Unity and Fragmentation of the Speaking Past
Representations of the Classical Voice in Byron, Seferis, and Capetanakis
By Eleanora Colli, 12th August 2019
(Based on a paper given at the 2019 International Student Conference in Messolonghi, for which Eleanora received a Byron Society Grant).
Byron’s “The Isles of Greece”, an ode inserted within the larger framework of Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824), is famously and widely considered an hymn to the liberation of the Greek state from Ottoman occupation. As an inspirational song of freedom and independence, “The Isles of Greece” calls onto the Greek ancient and classical past in order to inspire the revolution. Starting from this use of the classics as a source of nationalist pride and revolution, I will compare Byron’s portrayal of the ancient past and its speaking voice to Seferis’ relation with myth and mythical voices in Mythistorema (1935), particularly influenced by the context of the Asia Minor Disaster and thus similarly interested with issues of national identity and independence. As this essay shall display, the two works present drastically different portrayals of the voice of the ancient past: while the nationalist aim of “The Isles of Greece” allows for the representation of the voice of the past as a united and politically loud and secure cry, the Greek crisis following the Greek-Turkish war and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1922 cause Seferis’ communication with the ancient past to be fragmented and silenced. I will then observe, through my analysis of Byron and Seferis, recurrent issues of unity and fragmentation in the voices of the past as influenced by the national context of Greece, as a continuous source of dispute over political and literary identities.
In Benedict Anderson’s seminal work Imagined Communities (1983), Modern Greece is considered as the topic example of a nation which continuously has to deal with its recollection of the past, and whose history of independence and nation-formation is characterised by a ‘modular, “continuous” awakening from a chronologically gauged, A.D.-style slumber’ (Anderson, 2016). More than any other modern nation, then, Modern Greece is constantly characterised has having to recollect, re-imagine, and re-interpret the ancient past of myth and epic. Fundamentally, this becomes a significant issue in the literature of Greece as well: analysing how nations are narrated and presented through literary texts, in fact, Bhabha sees the nation as operating ‘a continual displacement of its irredeemably plural modern space […] into a signifying space that is archaic and mythical’ (Bhabha, 2013). While the plurality of spaces brought together by nationalist narratives can be portrayed in different ways, I will here focus on the coming together of ‘the people-as-one’ (Bhabha, 2013) into a single and harmonised poetical voice, where diverging cries unite for the national cause: by contrast, plurality of voices can instead portray a site of struggle for the work of the nation. Taking into account the process of independence, unification, and the history of Modern Greece, then, my discussion will tackle the question of whether it is possible for the classical past of Greece to be portrayed as a unified identity and voice only for the purpose of nationalistic enterprises. As this essay shall argue, a solution and a compromise to the question of the speaking past, portrayed as a loud entity in Byron and a fragmented whisper in Seferis, can be found in Capetanakis’ “The Isles of Greece” (1981), as a direct response to Byron and an explicit discussion on the influence of the mythical past over Modern Greece. Byron’s “The Isles of Greece” will then constitute my starting point for a wider discussion on representations of the voice of the ancient past in the modern national context of Greece.
Byron’s dedication to the Greek cause, in both literary and political terms, explicitly connects representations of the classical past to their political and national value. According to Beaton, Byron considered the Revolution of 1821 as an ‘outlet whereby the liberal/nationalist politics of his poetry could be transformed into political action’ (Beaton, 2010). This transformation from the literary to the political also caused a shift in Byron’s own interest in the classical past of Greece, further explicated within his poetry. “The Isles of Greece” in fact shows a recollection of the ancient past that serves not just to literary but also political and nationalistic purposes: here, mythical Greece is recollected and unified to serve to the national cause. The voice of the past is therefore transported into the present, and unified to serve one single ideological purpose. This is evident from the very beginning of the poem, which laments the lost glory of the Greek landscape, first and foremost identified through its literary and political value:
The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace[…] But all, except their sun, is set. (“The Isles of Greece”, stanza I)
The invocation to the isles is followed not by a description of their landscape or history: instead, they are identified through their literary tradition and the poet Sappho, who here notably becomes the patron not of the isle of Lesbos in particular, but of the entire Greek archipelagos. This erasure of the nuanced history of the Greek isles, which are historically distinctly different from one another, is in tune with the process of national unification expressed by the poem at large: as Balibar states, in fact, ‘the ideological form’ of the nation becomes ‘an a priori condition […] not by suppressing all differences, but by relativizing them and subordinating them to itself’ (Balibar, 1990). Here, then, the multiplicity of the Greek islands is recognised only to be subordinated to the larger signifier of the Greek nation as a whole, in its literary and political value.
