IN MY THINKING about poetry, I’ve moved steadily over the years towards a ‘universalist’ position. This direction began to articulate itself as early as the early 1960s when I studied English at Cambridge. It continued in Padua and Venice under the influence of the English poet and Poundian, Peter Russell,2 and it developed further in the early 1970s, when I came under the influence of both George Seferis and Octavio Paz. Unfortunately, I never met Seferis.
Even so, viewing Seferis in ‘universalist’ rather than purely Greek terms, I think it can be taken as agreed by consensus that he is one of the very great poets of the twentieth century, in the company of, say, Cavafy, Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, Rilke, Celan, Paz, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, Mallarmé, Valéry, Breton, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and others. (Every reader of modern poetry will of course have a somewhat different list, though I suspect that some of these names are likely to recur on many versions.) There can be no doubt that Seferis must be thought of in the context of a world literature. As for my own response to his oeuvre, this is certainly conditioned by my reading of other twentieth century poets of this stature. However, precisely which qualities of Seferis merit his placement on a list of this kind, what inherent features and facets of his combine to constitute his greatness, his membership of this club, are considerably subtler, and not so easy to pin down. Let me suggest an approach to this issue.
For a start, I think Seferis’s qualities are intimately bound up with two sets of factors, one mainly temporal (diachronic), and the other mainly, though not entirely, locative (and synchronic). The best clue to the former is still Eliot’s classic essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. From quite early on, Seferis’s voice combines tradition and innovation in a way that that’s always his own, always original. This voice is neither shallow nor mannerist. Nor does the impression of originality result merely from the fact that the particular timbre of this voice has never been heard before in Greek poetry, or for that matter, in any other, but rather because the voice is evidently fully at ease with itself. It comes across effortlessly; which is to say that it is possessed by a recognizable authoritativeness and authenticity. Originality is manifest and clear in all aspects of language: form, diction and tone.
When it comes to the main influences on Seferis, in addition to the whole of Greek literature from the Odyssey and Iliad on, and Eliot and Anglophone poets, I think models provided by French poets shouldn’t be forgotten. As for Eliot, I think it’s worth remembering that if Seferis learned a great deal from the Anglicised American, it wasn’t just from what you might call the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Eliot, but from Eliot-the-cosmopolitan, Eliot the lover of French symbolism and Dante, Eliot who – like Pound – took all of European literature as his stomping ground. What’s more, my belief is that Seferis, as an Ionian – as someone originally from Asia Minor – was as temperamentally international in his own right as he was a Greek. He was constitutionally suited to being a diplomat, which imposed a life of travelling, especially in the near East and Africa and, later, as ambassador to the UK. His internationalism isn’t just evident in his poetry: it’s a necessary, ineradicable component.
As for the second clue, I think this is to do with what I would call Seferis’s universalist and compassionate understanding of what it means to be alive and human, as a man of his time, in strong combination with the “minute particulars”3 of his ‘Romiosýni’ (his ‘Greekness’). To me this quality of Greekness in Seferis shines out clearly, you could even say radiantly, through every word his pen touches. His Greekness is a core part of his humanness, or rather, his humanness is constituted, richly and fully, by his Greekness. Yet while this quality in him is definite and recognizable, and flows into everything, it’s not solid or hard-edged, but mobile, liquid. Like water, it fills the lowest places. Like light, it’s all-pervading. What’s more, rather than being a provincialising or marginalizing influence – an irritant, like, say, Larkin’s Englishness – Seferis’s Romiosýni is the key to his universalism. For this is rooted in both his belonging to Greece and his longing for Greece “wherever he travels”.4 In the same way, Paz, in The Labyrinth of Solitude and ‘Sunstone’, is irreducibly Mexican, and that condition is precisely the block out of which he carves his universalism. In both cases, these poet’s universality and rootedness in their own language, history, culture – and landscape – are correspondent, covalent, co-dependent.
And to explore the reasons why as a reader I turn to Seferis again and again for pleasure and self-deepening, and why as a poet I regard him, along with Octavio Paz, as my main modern master and mentor, here I suggest what to me are key motifs, and give examples.
First, you can’t respond to Seferis only on a thin, cerebral level, as you can, say, with some English, American and French poets. There are necessary layers of engagement with Seferis’s poems that one could say are emotional, and sensuous, and visceral. A reading of Seferis involves what he himself calls – in a key passage in his 1946 diary, where he is exploring the ways that the Greek light affects him personally – “body and soul”.5 As for the physical presence of his voice, this is strongly marked at all times, by which I don’t mean the kind of throaty, guttural quality that you get in, say, Ted Hughes, or the manneristic and at times clogged quality of, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas or W. S. Graham, but a kind of perspicacity that itself loads lines with syncretic and synaesthetic immediacy. Seferis’s artifice is subtle: while the tone and diction of his lines are always those of smooth (‘assured’, ‘easy’, ‘natural’, ‘normal’, etc.) conversation, delivered informally and immediately in the passing current of the now, what can leap out from these contexts is sometimes revelation, the numinous. Consider for example a line at the end of the poem ‘In the manner of G. S.’:
Σφυρίζουν τα καράβια τώρα που βραδιάζει στον Πειραιά.
