Yorgos Seferis, “Thrush” – 3 Yearning for Home

You can find a link to the text of “Thrush” here.

Seferis once wrote,

Any explanation of a poem is, I think, absurd. Everyone who has the slightest idea of how an artist works knows this. He may have lived long, he may have acquired much learning, he may have been trained as an acrobat. When, however, the time comes for him to create, the mariner’s compass that directs him is the sure instinct that knows, above all, how to bring to light or sink in the twilight of his consciousness the things (or, as I should prefer to say, the tones) that are necessary, that are unnecessary or that are just sufficient for the creation of this something: the poem. He does not think of these materials; he fingers them, he weighs them, he feels their pulse.[i]

I ask the reader to accept that although some of what I say may look like an attempted explanation of the poem, it’s really only an explanation of the ideas and associations that make me respond to the poem as I do.

I want to glance briefly at how the long Elpenor passage in Section II plays against the short reference to Socrates in Section III – at least in my mind.

Elpenor is a recurring figure in Seferis’s poems and essays. In the Odyssey, he was the youngest of Odysseus’s companions on the journey home. After Odysseus had subdued the witch Circe she told him he could find the way back to Ithaca by going to the land of the dead to ask directions of the ghost of the prophet Tiresias. Elpenor had gone to sleep drunk on Circe’s roof; hearing the crew preparing to launch ship he fell off the roof and broke his neck.

The ineffectuality of the Elpenor figure in “Thrush II” is obvious. He’s muttering rapidly, urgently trying to engage the woman he speaks to; she hardly attends to him, speaks briefly and dismissively when she speaks at all, and peremptorily interrupts him in mid sentence to break the conversation off completely. I think that even without the reference to Elpenor we would think of him as young because of his garrulousness, the sheer tumbling urgency of his attempt to explain his feelings to her when she’s so blatantly not interested in him or them, the naive sincerity that makes him unable either to stop himself or to adjust what he says to put it in a form that might be more persuasive to her, and the way idealism and sensuality are fused in his feelings. There’s a lovely delicacy of sound and suppleness of flow to the way his outpourings are phrased by Keeley and Sherrard, though I can’t say how true this is to the style of the Greek[ii]. Some of his images are images of terror, oppression or remorse. One can interpret these intellectually in terms of the ambiguity of the Greek cultural inheritance, both inspiring and overwhelming, but intellectual interpretation isn’t the point, as Seferis tells us in the prose passage I quoted at the beginning. The real point is to feel them as a way of experiencing (among many other things) what it is like to live with the sense of such a legacy.  Other images are intensely  sensuous in a way that fuses voluptuousness and erotic yearning with chastity (the coolness, the moonlight, the delicacy and evanescence of the images, the earnestness of the attempt to understand and explain):

                     And yet the statues
bend sometimes, dividing desire in two,
like a peach; and the flame
becomes a kiss on the limbs, then a sob,
then a cool leaf carried off by the wind;
they bend; they become light with a human weight.
You don’t forget it.’

In a way these statues with their “strange virginity” are reminiscent of the figures sculpted on Keats’s Grecian urn, so vibrant with variously touching and intoxicating suggestions of life, so haunting in the way they stir human feeling but themselves ultimately “cold”. But for the reader of Seferis they and their coldness have a very different meaning. Seferis’s concern isn’t with the intersection of timelessness with time, it’s with the relation between being Greek now and the Hellenism of antiquity. Within the poem the Elpenor figure can neither escape the statues’ imaginative power nor, it seems, take it anywhere or do anything with it. The effect remains locked within his own fevered subjectivity. Without my seeing any definite evidence for this it feels to me as if Seferis shares both the young man’s yearning to grasp more fully the mysterious messages and promises that the statues appear to offer and his frustration at his inability to do so, or to communicate his feelings to the woman he’s speaking to. The yearning may be frustrated because the statues’ spells and promises are illusory or because Elpenor is too weak and self-involved to seize them properly or because the disastrousness and corruption of the present crushes the possibility of doing so.