Despite this characterisation, however, the poem is quick to remind its readers that the symbols of the ancient past do not unify the Greek state anymore. This is underlined in the second stanza of the poem, where Byron claims that the voices of the muses and the sounds of the lyres resound everywhere, but ‘their place of birth alone is mute’ (stanza II). Greece’s impossibility to speak is immediately associated to its lack of freedom and independence, noted by the speaker of the poem in the third stanza through the insertion of his own speaking voice: ‘I dream’d that Greece might still be free’ (stanza III). The battle of Marathon is remembered as a mythical example of the Greek quest for freedom, showing how ‘even on the battlefield the Greeks were judged not on their own terms but according to the criteria of their classical predecessors’ (Jusdanis, 1991). The remembrance of this event also serves as a transition from the past to the present, thus encouraging the Greek audience to repeat the heroic feats of their ancestors. This is displayed in the connection between the fourth and fifth stanza:
And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set, where were they?
And where are they? and where art thou,
My country? (stanzas IV-V)
The question ‘where were they?’ prompts the speaker to face his own country in the present: ‘And where are they?’. The evocation of past feats therefore stands as a call to arms in the present, thus bringing the two temporal planes together in the direct address to the Greek nation: ‘where art thou, my country?’. Evoking again the first two lines of the poem, where the literary and political value of Greece are paired together, the speaker again comments ‘On thy voiceless shore | The heroic lay is tuneless now’ (stanza V). The reasoning for this connection is displayed in the sixth stanza: the question ‘For what is left the poet here?’ (stanza VI) explicates the connection between lack of political freedom and lack of literary aspiration, judging a country as artistically prolific only when liberated by external influences and thus united as one independent nation: literature, then, becomes here ‘the imaginary mirror in which the nation reflected itself’ (Jusdanis, 1991). The speaking voice then again encourages to a call to arms, this time specifically through the revival of the voice of the past:
What, silent still? and silent all?
Ah! no;—the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent’s fall,
And answer, ‘Let one living head,
But one, arise,—we come, we come!’ (stanza VIII)
The intertwining of political and cultural values shows how ‘the resurrection of Greece […] was connected with a new spiritual, political, or cultural revival’ (Roessel, 2001). The following stanzas, starting with the invocation ‘Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!’ (stanzas XI-XV) continue their revival and appraisal of lost Greek cultural and artistic practices, which will be reanimated through Greek’s independence. The structuring of the final stanzas as a toast suggest a communal experience in voicing the revival of such practices, thus unifying not only the ‘voices of the dead’ through their description as ‘a distant torrent’s fall’ and ‘one living head’, but also the voices in the present through their union in the celebration of the ancient past. The past of ancient Greece is therefore reanimated and united by Byron in both its artistic and political value, as one single voice across both past and present which will ultimately re-establish the freedom and independence of the Greek nation. The nationalist cause is able to unify and unite, lifting together voices of different temporal planes and subsuming particularities under one speaking voice.
Despite this unity of voice, it is important to remember the context of “The Isles of Greece”, as a poem inserted within the larger framework of Don Juan. The ode is in fact sung by a ‘Poet, a sad trimmer’, who ‘had travelled ’mongst the Arabs, Turks, and Franks, | And knew the Self-loves of the different nations’: he then, when required to sing, ‘gave the different nations something National’ (Don Juan, Canto III, stanzas 82-85). The song of nationalism is then portrayed again as a unified one, with common rules, ideals, and symbols across nations and peoples: the fictionality and continuous repetition of the national hymn is ironically underlined by the lines closing the hymn, reciting ‘Thus sung, or would, or could, or should have sung, | The modern Greek, in tolerable Verse’ (Canto III, stanza 87). This framework of “The Isles of Greece” distances Byron as author and singer of the ancient past, and further puts into question the possibility of a real and meaningful unification of the voice of the ancient past: it is not the isles who are singing, it is a ‘sad trimmer’; and it is not a song purposefully written for Greece, but instead readapted from what the singer has heard across his travels. While “The Isles of Greece” portrays a unified voice of the ancient past, then, the framework of Don Juan shows the ideological construction of such a voice and questions its possibility, as a ‘form of a national imaginary’s self-occultation’ (Gourgouris, 1996). The ‘paradox of the evocation of antiquity by the nation’ (Hamilakis, 2007) shown by Byron will remain, also due to the influence of the poet on Central European representations of Greece, a fundamental issue within both the politics and literary tradition of Greece: the issue of Greek independency, in both the political and literary sense, will in fact play a fundamental role in the poetry of George Seferis, although in a very different time and age.
