The Last Stop by Seferis

Grotto in the Gulf of SAlerno by Joseph Wright.jpg
Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno – Joseph Wright of Derby (1774)

In my explorations of modern Greek literature, I was reading a novel called Drifting Cities by Stratis Tsirkas that is about exiled Greeks in Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria during the Second World War. It interweaves the personal story of the protagonist, Manos Simonidis, the group of Communist activists with which he’s involved and the political machinations of the factions in the Greek government in exile. To be honest, it’s a hard read. The detailed twists and turns of the political events are difficult to follow and not that interesting, and Simonidis is not an engaging or sympathetic character. His relationships with the various women he meets also strikes me as wish fulfilment on the part of the author and the women come across as rather characterless.

One the of the final sections of the novel sequence (it’s really a trilogy of novels) has an epigraph from a poem by Seferis, called The Last Stop. Like many Seferis poems this has a really striking image in it that made me want to hunt down the original. It’s not an easy poem to understand or translate, but I wanted to have a shot at it, as it has stayed with me for while.

It helps to understand a bit of the background to the poem before reading it. Seferis was a diplomat and indeed in later life he served as the Greek Ambassador to the UK in the late 50s / early 60s). During the Second World War he went into exile with the Greek Government and served in Cairo and South Africa. As the Germans retreated from Greece in 1944, the Greek government in exile made plans for its return to Greece and moved to Salerno in northern Italy (this is the last stop referred to in the title of the poem). Seferis wrote the poem on 5 October 1944 and a week later the Germans left Athens.

In the poem he seems to be attacking those Greek politicians and wealthy individuals who enjoyed the comforts of exile, leaving the rest of the population to suffer under the Nazi occupation. In particular he singles out the profiteers who have been making money any way they can and who plan to profit from the situation in the country when they return to Greece. He contrasts them with the people left behind to struggle for survival and the Greek soldiers fighting to free the country from the Nazis. It was clearly painful to write about – and for his compatriots to hear – and partly explains the oblique language and obscure imagery, as he tries to soften the blow. But, my God, the power of that line: ‘our mind is a virgin forest of murdered friends’!

The Last Stop

Few are the moonlit nights that I have enjoyed.
From the guide to the stars that you make out with difficulty,
as the weariness of the departing day brings it to you,
you take out of it other meanings and hopes,
and can read it more clearly.
Now that I am sitting idle and can take stock
A few moonlit nights have stayed in my memory:
islands, the colour of the sorrowing Virgin, under the late waning moon
or moonlight in northern countries sometimes casting
a heavy torpor
on rough roads, rivers and people’s limbs.
And yet, yesterday evening here, on this our last step
where we wait for the hour of our return to dawn
like an old debt, like money that has stayed for years
in a miser’s strongbox, and finally
the moment has come to pay it back and the coins
can be heard falling on the table:
in this Tyrrhenian village, inland from the sea at Salerno
behind the harbours from which we’ll set out, at the end
of an autumn shower, the moon broke through the clouds,
and the houses on the far side seemed as if made of enamel.

The beloved silences of the moon.

Even this is a way of thinking, a way
of beginning to speak about things that you confess
are difficult, at times when you don’t hold back to a friend
who has secretly escaped and carries
news from home and from comrades,
and you hurry to open your heart
before being abroad has time to change him.

We come from Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria:
the tiny state
of Commagini, that was snuffed out like a little oil lamp
comes back into our minds time and time again,
and great nations that existed for thousands of years
and then were left as pasture land for buffalo
fields for sugar cane and maize.
We come from the sands of the desert and from the seas of Proteas,
Souls shrivelled by state sins,
each one with an official rank like a bird in its cage.
The rainy autumn in this hollow
makes the wound of each one of us fester
or as you would say differently, divine retribution,
or merely foul habits, deception and deceit,
or selfishness in profiting from the blood of others.
Man is easily consoled in the midst of wars;
he is pliable, a sheaf of grass;
lips and fingers that ache for a white breast
eyes that half-close in the shimmering of the daylight
and legs that would run, however tired they may be
at the merest hint of profit.
Man is pliable and parched like grass,
insatiable like grass, his nerves like roots spread out;
when summer comes
they prefer to swing their scythes in another field;
when summer comes
some cry out to exorcise the evil spirit
others get enmeshed in their possessions, others make bar room speeches.
But it is as if the real incantations, possessions and speeches
are far away. What will you do?
Perhaps man is something else?
Maybe not that which transmits life?
A time to sow, a time to reap.

