A poet, a composer and an unlikely Greek protest song

Mikis Theodorakis died in September last year, half a century after one of his most illustrious collaborators, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Giorgos Seferis. Eugenia Russell looks at the unlikely protest song that unites them

March 6, 2022 · 6 min read

‘Denial’ is not an obviously political song. The reasons it took political dimensions are complex – both socio-political and aesthetic. It brings two worlds together, that of the measured diplomat Seferis, and the fiery, larger-than-life Theodorakis. So why is it that this particular song, mild and ambiguous in its meaning, has become such a potent symbol of resistance for the Greek people?

Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971) died while Greece was languishing under the right-wing junta of the colonels, and his funeral in Athens became a symbol of Greek resistance and hope. His poem Arnisi (Άρνηση) – usually translated as ‘denial’, though one might argue ‘refusal’ is more accurate – as set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, was spontaneously sung by the crowds who followed his coffin through the streets of the Greek capital.

In the poem, the description of a Greek seashore is interwoven with a personal love story and reflections on lost dreams. It can be read as a critique of those who, defeated by life, give up on their dreams. What struck a further chord with the Greek people, however, was their understanding of the title of the poem, Arnisi, as refusal, which coincided with the refusal of Seferis to endorse the colonels.

Condemning the junta

Having become the first Greek to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature, in 1963, Seferis had access to the world’s press. In 1969, two years into the colonels’ regime, Seferis sent a message to the BBC World Service condemning the junta and calling for change. It was broadcast simultaneously on French Radio and Deutsche Welle. In his statement he said that the ideals for which Greece fought in the second world war were being totally disregarded by the Colonels. He called it a tragedy of Aeschylean dimensions.

The poet planned to release his statement while in Princeton with his wife but he decided to come back and voice his dismay from Greece. This resulted in the regime revoking his honorary status as diplomat as well as his diplomatic papers. Though they didn’t dare to arrest him, this meant the couple could not travel. As a result, Seferis chose to live in voluntary seclusion and stopped publishing anything within Greece because ‘freedom was silenced’.

Collage including photos of Seferis and Theodorakis ‘Arnisi’, often referred to by its first line, ‘Sto perigiali’, has been recorded by many artists over the years. The classic remains the first recording by Grigoris Bithikotsis on the Epifania EP. Other notable interpreters include Maria Farantouri and Margarita Zorbala.

The BBC continued to play his poetry on the radio for the duration of the junta’s rule but in Greece the public reading of Seferis’s poetry had been made illegal. Through this resonance the song became an unlikely but potent and enduring symbol of liberty for the Greek people. Seferis’s funeral brought people together in mourning and defiance. Athenians flooded the streets in their thousands waving Greek flags. Attending the funeral of the poet was an expression of peaceful disobedience.

Singers of poetry

The poetry collection in which ‘Denial’ appears is called Strophe, meaning Turn – a turning point in Greek poetry. With this collection Greek poetry enters the modernist age. The poet seeks to speak to his fellow Greeks vitally and profoundly with a poem they will recognise as their own. In it all Greeks can see their own image: one of romance, hope, disappointment and memory; one of the sea, a thirst for life and their first love.

The plasticity of Seferis’s language makes the words roll off the tongue. This alone would make it memorable, but it is also so very visual. Specific and yet universal: ‘At the secluded seashore, white like a dove.’ So ambiguous and yet potentially crushing: ‘And we changed our life.’ The poem also speaks of Seferis’s love of the countryside. He was a keen observer of nature; he wrote elsewhere: ‘The nightingales do not let you sleep in Platres (village in Cyprus).’

The song became an unlikely but potent and enduring symbol of liberty for the Greek people

It speaks of Seferis’s deep love of Greece and also his hurt. He wrote elsewhere: ‘Wherever I go, Greece hurts me.’ And then there is the transformation into song by Theodorakis, which has made this poem one of the best known by Seferis. Theodorakis met Seferis in London, where he served as an ambassador, and he played the song to the poet and his wife Maro for their approval. They were delighted and knew that this would give the poem a second existence – bringing it to the lips of every Greek.

The first performance of the song by Grigoris Bithikotsis, in 1962, will always be remembered by the Greek people as a landmark in their cultural history. It is no coincidence that it was one of the songs sung at the funeral of Mikis Theodorakis himself, who died at the age of 96 in September this year.

It has been said many times that Theodorakis made the Greek people singers of poetry. He had an amazing gift for melody and many of his songs have become almost like folk songs. ‘Denial’ is a case in point. Its melody, beautiful, smooth, plangent, redolent of the homeland, is easy to sing even by a child. When performed by the likes of one of the masters, say Grigoris Bithikotsis or Maria Farantouri, it brings an inevitable sigh of longing and a tear to the eye. To listen to a recording or to sing it by the seaside? What a wonderful dilemma! This ease of melody combined with the rich meaning make it the popular anthem that it is – a treasure to which Greeks return.

This article first appeared in Red Pepper issue #234. Subscribe today.

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