Wednesday 21 February 2024

Smyrna catastrophe in Oxford

H καταστροφή της Σμύρνης στην Οξφόρδη
Mr Eugenides and the burning of Smyrna, George Seferis and the Wasteland

This is the title of a lecture given in Oxford on 15 February by Alicia Stallings, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. She is an American classicist and poet who has lived in Athens for the last 25 years and is married to the Greek journalist, John Psaropoulos.
Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C.i.f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.
          The Waste Land
          TS Eliot (Part III – The Fire Sermon 207 – 214)
The catastrophe in Smyrna took place in mid-September 1922: Metropolitan Chrysostom was killed on the 9th and the fire started on the 13th which was some three weeks before the publication of The Waste Land by the eminent American poet, and adopted Englishman, TS Eliot. The events in Smyrna were the main news item for weeks in the UK and America (as can be seen on the background slide in the above photograph) and the first readers of The Waste Land would have been aware of these events.
Smyrna had been a prosperous cosmopolitan trading centre, but now over 300,000 refugees flooded into it, waiting on the quayside in the hope of being evacuated by sea. Several ‘allied’ ships moored in the harbour refusing at first to intervene on the grounds of neutrality. The concern of the western powers was the harm to trade.
The coincidence of dates perhaps had even more resonance on their 100th anniversary in 2022 by when The Waste Land had become a major work in British literature. The same year also marked the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysees with its own strong Greek connections.
George Seferis had been born in Smyrna in 1900 and left in 1914, never to return. He retained a lifelong nostalgia for the nearby seaside village of Scala (now Urla) where he spent his summers as a child, gazing out at the many ships.
Seferis first visited London in 1924 when he was unaware of The Waste Land. The ‘brown fog’ in the above passage was shocking to a Greek and Seferis was inspired by it to write his own poem ‘Fog – say it with a ukulele’, a poem in Greek to which he gave a title in English. The ukulele reference is to a popular song of the time written by Art Conrad.
There is no adequate Greek word for a proper English fog. There is perhaps some assonance between the Greek word ομίχλη and τσίχλα – a thrush. In his famous poem Κίχλη Seferis uses the ancient Greek word for thrush though, there, Thrush is the name of ship, not the bird, and the poem is concerned with Elpenor from the Odyssey.
It was during a thick fog, again in London, that Seferis first came across The Waste Land – in a bookshop on Oxford Street in 1932; he said he tasted death that day in the fog. Reading of the ships moored off Smyrna made him feel a strong nostalgia. Also chiming with him was the reference Tiresias, the blind seer, in the Odyssey. The following year Seferis embarked on his translation of The Waste Land into Greek.
It was a liberal translation in which he says he was striving, above all, to capture the emotion of the original so that his poem is a very Greek poem. Alicia Stallings showed several slides of the Seferis translation, highlighting particular words for the benefit of her largely English audience, and gave a close analysis of several of choices Seferis faced when translating particular words. The title he rendered as Έρημη Χώρα and at the top of the title page he set out prominently, almost as a sub-title, “1922” which is absent in the original. The line ‘Unreal city’ (the first line in the quoted passage above) he translated as ‘Ανύπαρχτη πολιτεία’, a broader word than ‘πόλις’.
He used Σμυρνικός, rather than Σμύρνα and perhaps saw in Μετροπόλ a resonance with the hanged Archbishop Chrysostom.
Seferis worked seven hours a day for many months on the translation and carried out extensive research. The experience was perhaps a strong influence on him when he came to write his own poem Κίχλη in 1946, during the civil war. This features a communication with the dead, as was the case in The Waste Land, and Tiresias reappears.
It will hopefully be clear from this account that the lecture was a rich experience of great literature, both English and Greek and a neat marrying up of the two.
The Professor of Poetry at Oxford holds office for four years, having been elected by a vote of the University’s graduates, and is required to deliver one public lecture each term. Her inaugural lecture, “The Bat Poet: Poetry as Echolocation” in November is now available on line at Professor of Poetry | Faculty of English ( and no doubt the present lecture will be available on this site shortly.
Richard Devereux

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