George Seferis and the Freedom of Tradition

by Christopher Howell | ελληνικά

George Seferis

“I belong to a small country,” said the great Greek poet George Seferis in his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1963. “It is small, but its tradition is immense.”

As wrangling over the word “tradition” has become an idle pastime, particularly on that domain of debauchery known as social media, Seferis’s thoughts warrant consideration, despite his unorthodox Orthodoxy. Tradition, for Seferis, has three elements: it is alive; it is universal, but only because it is particular; and it is, above all, liberating.

Introduced to the West in Henry Miller’s 1939 travelogue The Colossus of Maroussi, the poet and diplomat (whose real name was Giorgos Seferiades) was larger than life. Miller described him as “a wild boar which had broken its tusks in furious onslaughts born of love and ecstasy.” When Orthodox lay theologian Philip Sherrard first met Seferis in person, he wrote in his diary that he radiated “profoundly direct and simple human warmth and spontaneity.” The British poet and Jesuit priest Peter Levi wrote that Seferis “was the sun in the sky to all of us who lived in Greece.”

“I was born into the Greek Orthodox tradition,” commented Seferis in an essay on Dante, “that was my fate, I did not choose it.” But as Fr. Andrew Louth notes, Seferis’s religious views were hardly conventional. Seferis told Sherrard he was an “empiric man,” an “enemy of abstractions.” When a philosopher once asked him what his worldview was, Seferis answered, “My dear friend, I am sorry to say that I have no world view…perhaps you find that scandalous, sir, but may I ask you to tell me what Homer’s worldview is?” In a draft of a letter to Sherrard that he never sent, Seferis wrote that his metaphysics was based on “an old woman dandling her great-grandchild,” or “a little village girl in Cyprus who danced like a princess.” If such things are not the basis of metaphysics, then “I am a poor man—and I think it is a great thing for a person to accept his poverty.” How then can he speak to the role of tradition in the church?

Metaphysics notwithstanding, Orthodoxy was critical to Seferis’s work, and as his career developed, he called on its imagery with frequency. Instead of metaphysics, however, he focused on the living, earthy faith; as Peter Mackridge notes, Seferis’s religion was physical. When he lived in Ankara, Seferis felt awkward living in a city without a church, writing, “I feel I’m lacking something—like when you’ve run out of cigarettes.” In Easter 1948, he read through Matthew and tried to keep the fast. He called Holy Week “the loftiest form of springtime that I know.” He translated Song of Songs and Revelation into modern Greek (reflecting his preoccupation with prophecy and sensuality). Roderick Beaton, in his magisterial biography, notes that Seferis idly considered becoming a monk at least twice. His poetry is shot through with religious imagery—from the Good Friday procession in “The Cistern” to the resurrection and assumption of the Virgin Mary from excavated ruins in “Engomi.”

Seferis’s religious world view was not nothing, even if it is difficult to divine. With these idiosyncrasies in mind, his words on tradition can be appreciated.

The conception of living tradition was articulated most poignantly in Seferis’s trip to Cappadocia in 1950. He felt a warm, deep connection to the place. He imagined the old monks in days long past, wondering how many had touched a coin that he held, and daydreamed about all who had ever lived there, the “millions of troglodytes in their cassocks, wandering, sullen and ecstatic.” He meant no disrespect by the phrase, instead he identified with them (years later, when an American poet called Seferis a “Middle Eastern troglodyte,” he responded, “Ridiculous and inaccurate. I once called myself a Cappadocian troglodyte and that is what I plan to remain”). The humble greatness of the Cappadocian monks was due to lack of “pedantry,” and instead their churches and iconography were evidence of “what can be achieved by long-cultivated tradition when it is fused with the robust and equally popular expression.” Their art embodied “a tendency towards what is alive, real, specific, and tangible.” The Gospels live, too, they are “one of the monuments of our present-day living common speech.” Near the end of his life, in an interview with Edmund Keeley, Seferis rejected the phrase “ancient Greece” because it expressed that era’s history as finished. Greece, he said, “is a continuous process.” Tradition does not stop.

Though Seferis was focused on Greece, it was because of local tradition that he could understand universal humanity. In his Nobel Prize speech, Seferis said, “if I do not understand my own people, with all their virtues and vices, I feel that I shall not be able to understand the other people of this big world.” His affection for Greek language and faith was not based on any racial predilection; “I have a horror of racial theories,” he said. In a letter to Sherrard, he wrote that he did not care whether General Makriyannis, the folk hero of the war for independence, was “ancient Greek, Byzantine, Albanian, I have no idea.” In his “umbilical” connection to nature, as Sherrard saw it, Seferis’s love for his native land and people was transposed into a universalist love for humanity. In a letter concerning his poem “Thrush,” Seferis wrote, “I possess a very organic feeling which identifies humanity with the Greek natural world.” As Miller observed, Seferis became “the universal poet—by passionately rooting himself into the soil of his people.”

Seferis continued, in his Nobel speech, on what tradition meant to him. He stated, “Perhaps I may have used the word ‘tradition,’ without drawing sufficient attention to this evidence that tradition does not mean habit.” It is not rote; tradition “is interesting, on the contrary, for its power to break habit; that is the means by which it demonstrates its vitality.” True tradition is creative, alive, free. That is why, for Seferis, it was so important for modern Greeks to produce poetry, to prove that Greece was still living. In reckoning with history as it is, not as an ideal and monolithic past, but as living history, animated and guided by the Holy Spirit (though Seferis would likely not have used that phrase), one can be led by tradition into a creative and dynamic present.

According to Beaton, when Seferis visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, he was pleased to see it wore all its history like a garment. It was not shorn of its complicated past as the Parthenon had been; the sensuality of history was there to be remembered and embraced. Near the end of his life, Seferis had an epiphany at the Corycian cave near Delphi, as he emerged from the dark recesses into the sunlight. He put it into words in one of his last “secret poems,” where he described the accretions of time, the hope for rebirth, and what could be taken as the dynamic growth of tradition—something solid and physical, but molded by the potter’s hands of time:

you were there; you suffered
the other labor, love
the other dawn, reappearance
the other birth, the resurrection.
Yet there, in the vast dilation of time,
you were remade
drop by drop, like resin, like the stalactite, the stalagmite.

Christopher Howell is a PhD candidate in American Religion at Duke University.