Seferis wrote in the fact during the time of the Asia Minor Catastrophe and Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. His main poem, Mythistorema, was published in 1935 and written following the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which caused a great number of Greek and Turkish people to be displaced and exiled. The Treaty of Lausanne was in fact the product of a ‘Convention concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations’, and decided the arbitrary division of Greek and Turkish people based solely on religious customs and differences between Christian Orthodox and Muslim conventions. Like national identity played a fundamental role in Byron’s times and for his writings, as something which needed to be reclaimed from Ottoman occupation, national identity was in Seferis’ time put at risk by arbitrary divisions following a period of war and destruction. Seferis himself had to flee, in his youth, his home-island of Smyrna, taken by the Turks in 1922. His poetry is therefore focused on issues of displacement and re-homing, tackling the question of national identity in both political and literary terms.
The issue of a fully realised Greek national identity after the 18th and 19th century was not an issue just for Seferis but also for the wider Greek population at large. In terms of literary production, Byron’s influence and claim of fame over Greece had shed the land in a positive light, and yet prevented future developments in the artistic field: as Roessel states, the imagining of Greece coming from central Europe consolidated the status of Modern Greece ‘as a rural Arcadia and with strong Romantic associations’ (Roessel, 2001), which left the artistic production with no future possible direction, instead forced to repeat its ancient past. Considering these issues, Seferis’ Mythistorema is, from the very title of the poem, constituted of the two terms myth and history, explicitly concerned with the interlacing of the ancient past of classical Greece but also its present and actual situation. Famously, ‘a crucial ingredient in Seferis’s poetry’ is ‘what Keeley called his insistence on ‘“the contemporary Greek reality always”’ (Roessel, 2001). This insistence is expressed in Mythistorema through the portrayal of a struggle for identity and expression in the context of Modern Greece: like Byron, Seferis focuses on the idea of the voice and self-expression in his poem. While Byron’s voices, however, reunite for the national cause, the context of the Asia Minor Catastrophe and particularly the question of national identity heightened by the Graeco-Turkish war silences and disrupts the voice of the ancient past in Seferis.
The complications of national identity and expression after 1922 cause in fact the impossibility to communicate with the ancient past of Classical Greece, as shown by the general plot of Mythistorema as the story of a collective we waiting for years for an angel that would show them the ‘age-old drama’ and thus the classical past. The recollection of the ancient voice is not easily performed like in Byron, instead leaving the participants of the travels burdened down and silenced by the experience:
We returned to our homes broken,
limbs incapable, mouths cracked
by the tastes of rust and brine.
We brought back
these carved reliefs of a humble art. (Mythistorema, Poem 1)
The ending of the first two verses brings together the idea of the ‘homes broken’ with ‘mouths cracked’, thus underlining the impossibility to speak caused by displacement and exile and thus the complications of national identity and belonging. Despite the fact that the first poem ends with a positive note in the recovering of the ‘humble art’ and transferring of such an art in the present, then, this re-evocation and revival does not offer a full voice in the present, where communication is still impeded.
This impossibility of communication is influenced in two different directions, both from the context of the present situation and the difficulty at recovering the ancient past, which is constantly portrayed in Seferis as fragmented, silenced, decaying. This is particularly evident in the third poem of Mythistorema, this time voiced by a single first person and thus especially underlining this struggle of communication for Seferis and thus for the figure of the poet. Seferis stars out by saying: ‘I woke with this marble head in my hands; […] so our life became one and it will be very difficult for it to separate again’ (Poem 3). The ancient past thus arrives in a dream to become a new symbol of the present. This element joins the cultural phenomenon of the ‘reinterpretation of the concept of resurrection in secular terms, in terms of the Greek homeland and its people’ (Beaton and Ricks, 2009): here, however, it is not a living person who manages to arrive in the present, but instead the burden of a heavy marble head. Communication with the past is thus impeded by its lack of life:
I look at the eyes: neither open nor closed
I speak to the mouth which keeps trying to speak
I hold the cheeks which have broken through the skin. That’s all I’m able to do. (Poem 3)
The ancient past is thus trying to communicate to the present, but without success: the struggle of identity and nationality of the Asia Minor Catastrophe does not allow for any communication, in its constant search for belonging and re-building of Greece as ‘an other Greece […] signified as a nostalgia’ (Gourgouris, 1996). Communication is in fact further impeded not just by the by the impossibility of the ancient past to communicate, but also by a multiplicity of languages, explicitly referring to the increasing complexities of nationality and belonging after the Treaty of Lausanne. This is particularly evident in Mythistorema poem 8:
What are they after, our souls, travelling
on the decks of decayed ships
[…] murmuring broken thoughts from foreign languages.
