and things of that kind’. He could have come across such a usage in a Pythagorean or Christian context.

9. The ancient image of the soul at death as an escaping bird is still alive in the culture of modern Greek pop songs: e.g. in a pop song from the Sixties:

10. Hom, . Il. 16. 856–57, 22. 362–63.

11. It is coupled with at Hom, . Il. 16. 453, with at Hom, . Il. 11. 334. To ‘risk your ’ to fight or plead for it, Hom, . Od. 3. 74, 22. 245, Soph. El. 1492. as ‘ghost’, e.g. Il. 23. 65, Od. 11. 387, 467, etc. See further Claus, David B., Toward the soul: an inquiry into the meaning of before Plato (1981) 61–68, 91102.

12. Hom, . Od. 11. 206–7, 218–22.

13. For the dead hand of classicism on ‘modern’ Greek poetry in its very early days – i.e. the 1st century AD and Byzantine times – see Trypanis, Homer to Seferis 365–67, 457–60. For the period preceding Seferis, see Politis, History 200–205, 231–32, et al. Seferis complains of an absence of lightness in the modern tradition, ‘Interview’ 171.

14. Theodotion on 2 Kings 11.4. For the linguistic context from which it probably comes see Browning, R., Mediaeval and Modern Greek 2 (1983) 4450.

15. For Seferis' understanding of the interaction of the Renaissance (specifically of Dante) with the Greek tradition, see ‘Στα 700 ’ in Seferis, B' 249–82. On the Cretan Renaissance, see A' 268–319.

16. ‘I felt at the time of my early efforts that in Greece they were too rhetorical, so I reacted against it. That was my feeling. And I reacted against it in many ways. For example, in my use of words, of adjectives – especially compound adjectives, which 1 avoided’, ‘Interview’ 158; cf. above n. 13.

17. I am grateful to E. Keeley for bringing out this ambiguity in discussion (and for stressing the impossibility of translating the line). Interpretation of this line is crucial to one's understanding of the poem: if you lean on the fact that the fantasy is, at least, formulated, the poem has a more optimistic conclusion than if you underline the provisional cast of the fantasy. In a sense, it is because this language can - as English cannot - convey both ideas in one line that this particular poem got itself written in modern Greek.

18. Cf. ‘Interview’ 161: ‘You've mentioned at your readings, in talking about ‘The king of Asine’, the fact that it had taken you two years to find a way of talking about that particular experience, and then, at some point, after having given your notes for that poem to a friend, you completed the final draft in one long evening. Eliot has implied that you finished the poem (between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.) because you didn't have your notes before you’.

19. A' 324-63 (see esp. 328-35); translated in Seferis, Greek Style 119162 (esp. 125-32).

20. It is now thought that Seferis was misled (see Beaton, History Man26): that Cavafy may have written the poem earlier, but marked it 1922 post eventum, thereby turning it into a prophetic poem. But the state of Cavafy MSS does not affect my argument here that Seferis uses the poem's extra-poetic clues to read it as an immediate comment on the apparent date of writing.

21. Seferis, Greek Style 127, 131.

22. One of the best extended uses of the idea in practice, known to me, is Poirier, R.'s study Robert Frost (1977) see esp. 137154. It is illuminating particularly because his poet did not, in an age when many did, write poems openly about the writing of poetry. Instead, he ‘met the challenge that no one can turn certain kinds of New England and especially household experiences into metaphor [and]… wants to show that he does not choose ostentatiously to extend his metaphor into a fashionable literariness’, ibid. 138. Poirier demonstrates the consciousness and theory of poetry underlying Frost's treatment of the most domestic subjects, and the way Frost ‘asks us to be both kinds of reader… [to] be common and literary all at once’ (ibid. 152). ‘Home Burial’ therefore, ‘tells us not only about lives but about Frost’s own life in the writing of poetry and about his rescue of a life for poetry out of his own desperate need for circumscriptions’ (138, see the discussion of the poem 123-137). Other contemporary poets, especially Wallace Stevens, more openly used their manifest subjects as a metaphor for the writing and relationships of poetry. The idea does not of course entail that poems are only about themselves, merely that, whatever their subject, they are also about themselves.

