Wednesday, 25 March 2009

With swords to cut their path, and in freedom to stay

In Radio Akritas, I’ve made available three songs by Yiannis Markopoulos from The Free Besieged, taken from the poem by Dionysios Solomos. Irene Pappas, Nikos Xylouris, Lakis Halkias and Ilias Klonaridis perform the songs.

‘The events that formed the starting point of [Dionysios Solomos’] The Free Besieged were the protracted siege and capture of Missolonghi by a Turkish army, later joined by Egyptian reinforcements. Missolonghi had been a centre of the Greek insurrection from the beginning of the war of independence… and had already successfully withstood an earlier Turkish siege in 1822 – an event that Solomos had already celebrated in his Hymn to Liberty in 1823. The second siege lasted from April 1825 to April 1826. When all food supplies had run out and there was no hope of relief, the besieged Greeks decided that some of the menfolk of fighting age should burst out of the gates and attempt to lead the women and children to safety… while the rest would remain to defend the town to the death. Realising that freedom could not be attained in life, they opted for freedom in death; like Kazantzakis’ hero Kapetan Michalis in his novel Freedom and Death, the besieged of Missolonghi abandoned the watchword of the Greek War of Independence, namely Freedom or Death, opting instead for Freedom and Death.’ (Mackridge, Peter: Introduction to The Free Besieged and Other Poems).

Absolute silence of the tomb
Absolute silence of the tomb prevails on the plain;
Singing bird plucks a seed, and the mother envies it.
Hunger has darkened their eyes, on them the mother swears.
The brave Soulioti stands to one side and weeps:
‘Poor sombre rifle, why do I have you in my hand?
How burdensome you’ve become and the infidel knows it.’

Mother, magnanimous
Upon these ashes they conjure you…
The word, the work, the meaning…

Mother, magnanimous both in suffering and in glory,
Even if in the secret mystery your children ever live
In contemplation and in vision, how privileged my eyes,
These eyes of mine, to glimpse you in the deserted forest,
Which all of a sudden enveloped your immortal feet
(Look) with leaves of the Resurrection, with leaves of the Palm!
The divine footfall of yours I did not hear, I did not see,
Serene as the sky with all the fair attributes it has,
Of which so many sides are revealed and so many hidden;
But, Goddess, I cannot hear your voice,
And am I to offer it straight away to the Hellenic World?
Glory be to its black stone and to its dry grass too.

Exodus: with swords to cut their path
And I see in the distance the children and the brave women
About the flame they have lit and have painfully fuelled
With well-loved articles and modest marriage-beds,
Not moving, not lamenting, not even shedding a tear;
And a spark touches their hair and their worn-clothes;
Come quickly, ashes, so they can fill their hands.

They are ready in the relentless flood of weapons
With swords to cut their path, and in freedom to stay,
On that side with the comrades, on this with death.

Like the sun that suddenly cuts through dense and sombre clouds,
It strikes the mountains on its slopes and there! houses in the verdure.

And from where the sun rises
To where it goes down,

I did not set eyes on a place more glorious than this small threshing-floor.


Hermes said...

Some incredible poetry about our most important day! The height of Greek Romanticism and the Heptanesian School.

Some scholars say that all modern Greek poetry is based on two important figures: Solomos and Andreas Kalvos. Every modern Greek poet can be categorised as being from the Solomos or Kalvos school. Here is one of Kalvos's greatest, from his Odes, Philopatris:

The last verse is brilliant:

Ας μη μου δώση η μοίρα μου
εις ξένην γην τον τάφον·
είναι γλυκύς ο θάνατος
μόνον όταν κοιμώμεθα
εις την πατρίδα.

john akritas said...

'Let my fate not give me
a tomb on a strange shore;
death is sweet only
when we sleep in our own land.'

Indeed, indeed. Though, of course, Kalvos died in Lincolnshire – of all places – till Seferis arranged for his remains to be repatriated. Kalvos and Solomos are an interesting duo – Solomos who in his adult life never left Zakynthos and Kerkyra, while Kalvos, had a much more troubled and variegated existence. Both brilliant and fascinating men. I know Solomos better. Some of the lines in what is the Second Draft of the Free Besieged are astonishing:

'And her dress quite dark as the blood of a hare.'

Hermes said...

One of my favourite Solomos pieces is The Shark where an Englishman is killed by a shark. How perfect.

There is a talk on Kalvos at the Greek Festival of Sydney:

There are also good Solomos and Kalvos programs in the ERT archives. Unfortunately, the two poets never met each other although they came from the capital of Zakynthos.

john akritas said...

I was reading Philip Sherrard's essay on Solomos in The Marble Threshing Floor and he says that The Shark – written after an English soldier while swimming in a bay off Kerkyra was killed by a shark – is a metaphysical poem in which a man attains self-realisation through death; but I see it differently. The shark represents Greece and the solider the British, who were occupying the Heptanissa at the time.