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14) Jaroslav Seifert: Nobel Prize laureate still loved across generations

Jaroslav Seifert, photo: Hana Hamplová, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jaroslav Seifert was one of the greatest Czech poets of the 20th century and is the only Czech Nobel Prize winner for literature. He started his career as a proletarian poet in the early 1920s, moving on to become one of the leading figures of Czechoslovakia’s avant-garde movement. Seifert is admired for the clarity of his verses but also for his deeply felt love for his country. To this day, he remains one of the country’s most beloved poets.

Opening Poem (from The City in Tears, 1921)

An angular picture of suffering
is the town,
and it is the one great object that stands in your sight.
Reader, you open a plain and unpretentious book —
and here my song takes flight.
Although I look
upon the glory of the city, my heart it cannot overpower;
its majesty and greatness do not bewitch me;
I shall return to the mysterious embrace
of star, of wood and brook, of field and flower.
But so long as one of my brothers
is suffering, I cannot be happy
and, bitterly revolting against all
injustice, I shall long
continue, amid the suffocating smoke, to lean against a factory wall
and sing my song.

(from The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, Ewald Oser’s translation)

This is a poem from Jaroslav Seifert’s first volume of poetry, called City in Tears. Published in 1921, it was strongly influenced by the proletarian movement of the time.

Jaroslav Seifert was born in 1901 in the former working-class suburb of Žižkov and his working class background was enormously important to him, affecting not only his early poetry, but also his later work.

According to James Partridge, a former lecturer in Czech literature at the University of Oxford, who currently teaches at Charles University’s Faculty of Humanities, the spiritual connection with his birthplace was something that lasted throughout his life.

“The proletarian background that he had and the working-class nature of Žižkov is very present in the early collections. Out and out they belong to the proletarian movement in Czech poetry. The kind of themes that he was concerned with at the time never quite left his poetry.

“He always had a strong interest in the working man or the ordinary man. That had enormous influence both on the language of his poetry and on the thematic content of his poetry. 

Jaroslav Seifert, Karel Teige, photo: Public Domain

“So his background was hugely important and as I said, he never lost that connection with his background. So you can’t really separate Seifert from Žižkov. He is as much a poet of Žižkov as he is a poet of Prague.”

Although Seifert’s first two volumes of verse were openly proletarian in their concerns and nature, exploring the ideas of revolution and collectivism, their style didn’t quite match with Seifert’s character, says Mr Partridge; it is no surprise he moved on to the avant-garde Devětsil movement and then to the playful Poetism, a uniquely Czech movement.

“Broadly speaking, it’s the poetry of the everyday and of the modern. But unlike, let’s say, the proletarian poets that preceded it, it is also a poetry that is filled with playfulness, with celebration of modernism in many ways.

“So it grows out of proletarianism but it moves in a very different direction. It becomes much more focused on the individual rather than the collective and it also rejects a lot of ideological aspects of proletarians.

“It is important to say that it is not just carefree, fun poetry. There are deeper themes within Poetism. There is a strong engagement with the alienation of the modern man from life, with the role the city plays in the life of the modern man and so on.”

Seifert’s departure from proletarian poetry to Poetism was marked by his third volume of poems, On the Waves of TSF, in which his friend Karel Teige laid out his verses as striking typographical poems.

“Seifert went from proletarian poet to the kind of purest essence of Poetism in one jump with this particular collection. All of a sudden, he is combining verse with typography. He is producing ‘picture poems’.

“I was trying to think of an equivalent in English and the only one I can think of is someone like e.e.cummings in terms of the visual aspect of the verse that he is writing. That sort of playfulness, that sort of experimentation: very avant-garde and very interesting. And that clearly meshed with Seifert’s character. 

“So these ideas of word association, of play, this introduction of themes of love, of celebrating the beauty of Prague,  this all comes in with this move away from proletarian poetry and into Poetism itself.”

'City in Tears', photo: Nakladatelství Večernice

It was in that moment of change away from the enthusiasm and the ardour of youth, so apparent in his first two collections, where Seifert began to find his natural voice.

As he grew older, he turned to a rich, song-like poetry, and with the approach of the war, a more serious note found its way into his verse.

Since the mid-1960s until the rest of his life, he wrote poems in unrhymed, unornamented free verse.

But despite the changing style, there are some constant qualities that describe his poetry. In fact, says James Partridge, his style makes Seifert one of the immediately recognizable Czech poets:

“What really stands out from the very beginning is that there is a clearness to his language. It is easy to read, without being facile or simplistic. I think that was part of its appeal right from the very beginning.

“It’s a recognizable speech of the ordinary man. You feel anybody can pick up these early volumes of poems and read them and be completely comfortable with them. So that lucidity, clarity and to some extent simplicity of language is something you see right in the very first collection.

