Greek literary figures: George Seferis

Monash University academic Nick Trakakis continues his series on major Greek literary figures, with a look at George Seferis

George Seferis was born in 1900 in Smyrna, and died in 1971 in Athens.

If we want to understand the ancient Greeks, it is always into the soul of our own people that we should look.

A poet, essayist and diplomat, he was the first Greek writer to win the Noble Prize for Literature in 1963 “for his eminent lyrical writings inspired by a deep feeling for the Hellenic world of culture.”

His family moved to Athens in 1914, where he finished his secondary education.

The family then moved to Paris, where Seferis studied law and came in direct contact with literary currents in France.

It was in Paris, after breaking up with his first great love, that Seferis wrote the memorable poem ‘Denial’, where the poet alludes to love gone sour: ‘On the secret seashore / white like a pigeon / we thirsted at noon: / but the water was brackish.’

It was also while in Paris that news reached him of the Asia Minor disaster, and the destruction of his home town of Smyrna was to have a traumatic effect on him.

Seferis returned to Athens in 1925 and the year after he took up a position in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thus beginning a long and successful diplomatic career.

During WWII he accompanied the Greek government in exile, and after the war he held posts in the Middle East and also served as Greek ambassador in London.

Seferis thus spent much of his life outside Greece, where he witnessed the tragic predicament of his fellow Greeks amidst “wars, destructions, exiles,” as he put it in one poem.

In another poem he famously stated: “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me.”

Hellenism was his great love, and he saw it as something alive and closely connected with the times of Homer, Plato and Byzantium.

In one of his essays he wrote: “If we want to understand the ancient Greeks, it is always into the soul of our own people that we should look.”

In Seferis’ work ancient myth blends with contemporary experience, as in his groundbreaking Mythistorema (1935), where he began to find his own style and voice, and also brought a new breath of life to Greek poetry.

The voice that he developed is one that is refined and controlled, spare and unembellished, dense and complex, and rich in symbolism and allusion to the myths and literature of ancient Greece.