Last year, I wandered through Greece, knocking on all the gates of Hades. I walked along the Acheron River, whose icy blue waters seemed colored by the spirits of the dead. Stalactites dripped onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves of Diros. I searched for the entrance to the sea cave at Cape Tainaron, scrambling over sharp rocks below the lighthouse as darkness fell. Sometimes I wondered if my search for the underworld tempted the Fates. I remembered Orpheus, the father of music, who charmed beasts with his lyre and descended into Tainaron to find his lost bride, Eurydice. With song, he implored Hades and Persephone to bring her back to life, and his words moved the deathless gods to tears. They granted his wish, allowing him to lead her out of the underworld on one condition: he must walk ahead of her, not looking back until they left the dark halls of death. Approaching the surface, the farthest reach of light, Orpheus feared his love’s silence behind him. He turned to look and saw her sink back into the depths, reaching out to him and bidding him farewell for the last time.
These two poems by George Seferis explore the disorienting confusion and fear that arises from living through war and catastrophe. Seferis spent his life as a spokesman for the Greek state and Hellenic culture, working as a career diplomat and poet. He lived through the Balkan Wars, World Wars I & II, and the Greek Civil War as well as continual political crisis.
His poetry interprets Greece’s contemporary tragedies as the result of a mythical hubris, especially internecine murder in the heroic past. Bloodshed in the present is due to an endless chain of retribution set in motion by ancient Greeks who transgressed against the laws of nature, the gods, and the rights of their fellow men in pursuit of power and self-gain.
A wave of suicides has swept over our battalion. Those who attempt suicide are deceived if they think they may do with themselves as they please. From now on, I order company commanders to carry out preliminary inquiries, interrogating anyone who has attempted suicide. The results of such inquiries will be sent to me immediately and official indictments will be remanded to a Special Military Court.
–Daily orders of Captain Commander Vasilopoulos Antonios on March 6, 1948.
Harper Perennial published The Complete Plays of Sophocles: A New Translation by Robert Bagg and James Scully, on July 26, 2011.The book includes all seven extant plays by Sophocles, two of which will be included in the Norton Anthology of World Literature. The following essay was derived from Robert Bagg’s talk at the Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum in Northampton, MA.
Closing the Gap: “The Complete Plays of Sophocles: a New Translation” for a New Audience