The Center for Hellenic Studies

The Song Flowing in my Veins: A Note on Choral Voice

Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi
Stanford University
This note is inspired by an anonymous comment on a song, both the comment and the song being readily found on YouTube. [1] The fuller version of the comment runs this way: “The voices of the singer and the choir flow in my veins.” I wish to discuss briefly the voices of the singer and choir that deeply moved this anonymous listener, as representing a splendid instance of chorality in recent Greek history. I am far from assuming that choral voice and its experience are identical in ancient and modern Greek culture, nor am I suggesting that we remain oblivious to all those factors that make cultures historically unique. My claim, however, is that by illuminating through recent history an instance of a preeminent solo voice turned choral, I might offer an interesting perspective on an ongoing debate within Classical scholarship: the debate, at times intense over the last decades, about whether Greek lyric genres had a distinctive identity as either monodic or choral.
I find this topic particularly relevant to a celebration of Greg Nagy’s many decades of work. For not only is his persistent understanding of archaic and classical Greek lyric poetry as “song” relevant to the phenomenon I am about to discuss but, even more, the remarkable flexibility with which he has always tackled the dilemmas concerning “monodic” versus “choral” in ancient Greek culture proves to be particularly compatible with similar problems and dilemmas arising in the experience of lyric poetry in modern cultures as well. [2]
The song in question was originally a poem written in 1937 by Giorgos Seferis, a major figure in Greek modernism who was eventually (in 1963) to become the first Greek Nobel laureate for literature. As my exploration here pertains to issues of voice, let me briefly state that much of Seferis’ poetry is permeated by the frequent use of a first-person plural. A “we” circulates remarkably often throughout his poetry, to be understood as a profoundly communal voice with a broadly varying level of inclusiveness. A reader of Seferis’ poetry senses that, depending on the overall context of a given poem or of a larger poetic sequence, this regularly resurfacing “we” may sometimes refer to a smaller company of friends, ancient or contemporary hetairoi, while other times it seeks to include a whole generation sharing similar sensibilities, or even a whole country. “We” in Seferis emerges as a trope, the limits of which are constantly being tested. No matter what exactly its referent is, it signals the poetic persona’s immersion into a common narrative that can only be uttered through a shared voice.
The poem in question provides a contrast to this frequent trope of inclusiveness. Epiphany, 1937 is quoted here in Edmund Keeley’s and Philip Sherrard’s translation: [3]
Epiphany, 1937
The flowering sea and the mountains in the moon's waning
the great stone close to the Barbary figs and the asphodels
the jar that refused to go dry at the end of day
and the closed bed by the cypress trees and your hair
golden; the stars of the Swan and that other star, Aldebaran.    5

I've kept a rein on my life, kept a rein on my life, travelling
among yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their peaks; it's getting dark.
I've kept a rein on my life; on your left hand a line                  10
a scar at your knee, perhaps they exist
on the sand of the past summer perhaps
they remain there where the north wind blew as I hear
an alien voice around the frozen lake.
The faces I see do not ask questions nor does the woman       15
bent as she walks giving her child the breast.
I climb the mountains; dark ravines; the snow-covered
plain, into the distance stretches the snow-covered plain, they ask nothing
neither time shut up in dumb chapels nor
hands outstretched to beg, nor the roads.                              20
I've kept a rein on my life whispering in a boundless silence
I no longer know how to speak nor how to think; whispers
l ike the breathing of the cypress tree that night
like the human voice of the night sea on pebbles
like the memory of your voice saying ‘happiness'.                   25

I close my eyes looking for the secret meeting-place of the waters
under the ice the sea's smile, the closed wells
groping with my veins for those veins that escape me
there where the water-lilies end and that man
who walks blindly across the snows of silence.                        30
I've kept a rein on my life, with him, looking for the water that touches you
heavy drops on green leaves, on your face
in the empty garden, drops in the motionless reservoir
striking a swan dead in its white wings
living trees and your eyes riveted.                                         35

This road has no end, has no relief, however hard you try
to recall your childhood years, those who left, those
lost in sleep, in the graves of the sea,
however much you ask bodies you've loved to stoop
under the harsh branches of the plane trees there                40
where a ray of the sun, naked, stood still
and a dog leapt and your heart shuddered,
the road has no relief; I've kept a rein on my life.