23. Heaney, Preoccupations 81–2, who cites in this context both Eliot and Wallace Stevens (in ‘Adagia’): ‘Poetry creates a fictitious existence on an exquisite plane. This definition must vary as the plane varies, an exquisite plane being merely illustrative’. If Seferis consciously identified with some aspects of Yeats' experience (see above n. 4), Heaney (the ‘heir to Yeats’, the ‘most important Irish poet since Yeats’, Morrison Heaney 11) seems now the better parallel to Seferis. His prose voice resembles that of Seferis, having a precision and sanity sometimes absent from that of Yeats. For parallels in their poetry see below nn. 25, 26. Heaney's Preoccupations, like Seferis' , are held together both by ‘the slightly predatory curiosity of a poet interested in the creative processes of another poet’ (Preoccupations 79) and by a search for answers to central questions such as ‘How should a poet live and write? What is his relationship to be to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage, and his contemporary world?’ (ibid. 13). Both poets tackle these questions in their poems as well as their prose. It is the way these particular questions converge in his whole work that makes Heaney an authoritative witness to the self-referentiality also in Seferis' poems.

24. In essays and journal Seferis, often cites Eliot on time: see e.g. Greek Style 132, Journal 45-46. He was influenced by Eliot's prose, his thoughts on tradition, culture, and the individual poet, as well as by his poems.

25. See Heaney, Preoccupations 37, ‘My quest for definition … is conducted in the living speech of the language I was born into’, and 34, ‘I speak and write in English, but do not altogether share the preoccupations and perspectives of an Englishman. I teach English literature, I publish in London, but the English tradition is not ultimately home. I live off another hump as well’. Seferis, partly under Eliot's influence, attached modern Greek poetry to its past and its future by his sense of responsibility both to his local linguistic landscape and to the wider European tradition. He had spent formative years (aged 18 to 24) studying in Paris, and then moved to London, being away from Athens from 1918 to 1926.

26. Heaney, Preoccupations 41. One might compare the ‘statues’ and ‘stones’ of Seferis' poetic landscape with the bogs and their contents in Heaney's: see Morrison, Heaney 4448.

27. See e.g. Bloom, Misreading 18,‘poems … are neither about “subjects” nor about “themselves”. They are necessarily about other poems; a poem is a response to a poem, as a poet is a response to a poet, or a person to his parent’. See ibid. 71, ‘If we consider “influence” as the trope of rhetorical irony that connects an earlier to a later poet … then influence is a relation that means one thing about the intra-poetic situation while saying another’. Readers may prefer the language and attitude of Heaney, , e.g. Preoccupations 62, 82.

28. See Beaton, History Man’ 24, 43.

29. While Greece was under Turkish rule, European painters wanted from it images of a classical landscape, personless ruins in ‘a haze of golden light’. Visitors increasingly wondered why its inhabitants did not live up to those of classical Greece, and travel books began to stress the population's unhappy state. After Independence, muses ‘having returned to Hellas’, painters included people in their landscapes: see Tsigakou, F-M., The rediscovery of Greece (1981) 28-29,31,44,64,69. But present social and economic conditions of once-classical lands were still not questioned by painters or paintings; see e.g. a letter of Lear to his sister (1839): ‘One of the most elegant campagna towns … a deep dell in the Latin valley – crowned with a superb church and castle – though the town itself is wretchedly poor … Fine trees all around … altogether a delightfully quiet place.’ See Noakes, V., Edward Lear 1812-1888, (1985) 98. Greek viewers of such paintings, intimate – as Seferis was - from the inside with their historical background, could not fail to feel their lack in this respect.

30. The sense of comparison between past and present time is evident to the poet and those who know his past poems, in the self-quotations, e.g. from ‘Spring A.D.’. Krikos-Davis, K., ‘Notes on Seferis’ last poem’, Scandinavian Studies in Modern Greek 7–8 (19831984) 101106, examines this poem in the context of its time. She mentions the Plato ‘quotation’ but does not do justice, as it were, to the Republic's own theme; nor to the way that both Socrates and the Republic, with their own complex messages, give the poem its full emotional context. See below nn. 33, 34.