Again you will say the same old things, my friend.
But the thinking of the refugee, the thinking of the prisoner, the thinking
of man has degenerated into a commodity.
Even if you tried to change it, you wouldn’t succeed
It is as if he wanted to remain king of the cannibals
expending energy that no one buys,
strolling among the plains of agapanthus
listening to the drums under the bamboo tree,
while courtiers dance wearing monstrous masks.
But the country they are destroying and burning
like the pine tree, you can see it
either in the dark carriage, without water, with broken windows,
night after night,
or in the burning ship that will sink as statistics show,
these things took root in the mind and don’t change
these things planted pictures similar to those trees
that throw out their shoots in virgin forests
and these take root in the soil and spring up again;
they throw out their shoots and sprout again, spreading
for league upon league:
our mind is a virgin forest of murdered friends.
And if I speak to you in fairy tales and parables
it’s because it’s easier for you to listen, and the horror
is not discussed because it is too vivid
because it is silent and transient:
The pain of those who remember
drips day by day into sleep.

Let me speak about heroes, let me speak about heroes: Mikhalis
who left hospital with open wounds
was perhaps talking about heroes, on that night
when he dragged his foot into the blacked-out country,
and howled, feeling our pain: “We’re going into
the darkness, we’re advancing into the darkness…”
The heroes are advancing into the darkness.
Few are the moonlit nights that I enjoy.

Cava dei Tirreni, 5 October ‘44



The fall of the Byzantine empire in Cavafy’s poem ‘Captured’

Related image

I came across this poem by Cavafy recently about the fall of Byzantium. It’s one of his hidden poems and is rather difficult to translate because it quotes folk songs written in Pontic Greek. So, apologies for any mistakes.

Recently I have been reading folk songs,
about the exploits of the klephts and wars,
our own, charming, Greek things.

I have also been reading laments for the loss of the City
“They have captured the City, they have captured it: they have captured Salonica.”
And the Voice that both of them praised there.
“the Emperor on the left, the Patriarch on the right”,
was heard telling them to stop
“Priests, put down your papers, close up the Gospels”
they have captured the City, they have captured it: they have captured Salonica.

But of the other chants, the one that touches me most
is the one from Trebizond, with its strange language,
and the sorrow of those distant Greeks
who perhaps still believed that we would yet be saved.

But alas, a fateful bird “comes from the city”
with a document under its wing
alighting neither in the vineyard nor the orchard
it went and settled in the roots of a cypress tree.
The high priests can’t (or won’t) read it out
“The son of the widow Gianika takes the paper
and reads it out and laments
“Let it be read, let it be mourned, let your heart be broken.
Woe to us, alas for us Romania has been captured.”

March 1921

There are some interesting features of the poem, apart from the difficult language. Cavafy chooses to reflect on the fall of Byzantium (‘Romania’ is what the Byzantines called their empire) through a Pontic folk song. Pontos is the name given to the area on the southern edge of the Black Sea in north east Anatolia. In Byzantine times this was known as Trebizond or the Trapezuntine empire which lasted until 1461 when it was captured by the Ottomans under Mehmet II.

The date of the poem is also significant. Trebizond had been occupied by the Russians in 1916, but as the Russian Revolution took hold, their troops withdrew. The area came under increasing pressure and control by the Young Turks who initiated a process of ethnic cleansing of the Greek and Armenian populations that continued until the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. So in the poem, Cavafy is obliquely referring to what was happening to the Pontic Greeks in his own time.