“I have seen the early language described as naive in certain ways, perhaps even a bit crude in places, now that of course becomes more refined as he goes on. The lyricism of his verse and language increases as he gets older and matures but he never loses that.”

ROBED IN LIGHT (from Robed in Light, 1940)

First Canto

As I was walking in the fading light
Prague seemed more beautiful than Rome to me —
I was afraid that from this dream I might
never awake, that I might never see
the stars that, when the daylight comes again,
beneath their folded wings the gargoyles hide —
the gargoyles standing, as on guard, beside
the cornice of St Vitus’ ancient fane.
One morning in the early hours, too late
to go to bed — the dawn was drawing near —
I stood before the still unopened gate
of the great church, but would not knock for fear,
as a poor pilgrim, on a winter morn,
finding it shut, will stand beside a door;
I wished to see the gargoyles just before
they greet the stars returning home at dawn.

(from The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, Ewald Oser’s translation)

This is an extract from the opening poem of the volume Robed in Light, one of the many Seifert’s poems dedicated to Prague. The city is one of the strongest themes of his work, one that keeps coming back again and again throughout his life.

His other great subject is his love for women, who feature very strongly in his verse, and love in general.

He is also a poet of his homeland, of childhood memories and certain nostalgia. It is these qualities, says James Partridge, that explain his very strong appeal to Czech readers of all generations:

"He could be open to the accusation that he comes back to the same themes too often. I think there is a bit of truth to that and that might be a problem in terms of a foreign reader.

"But I also think it’s slightly missing the point because what you see in Seifert’s verse of course develops over the years is he does return to the same themes but he returns to them with a different perspective time and time again.

James Partridge, photo: archive of James Partridge

“So we see more sombre notes come in as we get into for example his poetry from the Second World War. He is still addressing the themes of homeland and Czechness, but he is addressing them in a very different way than he was in the 1920s.”

With the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Seifert’s work became more political and after the Communist takeover in 1948 he became an open critic of the Communist regime. As a result, he was blacklisted several times, finally after signing the Charter 77 human rights manifesto.

In 1984, Jaroslav Seifert became the first Czech to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, something even the Communist authorities were forced to acknowledge.

In its statement, which can be understood as a hidden message to the Czechoslovak ruling regime, the Nobel Committee stated that his poetry “provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man.”

While some critics argue he was awarded the prize for political reasons rather than artistic merit, James Partridge says it is likely a combination of the two factors:

Photo: Martina Schneibergová

“There is no question that at the time, he was already an old man when he was awarded the prize, he was a figure of national stature, in the country, everybody knew him, they knew his verse, he had this unofficial role of a spokesperson for his country, and I think all of those factors were certainly very important in the selection of him.

"The artistic merit question is much more difficult to answer. Would I personally say that Seifert is the greatest representative of Czech poetry of the 20th century? Personally, I wouldn’t. I think there are one or two writers who have a status that I would say is more global.

“I think Seifert’s status to some extent remains national. So it depends how we understand the Nobel Prize. If we think it is rewarding work that is of global stature, than I think it’s possibly questionable in Seifert’s case whether he was the right person.

"If you are talking about the national importance and the symbolic importance of the poet then I think it’s hard to argue with Seifert as a choice. He was certainly the outstanding figure of his time in that respect."

Unfortunately, despite winning the Nobel Prize, Seifert’ poetry remains largely unknown in the English-speaking countries. There are several translations of his work available in English today. The most comprehensive collection is Ewald Oser’s The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert.

“I would certainly recommend anybody to go out and find the volume of poetry of Jaroslav Seifert and read the verse because he is one of the finest 20th century Czech poets.

“If you have any interest in Czech culture at all, Seifert is somebody who you can’t separate from that. You need that symbolic voice. You need that representative and I think Seifert plays that role very well.

“These themes of Czechness, childhood and nostalgia, are themes that you find across Czech literature, especially in the 20th century, but not exclusively.

“If you want to understand that aspect of Czech culture there is not a better place to start than Seifert’s verse.”

Jaroslav Seifert died in 1986, three years before the fall of Communism. Here is a poem from his last volume of poetry, To Be a Poet, from 1983, which expresses his life-long passion for poetry.

To Be a Poet (from To Be a Poet, 1983)

Life taught me long ago
that music and poetry
are the most beautiful things on earth
that life can give us.
Except for love, of course.

In an old textbook
published by the Imperial Printing House
in the year of Vrchlický’s death
I looked up the section on poetics
and poetic ornament.

….

In vain I snatched for ideas
and fiercely closed my eyes
in order to hear that first magic line.
But in the dark, instead of words,
I saw a woman’s smile and
wind-blown hair.

That has been my destiny.
And I’ve been staggering towards it breathlessly
all my life.

(from The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, Ewald Oser’s translation)