Eastern_Europe   Czecho-Slovakia   Czech Republic

 

 

JAROSLAV SEIFERT:
A LYRICAL SPOKESMAN


The Influence of Czechoslovakia's Political Situation on Jaroslav
Seifert Poetry

by Melba Juez

 

Czech poetry during the last years of the nineteenth century was characterized by a sense of darkness and rejection which transformed the poet into an outcast. This general feeling of isolation led them to identify themselves under the name "Decadents"(French, 1). This sadness and negativism contrasted with the new tendencies that were going to influence Czech literature in the early part of the twentieth century. One of the major influence in the writers of this period was Modernism. A literary movement autonomous from Latin America, it was characterized in Czechoslovakia by its "freely associative imagery" (Gibian, 2) and the intense use of emotional descriptions. Czech poet, Jaroslav Seifert, became the precursor and major exponent of this new genre. He was one of the founding members of the modernist group of artists called "Devetsil" (1921).This group claimed that poetry should serve the needs of the peoples (Janes, 3) and to fulfill this commitment it was "devoted to revolution in art, life, and politics"(French, 21).

 

 

 

 

Seifert's strong political inclinations were present in his initial poems written during World War I, and "showed sympathy for the proletarian cause and for anarchism" (Gibian, 3). This sentiment would later be expressed in Seifert's first volume of poetry "Town in Tears"(1921), a book which "is usually considered the most proletarian work of all Czech poetry" (Giabian, 3) as its poems appear as a chant against materialism: The city of factory owners, boxers, millionaires, the city of inventors and of engineers, the city of generals, merchants and patriotic poets with its black sins has exceeded the bounds of God's wrath: God was enrage.(Gibian, 23) Jaroslav Seifert, over these years, did not limit himself to poetry as he wrote for several newspapers and reviews. After working for a Communist newspaper in Prague and then in Brno, he decided to take part in a "Communist workshop and publishing house in Prague, and in the late 1920's edited a Communist illustrated magazine"(Gibian, 5). It was during this time that Seifert distanced himself from the strict line of thought of the Devetsil group. This new perspective led him in 1929 to sign, along eight other prominent Czech writers, a letter of protest against the Communist Party posture regarding culture. The result was the expulsion of Seifert and the other signatories from the Party. Seifert's poetry of the late 1920's differed from his previous one in that it was basically joyful. It presented the contrast of poetic fantasy and reality. By the 1930's, his poetry was mostly dedicated to women a theme that was never to be abandoned by him. An example of the recurrence of the erotic images projected by women in Seifert's latter poetry is a stanza from his 1978 poem "The Plague Column":

 

 

...All my life I have been faithful to love.
And if a woman's hands are more than wings what then are her legs?
How I enjoyed testing their strength in their grip
.
Let then those knees crush my head!... 

(Gibian, 87)

 

 

 

In 1936 Seifert published a volume of satirical verse called "Sung into the Rotary Press" which was "inspired by political disillusionment" (Holub,217). The tension provoked by the advancement of Fascism in Europe, and its numerous victims, which included the Spaniard poet Federico Garcia Lorca, were the major themes of this book:

 

 

 

Covered in quicklime in his native soil Garcia Lorca, warrior and poet,
lies crouching in the dugout of his grave without a rifle, lyre, ammunition....
Yet one thing I do know, dead friend:
along the boulevards of Madrid
workers will march again and they will sing your songs, dear poet... 