31. For Seferis' identification also with Yeats' sense of his own political obliquity, see his long note to his translation of ‘The Second Coming’, , 149, where he thus translates Yeats’ repudiation, in a private letter, of any directly political voice: . The parallel is still with Ireland, though Seferis has not lived to see it. The modern Belfast poets, ‘living in important places’, under pressure to ‘respond’ to their importance, avoid ‘a poetry of directly documentary reportage’. Instead their poems of love, domesticity, archaeology, of reflections on past or foreign cultures (e.g. Mahon's ‘Courtyards in Delft’) are oblique comments on contemporary Ulster: see Morrison, B. and Motion, A., edd., The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) 16. See also Heaney's response to the same pressure: ‘the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes’ (Preoccupations 219, from an essay on Mandelstam) – words with which Seferis would have sympathized deeply. See his‘ Interview’ 175, 177: ‘I don't recognize the right of anybody to take you by the back of your neck and throw you into a sort of ocean of empty responsibilities… I have never forced myself [sc. as a public conscience or spokesman] to write anything which I didn't think necessary’. See ‘Seferis’ political voice', Keeley, Mod. Gr. Poetry 95118 (esp. 102-6, 111) and,

And if I talk to you in fables and parables

it's because it's more gentle for you that way; and horror

really can't be talked about because it's alive

because it's mute and goes on growing:

But he did make one openly political statement in 1969, see Keeley, Mod. Gr. Poetry 107–8.

32. See his translations, 59-189, of passages from Pl. Phaedr., Gorg., Protag., Phaed., Symp., Tim., Crit. See also his substitution, in the nekuia of Thrush, of the Socrates of the Apology for Teiresias, glossed in B' 52: ,

33. Bk. 2 sets up the subject in ‘Glaucon's challenge’, 360e – 362c. Glaucon asks Socrates to show that the just man's life is happier than that of the unjust man, even if it looks as if the unjust is flourishing: e.g. as a tyrant. The whole work makes it clear that Socrates himself is the model for the just man ( as Seferis calls him in B' 52, above n. 32). The argument is wound up in Bk. 9 where Socrates calculates that the philosopher-king lives 729 times more happily than the tyrant (587e).

34. His quotation is from Bk. 10, a message from the beyond,doubly reported (both by Socrates and by Er, 614b) about what happens after death. It is introduced when Glaucon finally agrees with Socrates' entire answer to his own ‘challenge’ (see above n. 33). Plato underlines the relation of this passage to the original challenge via the ring of Gyges, 612b, which refers back to 359d. Socrates now goes on to describe how even in life the just man eventually receives his good deserts, and the unjust are insulted (613d), (613e) and miserable. The Er report continues the theme, following the just and unjust man into the deserts they get after death. Since Socrates is the model for the just man, one might say both that this report completes what Crito 43 c-d begins, and that Seferis too is thinking (see the reference to Sounion and ‘news’ that is good – or bad) of that passage here:

Crito: I bring bad news (), Socrates; not so bad from your point of view perhaps … but hard for me and your other friends… Soc: Why, what is this news? Has the boat come in from Delos – the boat which ends my reprieve when it arrives? Crito: Not yet, in fact; but I think it will be here today, to go by what some say () who have just come from Sounion, and left the boat there. It's clear from their report () it will be here today. So by tomorrow, Socrates, you must end your life.

The Crito's theme thereafter is, would it be just for Socrates to escape? Socrates proves it would be wrong for him to behave unjustly even though (as the Crito assumes) the verdict on him was unjust. Seferis, with his reverence for Socrates, perhaps marks the connection between the good/bad news of the Crito, and Er's myth, by joining Sounion to in the first line: the Annunciation is also a report from beyond (Luke 1. 26), also painful good news (cf. ‘a sword shall pierce through your own soul too’ Luke 2. 35), stating that with God nothing shall be impossible (Luke 1.37), bringing a universal assurance that in the end, however impossible it looks, good – as in the Republic – will prevail. Linking death and torture, the happiness even beyond death of Socrates (), with the report both of Christ's conception, and of the boat at Sounion which presages Socrates' just/unjust death on the day of his ‘punishment’ on earth, and also with the report of the tyrant's punishment after death, Seferis reminds his readers during a dictatorship that good will ultimately prevail, however unlikely it looks now. Perhaps it is relevant to point out that he himself died five months later.