The snow
and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.
The poem starts as an utterance addressed to a second-person singular, as a shared reminiscence of a locus amoenus with the sea flowering and the mountains in the moon’s waning (vv.1-5). As the reader proceeds from this introductory section to the main part of the poem, summer’s eutopia gradually yields to an icier landscape, culminating with the terse third-person closure: “The snow and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.”
Thus the main, quite long section of the poem unfolds between the vividness of a flowering sea at the onset and the stagnancy of frozen water at the end. A first-person singular signals the beginning of this section (v.6) and runs throughout the rest of it, insisting noticeably through the poem’s recurring rhythmic pattern: “I’ve kept a rein on my life.” The phrase, when first uttered, is emphatically duplicated, at the very beginning of the main section (v.6), and then goes on to punctuate its flow throughout, repeated at irregular intervals four more times.
The entire poem is displayed as the personal, almost internal, voice of a lone walker, traveler, or hiker who at times encounters other, equally lonely, walking figures during his journey. The speaker is travelling among yellow trees (vv.6-8), climbing the mountains (v.17), his road having no end (v.36), having no relief (v.36), at times meeting a woman bent as she walks giving her child the breast (v.15-16) or a man who walks blindly across the snows of silence (vv.29-30). One wonders whether the latter might in fact be the projection of the first-person itinerant himself, his own walking image seen from a different vantage point, the “snow of silence” thus being like his internal voice that never is to materialize into perceptible, communicable sound.
A second-person singular shows up at key positions of this main section, following or preceding the recurring phrase “ I’ve kept a rein on my life.” “On your left hand a line/ a scar at your knee” (vv.10-11), “looking for the water that touches you” (v.31), “however hard you try to recall your childhood years” (vv. 36-37). Who is this second-person singular? Its identity seems to fluctuate along the flow of the poem, at times appearing as the distant nostalgic memory of the beloved, at other times as an alternative grammatical form for the speaker’s own persona, now addressing himself in the second person.
One eventually realizes that even if the whole poem is nothing but the utterance of a first-person speaker in love, this is love experienced in sheer loneliness. Reading the poem feels at times like overhearing the lonesome passerby’s internal monologue.
Yet there is no question that the solitary voice wishes to be fully and thoroughly heard. The title of the poem itself is like very few other titles among Seferis’ poems. By incorporating the date “1937” into the title, Seferis indicates that this piece should be read as relating to a biographical landmark. I cannot go into an extensive discussion about legitimate modes of reading poetry, yet it might be worth mentioning that such cases as this clearly encourage a holistic approach in which poetic discourse is approached as part of a broader network of discourses, primarily those employed by a given author. An anthropology--not just a philology-- of interpretation is called for here. Epiphany, 1937 prompts an engaged reader to explore the poem as the centerpiece of a whole array of other discourses by Seferis, comprising his correspondence, diaries, and essays. One can easily uncover the circumstantial facts: Seferis, during the year named in the poem’s title, would turn 37 years old, and at the time was serving as Greek consul (proxenos) in Korçë, Albania. Unmarried, he had fallen deeply in love the summer before (August 1936) with Marika Zannou, wife of a former naval officer, Andreas Londos, and the mother of two girls. Their affair, which began during mutual vacations on the island of Aegina, had been cut short when Seferis, upon his return to Athens in September, found waiting for him orders to assume his new diplomatic post. He endured the winter of 1936-37 in the isolated mountain city, slipping reluctantly into the dull round of his duties and writing several times a week to his beloved “Maro,” still unhappily attached to Londos back in Greece.
