Our country is closed by Seferis

This poem was published in Seferis’s 1935 collection of poems, Mythistorima (Fiction). As with the Ritsos poem I translated here I find strong resonances with the political and social situation in our own country at the moment.

I was puzzled by what Seferis meant when he said that Greece was ‘closed’ and it was not until I understood the mythological reference in the penultimate verse that it became clear. He seems to be implying that Greece is closed off from the outside world by the Clashing Rocks, perhaps by the Metaxas dictatorship.

The rocks not only kill those who try to escape, but are also killing the people who still live in Greece because they are cutting it off from the rest of the world, causing rivers, springs and wells to dry up, and everything to become stagnant and hollow. Everything has closed in on the country, including the mountains and the sky, creating a feeling of claustrophobia. There is not even any spiritual support in this situation, as even religion has a hollow echo when people bow their heads in worship to the empty cisterns. It is as if people are becoming alienated from their past and any understanding of how they have come to be what they are.

This closing of the country also causes people to forget that they are alive and how they have in the past achieved the simplest of things, like building. This extends to people understanding how to relate to others (eg in marriage) and to have children. The evidence of what the Clashing Rocks are doing is provided by the images of the smashed wood and floating bodies from ships crushed by the rocks coming together.

In mythology the action of the rocks was destroyed by Jason, but in this pessimistic poem there is no sense of a hero who can bring the situation to an end. Nor is there any hero to rescue us in our situation either.

Our country is closed 

Our country is closed, day and night,
everything: mountains that have cover,
The low sky.

We don’t have rivers, we don’t have
wells, we don’t have springs.
Just a few cisterns,
even these are empty,
that echo when we bow to them.

A stagnant, hollow echo,
like our solitude,
like our love,
like our bodies.

It seems strange to us
that once we could build our homes,
shacks and sheepfolds.

And our weddings, cool
wedding crowns and fingers
are becoming puzzles
inexplicable to our minds.
How were our children born, how did they grow strong?

We don’t have rivers, we don’t have
wells, we don’t have springs.
Just a few cisterns,
even these are empty,
that echo when we bow to them.

Our country is closed.
Τwo black Clashing Rocks*
are closing it.

On the harbours on Sundays,
when we go down to take the air,
we see smashed wood lit up by the sunset,
from journeys that were not finished,
and bodies that no longer know
how to love.

*Note: the Symplegades (Clashing Rocks), also known as the Cyanean Rocks, were, according to Greek mythology, a pair of rocks at the Bosphorus that clashed together randomly. They were defeated by Jason and the Argonauts, who would have been lost and killed by the rocks except for Phineus‘ advice. Jason let a dove fly between the rocks and it lost only its tail feathers. The Argonauts rowed mightily to get through and lost only part of the stern ornament. After that, the Symplegades stopped moving permanently. (Wikipedia)  


Our country by Giannis Ritsos

This poem is from a collection by Ritsos called The wall inside the mirror and it was written in the village of Partheni on the Dodecanese island of Leros where he was being held in an internment camp by the Greek Junta. The date of its composition, 13 December 1967, also happens to be a very significant one in the history of the Junta.

On that day King Constantine attempted to stage a counter coup against the Colonels’ regime. He and his family flew to Kavala, east of Thessaloniki to try to rally loyal troops against the regime and then to take Thessaloniki. But the attempt was foiled by officers and troops loyal to the Junta and Constantine was forced to leave Greece and take refuge in Rome. He never returned and the monarchy was eventually abolished in 1973.

Our country

We walked up on the hill to see our country –
humble dwellings, modest fields, stones, olive trees.
Vineyards stretch down to the sea.
Next to the plough a little fire is smoking. From the old man’s clothes
we made a scarecrow to keep off the jackdaws. Our days
take their course with a little bit of bread and a lot of sun.
Beneath the poplars a straw hat is gleaming.
The cock on the gate. The cow on the yellow earth.
How did it happen that with a stone hand we dealt with
our home and our life? On the lintel
is the soot, year after year, from the Easter candles –
little black crosses that the dead traced
when they came back from the Easter Day service.
This place is much loved, with patience and pride.
Every night from the dry well the statues cautiously come out
and climb into the trees.

This poem haunts me a lot. It depicts an ordinary countryside scene, such as you could find all over Greece. A familiar and much loved land in all its ordinary detail. A land with a deep history and familiar, comforting traditions, like tracing the sign of the cross over the lintel at Easter. But at the same time there is all this unbelievable stuff going on: the poet is in exile, the country is in the vice-like grip of a dictatorship, the king has just tried to seize power back. How on earth did we get here?

I think this poem speaks to me so clearly because it expresses how I feel about the state of our own country at the moment. How the hell did we get here? It’s not a comfortable place to be, in the same way that being held in an internment camp wasn’t for Ritsos.

But strangely there is something comforting about the extraordinary image at the end of the poem. Though the source of life, the well, is dry at the moment, the country still has a deep connection with the past that the nightmare present cannot eradicate. Nothing can destroy that link with Greece’s history, culture and values. Even though the statues only come out at night and then ‘cautiously’, they are still there. We can only guess what they are thinking about Ritsos’s Greece and what our equivalents would think about our own situation. But at least those fundamental values haven’t been lost – and that’s worth hanging on to in these dark days.           

