Images of Odysseas

In my first year at university reading French we had to study a rather dry collection of sonnets called Les Regrets by the sixteenth century poet Joachim du Bellay.  Du Bellay was a contemporary of Ronsard and wrote a sort of manifesto promoting French as a suitable language for writing poetry. In the 1550s he spent four years in Rome acting as secretary to his cousin, a Cardinal and it was here that he wrote the bulk of this sonnet cycle. Initial enthusiasm for Rome quickly turned into homesickness and the classic expression of that is sonnet No 31:

Heureux qui comme Ulysse
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison,
Et puis est retourné, plein d’usage et raison,
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge!

Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
Qui m’est une province, et beaucoup davantage ?

Plus me plaît le séjour qu’ont bâti mes aïeux,
Que des palais Romains le front audacieux,
Plus que le marbre dur me plaît l’ardoise fine :

Plus mon Loir gaulois, que le Tibre latin,
Plus mon petit Liré, que le mont Palatin,
Et plus que l’air marin la doulceur angevine.

Fortunate is the man who like Ulysses
Fortunate is the man who, like Ulysses, has completed a fine journey,
Or like that man who won the Golden Fleece,
And then returned, rich in experience and judgement,
To live amidst his family for the rest of his life!

Alas, when will I see the chimney smoking
in my little village, and in which season
Will I see the garden of my humble house,
Which to me is a province, and so much more?

I prefer the dwelling that my ancestors built
To the bold frontages of Roman palaces.
I prefer thin slate to hard marble:

My Gallic Loire to the Latin Tiber,
My little Liré to the Palatine Hill
And the gentle Angevin climate to the sea air.
(my translation)

Imagine my surprise then to come across this poem again in a Greek context, a poem written by Seferis in 1931 when he was serving as a diplomat at the Greek Embassy in London. His starting point is the first line of du Bellay’s sonnet, but that’s where the comparison ends. Du Bellay’s use of the image of Ulysses strikes me as a bit of a cliche: the returned traveller, happy to be back home again after his wanderings.

Seferis however conjures up an altogether more vital picture of the exile and wanderer. It’s so vivid you almost can see and hear Odysseas in front of you. Seferis spent much of his working life abroad as a diplomat, in effect a voluntary exile from his native land. For him Odysseas is not a tired metaphor: he is a deep connection with the Greek past, an inspirational figure, who can teach us how to live and win our own Trojan wars.

On a foreign verse
Fortunate is the man who has completed Odysseas’s journey.
Fortunate, if at the outset, he felt the strong armour of a love, spread through his body, like veins where the blood roars.

Of a love with an eternal rhythm, overpowering like
music and eternal
because it was born when we were born and when we die,
Neither us nor anyone else knows whether it dies too.

I beg a god to help me say, in a moment
of great bliss, what this love is:
sometime I sit, surrounded by foreign-ness
and listen to its distant roar, like the sound of the sea
mixed with an unexplained storm.

And before me appears, again and again,
the ghost of Odysseas, with eyes reddened
by the saltiness of the waves
and by his long-cherished desire to see again the smoke
coming from the warmth of his home
and his dog that has grown old waiting at the gate.

He stands there, tall, whispering through his whitened
beard words from our language,
as they spoke them three thousand years ago.

He spreads out his palm, calloused by ropes
and the helm, with skin weathered
by the wind, heat and snow.

It seems as though he wants to drive out from amongst us the superhuman
Cyclops who sees with one eye; the Sirens
that, when you hear them, cause you to forget; Scylla
and Charybdis:
so many complex giants that don’t let us
think that he was a man
who fought in the world with his mind
and his body.

He is the great Odysseas: the one who commanded
the wooden horse to be built so the Achaeans could conquer Troy.
I imagine him coming to advise me
on how I can make a wooden horse and conquer my own Troy.

Since he speaks simply and calmly, without effort,
it seems as if he knows me like a father
or like some old seafarers, resting
on their nets, as winter has drawn on and the winds have turned angry.

When I was a child, they used to tell me with tears in their eyes
the song of Erotokritos:
then I was afraid as I slept hearing about
the hostile fate of Arethousa climbing
the marble steps.

He tells me of the pain of feeling the sails
of your ship inflated by memory and your mind becoming the helm.
And of being alone, dark in the depth of night,
rudderless like a straw on a threshing floor.

The bitterness of seeing your companions sink
amidst the elements, scattered one by one.

And how strange it is that you become stronger talking
to the dead when the living are no longer with you.

He speaks…I see his hands still that knew
how to feel whether the mermaid on the prow was
well carved
and knew how to give me the gift of a glassy, blue sea
in the depth of winter.

 

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Τhe Greek military junta ripped to shreds

April 21 2017 marked 50 years since the military Junta came to power in Greece. To commemorate that catastrophe in modern Greek history, I would like to offer a translation of the last poem that Seferis wrote. It was published posthumously in To Vima in August 1974, days after the Junta fell, although it was written in March 1971.

The poem, entitled On Gorse for reasons that become clear when you read the poem, is set in a specific location and on a particular date in the calendar. The location is the temple dedicated to Poseidon at Cape Sounio, south of Athens. Sounio has deep roots in Greek culture: it is mentioned in the Odyssey and looks out towards the island of Salamis, site of the great victory of the Greek city-state fleet over the Persians in 480BC. In the poem the temple resonates still with all this history and associations.

