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The Twelve Lays Of The Gipsy , by Kostis Palamas

Twelve Words of Gypsy - Kostis Palamas, Frederic Will


When Greece regained its independence from the weakened Ottoman Empire in 1832 with the help of the Turks' imperial competitors, Russia, France and Great Britain,(*) its writers had to face the vexed decision of which language they were going to use to compose their works - the antiquarian Attic Greek of 4th century BCE Athens, which was maintained as the language of government and literature by the Byzantines, or the Greek spoken by the contemporary Greeks. You can well imagine the positions taken and the arguments made. Needless to say, tempers became a little hot, and the oligarchy quite simply imposed the archaistic katharevousa on public life, including the schools. So, unlike, say, the Koreans, who were forced by the Japanese to forget Korean and learn Japanese, the Greek people were forced by their own folk to learn a nearly unintelligible ancient Greek.


The poet Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) is considered by many to be the writer whose work settled the matter in favor of the demotic Greek, and his O Δωδεκάλογος του Γύφτου (Twelve Lays of the Gipsy - 1907) is held to be his best work.(**) Of course, Palamas had to enrich the relatively poor vernacular, but he consistently drew upon its heritage of folk-songs and ballads.


Some further points of relevance to this book: in 1897, the Greeks invaded the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to recover Constantinople and Ionia. Bad move.(***) The ignominious defeat was a crushing blow to the Greeks' nascent self-confidence and threw their emerging identity into question. At the same time, the writings of Marx and Nietzsche were roiling the Greek political waters (apparently, Nietzsche was seen by the Greek middle class as an alternative to the frightening spectre of a powerful working class).


All of these elements, and more, enter into Palamas' epic poem. As he wrote in his author's dedication, he "tried to thread together epic, lyric, drama, and, drawing on all the elements of poetical speech, on historical tradition, and on philosophical thought, on life and dreams, some visions of the mind and throbbings of the heart." Although it is possible to read this poem perfectly literally, it admits a reading as symbolism, if not as allegory. In any case, to read the poem on several levels enhances pleasure.


Written shortly after the 1897 defeat of the Greek attempt to regain Constantinople, the setting of this poem is ... Constantinople shortly before its fall to the Turks. A tribe of gypsies arrives outside its walls, a simple, tightly cohesive folk who are complete outsiders to the sophisticated and elegant Byzantine culture. The translator suggests that these gypsies represent the original Greeks as Nietzsche and others saw them - in perfect harmony with Nature, the Gods and their own society. However, it is possible to see them representing the 19th century Greeks, reduced and alienated from their splendid past, gazing with awe at the brilliant city from their miserable encampment. Among the gypsies is a poet/musician who, in contrast to the rest of his people, has recognized himself as an individual and knows himself to be alienated from the others. There is not much question whom he "represents," for the poem is related in his first person which at the end merges with the poem's author.


The poem follows this poet/musician through a series of experiences/personal developments, but I shan't try to summarize. In fact, the author himself (!) provides a four page summary at the beginning of the text. The many strands and elements of the poem indicated above have resulted in a mish-mash, in my opinion, not in a grand synthesis. The poem just does not hold together as a coherent piece, and, on occasion, made me shake my head in disbelief.(****) In the 50's and 60's Palamas was still being touted as the finest modern Greek poet, but not any longer. He has been replaced by his contemporary C.P. Cavafy and two brilliant generations of poets who came of age before and after the Second World War. There are moments of brilliance in this poem, but they are not sustained.


Nonetheless, Palamas' demonstration of what the demotiki, the demotic Greek language, was capable of in the right hands, together with the political overtones the language question was freighted with (the conservatives, royalists and elites for the katharevousa and the democrats and socialists for the demotiki), assured him a place in the hearts of the Greek people. 


So, when Kostis Palamas died on February 27, 1943, in the midst of the German occupation, he had dominated Greek cultural life for decades. Though the funeral was held the next day and the Germans controlled the radio stations, it is claimed that several hundred thousand Greeks assembled for the event. The Germans must have been rather nervous...


(*) These selfless liberators saw to it that Greece did not become a republic; indeed, they imposed a Bavarian prince on the Greeks as King. When the Greeks finally drove this gentleman into exile in 1862, the Great Powers put a Danish prince on the throne of Greece!


(**) As an aside I'll mention that the lyrics of the Olympic Hymn are Palamas'. 


(***) At least the consequences were not as bad as those of the second attempt in 1922, after which the Turks simply expelled over a million Greeks from their ancestral lands in Asia Minor.


(****) For example, Palamas has socialist sentiments standing alongside Nietzschean bombast about the Hero and the Superman - I was almost expecting to see the Superman singing the Internationale! I'm not joking. In Canto II the Poet's soul is telling him


You are the one apart, unique, incomparable [,]


that his life is the sun with a death-dealing gaze (echoes of Also Sprach Zarathustra), and in the very next stanza his soul tells him


Sun at play, wings in flight, incomparable! Do not boast!

Lend a hand and help! Become a worker!


I thought I was hallucinating...