Seferis – a Greek poet, received the Nobel prize of literature in ’63 for hiss poetry, yet mainly for one of the simplest, yet most stunning poems ever: “The King of Asine”
Seferis’s poem – as his work – is not large, but because of the uniqueness of his thought, style and tongue; and because of the beauty of his humanistic language, has become a lasting symbol of all that is indestructible in the affirmation of life – that is the Greek spirit.
Of all things, nature and beings’ only measure is “Man” — This is what the ancient poets of Greece spoke of… same as it’s Philosophers and Dramaturges – come guardians of culture. From Homer to Socrates and Aechulus, the measure of Universe is man and vice versa. There were many great yet forgotten poets of yore. And by the by – ancient poets of Greece abound: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Ancient_Greek_poets
And yesterday’s great poets are legion too: Kalvos, Solomos, Ritsos, Cavafy, Palama, Sikelianos, Karyotakis, Seferis, Gregoriades, Kazantzakis, Elytes, Kavvadia, Empirikos, Egoonopooulos, Valaoritis, Gatsos, sikelianos, Varnalis, Vrettakos, Skarimpas, and so many others I forgot – all representatives of the Greek indomitable spirit.
Men first, poets second. Ancient souls, carrying on their heroic heritage, writ large. Leading figures as men of resistance to the death, against the heaving tides of wanton barbarism.
Using imagination and bravery as their tools of trade, and personal honour as their safe conduct, Seferis and all the other Greek poets penetrated deep behind the facade of mortality. They defeated the great reaper himself — by merely mentioning “death is just another immortal to be battled for.”
Same as it was spoken of in a verse of the Iliad, some three millennia ago…
Here is the “King of Asine” poem, by Seferis:
All morning long we looked around the citadel
starting from the shaded side, there where the sea,
green and without luster—breast of a slain peacock—
received us like time without an opening in it.
Veins of rock dropped down from high above,
twisted vines, naked, many-branched, coming alive
at the water’s touch, while the eye following them
struggled to escape the tiresome rocking,
losing strength continually.
On the sunny side a long empty beach
and the light striking diamonds on the huge walls.
No living thing, the wild doves gone
and the king of Asine, whom we’ve been trying to find for
two years now,
unknown, forgotten by all, even by Homer,
only one word in the Iliad and that uncertain,
thrown here like the gold burial mask.
You touched it, remember its sound? Hollow in the light
like a dry jar in dug earth:
the same sound that our oars make in the sea.
The king of Asine a void under the mask
everywhere with us everywhere with us, under a name:
and his children statues
and his desires the fluttering of birds, and the wind
in the gaps between his thoughts, and his ships
anchored in a vanished port:
under the mask a void.
Behind the large eyes the curved lips the curls
carved in relief on the gold cover of our existence
a dark spot that you see traveling like a fish
in the dawn calm of the sea:
a void everywhere with us.
And the bird that flew away last winter
with a broken wing:
abode of life,
and the young woman who left to play
with the dogteeth of summer
and the soul that sought the lower world squeaking
and the country like a large plane-leaf swept along by the
torrent of the sun
with the ancient monuments and the contemporary sorrow.
And the poet lingers, looking at the stones, and asks himself
does there really exist
among these ruined lines, edges, points, hollows, and curves
does there really exist
here where one meets the path of rain, wind, and ruin
does there exist the movement of the face, shape of the
of those who’ve shrunk so strangely in our lives,
those who remained the shadow of waves and thoughts with
the sea’s boundlessness
or perhaps no, nothing is left but the weight
the nostalgia for the weight of a living existence
there where we now remain unsubstantial, bending
like the branches of a terrible willow-tree heaped in
while the yellow current slowly carries down rushes up-
rooted in the mud
image of a form that the sentence to everlasting bitterness
has turned to stone:
the poet a void.
Shieldbearer, the sun climbed warring,
and from the depths of the cave a startled bat
hit the light as an arrow hits a shield:
Would that it were the king
we’ve been searching for so carefully on this acropolis
sometimes touching with our fingers his touch upon
[ The King of Asine, poem was written in the Summer of 1938 ]
George Seferis had this to say, when asked to speak at the Nobel awards ceremony, where he accepted the Nobel literature prize, at the City Hall of Stockholm. This was his Nobel banquet talk in the evening of December 10th, of the year 1963:
” I feel at this moment that I am a living contradiction. The Swedish Academy has decided that my efforts in a language famous through the centuries but not widespread in its present form are worthy of this high distinction. It is paying homage to my language – and in return I express my gratitude in a foreign language. I hope you will accept the excuses I am making to myself.