Apart from the title’s explicitly stated chronology, the word Epiphany (Greek Epiphania) seems to have very specific referents as well. “Epiphanies,” in general, are moments of revelation. They can mark the moment when an identity is established in the life of an individual. [4] But the linking of this noun with the year in the title Epiphany, 1937 must also be a reference to the calendrical date of January 6th, when the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus by St. John in the river Jordan. Not only can the continuing presence of water in Seferis’ Epiphany evoke this religious event, where immersion in water is combined with the bestowal of identity on the person being baptized, but also January matches the background for the ice-covered landscape of the main part of the poem. On the other hand, in Greek pagan tradition epiphanies are associated with the acquisition of an authoritative poetic identity. In Hesiod’s Theogony the anonymous shepherd pasturing his flock on Mt. Helicon appears in his own poem with the name “Hesiod” only at the moment when the Muses’ epiphany to him is being narrated (Theogony vv.24-34).
To what extent Seferis’ choice of this title hints at either or both options is certainly an open question, yet all evidence surrounding Epiphany, 1937 indicates that the poet had indeed experienced the birth and the outcome of this poem as an epiphanic landmark of his own poetic itinerary.
One aspect of this epiphanic moment is what I will focus on in this note: the achievement of an effective first-person-singular poetic voice. Seferis had repeatedly expressed his view, both indirectly and directly, that poetry fails if written or read as personal confession. Clearly, a poem such as Epiphany, 1937, permeated as it is by a lonesome and emphatically self-reinstating first-person-singular runs the risk of becoming so. “Poetry is not for personal confessions,” Seferis wrote later in his diaries, “and if someone does make them, it is not these that make poetry survive. Poetry does not try to express the personality of the poet, rather it tries to eliminate it...By doing this, it expresses another personality that belongs to everyone.” Elsewhere he talks about the personality of the depths being much wider, and in a subterranean manner connected with the deeper personalities of others. [5]
Did Seferis, then, manage to reach the equivalent of what he later called personality of depths in Epiphany, 1937? The relevant evidence makes quite clear that this had indeed been involved in his struggle over the poem. The following passage from a letter Seferis wrote to his sister, Ioanna Tsatsou, is quite revealing. Its date is January 1st, 1937, the period of time Seferis was shaping Epiphany:
[…] Over the last five days the following verse is chasing me: “The water frozen in the horses’ hoofmarks. Tell me, what does it fish for? What does it seek? What will it bring up?” Around the verse is the entire man with his trials, with the pains of his body, with his everyday troubles, with his desire. The poetic expression makes its own way. It wants to create its own alchemy. I have never attempted so much as I have recently this insistent and painful thing which is so-called “art,” that is to say to have as raw material one’s own self and to hack away at it from here and there until it speaks. [6]
The transformation of the verse Seferis mentions in this letter into the lean and pointed closure of Epiphany, 1937 is only part of what is worth noticing in the passage. More importantly, the overall drama of turning the raw material of oneself into “art” emerges here as a quintessential aspect of the epiphanic moment to be traced in the poem. This is without doubt a crucial moment in Seferis’ struggle to turn oneself into poetry while retaining an individual, first-person, voice, yet a voice that is enabled to connect one’s own selfhood with the selfhood of others.
In January 1968, exactly thirty-one years after Seferis completed Epiphany, 1937, the composer Mikis Theodorakis conceived of it as a choral piece, soon to be named Epiphania-Averof after the name of a prison centrally located in Athens, where Theodorakis had been detained since August 1967 by the right-wing junta of the Colonels that had seized power on April 21, 1967. In late December 1967 he was denied the Christmas amnesty granted to a number of other political prisoners. In his published diaries he records a dialogue he had with another political prisoner on January 1st, 1968:
“- You must find something new, something exceptional, for your music.- True. I want to break the bounds of the song, to free it.- As you did with Ritsos's poem Romiossini.- I want to go even farther, following a line of inner progression. And outside the classical framework.- Oh, you've got something simmering... - I've got this collection of Seferis' poetry here. You remember that poem I set to music called ‘I’ve kept a rein on my life’. Do you know how many verses I took from it? Four or five. Well, I'm going to take the whole poem and make a song, an immense song. - You're going to start on it?- This very evening. As soon as they've closed the gates.Thus the new musical form which I have called flow-song was born.”