nor yours. (Poem 8)
The explicit evocation of the situation of refugees and displaced people after the Treaty of Lausanne is here again paired with impossibility of communication, as expressed by ‘murmuring broken thoughts from foreign languages. The voice in Seferis is therefore constantly problematised as a mean of communication in order to tackle both past and present political and literary issues: a possibility of hope is, however, given later on in Mythistorema through the figure of the monster Hydra.
Your eyes, watching, would be beautiful,
your arms, reaching out, would glow,
your lips would come alive, as they used to,
at such a miracle. (Poem 13)
The evocation of the Hydra is particularly significant when thinking of the multiple heads of the monster, thus bringing together possibility of communication with witnessing multiplicity of voices. In Hydra, then, Seferis finds a figure of hope and compromise for the future of Modern Greece, where communication and voice is not resolved or established yet.
Seferis’ desire and struggles for Greek identity and expression are a fundamental theme throughout all of his writings. In his theoretical essays, he mentions that ‘“Greek Hellenism” […] has not yet been created and has not yet recovered its tradition. For this particular Hellenism will only show its face when the Greece of today has acquired its own real intellectual character and features’ (Seferis, 1967), symbolising how ‘Modern Greece as an entity did not exist but remained in a state of becoming’ (Roessel, 2001), in spite of the attempted recovery of the ancient past. The literary medium of poetry then serves a double function for Seferis, as both a ‘stadium in which to fight for change and the instrument for achieving it’ (Yaşın, 2000), and as tackling the issue of ‘whether poetry was possible at all’ (Ricks, 1989) in this impossibility of communication. It is true, then, that for Seferis ‘the anachrosim is the whole point’ (Keeley, 1983), struggling between the fixed identity of the past and the struggle for nationality in the present, portrayed through the fragmented voices of Classical Greece. While Seferis seems to hint at a solution through Hydra, however, the voice remains broken and the gap between past and present is never bridged, further thematising the issues of nationality and voices of the past presented by Byron. A proposed solution will instead be suggested by a more contemporary poet, Demetrios Capetanakis.
Similarly to Seferis, who was involved in the wider landscape of European literature and politics through his role as a diplomat and his engagement with English modernism, Demetrios Capetanakis was also concerned with the meaning of national identity within the context of modern Europe and his own life experience in both Greece and England. Again following Seferis’ writings, Capetanakis’ production is equally interesting and interested with national and literary identity in both his essays and poetry. His ‘rootedness in and struggle with the hellenic tradition are palpable’ (Kantzia, 2018): the two poets’ most famous essays, in fact, respectively tackle issues of nationality and true Hellenism. Capetanakis “The Greeks Are Human Beings” is specifically focused on trying to re-instate a vision of Greece and Greek people as not heroised from the Homeric epic, or romanticised from the English tradition: taking from Virginia Woolf, Capetanakis proposes a model of the Greek people as a new Orlando, able to transform and easily move across time and space without the burdens of their previous travels and incarnations. To him, ‘what matters is not history as history, but human beings. What matters is the Greeks of today and what will become of them. What now matters is humanity and what will become of it’ (Lehmann, 1947). Capetanakis therefore proposes a new model of national and literary identity, where the purpose is not to go back to the ancient past or trying to let it speak, instead focusing on Greek future potentialities.
