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.
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
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
and knew how to give me the gift of a glassy, blue sea
in the depth of winter.