Finally, the original Pontic Greek song ends on a more positive note:
“Though Romania has passed, another will come and flourish.”
But Cavafy’s poem is more negative: there is no hope offered that another Byzantine Empire will come along; just the aching sadness for its loss and a lament for its passing, and by extension for what was happening to the Pontic Greeks in his own day for whom there was also no hope of salvation.



Va pensiero…

Pushing my way back out of the cave that’s cool and dark after the fierceness of the afternoon Sicilian sun, I walk through a group of people spread across the width of the cave. As I pass them they start singing a tune that seems vaguely familiar at first, until it suddenly reveals itself as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. Looking back I see a conductor in their midst. Some are singing the words, others (like me, drawn to them) humming along. It is totally unexpected, very moving and at the same time highly appropriate.

For I am in the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysus) in the Latomie at the Archaeological Park in Siracusa. From the outside it resembles the top of 2/3 of an ear and it has a curious
S-shaped structure that goes back about 60m, ending in a wall of sheer rock. Limestone was quarried here for buildings in Siracusa or alternatively it was used as a place for storing water. Whatever its original purpose it has a grim history.

In 415 BC during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sent an expedition against Sicily which was in league with the Spartans. It turned into a major defeat in 413 BC for the Athenians with the loss of 200 Greek ships and the capture of over 7,000 of their soldiers. The Orecchio di Dionisio is where these captured Athenians were kept in appalling conditions, without food or water. Most of them died after a few weeks and only an estimated 20 survived to make their way back to Athens to report to an incredulous population what had happened.

One can only imagine the torment of the Athenian prisoners in this prison and their longing for Greece. In Nabucco, the Hebrew Slaves lament for their lost homeland. So this impromptu performance by a random choir on a summer’s afternoon was a very fitting memorial to these events of so long ago.   

Obliquely it also has a link to Euripides’ play ‘Eleni’ (first performed in 411BC) which I have blogged about here and also to Seferis’s poem of the same name. The defeat of the Athenian forces was a major blow to the morale of the city state and may have been one of the contemporary events that prompted the questioning of the purpose of war in Euripides’ play.

The Orecchio di Dionisio was given its name by Caravaggio after he was shown it in 1608 when visiting the island. The Dionisio in question was tyrant of Syracuse a few years after the defeat of the Athenian forces who allegedly imprisoned opponents here and was able to eavesdrop on their plans thanks to the space’s perfect acoustics. The best place to hear the focused sounds in the cave is from a gallery above the entrance which unfortunately is not accessible to visitors.

It’s in Siracusa that I encounter Caravaggio the painter for the first time, specifically his Burial of St Lucia. But that will have to wait for another post.



At the Monastery of Osios Loukas

Central Church (katholikon) of the Monastery of Osios Loukas

In my recent post about Sikelianos’s poem on renewing Greece after the second world war, I mentioned that I am hoping to do a post on the Byzantine Monastery of Osios Loukas in central Greece. Shortly after I wrote the post that I was introduced (again by my Greek tutor) to a poem that Sikelianos wrote that is set in the katholikon of Osios Loukas at Easter. So here’s my translation of it:

At the Monastery of Osios Loukas
At the monastery of Osios Loukas from among all
those women from Steiri who had gathered together
to decorate the Epitaphios, and all those
mourners who kept the vigil
until daybreak on Holy Saturday
which of them would have thought – so sweetly did they lament! –
that beneath the flowers, the faded enamel
of the dead Adonis was flesh
that suffered deeply.

Because the pain
amidst the roses and the Lamentations,
and the breaths of spring that came in
through the church door, gave hope
of the miracle of the resurrection
and Christ’s wounds on his hands and feet
seemed to them like anemones,
so many flowers covered him
and so intense and strong their scent!

