Presentation Speech by Professor Lars Gyllensten, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Jaroslav Seifert can look back upon a career of more than 60 years which shows many signs of being likely to continue. With almost thirty volumes of collected poems behind him he stands out today as the leading poet of his own country. He is read and loved by his countrymen, a national poet who knows how to address both those who have a literary education and those who approach his work without much schooling in their baggage.
Jaroslav Seifert was born in a working-class district on the outskirts of Prague. He has never lost touch with his popular roots or with the impoverished and socially weak people among whom he grew up. As a young man he believed in the socialistic revolution and wrote poems about it and the promise it held out for the future that enthused many of the other young people of his own generation. His poems were clear, apparently simple and artless, with elements of folk song, familiar speech and scenes from everyday life. He rejected the elevated style and formalism of an earlier period. His diction was characterized by lightness of touch, sensuality, melody and rhythm, a lively ingenuity and playfulness alternating with feeling, even pathos. These features of his art have remained constant ever since. He is not, however, a naive artist. He is a poet with an unusually broad stylistic register. At an early stage he came into contact with contemporary European modernism, especially with French surrealism and dadaism. He is also a sovereign master of traditional forms of poetry with complicated rhythms, and rhyme-schemes. He is as much at home with the drastic force of the broadside ballad as with the sophisticated artistry of the sonnet.
The versatility and flexibility of Seifert’s continually inventive and surprising style is matched by an equally rich human register on the level of feeling, insight and imagination. His empathy and his sense of solidarity have focused, not upon a system or a narrow programme but upon human beings – living, loving, feeling, working, creating, fabulating, suffering, laughing, longing – in short all those who live, happy or unhappy, a life that is an adventure and an experience, but not one of oppression in accordance to a party programme. Human beings are the ones who create society. The State is there for the people and not vice versa. There is an element of anarchy in Seifert’s philosophy of life – a protest against everything that cuts down life’s possibilities and reduces human beings to cogs in some machine. Perhaps this sounds innocuous. But Seifert has never been innocuous. Even his juvenile poetry meant a liberation and an adherence to a future that would abolish war, oppression and want, and would provide joy in life and beauty for those who had hitherto had little thereof. Poetry and art would help to achieve this. His demands and hopes had the confidence and magnificence of youth. During the 1920’s these hopes seemed to be on the verge of fulfilment – and avant-garde literature and art accorded with these hopes. But during the 1930’s and 1940’s the horizon darkened. Economic and political reality proved unable to live up to the rosy dreams. Seifert’s poetry acquired new characteristics – a calmer tone, a remembrance of the history and culture of his own country, a defence of national identity and of those who had preserved it, especially the great authors and artists of the past. Even purely personal experiences and memories were touched with melancholy – the transience of life, the inconstancy of emotion, the impermanence of the childhood and youth which had passed, and of the ties of love. Yet all was not melancholia and nostalgia in Seifert’s work – far from it. The concreteness and freshness of his perceptions and his images continued to flourish. He wrote some of his most beautiful love lyrics, his popularity increased and it was at this time that the foundations of his position as a national poet were firmly laid. He was loved as dearly for the astonishing clarity, musicality and sensuality of his poems as for his unembellished but deeply felt identification with his country and its people. He had dissociated himself from the communism of his youth and from the anti-intellectual dogmatism it had developed into. Towards the end of the 1930’s and during the 1940’s Czechoslovakia fell under the yoke of the Nazis and Jaroslav Seifert committed himself to the defence of his country, its freedom and its past. He eulogized the Prague rebellion of 1945 and the liberation of his country.
The immediate post-war period, however, proved to be one of great disappointment to Seifert and his fellow patriots who had hoped for a bright future. Poets were expected to engage in political propaganda. Poetry of the kind that Jaroslav Seifert wrote was considered to be disloyal, bourgeois and escapist. But he refused to conform to the slogans of social realism. He hibernated – to return in earnest in connection with the thaw of 1956, and, following a long period of illness, has continued to work diligently, first and foremost as a poet, but at times also in political manifestations. He has signed Charta 77. As has already been observed, he is greatly loved and respected in his own country – and has begun to achieve international recognition as well, in spite of the disadvantage of writing in a language that is relatively little known outside his country. His work is translated and he is regarded as a poet of current interest in spite of his age.
Today, many people think of Jaroslav Seifert as the very incarnation of the Czechoslovakian poet. He represents freedom, zest and creativity and is looked upon as this generation’s bearer of the rich culture and traditions of this country. His method is to depict and praise those things in life and the other world that are not governed by dogmas and dictates, political or otherwise. Through words he paints a world other than the one various authorities and their henchmen threaten to squeeze dry and leave destitute. He praises a Prague that is blossoming and a spring that lives in the memory, in the hopes or the defiant spirit of people who refuse to conform. He praises love, and is indeed one of the truly great love-poets of our time. Tenderness, sadness, sensuality, humour, desire and all the feelings which love between people engenders and encompasses are the themes of these poems. He praises woman – the young maiden, the student, the anonymous, the old, his mother, his beloved. Woman, for him, is virtually a mythical figure, a goddess who represents all that opposes men’s arrogance and hunger for power. Even so, she never becomes an abstract symbol but is alive and present in the poet’s fresh and unconventional verbal art. He conjures up for us another world than that of tyranny and desolation – a world that exists both here and now, although it may be hidden from our view and bound in chains, and one that exists in our dreams and our will and our art and our indomitable spirit. His poetry is a kind of maieutics – an act of deliverance.
The Swedish Academy deeply regrets that Mr. Jaroslav Seifert cannot be here today. As his representative we greet his daughter, Mrs. Jana Seifertová. And now I ask you, Mrs. Seifertová, to convey to Mr. Seifert our warmest congratulations and to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to your father, from the hands of His Majesty the King.
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