[Sfirízoun ta karávia tóra pou vrathiázei ston Peiraiá.]
(The ships hoot now that dusk falls on Piraeus.) 6
I’ve always thought this line to be among Seferis’ finest ‘small’ achievements, for its unobtrusive purity of music and its transparent simplicity as well as its centred, embodied love of the aural and visual. Here, the ephemerality of the moment is simultaneously present to both hearing and vision: the hooting of the ships’ sirens, and the falling of dusk, both transitory. Within this lightly pressured presence is threaded a characteristic paradoxical twist. For here two skeins are wound together: one being the physically registered, tangible experience of beauty in all its fulness; while the other, coiling around the former, is the yearning – of the soul – for more than the moment can ever be capable of offering. What I suggest as the twin ‘threads’ in this composite experience are anyway, in life, inseparable; so Seferis’s registration is authentic and loyal to experience.
To extend the metaphor: he presents (makes present) the knot of presence in its inextricable binding. Fulfilment (repleteness, fulness) is intertwined tight-as-can-be with the longing for what in any total engagement or involvement in presence must always be lost and abandoned, by the very nature of our living in spacetime: the thisness (haeceittas) of this now, this here, this present. Often in reading Seferis I have the sense that Goethe’s poignant salutation of the moment and simultaneous lamentation of its passing – “Verweile doch, du bist so schön” (“Stay a while, you are so beautiful”) – is constantly being configured, lost, reconfigured, in a wave pattern, like that of breathing, of the heart, systole and diastole, but with neither salutation nor lament ever needing to be expressed directly.
I suggest, then, that this combination of fulness and longing, as necessary components and complementary attributes of the now, is the key to Seferis’s specificity. In another more famous line, “Everywhere I travel Greece wounds me”, which opens the poem entitled ‘In the manner of G. S.’,7 the physicality of the word “wounds” combines with a depth of personal feeling that encapsulates the condition of the exile longing for home, especially the Odyssean figure of the modern Greek sailor, ‘Stratis Thalassinos’, Seferis’s most typical, characteristic, and revealing persona. While this feeling is as clear and definitive a statement of Romiosýni as you could expect to find, it’s equally communicable to anyone who has experienced Greek landscapes and seascapes, even as a visitor. In the territory of poetry, all minute particulars,8 all local habitations and names,9 all blessed rages for order,10 are lifted to universality, and, as in this case, express any wanderer’s longing for home, wherever that may be.
Coincident with this twinned physicality and longing, never detached from either, is the constant presence of eros in Seferis’s lines. Here follows what I take to be a supreme example. This passage is the core of the great poem ‘Memory, II’, in which the ‘I’ is revisiting the ruins of the ancient Greek theatre at Ephesus (now Efes in Turkey), not far from Seferis’s birthplace near Smyrna (now Izmir). The ‘I’ is accosted by an undefined male speaker, who says:
‘The poem is everywhere. Your voice
sometimes travels beside it
like a dolphin keeping company for a while
with a golden sloop in the sunlight,
then vanishing again. The poem is everywhere,
Like the wings of the wind, moved by the wind
to touch for a moment the seagull’s wings.