I belong to a small country. A rocky promontory in the Mediterranean, it has nothing to distinguish it but the efforts of its people, the sea, and the light of the sun. It is a small country, but its tradition is immense and has been handed down through the centuries without interruption. The Greek language has never ceased to be spoken. It has undergone the changes that all living things experience, but there has never been a gap. This tradition is characterized by love of the human; justice is its norm. In the tightly organized classical tragedies the man who exceeds his measure is punished by the Erinyes. And this norm of justice holds even in the realm of nature.
«Helios will not overstep his measure»; says Heraclitus, «otherwise the Erinyes, the ministers of Justice, will find him out». A modern scientist might profit by pondering this aphorism of the Ionian philosopher. I am moved by the realization that the sense of justice penetrated the Greek mind to such an extent that it became a law of the physical world. One of my masters exclaimed at the beginning of the last century, «We are lost because we have been unjust» He was an unlettered man, who did not learn to write until the age of thirty-five. But in the Greece of our day the oral tradition goes back as far as the written tradition, and so does poetry. I find it significant that Sweden wishes to honour not only this poetry, but poetry in general, even when it originates in a small people. For I think that poetry is necessary to this modern world in which we are afflicted by fear and disquiet. Poetry has its roots in human breath – and what would we be if our breath were diminished? Poetry is an act of confidence – and who knows whether our unease is not due to a lack of confidence?
Last year, around this table, it was said that there is an enormous difference between the discoveries of modern science and those of literature, but little difference between modern and Greek dramas. Indeed, the behaviour of human beings does not seem to have changed. And I should add that today we need to listen to that human voice which we call poetry, that voice which is constantly in danger of being extinguished through lack of love, but is always reborn. Threatened, it has always found a refuge; denied, it has always instinctively taken root again in unexpected places. It recognizes no small nor large parts of the world; its place is in the hearts of men the world over. It has the charm of escaping from the vicious circle of custom. I owe gratitude to the Swedish Academy for being aware of these facts; for being aware that languages which are said to have restricted circulation should not become barriers which might stifle the beating of the human heart; and for being a true Areopagus, able «to judge with solemn truth life’s ill-appointed lot», to quote Shelley, who, it is said, inspired Alfred Nobel, whose grandeur of heart redeems inevitable violence.
In our gradually shrinking world, everyone is in need of all the others.
We must look for man wherever we can find him.
When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx… She asked him a peculiar question. Yet, his answer to the monster’s riddle asked for safe passage or instant death, was simply — Man.
That simple word destroyed the monster.
We have many more monsters to destroy.
Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.”
Human Being, would have been my way, but “Man” captures the message just as well…
It’s not surprising to me that a small nation of itinerant egotists and unruly individualists has produced in recent history more than ten Nobel or Nobel equivalent prizes in the field of Poetry. Prizes such as the Lenin prize, the Victor Hugo, the Hay, and the Rabin prize etc….
Add to this the cannon of all the ancient Greek poets and one is positively overwhelmed that this small nation has more poets than any other counting heads and hearts…
Yet it produced not one Nobel prize in Physics or Mathematics or economics and Chemistry or Medicine. Maybe they don’t care for those, because this nation, has already given the light in those disciplines to humanity thousands of years ago — by inventing all these fields of science, and many more.
And it’s not out of tradition for this nation, that the oldest honoured poem, the Iliad and Odyssey is still considered the best poem ever. The most comprehensive poem in history – is but an account of a man’s journey through life… defeating death at every turn and triumphing above desire.
Iliad, is by far the best poem ever written. And it was brought forth by a blind Greek — Homer — himself a simple human being coursing through Life’s black rocks and shallows.
For this nation of rugged individualists is made up of survivors and eternal optimists given to flights of fancy and romantic invention interspersed with great feats of courage and honourable deeds…
And am not worried for the survival of a nation made up of poets…
As a matter of fact am certain of it.
But where are today’s Greats?
Where are today’s Greek Poets?
Where do they stand?
And where is their day’s Iliad to storm the gates of the Barbarians and turn back the tides?
Could it be that the heroes are defeated?
Or merely asleep ?
May have fallen in a deep slumber?
Or just waiting ?
the morning glory,
to come through the Elysian fields…