However, Section III does make one feel the continuing power of another inheritance from Greek antiquity in the short allusion to Socrates. This is a power that survives the disastrousness of German occupation and the repression preceding the Greek civil war just as it survived the death sentence on Socrates at the beginning of the fourth century BC. It is a power marked by calm, by stillness, by immoveable self-possession, by selflessness, and has an intrinsic moral weight that doesn’t need to be spelled out. I find the moment when we hear Socrates immensely moving:

And then the voice of the old man reached me; I felt it
falling into the heart of day,
quietly, as though motionless:
‘And if you condemn me to drink poison, I thank you.
Your law will be my law; how can I go
wandering from one foreign country to another, a rolling stone.
I prefer death.
Whose path is for the better only God knows.’


We know that the old man is Socrates because his words are based on Socrates’s speech in Plato’s Apology, although what has immediately preceded his appearance might have led us to expect Tiresias (the previous five lines are based on Odysseus’s visit to the land of the dead when he offers blood to the ghosts so that they can speak to him and specifically so that Tiresias can tell him the way home).

In ‘Letter on “The Thrush”’ Seferis writes

I try to understand how it came about that in “The Thrush” I had to substitute Socrates for Tiresias. My first answer is that I saw elsewhere the tones that were necessary for the ensemble that I was attempting to complete; the idea of the Theban never even occurred to me. Then – autobiographically – because the Apology is one of the books that has most influenced me in my life; perhaps because my generation has grown up and lived in this age of injustice. Thirdly because I have a very organic feeling that identifies humaneness with the Greek landscape.

I think there’s a fundamental point that Seferis doesn’t make anything of here, perhaps because it is so obvious. Elpenor failed to get home. Socrates the Athenian is home and is saying he would rather die than go into exile, and that being sentenced to death by his country’s laws doesn’t affect his commitment to her and love of her. In the context of Seferis’ work, with his utter dedication to Greece and at the same time his sense of contemporary Greeks as exiles from their own cultural heritage and being, with his recurring images of exile and of the search for homecoming, this moment has immensely powerful resonances both of bitterness at contemporary Greece’s injustice and of an inspiring example of how to meet such injustice.


[i] ‘Letter on “The Thrush”’, from On the Greek Style, by George Seferis, translated by Rex Warner and Th. D. Frangopoulos

[ii] I can see that the translation sticks very closely to the meaning and even generally to the word order of the original, but of course even very close translation of this kind throws up a multitude of choices between words with quite different phonetic qualities. I’ve just been looking at the Rex Warner translation in On the Greek Style and it seems to me both less close to the original in the fine detail of meaning and less aurally graceful.

3 Responses to “Yorgos Seferis, “Thrush” – 3 Yearning for Home”

  1. tom clark said:

    Oct 27, 12 at 8:09 am

    “I have a very organic feeling that identifies humaneness with the Greek landscape.”

    This is why, perhaps, when you get round to using my post on Memory I, as proposed, your eager readers may not “need to scroll past the picture” (a Greek landscape as it happens) quite so rapidly as implied by your teacherly directive.

    (Though of course each of us has/her own definition of “to need”, that most mightily overworked of all verbs, in these late and hasty days beyond memory…)

  2. edmund said:

    Oct 27, 12 at 3:03 pm

    Tom, I realise now that I was unintentionally rude and I apologise. Your quotation is a justified rebuke. You’re absolutely right that Seferis’s poems are steeped in Greek landscapes. Your pictures serve the poem in a way I hope people in the reading group found, and I want to thank you for making this lovely poem generally available.

  3. edmund said:

    Oct 27, 12 at 3:18 pm

    Tom – cont. I’m not sure how to add comments to your blog, though I’ve just tried. I stumbled on it looking for a web text of Memory I itself. I’ve had time to glance at it a little more and see what a rich resource it is. If you pick this up I’d be grateful if you could guide me through what seems a more complicated commenting process than the WordPress one.

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