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Giorgos Seferis

Full name: Giorgos Seferis

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Seferis was born in Urla near Smyrna in Asia Minor (now İzmir, Turkey). His father, Stelios Seferiadis, was a lawyer, and later a professor at the University of Athens, as well as a poet and translator in his own right. He was also a staunch Venizelist and a supporter of the demotic Greek language over the formal, official language (katharevousa). Both of these attitudes influenced his son. In 1914 the family moved to Athens, where Seferis completed his secondary school education. He continued his studies in Paris from 1918 to 1925, studying law at the Sorbonne. While he was there, in September 1922, Smyrna was occupied by the Turks and its Greek population, including Seferis' family, fled. Seferis would not visit Smyrna again until 1950; the sense of being an exile from his childhood home would inform much of Seferis' poetry, showing itself particularly in his interest in the story of Odysseus.


Seferis first visited Cyprus in 1952. He immediately fell in love with the island, partly because of its resemblance, in its landscape, the mixture of populations, and in its traditions, to his childhood summer home in Skala. His book of poems Imerologio Katastromatos III was inspired by the island, and mostly written there – bringing to an end a period of six or seven years in which Seferis had not produced any poetry. Its original title was Cyprus, where it was ordained for me…, a quotation from Euripides’ Helen, in which Helen’s brother Teucer states that Apollo has decreed that Cyprus shall be his home; it made clear the optimistic sense of homecoming Seferis felt on discovering the island. Seferis changed the title in the 1959 edition of his poems.

Politically, Cyprus was entangled in the dispute between the UK, Greece and Turkey over its international status. Over the next few years, Seferis made use of his position in the diplomatic service to strive towards a resolution of the Cyprus dispute, investing a great deal of personal effort and emotion. This was one of the few areas in his life in which he allowed the personal and the political to mix.

In 1963, Seferis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his eminent lyrical writing, inspired by a deep feeling for the Hellenic world of culture." Seferis was the first Greek to receive the prize (and the only, until Odysseas Elytis became a Nobel laureate in 1979). His nationality, and the role he had played in the 20th century renaissance of Greek literature and culture, were probably a large contributing factor to the award decision. But in his acceptance speech, Seferis chose to emphasise his own humanist philosophy, concluding: "When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: 'Man'. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus."  While Seferis has sometimes been considered a nationalist poet, his 'Hellenism' had more to do with his identifying a unifying strand of humanism in the continuity of Greek culture and literature.

In 1941 Seferis married Marika Zannou, who had two young daughters. They had met on vacation in 1936. At that time Seferis had ended his relationship with Loukia ("Lou") Fotopoulou; a highly educated woman who lived apart from her husband; she died in 1939. Marika was first married to Andreas Londos, a former officer, who went back to navy after working in odd jobs without regular income. During WW II Seferis accompanied Greek government officials into exile, living in Crete, Egypt, South Africa, and Italy. After the war he held diplomatic posts in Lebanon (1953-57), Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, and served as the Greek ambassador in London from 1957 to 1962. "Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me," he once said. Seferis's first publication in English, The King of Assine and Other Poems, appeared in 1948. During the Cyprus crisis in the 1950s, he contributed to the negotiations that resulted in the London Agreement (1959), making Cyprus independent of British rule.

Seferis's years as a diplomat in several countries made him a modern Odysseus. The theme of wandering was further developed in the persona of Stratis Thalassinos in three collections, Logbooks, written in Albania, South Africa and in Italy (1940-65). The last collection, Logbook 3, was dedicated to the people of Cyprus. Seferis retired from governmental service in 1962 and settled in Athens. In 1969 he declared his opposition to the Papadopoulos dictatorship after the military coup of 1967, becoming popular with the younger generation in Greece. Seferis also expressed his fears about the triumph of commercial culture and once told of his dream in which the Parthenon was auctioned off to become an advertisement, "every column a gigantic tube of toothpaste." Seferis died on September 20, 1971.