35. ‘Interview’ 158.

36. Ibid. 158-59.

37. Stevens, Wallace, The necessary angel: essays (1951)50.I suspect Seferis also found some similarities to his own work in the increasingly rich and ambiguous symbolism of the sun in Stevens’ poetry. See below nn. 65. 66.

38. Bloom, Anxiety 3334; see also Bloom, Misreading 9-13, 6382.

39. From Stevens, Wallace, ‘Looking across the fields and watching the birds fly’, The palm at the end of the mind: selected poems and a play ed. Stevens, H., (1972) 380. See Bloom, Anxiety 135–36.

40. For heroes followed by a sense of being inferior to their fathers, see e.g. Hom, . Il. 4. 370 (a challenge uniquely refuted by Sthenelus, 4. 405-10); 5. 125-26. For the poet's sense that men ‘as they are now’ could not easily carry a rock held by one of his own heroes, see e.g. Il. 12. 381-83.

41. E.g. Hom, . Od. 1. 347-52; 8. 479–81; 22. 345-52.

42. see e.g. Hom, . Od. 9. 62-63 (cf. 105), 565-66; 10. 133–34.

43. For Seferis on this point see B' 33, quoted above p. 108.

44. See e.g. Bloom, Misreading 106–22 (esp. 118) on Browning's Childe Roland as a poem which tests the ‘map’ of previous poetries.

45. Od. 9. 291-97; 10. 116-24; 12. 104-7, 256-57.

46. or is ‘I yawn, I gape’. Hence this phrase means ‘opening my mouth to the wave’ (cf. Od. 4. 511, ). See the inverse picture of the earth: ‘may it swallow me’, Il. 4. 182. The vb. is used of the open mouth of a lion attacking people, Il. 20. 168. For Seferis' sense of the companions' downfall by greed, see his rhymed poem ‘The companions in Hades’.

47. B' 38-41, esp. 39, on the end of Myth. 4 (the poem he subtitled ): … [of whom] . In other pre-war poems this Elpenor syndrome is the object of the poet's grieved contempt, e.g. ‘In the manner of G.S.’ 18 – 23,28-30. See further Keeley's classic article on Seferis' Elpenor, , repr. in his Mod. Gr. Poetry 5367.

48. Seferis, Journal 4546, Oct. 12th 1946, cites the passage from ‘East Coker’ (see above p. 120) ending ‘not the lifetime of one man only … ’ and comments, ‘If I had read [this] in ’35, I would have put it as an epigraph to Mythistorema'.

49. For a record of his brief visits to the city and to his family country house nearby at Skala in 1950, see Journal 164–79, esp. 165, July 2nd 1950: ‘Smyrna must be such an urn for me – no one can return’. Also, ‘As I emerged I understood how Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back’ (ibid. 170); or 178-79, Oct. 17th 1950, ‘It is better this way. This stay in Smyrna closes a cycle that started in the last years of my childhood. From now on there's neither starting-point nor arrival; the world exists here or there, as the world goes, and one gets nowhere’. Finally, 176-77, Oct. 16th 1950, ‘I find it very natural that I left these parts for Attica. They have great affinity: the same atmosphere, the same myth … You still pass by the burned débris (left by the fire of 1922)… I feel, not hatred; what prevails in me is the opposite of hatred: an attempt to understand the mechanism of catastrophe’. He sees here, perhaps, the bond between burnt Troy and unattainable Ithaca.

50. Hom, . Od. 1. 288300. The Orestes-motif is introduced by Zeus himself, 1.30-43. See the comparison between the two wives, 11. 424-56, 24. 102-202.