But on that same Saturday evening,
when through the Holy Door a single candle
lit up all the others to the back of the church,
and from the Sanctuary the light spread out
like a wave to the outer door, everyone
shivered when they heard in the midst of
the acclamations of “Christ is Risen” an unexpected
voice yell: “Georgaina, it’s Vangelis!”

And there he was: the fine man from the village, Vangelis,
the admiration of the girls, Vangelis,
who everyone had thought lost
in the war; standing there
in the doorway of the church, with a wooden leg,
not crossing the threshold; and everyone,
with their candles in their hands,
was looking at him,
the dancer who shook the threshing floor
of Steiri, some looking at his face, some at his leg,
as if he was nailed to the doorstep,
and couldn’t come any further inside.

And then – may this verse be my witness,
this simple, true verse –
from the pew where I was standing
I saw the mother let
the veil fall from her head and rush
to bend down and hug the soldier’s wooden leg,
– as I saw it, so my verse describes it,
this simple, true verse –
and she drew from the depths of her heart
a scream: “My darling…Vangelis!”

And still – may this verse be my witness,
this simple, true verse –
behind her, all those who had gathered there
since the evening of Holy Thursday
lamenting quietly, as if singing a lullaby,
the dead Adonis, hidden
amidst the flowers, now burst out singing
as her frightened scream died away
while in the pew where I was standing
a veil covered my eyes!…

It’s a bit of a sentimental poem for my taste, but I like it for its play on the idea of a triple resurrection. The poem is set at Easter at the Monastery of Osios Loukas, the most complete Byzantine monastery in Greece (outside of Athos). The women from the local village of Steiri have strewn with flowers the Epitaphios (a cloth depicting an icon of the dead Christ being mourned by the Mother of God and some of the disciples).

Image result for epitaphios

The poet equates the Epitaphios and the dead Christ with the myth of Adonis, according which Adonis was gored by a wild boar and died in the arms of his lover, Aphrodite. From the mingling of her tears and his blood, anemones sprang up. In Ancient Greece this event was celebrated in spring with a two day festival: on the first day women lamented his death by strewing flowers on his death bed. On the second day they celebrated his resurrection with joyful chants.

Image result for Ἄδωνις

Very recently I came across this conflation of the two resurrections in an essay that Seferis wrote:

None of our traditions, Christian or pre-Christian, has truly died. Often when I go to the Good Friday service, it is difficult for me to decide whether the god who is being buried is Christ or Adonis. (Essays 2, 14: translated by Roderick Beaton)

To the idea of Christ’s and Adonis’s resurrection, the poet adds the idea of the soldier, believed to have been killed in the war, returning to his home village at the critical moment in the Easter celebrations. It’s a touching scene, but personally I would have cut the poet’s personal interventions and just let the story work its own magic.

I am looking for interesting poems about Agia Sofia in Constantinople and so far have drawn a bit of a blank. I have found a rather drab poem by Tyutchev and one focusing on its decay by Osip Mandelshtam. If you know of any better poems, I would love to hear about it!




Raising the sun over Greece

I am finding it difficult to write at the moment, partly due to the fact it’s winter and that always slows me down, and partly due to having a lot going on in my life recently. There are many things I want to blog about though that, come the spring, I hope to be able to cover: visits to Crete, Osios Loukas and Naxos; Minoan palaces and artefacts; and an account of my recent pilgrimage to Mt Athos, amongst other things. In the meantime, here’s a translation of a poem I came across recently thanks to my Greek tutor. It’s by a twentieth century poet called Angelos Sikelianos who had a house at Delphi and in the late 20s and early 30s tried to revive a Delphic festival.

The poem was written in 1945 as Greece was emerging from the war and the Nazi occupation and expresses the hope of a restoration of the country. Of course at that stage, the Civil War had not started and little did Sikelianos realise that the country had to suffer even more before it could start to renew itself. The central image of raising the sun has a very personal resonance for me in these dark days of winter.

