The Permanent Secretary
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1984
Jaroslav Seifert – a Czechoslovakian poet, 83 years young, 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, and a few excursions into the realm of prose – above all, his recently published memoirs – 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 comes from a proletarian background. Born in a working-class district in 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 scene 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 poetry, surrealism and dadaism. He is also a sovereign master of traditional forms of poetry with complicated rhythms and rhyme-scheme. He is at 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. Although a social and political commitment was indeed evident in his very first volume – and has remained a constant feature throughout his oeuvre – he has never become a writer with a party programme. His empathy and his sense of solidarity has focused not upon a system of 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 ideological machine, or yokes them to the harness of some dogma. Perhaps, this sounds innocuous enough to people who themselves have never had to suffer oppression and destitution under political tyranny such as, for example, ourselves here in Sweden. But Seifert has never been innocuous. His poetry, this cornucopia, has also been a political act. Even his juvenile poetry meant a liberation and an adherence to a future that would abolish war, oppression, 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 1920s these hopes seemed to be on the verge of fulfillment – an avant-garde literature and art accorded with these hopes. But during the 1930s and 1940s 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 Seiferts 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 traditions. 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 1930s and during the 1940s, 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. At the same time he was active as a journalist, writing in newspapers and periodicals.
The immediate post-war period, however, proved to be one of great disappointment to Seifert and his fellow patriots who had hoped for freedom and a bright future. Poets were expected to engage in political propaganda and satisfy the demands of the powers that be, to whitewash the communist state. Poetry of the kind that Jaroslav Seifert wrote was considered to be disloyal, bourgeois and escapist. It was imperative to “educate the masses”. Seifert was accused of sinking deeper and deeper into subjectivity and pessimism and of having betrayed his class. 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 repudiated the Soviet invasion of Prague and 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 literary traditions of his country. He does this partly because of his uncompromising defence of cultural and literary freedom but mainly because of the special quality of his poetry. His method is to depict and praise those things in life and the 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 indomitable spirit. His poetry is a kind of maieutics – an act of deliverance.
Jaroslav Seifert was born in Prague on the 23rd of September 1901. He worked as a journalist until 1950 and since then he has worked as a free-lance writer dedicated to the writing of poetry. Seifert made his début in 1920 and during the 1920s he belonged, in the capacity of one of its founders, to the avant-garde group Devetsil. In his début volume of poems Mesto v slzách (City in Tears) S. finds expression for his proletarian childhood experiences in didactic poems of social life inspired by naivistic art and folk poems and is influenced by Soviet revolutionary art and marxism.
A journey abroad brought S. into contact with French modernism and dadaism. Upon his return S. joined the “poetists” who while remaining political radicals hailed freedom and imagination and art as play, and rejected its socio-moralistic mission. His volume Na vlnách T.S.F. (On the Waves of Télegraphie sans fil) 1925 is considered to be the most typical representative of poetism. A trip to the Soviet Union in 1925 left him even more critical of the revolution and led, in 1929, to a break with the Communist Party. S. joined the Social Democratic Party, an act for which he was later blamed. In the volumes Jablko s klína (The Apple from your Lap) 1933, Ruce Venusiny (The Hands of Venus) 1936, and Jaro, sbohem (Farewell Spring) 1937, S. developed a kind of classical song-lyric of everyday life, which is regarded as the acme of Czechoslovakian poetry.
In the late 1930s with the existence of Czechoslovakia as a state being threatened and during the German occupation, S. developed patriotic themes in his poetry. The poems Osm dní (Eight Days), written in 1937 upon the death of Masamyk, are an address to this founder of Czechoslovakia and were published in six editions the same year. The following volumes of poems: Zhasnete svetla (Turn off the Lights) 1938, Svetlem odená (Robed with Light) 1940, Vejír Bozeny Nemcové (The Fan of Bozena Nemcová) 1940, and Kamenny most (Bridge of Stone) 1944, are resistance poems meant to strengthen national self-confidence. In Prilba hlíny (Helmet with Clay) 1945 he treats among other subjects the Prague rebellion and the liberation of Czechoslovakia.
The communist take-over in 1948 proved a disappointment to S. The volume Písen o Viktorce (The Song of Viktorka) 1950 resulted in accusations of having betrayed his class and led to Seifert’s concentrating upon politically uncontroversial poems in editions that were nonetheless great successes. Among such works belong: Sel malír chude do sveta (A Poor Painter Set out in the World) 1949, Mozart v Praze (Mozart in Prague) 1951, Maminka (about his mother) 1954, Chlapec a hvezdy (The Boy and the Stars) 1956.
A speech given at the Czechoslovakian Writers Association’s Congress in 1956, in which S. criticized the cultural policies of the previous years, and a long illness led to the discontinuation of the publication of new works by S. His Collected Works continued however to be published (vols. 1-5, 1953-57, vols. 6 & 7, 1964 and 1970 respectively). When the climate changed in 1964 S. was awarded the title of National artist. During the next few years he published three new volumes: Koncert na ostrove (Concert on the Island) 1965, Halleyova kometa (Halley’s Comet) 1967, and Ódlévaní zvona (The Casting of Bells, 1983) 1967. These demonstrated a new direction in his work with the abandonment of regular verse forms.
During the Prague Spring in 1968 S. worked for the rehabilitation of persecuted authors. He condemned the Soviet invasion and is one of the people who signed Charta 77. In 1969 he was elected Chairman of the Czechoslovakian Writers’ Association, but was deposed by the Husák regime which however, gradually seems to have accepted his nonconformism. Since 1979 his works has begun to be published again: Destník z Piccadily (An Umbrella from Piccadilly, 1983) was published first in Munich in 1979 and later, the same year, in Prague. Morovy sloup (The Plague Monument, l980, in Swedish Pestmonumentet by Fripress förlag 1982) was published first in Cologne in 1977, and in Prague 1981. Seifert’s memoirs Vsecky krásy sveta (All the Beauty in the World) were published in Cologne and in Prague in 1963.
Sonnets de Prague is available in French (Paris 1974) and English (the English translation in Index on Censorship 1975, nr. 3).