This dialogue, published in Theodorakis’ Journals of Resistance and included in Gail Holst’s book about the composer, clearly shows that for the imprisoned artist setting to music the entire Epiphany, 1937 was a tour de force, his own epiphanic moment in the junta’s jail cells. [7] Although it was apparently fully conceived that January, for quite a while the specifics of this piece seem to have been a work in progress. For instance, in March 1969, while in exile in a mountainous area in the Peloponnese, Theodorakis mentions that he added to the composition a singer, orchestra, and six voices, three male and three female, and seems satisfied with this arrangement. But his determination to set the composition to a choral voice had been clear since the previous year. To return to early January 1968 in Averof prison: Theodorakis was apparently even then working on the poem as a choral piece to be “performed with the help of his fellow prisoners. Each evening the prisoners listened to the radio in a communal hall from 7:30 to 8:30. Theodorakis used this hour to train his choir of ten prisoners. [8]
A choir of ten prisoners, in 1968; six voices, three male and three female, in 1969; the national choir of France, in 1971. What prompts the transformation of Seferis’ distinctively lonesome first-person-singular voice into Theodorakis’ multiphonic endeavor? Undoubtedly, in the poem’s emblematic first-person-singular refrain ‘Kratêsa tê zôê mou’, translated into English as “I’ve kept a rein on my life” by Keeley and Sherrard (alternatively: “I’ve kept a hold on my life”), Theodorakis heard a multiplicity of voices, the universality of their utterance further enhanced by the composer’s preference for a mixed chorus of both men and women.
I am focusing on the poem’s refrain as a remarkable and typical element of both the poem’s overall musicality and its restrained, yet perceptible, emotive tone. Without question, this recurring phrase throughout the main part of the poem struck Theodorakis’ sensitivity and curiosity. In the older musical setting of the poem, the one he mentions to his fellow prisoner in January 1968, the four lines he had chosen to set to music were the first lines of the main part of the poem, starting with the double repetition of the refrain and ending with it for a third time, in v.10. He had initially conceived these lines as appropriate for a solo voice, a monody that was sung by the folk singer Grigoris Bithikotsis.
What, then, turned the brief solo song of 1960 into the flow-song of 1968? What prompted the transformation of the brief monody into a fully-fledged choral piece? Under what circumstances does deeper understanding come? Sensing that the repeated phrase “Kratêsa tê zôê mou” is profoundly plural behind its apparent singularity was probably a crucial moment in this transformation of Theodorakis. In fact, this phrase was indeed already the result of Seferis’ encounter with at least two other voices, those of Odysseas Elytis and of Edgar Allan Poe. This is not the place for an analysis of the overall prosodic layout of Epiphany, 1937 with the poem’s refrain at its core. Yet it is worth mentioning briefly that in the summer of 1936, Elytis had published in the journal Nea Grammata a poem entitled “Anniversary” (Epeteios), where the phrase “I have brought my life this far” (Ephera tê zôê mou hôs edô) was repeated several times at the beginning of each of the four stanzas of the poem. While turning Elytis’ obvious prosodic symmetry into a remarkably asymmetrical prosodic arrangement in his own “Kratêsa tê zôê mou,” Seferis’ first-person-singular voice was already incorporating another first-person-singular utterance, that of his fellow poet.
Kratêsa tê zôê mou,” repeated throughout the main part of Seferis’ poem, evokes yet another voice, that of Edgar Allan Poe. In a well-known essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” where he discusses his own poem The Raven, Poe explains what led him to the refrain “nevermore.” He was searching, he says, for a musical phrase that through its stability and variation would express the recurrence of melancholy and sadness: “As commonly used the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone— both in sound and thought.” [9] Poe’s formulation seems to epitomize the function of the refrain in Seferis’ Epiphany, 1937. Seferis’ refrain creates a sense of monotony and repetition and at the same time the sense of one’s carrying something heavy. The phrase “I’ve kept a rein on my life” or “I’ve kept a hold on my life” sounds precisely like a recurrent burden in the more general sense of the word (related to English “bear” rather than French bourdon, the source of the literary term synonymous with “refrain”). The weight of one’s own life is carried through the itinerary of the lone walker in the poem. Poe had sought the creation of newer poetic effects by varying the application of his refrain (or phonic echoes of it) yet locating it symmetrically at the end of each stanza of his poem The Raven. Seferis, on the other hand, seems to evoke the sadness and melancholy that Poe strove to reproduce, yet positioned his refrain within a remarkably asymmetrical rhythmic structure. Clearly, Seferis’ voice was consciously integrating Poe’s. This is made all but certain by the appearance of his own poem Raven immediately after Epiphany, 1937. This poem, explicitly dedicated “in memoriam E.A.P.” was also written in the winter of 1937, in Korçë (Greek Koritsá), as Seferis makes explicit at the end of the poem.