(Gibian, 45)

 

 

 

 

The death of the Thomas G. Masaryk in 1937 demoralized the entire nation because he, as the first Czech president, represented a new independent and democratic government. These feelings were latter reflected in Seifert's poems, as they adopted a somber tone. In the year 1939 when Germany annexed Czechoslovakia, Seifert's poetry passed through a period of excitement and gloom. After Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazi army, Seifert published three volumes of poetry, "in which he attempted to strengthen the nation's resolve to survive with dignity" (Gibian, 8) During the years of World War II several of Seifert's fellow writers left the country, but he became an "involuntary prisoner of his native city, Prague, while the German occupation restricted his choice of themes" (Harkins, 174). Seifert's poetry during this period was characterized by an increasing sense of patriotism and national pride:

From his tomb he raised above the pillars (sprouting, so it seemed, out of his palms) a blanched human skull; behold, a lover's hands created for caress and charms touched it and the touch lent it endurance through a nation's song whose lips had cracked, gave it strength, it was a secret pact that was left of its inheritance (Gibian, 48)

After liberation from the Nazi army in 1945, Seifert became very active in journalism. In 1948 the Communists, led by Klement Gottwald, came to power. Seifert lost his political identity when the Social Democratic Party "almost forcibly" (Harkins, 174) merged with the Communist Party. This political conflicts made him retire from public life and start working mostly in "editing the works of various Czech authors and to translating" (Gibian, 8). Seifert's distance did not liberate him from criticism as people started to call him bourgeois, un-Communist, and alien.

 

Although he was constantly criticized, Seifert did not alienate himself completely from politics as he criticized the Stalinist politics in 1956. Another illustration of Seifert's involvement in political affairs is his speech in 1956 at the Second Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers: "May we be truly the conscience of our people. Believe me, I am afraid we have not been that for quite a few years; we have not been the conscience of the masses, the conscience of millions; we have not even been the conscience of ourselves... If somebody else keeps silent about the truth, it can be a tactical maneuver. If a writer is silent about the truth, he is lying" (Gibian, 9). Seifert involvement in social-political affairs were not limited to speech or writings, as in 1968 he reinforced his respect for human rights by signing the 2000-word Manifest, and in 1977 the Charter 77.


Seifert's poetic style changed dramatically over the years; but, his sense for civil commitment was always present. In 1968, during the Prague Spring, he "served on a commission for the rehabilitation of writers who had been persecuted" (Harkins, 177) and, after being elected president of the Writers Union, he condemned the Russian invasion. That same year he would be elected National Artist of Czechoslovakia. Probably inspired by Stalin's statement that writers were "the engineers of human souls"(Harkins, 174), Seifert had the idea that writers should serve as the conscience of mankind.

 

 



Jaroslav Seifert always expressed his belief that writers in Czechoslovakia enjoyed moral authority. He was careful about being manipulated by politicians who could use him as a medium between them and the citizens. His position in this respect was portrayed in a statement published in Rome in an émigré journal, where he was quoted on a response to the contemporary president, Gustav Husak: "You want us [the writers] to support your position because you know that we support your position because you know that we enjoy moral authority in the nation. But should we support you, we would lose that authority, and then we would be of no use to you" (Harkins, 174).



After year 1968, the strict censorship by Czechoslovakia's Communist government increased, driving many writers like Milan Kundera, Pavel Kohout, and Jan Benes into exile. Seifert experienced censorship in his own work, as "nine whole chapters"(Moravius, 15), names and sentences were omitted from the book "All the Beauty of the World". Unlike the other writers, Jaroslav Seifert decided to stay in his homeland. In 1984 Seifert gained international recognition as he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He died two years later.

 


Bibliography

  • French, Alfred. "The Poets of Prague". London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

  •  Gibian, George, Ed. "The Selected poetry of Jaroslav Seifert". New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986.

  •  Harkins, William E. "The Czech Nobel Laureate Jaroslav Seifert". World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma. Norman: 1985 Spring, 59:2, 173-175.

  •  Holub, Miroslav. " A song Under All Circumstances". Parnassus: Poetry in Review, New York: 1987, 14"1, 208-227.

  •  Janes, Clara. "Jaroslav Seifert: modernidad y clasicismo de un poeta indomable". Insula: Revista de letras y ciencias humanas. Madrid: 1986, March, 41:472:3.

  •  "What the Censor Omitted". Moravius: England 1985, August, 14:4, 15.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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