The same as our lives yet different too,
as a woman’s face changes yet remains the same
after she strips naked. He who has loved
knows this: in the light that other people see things,
the world spoils; but you remember this:
Hades and Dionysus are the same.’11
The passage is between quote-marks because the undefined male speaker of these words is met by the ‘I’ of the poem, “sitting on what seemed to be the marble remnant of an ancient gate”, as though he were some kind of threshold-guardian, a protector of a site marking liminal experience. And the figure and aura of this speaker, combined with his mysterious and vatic speech, is strikingly reminiscent of the Dantesque “familiar compound ghost” who addresses the persona of the poet in Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’. However, unlike Eliot’s speaker, what this one has to say is far from gloomy, sombre, spooky, or infernal. The unvarnished simplicity of the repeated line “The poem is everywhere”, with its wise and beautiful content, quietly expressing totality of delight in the phenomenal world, is the hallmark of Seferis’ genius. The almost palpable eeriness here is partly due to the sonorous, echoing quality of the setting, an ancient Greek theatre, perhaps even suggesting a kind of epiphany – as if some unknown, ancient god were inhabiting this strange speech – all of which is evident in the sudden numinous presence and “vanishing again” of “the poem”, followed as if on a wave by the reiteration of the key line “the poem is everywhere”. While the sustained images are graphic (immediate, tangible) in their clarity, as if etched or sculpted, they are simultaneously evanescent, belonging only to the moment: for example “the golden sloop in the sunlight” and the “wind” that “touch[es] for a moment the seagull’s wings”. And there is even more to them than this combination of solidity and ephemerality implies. For the images merge into one another surreptitiously, synaesthetically: “your” voice (at once the voice of the poet who makes the poem and of the reader who reads it) is compared (identified?) with the “dolphin keeping company for a while / with the golden sloop in the sunlight”. Or is it the poet (or reader) who is on the sloop, and the poem that is the dolphin? Or are both interpretations available, co-present simultaneously, perhaps, but readable only alternately and alternatively? The seagull’s appearance could hardly be less intrusive, for it is one that is anticipated by this sea setting. The bird is registered, like the dolphin, as another companion “for a while”, and is surely seen too from the side or stern of a ship. A further mark of Seferis’s genius is the couplet comparing (again, identifying?) the poem that is “everywhere” with “the wings of the wind, moved by the wind / to touch for a moment the seagull’s wings”. The beauty and depth of these lines are inimitable, with all their connotations both of soaring flight and of breath (inspiration) in the “wings ... wind” conceit. This complex image itself contains the pause needed for the reader to unfold its meanings. Its moment, its momentum, is perfectly held, caught, developed – as it were, photographically – though not sustained. In keeping with its own being, no attempt is made by the poet to grasp it. It is simply allowed to disappear, yielding in its place, another image.
At this point, the tenderest of erotic gazes is introduced. As Emmanuel Levinas reminds us in many of his books, it is always the face – in which is necessarily inscribed recognition of the face, of the other – that makes us most human. Here, the distinctly male eye of the poet in the persona of a lover – and, implicitly, of the reader too – gazes at a woman who is stripping, not only with erotic desire but also with implicit compassion and empathy. And let it be emphasised here, in particular, that he gazes not just at her body, but at her face and at the subtle changes of (and in) her face. And again, while the picture is vivid, exact, lived in all its connotations, it is a fleeting one, grazed, touched, caught, held for an instant, and then allowed to pass. For what is focused on in the moment is not only the face of the woman in and of herself, in all her self-composure and self-belonging, but the face’s simultaneous mutability of expressions and recognizable constancy: “as a woman’s face changes and yet remains the same.” And this itself suddenly flashes inward, deepening into an insight into “our lives” and into the mystery of the last line, which is a quotation from Heraclitus. So sensuality, eros, depth, pain, celebration, longing and the numinous are all combined in Seferis’s presentation of the present, of presence.
Eros, then, is wholly humanised. There’s no coolness, salaciousness or morbidity in Seferis’s gaze: it’s magnanimous, warm, compassionate, inclusive. Nor is it dualistic; and in this respect more than in any other, Seferis’s world-view is diametrically different from that of Eliot. For myself, I have to say that I find Seferis’s the more congenial. Sexuality in Eliot is always presented in the context of discomfort (nervousness, embarrassment, inhibition, shame, sleaze, etc.), as exemplified throughout the early poems grouped around ‘Prufrock’ and all through The Waste Land. In Eliot’s writing, sexuality achieves wholesomeness only when viewed or encountered symbolically, sublimated through religious experience or, as it were, ‘in the rose garden’. But in Seferis, eros is as inherent in the soul as in the body; there’s no separation or need for separation; flesh and spirit do not exclude each other. A celebratory eros is necessarily at the heart of his reader’s experience too. Heart is, I believe, the right word. There is a magnanimity here. In reading Seferis, you can suddenly find yourself surrounded by the numinous, while your feet are still fully on the ground.
1 Adapted and slightly elaborated from Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou, ‘Following Black Light’, International Literary Quarterly 21, 2015. Online here.
2 Peter Russell, English poet (1921–2003). See RB’s memoir, ‘With Peter Russell in Venice 1965-1966’, in James Hogg (ed.), The Road to Parnassus: Homage to Peter Russell on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday, Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1996.
3 See S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary, London, Thames and Hudson, 1979: 280.
4 See the opening line of Seferis’s poem ‘In the Manner of G. S’, Collected Poems (bilingual Greek-English edition, trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), London, Jonathan Cape, 1969: 107.
5 For Seferis’s journal entry of 17 June 1946 about the “black light”. See his A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945–1951 (trans. Athan Anagnostopoulos), Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974: 31. The passage provides the second epigraph to RB’s sequence ‘Black Light’ in For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965–2000, Exeter, Shearsman Books: 149.
6 One of the closing lines of ‘In the Manner of G. S’. See note 4 above.
7 See note 4 above.
8 See note 3 above.
9 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act V, Sc. 1, l. 18.
10 Wallace Stevens, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, in Collected Poetry and Prose, New York, NY: Library of America: 106.
11 See Seferis 1969, op. cit.: 373.
The Power of Prose