With so many leaves by Giannis Ritsos

Centuries old plane tree in the centre of the village of Helicarnasos, Crete

With so many leaves the sun waves ‘good morning’ to you
with so many pennons the sky shines on and on
for those amongst the weapons and those in the earth.

Keep quiet, the bells will ring in a while.

Under the earth, in their crucified hands,
they hold the bell rope,
they are waiting for the time, they are waiting to sound the resurrection
this earth is theirs and ours
no one can take it from us.

Keep quiet, the bells will ring in a while.


The Doomed by Kostas Varnalis

Here’s another poem I came across recently by the Greek poet Kostas Varnalis (1884-1974). Born in Burgas in what is now part of Bulgaria he studied literature and then became a teacher and journalist, before moving to Paris in 1919 to continue his studies. It was here that he became a Marxist and this poem of 1925 reflects both an awareness of the social conditions the poor together with a critique of their fatalism.

The Doomed
In the cellar of the taverna,
Amidst the smoke and swearing
(and the loud shriek of the hurdy-gurdy)
all of us were getting dunk yesterday evening:
yesterday evening, as every evening,
to drown our sorrows.

We were pressed together side by side
and someone was spitting on the ground.
O what a great torment
this life is!
No matter how much our mind is tortured
it’s forgotten in the cold light of day.

Sun and blue sea
and boundless, deep sky!
Ο! crocus-coloured gauze of dawn,
carnation of the sunset,
you shine and set far away from us,
without entering our hearts!

Someone’s father, paralysed
for ten years, same thing
for another whose wife
wastes away from consumption at home:
Mazis’s son is in Palamidi
and Giavis’s daughter in Gazi.

‘Our vicious fate’s to blame!’
‘God’s hatred for us is to blame!’
‘Our poor brains are to blame!’
‘Wine’s the main thing to blame!’
Who’s to blame? Who’s to blame?
No mouth
has yet found the word or said it.

So in the dark taverna,
bowed down, we get drunk.
Like worms, each heel
stamps on us where it finds us.
Fearful, doomed and weak-willed together
we wait for some future miracle!
(my translation)


In the orchards – a song by Mikis Theodorakis

In a recent Greek lesson, my tutor, Maria, introduced me to this powerful song by Mikis Theodorakis. So I thought I would share it and provide my own translation of the lyrics which are also by Theodorakis.

In the orchards, amidst the flowering gardens,

As once we did, we will set up a round dance, 

And we will invite Charon 

To drink together and sing with us.

Take hold of the clarinet and the zourna [type of folk clarinet]

And I will come with my little baglama [small bazouki]

Oh, and I will come along…

You took me in the heat of battle, Charon.

Let’s go to the orchards for a dance.

In the orchards, amidst the flowering gardens,

If I take you along, Charon, to drink wine,

If I take you along to dance and sing songs

Then give me the gift of life for one night.

Hold your heart, sweet mother, 

For I am the son who came home for a single glance from you.

Oh, for a single glance…

When I left for the front, dear mother,

You didn’t come and see me off.

You went out to work and alone I caught the train

That took me far away from life.

The odd thing about the song which took me a while to register is that it is being sung by someone who has died. In fact he died fighting on the battlefront during the Second World War and from that state invokes the figure of Charon, the ferryman across the River Styx in Greek myth and the personification of death in Greek poetry and song.

The song vividly conjures up his love of life and longing for a chance to live again just for a night. I get the sense that the mother he invokes may be a personification of Greece itself as well as his own mother who didn’t see him go off to war.

I love the heft of Giota Negka’s voice in this song and her ability to control its power to add light and shade to the narrative, as the music moves between stately and solemn tread to intense longing.

Two other things to note from this recording. The first is the fact that the TV celeb audience to a man mouth the words with the singer. This is something I’ve often noticed when watching audiences in Greek concerts and it always surprises me. I don’t think this is anywhere near as common in the UK for example and is a specific cultural difference. I wonder why this should be the case?

The second thing is the way that, particularly at the end of the song, one of the celebs on stage raises his arm. Again I’ve noticed this at live performances in Greece and it sees to be at points in the music where someone identifies with the music or the sentiments being expressed (‘einai se kefi’).

Anyway, it’s a great song.


Scenes from Ithaka


One of the things that helps me to learn Greek is listening to songs and reading poems. It’s a useful way of learning words and, even though poetic language often uses contorted syntax, a good aide-memoire for grammar points. Over and above that though is the short cut it provides to the culture of the country, what it celebrates and values, its feelings, its way of thinking and how it expresses itself.


I’ve even been known to take a poem or the text of a song with me on holiday to Greece to commit to memory. One I’ve tried to learn is Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, but at the moment it’s just too long and its language a bit too much of a stretch for my level of Greek. It is a beautiful poem though and like many poems that draw you in, there’s something mysterious about it, something that you can’t quite grasp no matter how many times you read it, something elusive like Ithaca itself for Odysseus.

Ithaka 2

My Greek tutor, Maria, tells me that this is one of the first poems that Greek children learn at school. I can’t think of a better one to start the journey of life and learning.

Ithaka 3

For me too it evokes Greece in the summer: sea shading from light to dark blue and emerald, ozone and its salty tang, cloudless azure skies, blinding light, fierce heat. Standing on harbours, looking into clear water, watching yachts, cruisers, fishing boats come and go, each on their own journey of discovery, you get a sense of what the search for Ithaca means in the poem.

Ithaka 4


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Translation by Edmund Keeley / Philip Sherrard

Ithaka 5