The Antiwar Stance of George Seferis
Analysis on Helen, by George Seferis

Environment, current surroundings, and cultural heritage seem to play large roles in a writer’s progressive style and reoccurring thematic mood. It’s not everyday that you hear of a writer or famous poet producing a work overflowing with bursts of happiness as he or she sits in a small darkened corner of a rotting log cabin overshadowed by the soft finger-like falling snow outdoors, warmed ever-so-slightly by the wavering flames of flickering orange-yellow candle light on the inside of a window pane. More often than not a common theme tends to run through writers and poets alike, a river connecting them to their audience, as they take the time to express the emotions of their loves and losses, trials and tribulations. A relationship of memories somehow associated with any individual who has ever taken the time to feel or acknowledge the stab of loss, or the biting pang of loneliness. This small yet undeniable link, depressing as it may be, is the very thing that creates a well known and memorable writer, holding them in the capsule of time more commonly known as history. George Seferis, a prominent Greek poet of the 20 th century, found his niche in history’s endless chapters as he took a chance stepping into the open, revealing to the world through his poetry and personal remarks his growing hatred of war, and the people deemed responsible. Basing many of his poems on Homer’s Odyssey and the complex characters within, Seferis found justifiable companions to his hurt, comforts or temporary bandages to his open wounds, and a mythological situation to blame for his increasing anger over the senseless war motives amid humankind; the idealization of Helen of Troy.

Influenced early on by his father’s love of writing and the complicated political controversies surrounding his beloved country of Smyrna, Seferis began composing his first poems during the primary years of his trying adolescence. Forcing himself to look beyond the progressive onset and threat of war, Seferis completed his secondary schooling and moved to Paris to pursue a career in law. After concluding only a few short years of his schooling, Seferis’ education was cut short in September of 1922 as Turkish forces proved their strength, satisfied their duties, and occupied all sections of Seferis’ home land. Fearing for their lives, with all reassurances of financial and social security dissolved before their eyes, large masses of the Greek population including, Seferis’ own family, fled with the meekest of hopes and desires. Wanting desperately to escape the torturous confines of war and its unbeatable aftermath, Seferis traveled to London where he discovered the writing style of his greatest inspiration, T.S. Eliot. Using Eliot’s unique style of writing for poetic guidance, and London as a peaceful sanctuary, a place where thoughts and ideas flowed stream-like, Seferis began composing his most delicate of works; funneling many of his poems through the mind of Homer’s Odysseus and the individual actions of surrounding characters – providing him with a creative outlet for his anger towards war. While accepting the Nobel Prize in 1963 ‘for his eminent lyrical writing,’ (Giorgos) Seferis utilized the opportunity to express and remind others of his antiwar stance stating: ‘…When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. The simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.’ (Giorgos) Consumed by the outrageous reactions of his audience, Seferis continued to employ several different outlets as a means of expressing his growing disapproval; including one of his most significant and memorable, a poem entitled Helen.

Never being one to conform to the thought or beliefs of others, Seferis goes against the grain, a splinter stabbed far beneath the underside of a thumb, christening Helen as a ridiculous waste of war and bloodshed, merely a phantom image, or perhaps a simple charade generated specifically by the Gods - a silly means of cheap but lively entertainment, a senseless game played only by those unlucky players dim enough to trust the shining mirage:

‘And at Troy?

At Troy, nothing: just a phantom image.

That’s how the God’s wanted it.’ (Helen 40-42)


The concluding line to this quotation is the first time we see Seferis beginning to question the stupidly gullible actions of mankind, as he slowly develops and introduces his theory of god-like deceit. Desperate to prove their masculinity and worthiness to Helen, dozens of men put their trust in the gods and race off to Troy. The numerous possibilities of bloodshed or death take back seats as the brains of mankind cloud over, allowing them to see only what they deem to be important; capturing an image, but in their minds- the classic vision of armored heroes fighting for their country and saving Helen of Troy:

‘And the rivers swelling, blood in their silt,

All for a linen undulation, a filmy cloud,

A butterfly’s flicker, a wisp of a swan’s down,

An empty tunic-all for a Helen.’ (Helen, 50-53)


Instead of displaying the possible triumphs, Seferis chooses to portray the Trojan War as an event as pointless as chasing a shadow, a perfectly avoidable circumstance unworthy of mankind’s death. Yet one has to ask their self, can war ever be described as a worthy cause? While analyzing Seferis’ Helen, I was reminded of the similar situations surrounding our country.

Not long ago the leader of our country, President George W. Bush, declared war against Iraq claiming without evidence that their country was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Racing to his aid units from all over the country band together and fought with one idea in mind, to prove the United State’s strength by capturing Saddam Hussein. Although we accomplished one goal, in essence we went searching for our very own shadow. Our troops never found the so-called weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps Seferis’ antiwar stance was correct. In our own ways, and in our own time our beloved country has acted as blindly as those involved in the Trojan War. If anything, we have leaned a lesson: you will never catch an uncatchable shadow.



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Last updated October 23, 2005