I am not by any means suggesting that these two poetic voices are the only ones behind the first-person’s own voice in Epiphany, 1937. Yet the subtle presence of these two discernible voices is emblematic of the way Seferis labored over creating a first-person voice that is essentially multiple and holistic. Theodorakis’ hearing of a plurality of voices behind the first-person-singular utterances of the poem presents the closest possible affinities with Seferis’ own sensibilities, his struggle over the creation of a wider personality of the depths, one connected with the deeper personalities of the others. It is these deeper personalities of others that Theodorakis’ choral voice captured in his own epiphanic moment inside the prison of the Colonels. Somehow, contemporary listeners feel that this voice enters their own body and runs in their blood, or, as the anonymous online listener wrote: “The voices of the singer and the choir flow in my veins.” One can listen to them here:
[ back ] 1. As a brief note, this contribution does not fully integrate the extensive bibliography [ back ] on the work of Seferis. Essential to the broader interpretation of that work are N. Vagenas, Ho poiêtês kai ho khoreutês (2nd. edit. Athens: Kedros, 1980); D. Maronitis, Hê poiêsê tou Giorgou Seferê: Meletes kai Mathêmata (Athens: Hermes, 1984); and M. Vitti, Phthora kai Logos: Eisagogê stên poiêsê tou Giorgou Seferê (Athens: Hestia 1978).
[ back ] 2. On the relation of lyric poetry and “song” see above all Gregory Nagy Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990) 18-51; on the porousness of the boundaries between “choral” and “monodic” see ibid. 339-81. See also Nagy’s “Transformations of Choral Lyric Traditions in the Context of Athenian State Theater” Arion 3.1 (1995) 41-55; Poetry as Performance : Homer and Beyond ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 87-103; “Did Sappho and Alcaeus ever meet? Symmetries of Myth and Ritual in Performing the Songs of Ancient Lesbos” in Literatur und Religion I. Wege zu einer mythisch–rituellen Poetik bei den Griechen , eds. A. Bierl, R. Lämmle, K. Wesselmann; Basiliensia – MythosEikonPoiesis, vol. 1.1(Berlin / New York, 2007) 211–269 ; “ The ‘New Sappho’ Reconsidered in the Light of the Athenian Reception of Sappho” in The New Sappho on Old Age ( Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009) 176-195.
[ back ] 3. E. Keeley and P. Sherrard (trans. and edit.) George Seferis, Collected Poems. Revised edition. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
[ back ] 4. In this regard, it would be interesting to discover whether Seferis knew anything of the brief unpublished sketches called “epiphanies” written by fellow modernist James Joyce in the years before his first novel Stephen Hero (1904).
[ back ] 5. On poetry avoiding confession, see G. Seferis, Meres E (Athens: Ikaros, 1977) 168-69. He discusses the concept with explicit reference to T.S. Eliot’s theories. On the personality of the depths, see, for one example among many in his writings, G. Seferis, Dokimes, vol. 2. 3rd edit. (Athens: Ikaros, 1974) 177.
[ back ] 6. I. Tsatsou, Ho aderphos mou Giorgos Seferês (Athens: Hestia, 1973) 349. Italics mine. [ back ]
[ back ] 7. The dialogue here is as translated in G. Holst, Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1980) 149. Italics mine. [ back ] For the original, see M. Theodorakis, To Khreos. Tomos G: Hê Dêmiourgia 1967-1974 (Herakleion: Crete University Press, 2011) 1060.
[ back ] 8. Holst (above, n.7) 133.
[ back ] 9. Reprinted in Ingram, J. (edit.) The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, with Literary and Historical Commentary. (London: Redway, 1885) 7. [ back ]