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Jaroslav Seifert (1901-1986)

 

Poet and journalist who was the first Czech to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. Seifert was the last great representative of Czech avant-garde. He published over 30 collections of poems. Not only acknowledged for his poetical production, Seifert also became as symbol of freedom of expression.

"... poetry has occupied a very important position in our cultural life. It is as though poetry, lyrics were predestined not only to speak to people very closely... but also to be our deepest and safest refuge, where we seek succor in adversities we sometimes dare not even name." (from Nobel lecture, 1984)

Jaroslav Seifert was born in Zizkov, a working-class suburb of Prague, into a poor family. His father was a manager of a small general store. To help him, Seifert spent his afternoons delivering goods to customers throughout Prague. In Seifert's youth, the Russian Revolution of 1917 played a key role in the development of his political consciousness, and he enthusiastically embraced socialist ideals. As a result, and to start his career as a journalist, Seifert dropped his high school studies, and worked for the Communist party newspaper Rudé Pravo.

In 1923 Seifert made his first journey to Paris and adopted there new literary ideas. Influenced by the French writer Giullaume Apollinaire, he helped to found with the art theorist and critic Karel Teige an avant-garde literary movement called Devětsil, which urged alliance with revolutionary soldiers. The name of the movement, referring to a medicinal herb or wildflower, was taken from a story by the Čapek brothers.

Seifert's early books reflected his ideological stance, sympathy for revolution, streetwise pride, and Epicurean joie de vivre. The poet František Halas, Seifert's close friend, described their first meeting: "Across the street I see someone walking with a sailor' stride. A warm scarf instead of a detachable collar, a pipe; he spits continually. In those days a poet inevitably looked like that." Město v slzách (1921, City in Tears) was on the side of proletarian revolution and future happiness for the poor.

Samá láska (1923) expressed Seifert's optimism and desire to rebuild the world anew, as Svatební cesta (1925). Slavík zpívá špatně (1926, The Nightingale Sings Badly), published after a journey to the U.S.S.R., was inspired by Dada and Surrealism. This collection was labelled with a short-lined, rhymed stanza-the language of slogans and political agitation, familiar from the works of Vladimir Mayakovsky. In later poems Seifert came to rely less and less on puns and wordplay, which in general are not easy to translate into other languages.    

Besides writing for newspapers and magazines, Seifert worked in a Communist bookshop and publishing house in Prague. In 1928 he married Marie Ulrichová; they had two children. Seifert was among those who refused to follow Klement Gottwald's Moskow-inspired line of systematic opposition to the legitimacy of the Czechoslovak Republic. During the years, Seifert had developed a critical attitude toward socialism, and his visit in the Soviet Union did not increase his enthusiasm about Communism. Eventually he was expelled from the Communist Party and the Devětsil collective.

Seifert became in 1930 an editor in chief of theater monthly Nova Scena. He also contributed to newspapers throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Jablko z klína (1933) marked the emergence of his new style, in which he uses almost colloquial language and natural images. A number of the poems dealt with love-it was a dominant subject also in Ruce Venušiny (1936). Ideologically Seifert approached the Social Democrats, who worked inside the parliamentary democracy. Also as a poet Seifert went through the process of renewal: he searched inspiration from the Czech poetic tradition, evoking a quasi-mythological mother figure, and drawing on the experiences of everyday life. In June 1939 he settled with his family in the quiet suburb of Brevnov, where he lived until his death, surrounded by his extensive cactus collection.

Zhasněte světla (1938, Put Out the Lights) came out after the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. The title work, about the Nazi threat hanging over Prague, is one of his most famous poems. During the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia, Seifert continued to write poems that expressed the anguish of his homeland. With Vějíř Boženy Němcové (1940), a passionate protest against the Nazi occupation of Prague, Seifert won the confidence of the Communist Party for a time. Přilba hlíny (1945) celebrated the Prague uprising of 1945 against the Nazis and earned Seifert the stature as a Czech national poet. He identified himself fully with the people's grief, and interpreted the commonly shared feelings of betrayal and hope for survival. In 1966 he was named Poet of the Nation.

From 1945 to 1949 Seifert edited the Trade Union daily Práce. When Czechoslovakia came under pro-Soviet Communist domination, Seifert returned to apolitical themes and wrote much children's literature. After the Communist take over, he refused all compromise  Among others his Morový sloup (1977, trans. The Plague Column) had to be published abroad. Seifert's poetry was attacked by a party critic for sinking into subjectivism.

"What's all this talk about grey hair
and wisdom?
When the bush of life burns down
experience is worthless.
Indeed it always has been."

(from The Plague Column)

In the 1950s Seifert became a spokesman for artistic freedom and criticized Government's cultural policies. "If a writer is silent, he is lying," he once said. However, Maminka (1954) received the State award. In 1968 Seifert condemned the Soviet invasion of his country, which aimed to stop all liberal tendencies. He was appointed president of the Writers Union in 1969, but resigned shortly thereafter in protest of Soviet oppression. During the early 1970s, his works circulated in underground editions. Only selections from his old works were published inside Czechoslovakia. In 1977 he signed among 500 others the Charter on Human Rights and his works gained first time wider attention of English-speaking readers. Morový sloup (The Plague Column), which was published in the same year, was a single long poem. It used a three-hundred-year-old Prague monument as a symbol for Czech fate and history, and warned of the dangers of neo-Stalinism. "I believe that seeking beautiful words is better than killing and murdering," Seifert argued.

Seifert's autobiography Všecky krásy světa (1981, All the Beauty of the World) appeared abroad, in two émigré publications, and led to the Nobel Prize. In this memoir Seifert recreated the spirit of the Czech avant-garde between the two World Wars and during the Nazi occupation. Too old and ill to travel to Stockholm for the prize, the poet welcomed the news from his hospital bed. The Government was not excited about the award, and refused to give an exit permit to his son-in-law and secretary to go to Stockholm in his behalf.