In the liturgical calendar the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a child and become the mother of Jesus, falls on March 25. This date is also Greek Independence Day, a public holiday commemorating the start of the War of Independence against the Ottomans. During the Junta, Independence Day was celebrated with military parades, particularly in Athens. But in this poem, we are away from all the pomp and bombast of the regime, in a place deeply connected with Greek history and culture, on a day celebrated in Christianity as an event when good news and hope came into the world.

Like the statement condemning the regime he made to the BBC two years earlier, Seferis’s poem condemns the Junta indirectly, this time through Plato’s report of the murder of an ancient Greek tyrant.

“On gorse…”

Sounio was beautiful on that day
The Feast of the Annunciation
once again in the Spring.

A few green leaves around
the rust coloured stones
the red earth and the gorse bushes
revealing their great thorns ready and waiting
and their yellow flowers.

From a distance the ancient columns, strings of a harp,
reverberate still.

The calm before the storm.
– What could remind me of that Aridaios?
A word in Plato, I think, lost in the recesses of my brain:
the name of the yellow bush
has not changed since those times.

In the evening I found the passage:
“They bound him hand and foot”, he tells us,
“they threw him on the ground and flogged him,
they dragged him apart and tore him to pieces
on the gorse thorns
and went and threw him like a rag into Tartarus.”

Thus in the nether world he paid for his crimes,
Pamphylian Aridaios, the wretched tyrant.

(31 March 1971)

 

 

 

Helen of Troy – the alternative version

Menelaos and Helen

Menelaos and Helen

The traditional story of Helen of Troy is well known. Promised to Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy, in return for his choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful of the goddesses she was abducted from Sparta and her husband Menelaos and taken to Troy. Menelaos raised an army from among the Greek city states to recapture her and so began the ten-year long Trojan War.

Except from a quite early stage there was an alternative version of the story attributed to a late 7th / early 6th century BC poet called Stisikhoros. This version is elaborated in a play by Euripidis called ‘Eleni’ which has been my introduction to Greek tragedy, thanks to my Greek tutor (Sofia) with whom I have been reading it in a Modern Greek translation.

In this version of the myth, Helen never went to Troy. Through the intervention of Hera, wife and sister of Zeus and goddess of women and marriage, Helen was taken to Egypt while her place in Troy was taken by a living, talking image of her fashioned by Hera. Apparently Hera’s trick was to thwart Aphrodite and protect the sacred vows of marriage. Initially Helen lived under the protection of King Proteas until his death.

At the end of the Trojan War, Menelaos, returning to Sparta with the false ‘Helen’ is shipwrecked on the coast of Egypt and discovers that his real wife has been there the whole time. The real Helen is wracked with guilt at the bloodshed caused on her account – details of which are relayed to her by Teukros, a follower of Menelaos who is the first to encounter her. This story is an extraordinary invention and must be one of the earliest examples of the use of a double in literature. Euripidis was writing it (412 BC) at a critical time in the history of Athens, It came after a series of military setbacks, starting with the disastrous attempt by Athens to conquer Sicily in 415 BC and at a point in the Peloponnesian Wars when the Spartan army had captured Dekeleia in 423 BC and were threatening Attica. One of the things Euripidis is aiming to do in his play is to question the meaning of war, a radical attitude at that time.

At the same time as reading the play I have also been reading a poem by Seferis called ‘Eleni’ which takes up the same theme and crystallizes its meaning in a stunning image. The first three stanzas of the following extract from the poem are written from the point of view of Teukros, the follower of Menelaos who first discover the real Helen in Egypt. The rest of the poem is then in the voice of the poet. Here’s my translation:

Nightingale of the folk poet,
On such a night as this on Proteas’s seashore
The Spartan women slaves listened to you and led the mourning,
And amongst them – who would have said it? – Eleni!
She who for years we hunted on the banks of the River Skamandros.
She was here on the edge of the desert: I touched her and she spoke to me:
“It’s not true, it’s not true”, she cried.
“I didn’t board the blue prowed ship.
I never set foot in fearless Troy.”

With her deep bosom, the sun in her hair
And that height,
Shades everywhere smile
At her shoulders, thighs and knees:
Living skin, and eyes
With their large eyelids,
She was here on the banks of the Nile Delta.
And in Troy?
Nothing in Troy – an image.
This is what the gods wanted.
And Paris went to bed with a shade, as if it were
A solid creature.
And for ten years we were butchered for Eleni.

Great suffering had befallen Greece.
So many corpses thrown into the jaws of the sea, into the jaws of the earth:
So many souls ground like corn in millstones.
And the rivers overflowed with blood amidst the ooze
For a swollen piece of linen, for a cloud,
The fluttering of a butterfly, the feather of a swan,
For an empty shift, for an Eleni.
And my brother?
Nightingale, nightingale, nightingale,
What is a god? What isn’t a god? And what is between the two?

“The nightingales don’t let you sleep in Platres.”

Tearful bird,
In sea-loving Cyprus
Which promised to remind me of my native land,
I am alone and anchored to this fairy tale,
If it is true that this is a fairy tale,
If it is true that men will not get caught again
By the old trickery of the gods:
If it is true
That some other Teukros, after many years,
Or some other Ajax or Priam or Hecuba
Or some unknown, nameless person
Who saw a Skamandros overflow with corpses,
Is fated to hear
Messengers who come to say
How so much suffering, so much life
Went into the bottomless pit
For an empty shift, for an Eleni.