“Spiritual March”

“Forward: help raise the sun over Greece;
forward, help raise the sun over the world!
Do you see its wheel stuck deep in the mud
And do you see its axle stuck deep in blood!
Forward, lads, you can’t raise the sun on your own
push with your knees and chest, let’s get it out of the blood
Look, let us lean on it, blood-brothers!
Forward, brothers, let it surround us with its fire!
Forward, forward, let its flame enfold us, my brothers!

Forward, creators!… Support your forward movement
With heads and feet, don’t let the sun sink!
Help me too, brothers, so I don’t sink with it…
What else can I do, it’s above me and inside me and around me,
I can’t do anything but revolve in a sacred vertigo with it!…

Thousands of bulls’ rumps support its base:
a double-headed eagle above me shakes
its wings and its cry roars
in my head, beside me and inside my soul,
and the far off and near-at-hand are all one to me now!…
Unprecedented, deep harmonies surround me! Forward, comrades,
Help me raise it, so that the Sun Spirit can come into being!

The new Word is approaching and will colour everything
in its new flame, mind and body, pure steel…
Our earth has been fertilised enough with human flesh…
Let us not let our rich and fertile lands
dry out from this deep blood bath,
richer and deeper than the first autumn rains!
Tomorrow each of us will go out with twelve pairs of oxen
to plough this blood-drenched earth…
May the bay tree flower over it and the tree of life spring up,
and our Vineyard stretch out to the ends of the earth…

Forward, lads, you can’t raise the sun on your own…
Push with your knees and chest, let’s get it out of the mud;
Push with your chest and knees, let’s get it out of the blood;
Push with hands and heads, so that the Sun Spirit blazes forth!”


Kerameikos in Athens

The Kerameikos site in Athens feels at first a bit of a disappointment. It’s not well signed and so not that easy to find. The Kerameikos underground station is in the middle of a business regeneration area, an old gas works that has been turned into small business units for design and tech companies. The surrounding bars are equally trendy.

The Kerameikos site contains remnants of the old city walls, two of the main gates to the city and some reconstructed grave steles. But it’s bounded to one side by a main road and enclosed by modern buildings. However, once you start to explore it, it seems to have an atmosphere all of its own and it’s full of reminders of the ancient Greeks . It also has one of the best small museums in the city.

The site is crossed by one of the best preserved sections of the ancient city wall that was built by Themistocles in 479-478 BC to protect Athens against the Persians. I really like the solidity and beautiful design of these walls, incredible considering the speed at which they were thrown up. Although destroyed by Sulla in 86 BC they were rebuilt under Justinian and lasted in total for about 1,000 years.

The site also incorporates two city gates: the Sacred Gate which was only used for processions to celebrate the Mysteries at Eleusis, and the road to Peiraias which ran through the Dyplon gate.

Originally the Kerameikos was the area of the potters who used the clay from the River Eridanos that flowed alongside the Peiraias road and then it became the place (the Demosion Sema) where notable Athenians (including Lycurgus, Pericles and Kleisthenes) and the war dead were buried. There are very few remains of the public cemetery still left, but one notable exception is a monument to the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) who were killed in 403 BC which is still in good condition (minus its top and contents). It was excavated during the First World War and the skeletons of the Spartan soldiers were found intact.

The road to Peiraias passed by Plato’s academy (now buried under the concrete of the road and buildings beyond the perimeter wall in the photograph below).

The open area to the left in the above picture was used for funeral games and was also probably the site of Pericles Funeral Oration in 430 BC in honour of the Athenians killed in the Peloponnesian Wars.

The site also contains the remains of a building called the Pompeion that dates back to 400 BC. Here those involved in the great Panathenaic festival procession (that also features in the Parthenon Marbles) were robed and pre-festival feasting took place. At one time it apparently held a bronze statue of Socrates, but the building was destroyed by Sulla in 86 BC.

The Street of the Tombs contains mainly replicas steles, the originals of many of which are in the site museum.