51. B' 55. See the references to Aesch. and Eur. in the Index to these 2 vols., ibid. B'390,401, and esp. his own note on Clytemnestra's ‘terrifying lines’, Aesch, . Ag. 958 (quoted Myth. 20. 5, ‘the sea, the sea, who will be able to drain it dry?’) in A' 290: ‘I feel that Aesch. sees clearly in front of him this unending continuity between murder and murder, this inexhaustible purple’.

52. ‘Interview’ 158.

53. (1972) 318. The image is complicated further by the quotation Aesch, . Ag. 958: for Seferis' understanding of this line see above n. 51. He glosses Penelope both by Clytemnestra threatened by, as well as threatening, a ‘sea’ of murders, and by Andromeda threatened by the sea-monster.

54. Pliny is writing to a friend with a villa in Como. He asks also about the shining canal and lake; and encourages his friend to leave sordid business and concentrate on study in that country retreat: ‘Effinge aliquid et excude quod sit perpetuo tuumEp. 1. 3.

55. Connecting Pliny Ep. 1. 3 with the Phaedrus landscape, through the interaction of Poems 15 and 17, Seferis demonstrates how Pliny draws naturally on the Phaedrus when he says the right place to withdraw to from ordinary sordid living, the proper place to concentrate on philosophy, is a plane-grove near water, in which you can attend to ‘what may be yours for ever’ (see above n. 54) – i.e. in Plato's terms your own soul. Pliny exhorts his friend to study there, just as Socrates encourages Phaedrus to turn to the philosophical life. Perhaps, in changing the respectable Latin platanon back to the Greek in his quotation, Seferis underlies the sense of retreat; and suggests a transfer of the withdrawn locus amoenus back to its original Greek soil. But I do not know which Pliny text he is using; it may print the word in Greek.

56. Plato underlines the interaction of logos and personal relationship by such reminders as the ὦ παῖ καλέ interjected into Socrates' logos about Eros in the soul who reveres τὸν κάλλος ἔχοντα (252b), and talk of the effect produced on the soul by seeing a beautiful person (251a-b).

57. Yeats, W. B.Explorations (1962) 199.

58. Telemachus' time runs from Bks. 1 to 4. 624 (interrupted by memories of the war and Menelaus' nostos, 4. 272-89, 341-586). Only at the end of this phase of his time do his mother, and the suitors, hear of his departure (4. 630-702). Penelope continues the first time-phase in her way (4. 787-841), the suitors continue it in theirs (4. 778-86, 842-47), setting their ambush for Telemachus. Odysseus' time begins in Bk. 5, goes forward to the end of Bk. 8, plunges into the long flashback (Bk. 9 to 12. 450, broken at 11. 332-84) and goes forward again at 13. 16. Its progress is interrupted by Athene's visit to Telemachus in Sparta, which starts Telemachus' time going forward again, 15. 1-300. This is itself interrupted by the scene of Odysseus going to bed in Ithaca (15. 300-494), but picks up again at dawn, when Telemachus himself arrives at Ithaca (15.495-98). Telemachus as it were brings his own time before Odysseus, who is making breakfast, 15. 554-16. 2. This breakfast-time marks the beginning of time shared. Of recent readings, that of Austin, Archery 131–77 is a useful parallel for the Odyssey of Thrush.

59. Journal 39, Oct. 5th 1946; 44, Oct. 8th 1946. He had just emerged from ‘a terribly active period of my life – I mean, politically active, because I was principal private secretary to the Regent of Greece’, ‘Interview’ 174.

60. B' 33-34.

61. Journal 44, Oct. 9th 1946; 46, Oct. 12th 1946.

62. Journal 58, Oct. 28th 1946, three days before he finished Thrush.

63. Journal 43, Oct. 8th; see ibid. 44, Oct. 9th: ‘I don't know at all, not at all, if it's possible now to finish the work I started in Pretoria – like so many others that have been put aside in the sort of life I lead’.

