Homer’s Iliad 3: Book 6 and Seferis’s “Astyanax”

Section 17 of Yorgos Seferis’s Mythistorema also takes Book 6 of the Iliad as its starting point. Here’s a link to it in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s translation:

What a moving vision of peace that is: peace and generational continuity among simple, enduring elements of the Mediterranean landscape. In terms of what is directly evoked within the poem, the brief, muted flares of energy and danger in sound, imagery and idea only heighten the surrounding quiet. For me, “Teach him to study the trees” has been one of those lines which stays with you forever when you’ve heard it once and keeps murmuring in your head as you go about your life. But this vision of a possible escape into peace is made more poignant by being projected against a background of hopeless and inescapable tragedy – or rather two such backgrounds.

The first is of course the Iliad, evoked by the name “Astyanax” itself. Homer’s poem imagines no way out for Hector, Andromache, Astyanax or Troy itself, which the gods are determined to destroy. Who is speaking then, and who is leaving? Within the context of the Iliad, no-one. Astyanax’s fate, according to later myth, was to be thrown down from the walls of Troy by Achilles’ son, so the whole poem becomes a poignantly unrealised dream of what might have been.

The second is what the Greeks call “The Asia Minor Catastrophe”. Seferis’s family lived in Smyrna, in Turkey, part of the large ethnic Greek population there who were ethnically cleansed and became refugees after the Greco-Turkish war of 1919 – 1922. Though ruled by the Turks this was not in any sense a settler population within Turkey but a people who had been subjugated by the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks were in Asia Minor for two thousand years before the first Turkic invaders arrived, almost since Homeric times and well before the composition of the Homeric poems. Seferis was haunted by the loss of the world of Greek Asia Minor, of his family’s home city of Smyrna and the beloved village of Skala where his maternal grandfather was a landowner. Mythistorema as a whole is a story of exile. Within this context “Astyanax” is about the beginning of exile, and about the destruction of the deeply rooted continuity of Greek culture in Asia Minor that is so beautifully evoked in the second stanza (beginning “The olive trees: a break has been omitted in the version I’ve supplied a link to).

I said in an earlier entry that I felt that in some ways the ancient Greeks would have identified more with the Trojans than with the Achaeans. Here, Seferis is finding a symbol for the desolation of his people in a Trojan.

This is a poetry as immediately suggestive, as multiple in meaning and at the same time as indefinable as the work of T. S. Eliot, which was such an inspiration to Seferis. I’ve probably said too much about it already; better just to leave the poem to speak for itself. I want to add something about the translation, though. I owe an immense debt to Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. I fell in love with Seferis’s work in their translation and learned enough Modern Greek to read him in the original (however fumblingly) as a result. Comparing their words with Seferis’s makes it clear how skilled and imaginative their translation is. But a poem I find moving in English becomes almost overwhelming in Greek. I’m not sure why this is. I think it’s partly a matter of sheer sound and tone. Seferis’s great poem “Thrush” presents a brief vision of Socrates after he has been condemned to death. I’ll quote it in Keeley and Sherrard’s translation:

And then the voice of the old man reached me; I felt it
quietly falling into the heart of day,
as though motionless

Seferis’s own words in “Astyanax” seem to me to have this combination of stillness and weight. Measured, restrained and unemphatic as they are, seeming felt rather than heard, as if they grew from within you rather than coming at you from outside, each word as it falls changes everything.

Another point is more specific. “Saw the light” is a cliché in English and consequently makes little impact. But the light of the eastern Mediterranean was full of meaning for Seferis and he wrote about it with immense power in poem after poem. The more you read him the more “Astyanax” becomes impregnated with the physical quality of that light and also with the moral and symbolic meanings that Seferis discovered within it. Or it does in Greek. In English, at least for me, “saw the light” is simply too worn out to hold so much.

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