Yorgos Seferis, “Thrush” – 1

Everyone says how difficult “Thrush” is and my God it’s true when you try to tie it all together rationally and bundle it up in a paraphrase. And yet for my money only Seferis himself can create more vivid images or strike at your emotions with more devastating power than he does at some points in this poem, even in translation.

Anyway, a poetry lover who doesn’t know Seferis can give herself a treat by going to “Thrush” at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/181853 and just reading it a few times.

I don’t want to be intrusive with my commentary but will throw in a few further remarks. Some are  very subjective and they can easily be ignored.

Looking just at the first section, the passage from “sometimes, near the sea, in naked rooms” strikes me as extraordinarily evocative in a sensual way, haunting and emotionally suggestive, and I think that Keeley and Sherrard have given a compelling musicality to their translation. Here, it doesn’t bother me at all that I find some of what’s being said elusive or ambiguous; in fact I positively Iike the sense that the poet’s thoughts and impressions are mysterious even to himself, that they arrive in all their unanswerable vividness without his feeling compelled or perhaps being able to interpret them completely. A condition of this is that key emotional suggestions are, or at least seem to me to be, clear, simple, strong, and filled with Seferis’s distinctive sensibility. Take the way loneliness and alienation are evoked in

Sometimes, near the sea, in naked rooms
with a single iron bed and nothing of my own
watching the evening spider

“Naked rooms” and “watching the evening spider” may seem to draw us momentarily close to the Eliot of “Preludes”, but “nothing of my own” takes us into tones that separate Seferis from Eliot (the grumpiness that’s been there from the beginning of the poem) and (together with “near the sea”) strikes a taproot into Seferis’s preoccupation with a sense of personal, ethnic and cultural displacement and alienation, figured throughout Mythistorema  and in many of his other poems in images of hopeless wandering*. Smyrna, Syracuse and Alexandria, of course, are all part of the lost greater Greece of classical and Hellenistic times, and Rhodes hadn’t been reunited with Greece yet when Seferis wrote”Thrush”, though it did become part of the Greek nation in the month of “Thrush”’s first publication, so all these names carry a sense of cultural and national loss**. The erotic images of the beautiful woman, lost or only dreamed, and of the lost southern ports have a powerful sensual immediacy that makes a sharp impact on the imagination in the way so much does in the work of this very physical poet, but “returning” connects the idea of this woman elusively and ambiguously with a fundamental element in Seferis’s poetic imagination, something also seen in the hopelessly yearning attempt to find home in Mythistorema, the glimpse of the return of Aphrodite at the end of “Thrush” itself, and a similar glimpse at the end of “Memory I”. I think the combination of clarity and imaginative force with elusiveness is crucial because it’s together that they draw us into Seferis’s own imagination and into feelings that for the poet himself are both intense and elusive because they are a part of his very self, not ideas to detach for abstract contemplation. I think it’s a great testimony to Keeley and Sherrard’s skill that they have captured both qualities so delicately and so strongly in this passage.

I find the first part of the section less satisfactory in their translated form. Here too, some lines are wonderfully fresh and immediately effective; in others, I feel the power of the idea but it seems to reach me muffled by being a little stilted, if only by Keeley and Sherrard’s own high standards. My Greek was never nearly good enough to know whether they are at all awkwardly expressed in the original.


*    More broadly, I think Seferis’s art in this poem is much sparer, subtler and more mature than that of “Preludes”. He doesn’t tell us anything about the spider, he leaves it to be as a piece of the external world that exists on its own terms, and this reticence allows us to imagine a range of ways in which the lonely man watching it might feel about it. He might see it as lonely like him, or as sinister, he might contrast its purposefulness with his own passivity or he might watch it and be made to feel helpless and entrapped, as Seferis felt helpless and entrapped by his role in the Greek foreign ministry during and after the war. In contrast, the life of Eliot’s brilliant poem is in its lurid subjectivity. “At the corner of the street / A lonely cab horse steams and stamps”. Who knows whether a cab horse in such circumstances does feel lonely? All that matters for Eliot is that it reminds him of his own loneliness, and by projecting this onto the horse and everything else in the poem he can drown the reader in it too. “Preludes” is very much a young man’s poem – an extraordinarily brilliant young man’s poem, of course  – but more generally I feel that Seferis’s rootedness in and happiness with the body goes with a healthier, more robust attitude to the external world than Eliot enjoyed.

** In the case of Smyrna, of personal loss too.

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