64. B' 31.

65. Journal 74, Feb. 12th 1947, ‘Opening the window in the morning, the light. And immediately afterwards, a black curtain: the people I'm going to meet all day – who prevent me from seeing my land’. (For his sense of the ‘jungle’ of Athenian life in his job, see ibid. 105, Nov.-Dec. 1948: ‘A few days ago, as I was thinking about last year in Athens, I saw a pack of mad dogs attacking me’). See also his comments on the ancient phrase ‘to look on the light of the sun’, ibid. 29-30, June 4th 1946.

66. In Journal 64, Dec. 2nd 1946, he calls this ‘the most important thing I've “discovered” since the ship that brought me home entered Greek waters.’ It is clear even from pre-Poros entries of 1946 that these thoughts on ‘light’ are emerging gradually, expressed in diary-notes that get into Thrush, see e.g. Journal 28, June 4th; 31, June 17th. Afterwards he continues to associate these thoughts with his stay on Poros, see ibid. 75, Thursday, Feb. 1947: ‘I remember those days on Poros and my impatience when I heard, “How beautiful! What a marvel!… ” In the evening I read the newspaper as if I were uncovering a miserable wound. This light and this wound; this coming and going between the light of day and man's tragedy that twists your entrails.…’

67. Journal 122–23, October, Constantinople 1949: ‘With the vision of a Greece no one understands; and yet it is there, like the olive-tree, like the rock, like the homecoming … a lodestone’.

68. Cf. his attentive use of Roman writers, such as Virgil (see above n. 4) or Pliny (above nn. 54,55). He clearly feels they too are his business as a Greek poet.

69. See 157-78; 178-82 (on ‘The Waste Land’); 285-86 (on Eliot's effect on Thrush). Seferis had translated ‘The Waste Land’ and other Eliot poems (see Journal 44–46, Oct. 9th, Oct. 12th, 1946): this translation came out in 1949. He was reading ‘Four Quartets’ while writing Thrush, see Journal 45, Oct. 12th 1946.

70. See e.g. Austin, Archery 131-32, 149-50, 153–57.

71. And in Odysseus' way: erotic detention is the very first reason the Odyssey gives for his absence from home. Prior even to Poseidon's anger is Calypso's desire that he should be her husband, Od. 1.15. The theme is implicitly raised again in the Nausicaa episode of Bks. 6 and 7.

72. Seferis' own city, burnt Smyrna of 1922 (see above n. 49); Rhodes 1522, the year of Turkish siege before the city surrendered on Christmas Day; Syracuse Sept. 13th 413 BC (cf. Seferis' poem, ‘Euripides the Athenian’: ‘He grew old between the fires of Troy / and the quarries of Sicily’). For Seferis' experience of war-time Alexandria see above nn. 19-21 and related text.

73. Seferis glosses his use of Aesch, . Ag. 438, (from a chorus), in his thus; and says he may have coined the word: he cannot remember reading it anywhere, even in a lexicon, B' 47-48. See his use of the vb. κόβει to characterize the fate of this section of the poem.

74. Images from the voyage part of the Odyssey recur in his Journal while he writes Thrush (e.g. 57-58, Oct. 28th, Calypso's island, the bag of winds); but they stay out of the poem itself.

75. Hom, . Od. 9. 2932 links Calypso and Circe as the two female detainers. See also 10. 112-115 (the mountainous Laestrygonian wife), 10. 136-470 (at Circe's house it is the companions who have to get Odysseus going again, 10.471); 12. 39-46 (Sirens); 12. 85-100, 245-59 (Scylla); 10. 104-108,235-43,431-39 (Charybdis).

76. He finished Thrush on Oct. 31 st but worked on it for several more days, see Journal 60, Nov. 2nd, ‘I still feel bruised by the poem. It has drawn heavily on my experience of life in the past years… ’ Cf. ibid. 35, Aug. 6th 1946, ‘No one will be able to understand what this war has cost me. How difficult my “release” now seems’.

77. Cf.Journal 39, Oct. 2nd 1946, on the journey from Athens to Poros: ‘Leaving the harbour of Peiraeus for Poros … The ship whistles – – ’

78. See Aesch, . Ag. 740 (lyr.); Pl, Legg. 791a. For its clichéd use later, especially in Epicurean philosophy, see refs. in Long, A. A., ‘Timon of Phlius: Pyrrhonist and satiristPCPS 204 (1978) 84 n. 15. In the earliest vase-painting of Pentheus' sparagmos one of the maenads is labelled ‘Galene’. Euphemism? or reference to the state of calm succeeding maenadic activity? See Henrichs, A., ‘Greek & Roman glimpses of Dionysus’ in Houser, C., ed. Dionysus and his circle, Fogg Art Museum Publications 1979, 132 (n. 34). In modern Gr. cf. related vb. (both trans, and intrans., ‘I calm someone down’ and ‘I become calm’), and adjs. of a ‘calm’ person. But the sea-calm meaning is not forgotten.

79. See Hom, . Od. 1. 2021 (n.b. , implying that it ceased when he did get home); 5.282-370; 12.407-22; 13. 125-83. On Ithaca, in the last part of the Odyssey according to Thrush (Bks. 13-24), Poseidon and the sea fade away. Poseidon is the force of destruction in the simile that holds up the action in the moment of recognition at 23. 234. He is also the cause of Od.'s final task: Teiresias has told him to travel, carrying an oar, till he reaches lands that do not know the sea, salt, ships etc. and there make an offerng to Poseidon, 23. 267-77. Finally, his death – but a gentle one – will come to him , 23.281.

80. Poros has important associations with the beginning of the new Greek state; these quickly took a naval cast. The British, French, and Russians held the Protocol of Poros in 1828 to decide the basis of the Greek kingdom, whose naval arsenal was first established there, in the 1830's. It stayed there until 1877; meanwhile a Russian naval station was set up there too (referred to in Seferis, Journal 37, 14th Aug. 1946). There is a naval training school on it also, the Greek Dartmouth; Seferis refers to it often, e.g. Journal 36, 38, 51, 56, Aug. 13th, 16th, Oct. 21st, 26th, 1946. Its naval associations go back at least to archaic times, see the 6th-century precinct and ruined temple of Poseidon, which Seferis visits on 30th Oct.; and says so in his diary, Journal 58, 31st Oct., on the day he finished Thrush. Cf. also Journal 50, Oct. 18th, on a diver raising another submerged boat who seemed to Seferis ‘a perfect … modern Poseidon’.

81. See Austin, Archery 131.

82. The sexual relations between Odysseus and Calypso, for instance, are summed up in Od. 5. 155, παῤ Those between Circe and Odysseus are initiated by the sword, and by her disregard for his feelings about his male companions, 10. 321-335.

83. Od. 24. 128-41 (n.b. , 128, 141). The singing of Calypso and Circe accompanies their weaving, 5. 61-62, 10. 221-22: cf. the image of Helen weaving at Troy, , Il. 3. 125–28, a cloth which is the concrete counterpart to the Iliad itself, since it too contains ‘many trials of Trojans and Greeks – trials they suffered for her sake, at the hands of Ares.’ Weaving is the Homeric woman's parallel to song; and, like the song of the Sirens (Od. 10. 39-46) which beguiles all men, it can be part of the ensnaring, destroying, female role.

84. Cf. ‘Interlude of Joy’ 4-5, ‘Then the sun/ a huge sun all thorns…’; and ‘Morning’.

85. III (b) 30. The play on – both 'messenger-like and ‘angelic’ – recalls both the ‘messengers’ of ‘Our Sun’ who report the suffering behind the gold silk sun, and the first word of Mythistorema, τὸν

86. For Seferis' feel for Socrates, see above n. 32.

87. A' 316-19 (he points out also that the Erotokritos itself, circulating among literate or illiterate Greeks under the Ottomans, was ‘a light’ in that enslaved world). He finished the essay on the Erotokritos in Feb. 1946, 8 months before writing Thrush.

88. See Journal 53, Oct. 23rd 1946: ‘Today I understood why Homer was blind; if he had eyes he wouldn't have written anything. He saw once, for a limited period of time, then saw no more. In Greece, alas, if you want to see all the time you must keep narrowing the diaphragm, as in photography’.

89. Telemachus first meets Nestor, the incarnated memory of the Iliad; he ‘reminds’ him of the war and the nostoi, Od. 3. 102-83. Then he hears the war-memories and nostos-memory of Helen and Menelaus, 4. 240-89, 351-586. Three central books are taken up with Odysseus' own nostos-memoir. Penelope meanwhile keeps the memory of what ‘he was when he went with the army’, 20. 89.

90. Cf. 296, 'H .

91. See e.g. Od. 9. 19; 16. 172-89; 21. 207-25; 22. 1-141; 23. 206; 24. 320. Or he is recognized, by his dog, 17. 301, and old nurse, 19. 467-75. For recognizable see 19. 474; 23. 206.

92. Poems with erotic tones appear in the years between Mythistorema and ‘The king of Asine’: e.g. ‘Flight’, ‘Wednesday’ (in Notes for a week), ‘Epitaph’, ‘The poplar leaf’, ‘Spring A.D.’.

93. The same entry, Journal 28-29, June 4th, contains a verse-fragment, an echo of Soph, . OC 1681, which eventually turns up in Thrush III (b) 3334: ‘He went blindly/into the warm meadow/ and saw darkness/behind the light’. From June onwards, then, elements of Thrush's ending – going into the earth/death (cf. Soph, . OC 1662) and a physical, erotically coloured resurrection from Greek soil – are woven in his mind.

94. No Odyssey on Poros: see B' 30. His 100 lines of the Iliad: see Journals 44, Oct. 8th 1946. Solomos'line is a deliberately fragmented misreading of Hom, . Il. 18. 537 (where drags men – dead, wounded, and alive – out of battle by the feet). Solomos, in creative misprision (see below n. 97) renders lines 535-37 as

In connecting this with the Callimachus fragment (contextless), fr. 682, Pfeiffer I. 447, Seferis must be thinking of Achilles' attitude to suffering and death, in the speech he has just read: , Il. 24. 522-24. But there must be a connection also with the body which Achilles himself dragged ‘by the feet’, Il. 22. 396-404: the body which Priam has come for.

95. Journal 58, Oct. 31st 1946: ‘The poem I've been writing since a week ago last Tuesday…’

96. See Bloom, Anxiety 30:‘ [poetic] influence moves by misapprehension… by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation’.

97. On misprision see Bloom, Anxiety 1948, Misreading 83-105. Cf. Seferis ‘Interview’ 165: ‘Of course it's a great thing to have an understanding of the ancient authors; but the first man I admired for not having any classical preparation on going to Greece was Miller. There is such a freshness in him … I suppose I was the first man to give him a text of Aeschylus when he decided to go to Mycenae. But of course he doesn't see anything from Aeschylus, he sees, in the plain of Argos, redskins, while he hears a jazz trumpeter. That is spontaneous behaviour. And I admire it’. See Miller, H., The Colossus of Maroussi (1964) 60, 94. Seferis also clearly values the misprision of Solomos (above n. 94); while he does not emulate it.

98. Journal 138–39, Poros-Athens 19461947: ‘As for Cavafy's critical ability, with the exception of a few sparks, it seems to me of no consequence. I do not mean of course that which is apparent in his poetry, which is another matter, but the few critical texts he has left’.

99. Journal 144, April 1950.

100. See e.g. Emped. fr. 35DK (Kirk, G. S., Raven, J. L. & Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers, 2 (1983) 296; no. 360. 46):

Cf. Thrush III (b) 4045 (), 46-49 ().

101. Journal 40, Oct. 5th 1946: ‘I started out [sc. for his holiday on Poros] downhearted, in a very bad mood … I am starting on a long, very dark voyage and I'm deeply wounded by my land. I haven't been in the mood to turn to this note-book these days. All my dreams (those of sleep) are re-enactments of my public life … I carry much filth within me that must go.’

Homer's Reader: A reading of George Seferis

  • Ruth Padel


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.