To George Seferis in the Underworld

The epigraph is quoted from Roderick Beaton’s George Seferis, Waiting for the Angel. It sets off a number of lines of interest in Heaney: how the poet appears to observers, his thought and preoccupations mistaken for absent-mindedness; the poet’s mental search to retrieve information; the extraordinary associations that the ‘poet’ dreams up in response to objects (here Heaney responds to ‘spiky’ sharpness); above all however Heaney recognises in Seferis a man like himself, reluctant to take political sides in public.

Heaney portrays Seferis standing in asphodel. The plant which grows wild in Greece is the same immortal flower that grew in Elysium (the abode of the blessed after death in classical Antiquity), a rightly appropriate setting for a poet of Seferis’ stature. Heaney’s chosen symbol is a very different grass of Celtic origin: why do I think seggans?

He recalls a particular moment in the year of the poet’s death, your days of ’71, witnessed by the mythological god of the sea as Seferis stood on an actual Greek promontory south of Athens. The spot was all ozone-breeze and cavern-boom, rich, living sense data not impinging on Seferis’ consciousness: too utterly this-worldly, George, for you.

The Greek’s mind is elsewhere, intent upon an otherworldly scene, as he struggles to assemble facts that lie in the back of a mind threatened by memory loss : just beyond/ the summit ridge, the cutting edge/ of not remembering.

Engaged in an intellectual struggle the poet reacts a touch cantankerously to the bright sunlight: The bloody light. To hell with it./ Close eyes and concentrate.

His pursuit of ‘meaning’ does not derive from a narrative based on Jesus of Galilee condemned to his fate in a Herod’s court but rather (and Heaney pictures the ‘eureka’ moment) from something remembered from Plato: the hackle-spiked fate tyrants were justly subjected to in Tartarus, as they were torn to shreds in the Underworld pit of Hell by the very asphodel Seferis is standing in: A harrowing, yes, in hell, flayed with thorny aspalathoi. Heaney approves such a fate: As was only right for a tyrant.

Heaney (knowing his own reluctance) reflects upon the stance adopted by Seferis (for you). He speculates on the reasons why political events around Seferis (despite his acknowledged inner anger) have not yet pushed him into public anti-tyrant statement: maybe/ too much i’ the right, too black and white/ if still your chance to strike/ against his ilk.

Heaney acknowledges the need of timing before delivering public utterances that deplored the current state of affairs: a last word meant to break/ your much contested silence. Seferis did ultimately make a statement and became a symbol of free expression and freedom especially in the minds of young Greeks.

Heaney’s preoccupation (for me) is to assess his own ‘weaponry’: a chance to test the edge of seggans, dialect blade, etymologically stronger (it shares its root with the word for ‘sword’) than its appearance suggests: hoar and harder and more hand-to-hand than what is common usage nowadays.

His seggans does not possess the sharp edge of Seferis’ aspalathoi: sedge – marshmallow, rubber-dagger stuff. When it comes to political expressions in public others are made, perhaps, of sterner stuff than he.

    • 37 lines in stanzas of different lengths; lines between 4 and 10 syllables; nor formal rhyme scheme; varied punctuation and use of enjambment;
    • Initial sound effects couple [i:] greeny/ feet  [ai] rightly/ I with labio-dental consonant [f] stuff/ feet/ asphodel;
    • stanza 2  introduces different sound flavours adding assonant [ei] day/ days/ waves/ Cape/ name and [uː] Sounion/ boom/ you/ too,  [ʌ] utterly/ upon/ otherworldly/ somewhere just/ summit/ cutting to clusters of sibilant [s] and [z] consonants;
    • repeated –ly;
    • stanza 3: assonant [ai]  of light/ eyes/ later spikes/ tyrant’s; [e] of hell/ concentrate/ sceptre/ Herod’s giving way to [æ] ha/ had A harrowing/ hackle- amidst a cluster of aspirant [h] ha/ had A harrowing/ hell/ hackle;  [ei] Plato/ fate/ flayed alongside [au] bound/ down with alliterative [fl] flung/ flayed/ flesh [θ] voiceless dental fricative thorny/ aspalathoi/ threw;
    • in stanza 4 assonant [ai]  recurs: right/ tyrant/ right/ white/ strike/ silence interwoven with [ɪstill/ i’/ if still/ ilk and alliterative alveolar [t];
    • the final lines feature [e] test/ edge/ seggans, dialect and [ɔː] hoar/ more amongst aspirant consonant: hoar/ harder/ hand-to-hand;             
    • rubber-dagger: once a non-dangerous toy for children intent on play-fighting; also used in theatre to avoid injury; its use may betray Heaney’s view of his own refusal of public utterance;

Points de départ:

  • George Seferis (1900-1971): Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1963. His background: he came from Smyrna in Greece with its Homer connection; his diplomatic career took him far from home and made of him a twentieth century Odysseus, wandering, exiled and yearning for home;
  • Seferis is dead; Heaney’s title is one of five in the collection that allude to death; here he uses the Greek classical reference to the Underworld . The poem’s ‘action’ would appear to take place very shortly before Seferis’s death in 1971.
  • Seferis witnessed the1967 military coup in Greece following which a junta of  ‘Colonels’ ruled for 7 years using a puppet government; correspondingly Heaney was caught up political turmoil surrounding the Irish ‘Troubles’.
  • Seferis is reported as having been particularly opposed to ‘puppet’ Prime Minister Papadopoulos; Heaney hints that, rightly or wrongly, he and Seferis were both reluctant to take sides in public.
  • There are two plants in this poem both with ‘violent’ potential: spiky Greek asphodel; the Celtic seggans, a grass which shares its root with the word for ‘sword’;
  • In dialogue with Denis O’Driscoll (Stepping Stones, Faber, p388) Heaney provides insights into the provenance of this poem:  I ‘was [particularly fascinated by the account of what he went through during the time of the Colonels (a military junta replaced democratic government in Greece between 1967 -1974): under huge pressure to speak out against the régime, but reluctant – temperamentally and as a former diplomat – to join a chorus on the left. In the end he did issue a statement deploring the state of affairs …’