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

 

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Encountering Caravaggio in Sicily

The Piazza del Duomo in Siracusa is ringed with beautiful buildings, but the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia isn’t one of them. Both inside and outside it is a dull piece of architecture, but the architecture is not the reason why it attracts visitors. Its claim on the attention is a painting by Caravaggio that hangs behind the altar which depicts the Burial of Santa Lucia.

The painter came to Sicily in 1608, having left Rome after murdering a high ranking cleric. Initially he went to Malta where he heard about a commission for a church in Siracusa: an altarpiece depicting Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Sicily, who was martyred in the early 4th century during the Diocletian persecutions.

Caravaggio decided to depict the saint’s burial, rather than a glorification of her death and dashed it off in 1-2 months before leaving Sicily in a hurry. Caravaggio painted straight onto the canvas without drawing it out first. It is a very strange painting.Image result for caravaggio burial of st lucia

It’s not clear from the cropped image above but the burial scene only occupies the bottom one third of the canvas. The top two thirds is empty because it just shows the blank wall of the crypt in which Santa Lucia is being buried.

You have to look hard to make out the subject of the painting. St Lucia is a frail, grey body lying on the floor of the crypt, almost as if she is already turning into the colour of stone. Behind her stands a sorrowful young man with a crimson cloth round his neck which points down at the saint’s lifeless body. To the right of the canvas a bishop, distinguished by his white mitre and crozier, raises his hand in blessing. There’s a small cast of mourners, mainly ordinary people and a soldier in a shiny cuirass. The faces of the bishop and soldier are not clearly depicted, almost as if they were painted in great haste, whereas the group of three characters in the centre of the centre of the picture is well lit and clearly painted.

However what frames a the picture are the two muscular gravediggers who, in a dislocation of perspective, almost appear outside of the scene and not related to it. They dominate the painting, particularly the gravedigger on the right whose white backside reflecting the light is the brightest part of the painting. This is echoed by the bright reflection on the shoulder of the gravedigger in the lefthand side. Could the gravedigger on the right represent Caravaggio’s attitude and be mooning at the Church?

Another oddity is the restricted colour palette that Caravaggio uses generally (and not just in this painting): shades of brown, with the exceptions being crimson and white. Everything is very muted and almost understated.

Apparently the Church didn’t like the painting and wanted him to fill in the empty space in the top two thirds, for example with angels. Caravaggio is alleged to have told them that he couldn’t do this as he had never seen an angel (though he did include them in some of his other paintings). I wonder (without any evidence) whether he was an atheist who just used the church to make a living. Or am I just trying to interpret him from the perspective of our times? What a strange and troubled character Caravaggio was.

The painting was sent to Rome for restoration because after several centuries the subject could hardly be made out any more. During the restoration, X-rays showed that Caravaggio painted Santa Lucia with a severed head (as this was how she was martyred), but in the final painting her head is back on her body.

You can’t get very close to the painting and have to view it from the altar rail. Every few minutes, from the back of church, an official barks out ‘No photos!’ through a megaphone to anyone trying to take a shot with a phone or camera. So not the best of conditions in which to look the painting and try to understand it.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

Autumn colours at Stourhead

I’ve just got round to reviewing and processing photographs I took at Stourhead Gardens in October. The gardens were planned and built over a 40 year period in the mid-late 18th century by the Hoare family and are arranged around an artificial lake. Neoclassical buildings a grotto and follies are carefully located in this fascinating landscape. As you walk around the lake the vista is constantly changing, as you see the landscape from new angles, and of course so is the light. For photographers, it is endlessly challenging to try and capture it. But the best time of year to visit is the autumn when the colours of the trees are at their best. My visit didn’t quite coincide with peak autumn, but it wasn’t far off.

I have photographed this stand of trees many times and they always appear different: in some light conditions they just glow.

I really liked the dappled light beneath this old tree, but I couldn’t quite capture that elusive soft quality of the light filtering through the leaves:

I liked the circular pattern in this bush, implied by its reflection in the water.

Temple of Apollo in the background next to some of the most stunning tree colours and framed by the dark trunks in the foreground.

 

The tree on the left in the picture is a Tulip tree that was planted in 1791 and is probably my favourite tree in the gardens. I am always amazed that the people who were responsible  for planting the tree never saw it in its full glory, but they did it anyway, almost as a gift for future generations to enjoy. What beautiful legacies are we leaving for future generations?

Close up of the trunk of the above Tulip tree:

Looking across towards the Pantheon through the branches of the Tulip tree:

And finally a semi-abstract shot looking through the branches at the lake:

Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora in Athens

Stoa of Attalos - Athens

Here’s a shot of the Stoa of Attalos that I took last summer when visiting the Ancient Agora in Athens. Although it was actually rebuilt by the American School of Classical Studies in the mid 50s, it seems to be a very authentic restoration. There’s a fascinating museum on the ground floor which I will cover in a separate post and some interesting sculptures under the portico.

Battle Hymn of Rigas Velestinlis

Battle Hymn is one of the most famous pre-revolutionary patriotic hymns in Greek, written in 1797 by Rigas Velestinlis, also known as Rigas Feriaos (although he was born as Antonios Kyriazis). A political thinker, writer and revolutionary in the second half of the eighteenth century, he was part of the Greek Enlightenment: that period between 1770-1821 leading up to the War Of Independence against Ottoman rule.  The Greek Enlightenment was inspired by the ideas coming out of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution, dissatisfaction with the conditions under Ottoman rule and an increasing desire for emancipation and a Greek national identity.

Velestinlis was active in Roumania and Serbia and believed that the Ottoman Empire could be overthrown by an uprising in the Balkans. Attempting to get in touch with the French Army in Italy he was captured, tortured and strangled in transit to Constantinople in 1798.

Here’s my translation of his most famous poem:

Battle Hymn

For how long, my lads, must we live a restricted life,
alone, like lions on ridges and mountains?
Must we dwell in caves, see branches,
leave this world, because of bitter slavery?
Must we lose brothers, native land and parents
our friends, children and all our relatives?

One hour of free life would be better
than forty years of slavery and imprisonment.

What good does it do you, if you live in slavery?
Just think how you are grilled on the fire every hour.
Vizier, Dragoman, Master, whatever your standing,
the Tyrant will unjustly send you to your doom:
you work all day and whatever you are told
that Tyrant tries to drink your blood again.
Soutzos, Mourouzis, Petrakhis, Skanavis,
Gkikas and Mavrogenis are mirrors to look at yourself in.
Brave captains, priests, lay people
have been murdered, tyrants too, by an unjust sword:
and so many others, both Turks and Greeks,
lose their lives and wealth without any cause.

Come with fervour now
to take the oath upon the Cross:
to set to work energetic advisers
to give meaning to everything;
that the unwritten laws may be our one and only guide
and become a leader of our native land;
because otherwise anarchy would look like slavery;
to live like wild beasts would be a much fiercer fire.
And then with hands raised up towards the sky,
let us say to God with all our heart:

(Here patriots stand up and, raising
their hands towards the sky, take the Oath)

“O, King of the World, I swear to you,
that I will never have the same view as the Tyrants!
that I will not work for them, nor be deceived
by their promises to surrender.
For as long as I live in the world, my only aim
is to destroy them and be unswerving to my vow.
Faithful to my native land, may I shatter the yoke
and be united under our general.
And if I break the Oath, may I be struck down by Heaven
and burn up and become like smoke!”