This, of course, does not mean that Capetanakis did not interact with the ancient past at all in his poetry. Instead, he suggests a drastic reworking of it through the re-interpretation of cardinal literary works that shaped and influenced the understanding of Modern Greece and its national identity, proposing a new method for what Seferis was looking for: a new way for Greece to understand ‘her ancient tradition, which is known to her’ predominantly ‘through foreign sources’ (Seferis, 1967). This is achieved in Capetanakis’ arguably most famous poem, going back to Byron, through a re-interpretation of “The Isles of Greece” and its meaning for national identity. Despite the title of the poem being the exact same as Byron’s, the poems are drastically different in their representation of how the ancient past can communicate with modern and present times. This is clearly explicated in the second stanza of the poem:
With stubborn tongues of briny death
And heavy snakes of fir,
Which writhe and hiss and crack the Greek Myth of the singing lyre. (“The Isles of Greece”, lines 5-8)
Again, voice and sound here play a fundamental role. The reference to the ‘singing lyre’ seems to be answering Byron’s question: ‘And must thy lyre, so long divine, | Degenerate into hands like mine?’ (“The Isles of Greece”, stanza V). While the response seems to be affirmative, given the description of the sound as one which ‘writhe and hiss and crack’, the possibility of communication and singing is not completely precluded, as instead described in Byron through the initial silencing of the Greek singer. Similarly, the Greek landscape is in itself able to respond, again unlike in Byron where ‘their place of birth alone is mute’ (“The Isles of Greece”, stanza II): here, instead, ‘the dusty fig-tree cries for help’ (“The Isles of Greece”, line 9). Despite the constant decaying of the Greek landscape and of Greek art, then, the nation and its literary tradition are still able to respond and communicate, without being united for a nationalist cause. This is a drastic difference not just with Byron’s imagining and re-evoking of the ancient past only as a tool of nation-building, but also with Seferis and its mourning of the dead and silent past of Ancient Greece.
The difference with Seferis is better portrayed in the third stanza: here, Capetanakis states that ‘in our rocky heart the gods | Of marble hush and break’ (“The Isles of Greece”, lines 11-12). Like in Seferis, the ancient past is here fragmented and ruined: despite this, however, it is still able to speak. The voice is here not unified nor loud and inspirational, like in Byron, but instead a subtle and yet still present murmur. As Emmanuela Kantzia states, ‘in Seferis’ Mythistorema (1934), for example, ancient greek monuments and statues are depicted as broken or fragmented, relics of a heritage that weighs the poet down and mutilates his hands. The danger Capetanakis perceives […] is the artist’s distancing […] from the external world. […] His call for a return to the classical, however, is articulated in uncertain terms’ (Kantzia). This return to the classical world, while also avoiding the dangers of a completely aestheticising trend where the ancient past is perceived as a burden, is articulated by Capetanakis in the fourth and final stanza:
Yet when the burning horses force
Apollo to dismount
And rest with us at last, he says
That beauty does not count. (“The Isles of Greece”, lines 17-20)
Here, the presence of Apollo in between the human and concrete world announces the possibility of communication with the ancient past. His message, however, is not the one conveyed in epic terms by Byron, where the ancient past and its aesthetic have to be completely revived for the national cause: instead, the rural context here presents Apollo as speaking with common people, going back to a more folkloristic interpretation of Greece as a people and not necessarily as nation. Additionally, his message denies the utility and futurity of the revival of the past aesthetic: ‘beauty does not count’, what counts, instead, is the lived experience of the past as a murmur and an echo which can be listened to but not completely resuscitated. Capetanakis’ “The Isles of Greece” then finds a middle ground between Byron’s speaker and Seferis’ impossibility of communication: while the past cannot be united under a single national voice, the classical past still echoes within Modern Greece, where fragmentation and multiplicity do not impede communication. The Greek past remains as an echo without a constructive message for future identities, but still as an influence and lived experience between the people in its distant and yet present history.
With “The Isles of Greece”, Capetanakis therefore manages to answer his own question: ’Who can say what is more real: a living human being or a “real” poem?’ (Lehmann, 1947). A real poem, and real literature, does not stem from ideological constructions, which suppress together past and present into one single unified unit, but instead from the reality of the present, where the murmur of the past still echoes while allowing for a new Greek future to be built. Capetanakis, Byron, Seferis, as this essay has shown, thus all deal with how Greece might, in its several modern articulations as an independent nation, communicate with its ancient past. While Byron distances himself from the Greek singer portrayed in Don Juan, the answer he presents is a forceful suppression of past and present and a simple reviving of the ancient Greek past for modern purposes, without tackling the question of a new-found Greek literary language. This is in concordance with the assumption that ‘the space of the modern nation-people is never simply horizontal’ (Bhabha, 2013), but always vertical in its bringing together different temporalities: nation-building is then based on a false suppression of past and present into one, as shown by Byron. Refusing such a nationalistic interpretation of literature and writing, Seferis problematises this relationship by interrupting and fragmenting communication with the ancient past, further underlined by the impossibility of a clear national identity during the Asia Minor Catastrophe. Capetanakis, however, manages to find a middle ground for the voice of the ancient past: not a torrent or a loudly singing lyre, not a broken statue unable to speak, but the murmur of a humble god, who can dismount to advise his people, and yet not impose himself over future literary and national identities.
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