In the late 1970s Seifert wrote in 'Finger Prints' (published in An Unbrella From Piccadilly, 1985): "Perhaps I had committed an offence against public morality, I don't know! I know nothing about the law. Yet I was sentenced after all to lifelong punishment. If love is a labyrinth full of glittering mirrors, and it is that, I'd crossed its threshold and entered. And from the bewitching glitter of mirrors I haven't found the way out to this day." Seifert died in Prague on January 10, in 1986. As a People's Artist, Seifert was entitled to a state funeral; it became a national event.

For further reading: Jaroslav Seifert by V. Cerný (1954); The Poets of Prague by A. French (1969); Modern Slavic Literatures, Vol. 2 , ed. by V.D. Mihailovich et al. (1976); Czech Literature by A. Novák (1976); 'Jaroslav Seifert, 1901-1986: Czech Poet,' in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 93, (1996); The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, ed. by George Gibian et al. (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (see entry by Maria Nemcovŕ Banerjee, 1999); Jaroslav Seifert - laskave neústupný pevec: po stopách básníka ocima jeho blízkých by Frantisek Cinger (2011) - Note: The English novelist and mystery writer Ellis Peters translated Seifert's Mozart in Prague. In 1968, the year of the 'Prague Spring', she was awarded the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations Gold Medal.

Selected works:

  • Město v slzách, 1920
    - City in Tears (in The Early Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1997; The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Revoluční sborník Devětsil, 1922
  • Samá láska, 1923
    - Sheer Love (in The Early Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1997) / Nothing But Love (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Na vlnách TSF, 1925
    - On the Waves of TSF (in The Early Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1997)
  • Svatební cesta, 1925
    - Honeymoon (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Slavík zpívá špatně, 1926
    - The Nightingale Sings Poorly (in The Early Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1997) / The Nightingale Sings Badly (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Hvězdy nad Rajskou zahrado, 1929
  • Poštovní holub, 1929
    - Carrier Pigeon (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Jablko z klína, 1933
    - An Apple from Your Lap (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Ruce Venušiny, 1936
    - The Hands of Venus (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Zpíváno do rotačky, 1936
    - Songs for the Rotary Press (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Osm dní, 1937
  • Básníku Karlu Tomanovi, 1937
  • Zhasněte světla, 1938
  • Vějíř Boženy Němcové, 1940
  • Světlem oděná, 1940
    - Good-Bye, Spring (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Světlem oděná, Praha 1940, 1942
    - Robed in Light (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Kamenný most, 1944
  • Přilba hlíny, 1945
    - A Helmetful of Earth (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Dokud nám neprší na rakev, 1947
  • Ruka a plamen, 1948
  • Pozdrav Františkovi Halasovi, 1949
  • S obláčky hroznů, 1949
  • Romance o králi Václavu IV, 1949
  • Písen o Viktorce, 1950
  • Mozart v Praze, 1951
    - Mozart in Prague: Thirteen Rondels (translated by Paul Jagasich, Tom O'Grady, 1985)
  • Petrín, 1951
  • Romance o mládí a víne, 1954
  • Maminka, 1954
  • Koulelo se, koulelo, 1955
    - Laulu omenapuusta (suom. Mervi Vyyryläinen-Väänänen, 1985)
  • Chlapec a hvězdy, 1956
  • The Linden Tree, 1962 (translation)
  • Koncert na ostrově, 1965
    - Concert on the Island (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Dva svety, 1966
  • Prsten Trebonské madone, 1966
  • Odlévání zvonů , 1967
    - The Casting of Bells (translated by Tom O'Grady and Paul Jagasich, 1983; also in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Halleyova kometa, 1967
    - Halley's Comet (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Dílo, 1954-1968 (7 vols.)
  • Kniha o Praze, 1968
  • Deštník z Piccadilly, 1979
    - An Umbrella From Piccadilly (translated by Ewald Osers, 1983)
  • Morový sloup, 1981
    - The Plague Column (translated by Ewald Osers, 1979; also in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998) / The Plague Monument (translated by Lyn Coffin, 1980)
    - Ruttopylväs (suom. Hannu Ylilehto, 1985)
  • Dvě básně = Two Poems = Tvĺ dikter, 1981 (English translation by Ewald Osers, Swedish translation by Josef Brettschneider and Harry Järv, published by Charta 77 Foundation)
  • Všecky krásy světa, 1981 (4 vols.)
    - All the Beauties of the World  (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • Russian Bliny, 1982 (translation)
  • Býti básníkem, 1983
    - To Be a Poet (in The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998)
  • 8 Days: An Elegy for Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, 1985 (translated by Paul Jagasich, Tom O'Grady)
  • The Selected Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1986 (translation)
  • A Wreath of Sonnets = Venec Sonetu, 1987  (translated by J.K. Klement and Eva Stucke)
  • Čas plný písní, 1990 (edited by R. Havel)
  • Tichý dvojhlas - Z korespondence českého básníka Jaroslava Seiferta a slovenského herce Ladislava Chudíka, 1992 (edited by L. Chudík)
  • Dressed in Light, 1992 (translated by Paul Jagasich, Tom O'Grady)
  • The Early Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1997 (translated by Dana Loewy)
  • The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, 1998 (edited by Ewald Osers, George Gibian)
  • S láskou pozdravuji kraj váš milý, 2001
  • Kdybych se mohl vrátit, 2004 (ed. J. Racek)
  • Vrtbovská zahrada: [nejkrásnější barokní zahrada v Praze], 2006 (photographs by Lada Panchártková)

 

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