I think the museum is the best part of the site, particularly the grave steles. This is a cavalry soldier:

The grave stele for two sisters:

A touching stele of a mother and baby who presumably dies in childbirth:

This is an unusual one with a dead woman looking into a mirror:

and this one of a man holding some form of implement. Having recently seen some Bhangra dhol drummers performing and using curved drumsticks, I wonder whether it is actually a Greek drumstick he is looking at so intently:

I like the little dog jumping up at the youth in this one:

Here is am interesting sculpture on the side of a basin:

and a scene of horseman on the side of a sarcophagus:

There are a couple of sphynxes on display:

and a lion:

Some pottery that looks Minoan in style:

Finally, one of my favourite items is this brilliantly realised bull that originally stood on an arch stele raised in honour of Dionysios of Kallytos.

Delphi Mueseum

I’ve blogged recently about my visit to the archaeological site of Delphi and previously about the remarkable bronze statue of the Charioteer of Delphi in the site museum. Now I would like to write about some of the other exhibits in the museum.

The sculpture in the picture above is on the path that leads to the museum and intrigued me when I looked at it. Sometimes objects just draw your attention without you quite knowing why. It’s something to do with the repetition of the shell shapes, the stylised leaves and whirls, and that strange flower at the top with what appears to be handles half way up the stem. I’ve read somewhere that shells were sometimes used in frescoes to indicate death. In the famous mosaic of Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna she is shown standing under a scallop-shaped building which some people have taken to mean that the mosaic was made after her death.

A 4th century BC head of a woman (supposedly influenced by Praxiteles):

I liked the next head too, not for any merit in the sculpting, but because it still bears traces of colour from the original paint. Looking at perfect white sculptures in museums today, it is easy to forget that many were painted when they were originally made and that the paint has worn off over the centuries or (as in the case of the Parthenon marbles) been cleaned off to conform to a false concept of what classical sculpture should look like.

A statue described as a ‘philosopher’:

The column of the Dancing Girls was donated to Delphi by Athens in 330BC. It consisted a drum column, on top of which sat this sculpture of girls in dancing attitudes.

Above the statue of the girls originally sat a cauldron and above that an omphalos (the marble original of which is now lost) in a woollen net with precious jewels set at the intersections of the net. On top of the cauldron perched a double eagle. It must have been spectacular!

A statue of Antinoos, lover of the Emperor Hadrian who drowned in the Nile in 130AD in mysterious circumstances.

Various metopes from the Treasury of the Siphnians showing the Gigantomachy (Battle of the Gods against the Giants):

One of my favourite pieces from the museum is this Sphynx donated by the island of Naxos. Originally it stood on a 12.5m marble column next to the Rock of the Sybil. 

This pair of kouroi, a gift from Argos in 580BC, are thought to depict two brother Cleobis and Biton. Their story is rather odd. They dragged their mother in her cart to Argos to worship at the temple of Hera when the oxen were not available. At the temple the mother asked Hera for a gift for her sons and she granted them a peaceful death in their sleep.  A case of be careful what you ask for – especially when your mother is involved. Alternatively they could represent the dioskouroi, Castor and Pollux (twin brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra) and the children of Leda.

I can’t remember what this group is, but I really like their slightly sinister smiley faces and the way the artist has captured the figures in movement.

The following two figures are remarkable chryselephantine statues. The first one is possibly 6th century BC and depicts Apollo:

The second, also possibly 6th century BC, depicts Artemis.

The next statue is thought to depict Dionysus, originally holding a lyre, from the west pediment of the temple of Apollo (4th century BC):

A winged Victory figure with leg raised in a running pose:

The face of a rather cuddly looking lion:

A badly damaged 6th century BC Apollo sitting rather uncomfortably on a tripod, from the east pediment of his temple. Originally he would have been holding a myrtle branch and a flat cup (symbols of his oracle) and accompanied on either side by the Muses:

Finally, one of the star exhibits, a statue of a bull originally made from three silver sheets by an Ionian artist in 6th century BC: