Three Greek Poets
C. P. Cavafy
C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) is widely considered the most distinguished Greek poet of the 20th c. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, where his Greek parents had settled in the mid-1850s. Cavafy’s father was an importer-exporter whose business responsibilities frequently led him to the port city of Liverpool, England. In 1882, His mother, sensing danger, moved to Constantinople with Cavafy and the rest of her children. When the British bombarded Alexandria, the Cavafy family home was destroyed, and all of Cavafy’s papers and books were lost. Cavafy remained in Constantinople with his mother until 1885. At this time, Cavafy was writing poems, preparing for a career, and discovering his queerness, which would inform much of his later poetry. Cavafy eventually joined his older brothers in Alexandria and found work as a newspaper correspondent. In the late 1880s he obtained a position as his brother’s assistant at the Egyptian Stock Exchange, and he worked there for a few years before becoming a clerk at the Ministry of Public Works. He stayed at the ministry for the next 30 years, eventually becoming its assistant director. In 1933, 11 years after leaving the ministry, he died of cancer. During his lifetime Cavafy was an obscure poet, living in relative seclusion and publishing little of his work. A short collection of his poetry was privately printed in the early 1900s and reprinted with new verse a few years later, but that was the extent of his published poetry. Instead, Cavafy chose to circulate his verse among friends. This lack of concern for publication was due, perhaps, to the highly personal nature of many poems. Cavafy, who was gay, wrote many sexually explicit poems. Cavafy was also an avid student of history, particularly ancient civilizations, and in a great number of poems he subjectively rendered life during the Greek and Roman empires.
As a stylist Cavafy was atypical. His language was flat, his delivery direct, whether he was writing about mortality, beauty, or despair; and whether he was writing about eroticism, the past, or the anxiety-inducing present. Among Cavafy’s most acclaimed poems is “Waiting for the Barbarians,” in which leaders in ancient Greece prepare to yield their land to barbarians only to discover that the barbarians, so necessary to political and social change, no longer exist. In “Ithaca,” another of Cavafy’s highly regarded works, the poet evokes Homer’s Odyssey in stressing the importance of the journey over the destination. And in poems such as “The Battle of Magnesia” and “To Antiochus of Epiphanes,” Cavafy emphasizes that decadence in a civilization leads to its destruction. Cavafy’s more erotic poems treat themes similar to those addressed in his historical verses. Ultimately, Cavafy’s erotic poems and historical verse are products of a singular vision, one which explores, in various ways, the gratifications, and ramifications, of the pursuit of pleasure. Eroticism, history, and death are all part of what George Seferis, writing in On the Greek Style, calls “Cavafy’s panorama,” and he observes, “All these things together make up the experience of his sensibility—uniform, contemporary, simultaneous, expressed by his historical self.”
Nobel laureate Greek poet Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996) was born Odysseus Alepoudelis, in the city of Heraklion, on the island of Crete, of a wealthy family of soap manufacturers. He later changed his surname to reflect those things he most treasured. Elytis was relatively unknown outside his native Greece when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1979. Although the Swedish Academy declared in its presentation that his poetry “depicts with sensual strength and intellectual clearsightedness, modern man’s struggle for freedom and creativeness ... [In] its combination of fresh, sensuous flexibility and strictly disciplined implacability in the face of all compulsion, Elytis’ poetry gives shape to its distinctiveness, which is not only very personal but also represents the traditions of the Greek people.” Elytis’ poetry collections include What I Love: Selected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, translated by Olga Broumas (1978), Maria Nefeli: Skiniko piima (1978, translated as Maria the Cloud: Dramatic Poem, 1981), and To axion esti (1959, translated as Worthy It Is, 1974). Free association of ideas, a concept he often made use of, allowed him to portray objects in their “reality” but also in their “surreality.” This is shown in various poems, as when a young girl is transformed into a fruit, a landscape becomes a human body, and the mood of a morning takes on the form of a tree. Prosanatolizmi (Orientations), published in 1936, was Elytis’ first volume of poetry. Filled with images of light and purity, the work earned for its author the title of the “sun-drinking poet.” With the advent of the World War II, Elytis interrupted his literary activities to fight with the First Army Corps in Albania against the fascists of Benito Mussolini. His impressions of this brutal period of his life were later recorded in the long poem “A Heroic and Elegiac Song of the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign.” Regarded as one of the most touchingly human and poignant works inspired by the war, the poem has since become one of the writer’s best-loved works.
Elytis’ To axion esti (1959, translated as Worthy It Is, 1974), came after a period of more than 10 years of silence. Widely held to be his masterpiece, it is a poetic cycle of alternating prose and verse patterned after the ancient Byzantine liturgy. As in his other writings, Elytis depicted the Greek reality through an intensely personal tone. After the overwhelming success of To axion esti, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1960, questions were raised regarding what new direction Elytis would pursue and whether it would be possible to surpass his masterpiece. The reason behind the uncertainty many Elytis devotees felt toward this new work stemmed from its radically different presentation. The Axion Esti is probably the most widely read volume of verse to have appeared in Greece since World War II and remains a classic today. Those who follow the music of Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis have been especially drawn to Odysseus Elytis' work, his prose is widely considered a mirror to the revolutionary music of Theodorakis. The "autobiographical" elements are constantly colored by allusion to the history of Greece, thus, the poems express a contemporary consciousness fully resonant with those echoes of the past that have served most to shape the modern Greek experience.
Nobel laureate Greek poet George Seferis (1900-1971) was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor. He attended school in Smyrna and finished his studies at the Gymnasium in Athens. When his family moved to Paris in 1918, Seferis studied law at the University of Paris and became interested in literature. He returned to Athens in 1925 and was soon admitted to the Royal Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was the beginning of a long and successful diplomatic career, during which he held posts in England and Albania. During WWII, Seferis followed the Free Greek Government in exile to Crete, Egypt, South Africa, and Italy, and returned to liberated Athens in 1944. He continued to serve in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and held diplomatic posts in Ankara and London. He was appointed minister to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, and was Royal Greek Ambassador to the UK, the last post before his retirement in Athens. Seferis received many honors and prizes, among them honorary doctoral degrees from the universities of Cambridge (1960), Oxford (1964), Salonika (1964), and Princeton (1965). His wide travels provide the backdrop and color for much of Seferis’ writing, which is filled with the themes of alienation, wandering, and death. Seferis’ early poetry consists of Strophe (Turning Point), 1931, a group of rhymed Lyrics strongly influenced by the Symbolists, and E Sterna (The Cistern), 1932, conveying an image of man’s most deeply felt being which lies hidden from, and ignored by, the everyday world. His mature poetry, in which one senses an awareness of the presence of the past and particularly of Greece’s great past as related to her present, begins with Mythistorema (Mythistorema), 1935, a series of twenty-four short poems which translate the Odyssean myths into modern idiom. In Tetradio Gymnasmaton (Book of Exercises), 1940, Emerologio Katastromatos (Logbook I), 1940, Emerologio Katastromatos B (Logbook II), 1944, Kihle (Thrush), 1947, and Emerologio Katastromatos C (Logbook III), 1955, Seferis is preoccupied with the themes he developed in Mythistorema, using Homer’s Odyssey as his symbolic source; however, in “The King of Asine” (in Logbook I), considered by many critics his finest poem, the source is a single reference in the Iliad to this king.
The book of poetry Tria Krypha Poiemata (Three Secret Poems), 1966, consists of twenty-eight short lyric pieces verging on the surrealistic. In addition to poetry, Seferis has published a book of essays, Dokimes (Essays), 1962, translations of works by T.S. Eliot, and a collection of translations from American, English, and French poets entitled Antigrafes (Copies), 1965. Seferis’ collected poems (1924-1955) have appeared both in a Greek edition (Athens, 1965) and in an American one with translations en face (Princeton, 1967). In this new edition of George Seferis' poems, the acclaimed translations by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard are revised and presented in a compact, English-only volume. The revision covers all the poems published in Princeton's earlier bilingual edition, 'George Seferis: Collected Poems'.