- Modern Greek literature
Greek literature Ancient Greek literature (until 4th century AD) Byzantine literature (4th – 15th century) Modern Greek literature (post 11th century)
Modern Greek literature refers to literature written in the Greek language from the 11th century, with texts written in a language that is more familiar to the ears of Greeks today than is the language of the early Byzantine literature, the compilers of the New Testament, or, of course, the classical authors of the fifth and fourth centuries BC.
The emergence of modern Greek literature (11th - 15th century)
The main forms and themes of this period include scholarly and popular epic songs celebrating the new champions of Hellenism; long compositions; verse romance, which bore the stamp of influence from western courtly tradition, but a genre nevertheless rooted in the Hellenistic and Roman imperial ages; ancient stories reviving mythical and historical figures such as Achilles and Theseus and Alexander the Great; and didactic, sardonic texts, concerned with philosophy and the allegory of daily life, with birds and animals taking the leading roles. But these will prove to be also the mainstay of modern Greek literature, modified, of course, by the various aesthetic and other values specific to each era.
The cultural context within which the first known works of vernacular literature were created was undoubtedly Byzantine. The earliest group of such works dates mainly to the twelfth century: known as the Ptochoprodromika, the moralizing poem Spaneas, the autobiographical and didactic verses written in prison by Michael Glykas, the verse Eisiterion (a poem welcoming Princess Agnes of France), and a few examples of heroic poetry such as the Song of Armouris and the epic Digenis Acritas. The overwhelming majority of literary works in the vernacular has survived anonymously. Furthermore, it has proved difficult to assign a precise date to many of them, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the form in which the works have survived is often somewhat protean. Many have survived in a number of manuscripts, each of which preserves substantial variants or a different version. This phenomenon also occurs in the medieval literature of western Europe. It can be attributed to the methods by which texts were copied and disseminated in the age of the manuscript; in some cases, differing manuscript traditions may provide evidence of oral as well as written transmission of texts.
Verse romances are among the finest achievements of Byzantine literature, continuing as they do the long tradition of the love story whose roots go back to the Hellenistic and Late Antiquity periods. The Byzantine romance began its revival in the 12th century with Ysmine and Ysminias by Eustathius Macrembolites, Rodanthe and Dosikles by Theodoros Prodromos, Drosilla and Charikles by Niketas Eugenianos and Aristandros and Kallithea by Konstantinos Manasses. The differences (and similarities) in the case of the romances of the 13th and 14th centuries are clear. The plot has been reduced considerably; only Livistros and Rodamne maintains a sub-plot. The element of adventure becomes less prominent as the description of the action is reduced. The number of characters taking part in the action also becomes smaller. The social origins of the protagonists changes: no longer simply well-to-do, they derive for the most part from royalty. Furthermore, fairy tale elements like dragons, winged horses and magical objects are incorporated into the story while the erotic aspect of the romance is given particular emphasis, like the sensuality of the bathing scene in Kallimachos and Chrysorrhoe, the passionately entwined Velthandros and Chrysantza whose cries of pleasure echo around the garden, and the obvious erotic symbolism of Achilles’ entry with his lance into the maiden’s garden in the Achilleid. The heroes are either of Byzantine or Roman lineage, though the co-stars are sometimes of eastern origin. The action no longer evolves within a Mediterranean, classical setting; the scenery is contemporary, but with obvious utopian elements and a liking for the scenery of the folktale.
A number of scholars have termed the Greek romances as chivalric, yet they appear neither to imitate nor to have assimilated anything of the western chivalric ideal. The similarities of the central hero to the knight of the western courtly romance are limited to the external characteristics of the noble knight, in his capacity both as a warrior and as a hunter, and to his exceptional valour and beauty. The codification of the system of values of feudal society as expressed in the ideal of western chivalry is absent from Byzantine and post-Byzantine works. The social and ideological base of the Greek romances is quite different. Furthermore, the ideal of love that is portrayed is substantially different to the standards of courtly love in the western tradition, while there is considerable difference with regard to the subject of adultery, which appears only very rarely and was quite foreign to the Byzantine notion of love. Apart from the story of Helen and Paris, which in any case was handed down from antiquity, as related in the Tale of Troy, the notion of love is encountered only in Livistros and Rodamne, where the sub-plot concerns an adulterous relationship.
Translations and adaptations of western European romances into the vernacular Greek of the day date to the 14th and 15th century: the Theseid is a translation of Boccaccio’s "Teseida", while Imberios, Margarona, Florios and Platziaflora were both based on the Italian versions of the Old French romances "Pierre de Provence et la Belle Maguelonne" and "Floire et Blanchefleur". To this group of works can also be added The War of Troy, a translation of Benoît de Sainte-Maure's "The Romance of Troy".
Tales set in the classical world
An outstanding example of the adaptation of the figure of Alexander the Great to the literary needs of the age is provided by the 14th century Alexander Romance, consisting of 6120 lines of political verse. The vernacular literary production of the fourteenth century also includes three long verse accounts of the Trojan War, each presenting a different treatment of the subject. The most popular of these, judging by the seven manuscripts preserving the text, was the War of Troy, an anonymous work that in essence comprises a loose translation, or paraphrase, in 14,400 lines of fifteen-syllable political verse, of the "Roman de Troie" by Benoît de St. Maure. The second of these works, the Tale of Troy (the so-called "Byzantine Iliad") by an anonymous author, also observes the conventions of the romance. The third work, a vernacular paraphrase of the Iliad made by Constantine Hermoniakos at the court of the despotate of Epirus in about 1330, seems to follow the Homeric text fairly closely. However, in the twenty-four books of 8800 non-rhyming eight-syllable lines of Hermoniakos’ paraphrase, the narrative also relates the events that preceded the action described by Homer as well as the sequel to the sack of Ilium, all in an affected idiom composed of both vernacular and learned linguistic features.
Cretan literature (15th - 17th centuries)
Erotokritos is undoubtedly the masterpiece of this period, and perhaps the supreme achievement of modern Greek literature. It is a verse romance written around 1600 by Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553-1613). In over 10,000 lines of rhyming fifteen-syllable couplets, the poet relates the trials and tribulations suffered by two young lovers, Erotokritos and Aretousa, daughter of Heracles, King of Athens. It was a tale that enjoyed enormous popularity among its Greek readership and succeeded in making itself something of a folk hero, whose pedigree was as brother to Digenis Acritas and Alexander the Great. The poets of this period use the spoken Cretan dialect, freed of the medieval vernacular. The tendency to purge the language of foreign elements was above all represented by Georgios Chortatsis, Vitsentzos Kornaros and the anonymous poets of Voskopoula and The Sacrifice of Abraham, whose works highlight the expressive power of the dialect. As dictated by the pseudo-Aristotelian theory of decorum, the heroes of the works use a vocabulary analogous to their social and educational background. It was thanks to this convention that the Cretan comedies were written in a language that was an amalgam of Italicisms, Latinisms and the local dialect, thereby approximating to the actual language of the middle class of the Cretan towns. The time span separating Antonios Achelis, author of the Siege of Malta (1570), and Chortatsis and Kornaros is too short to allow for the formation, from scratch, of the Cretan dialect we see in the texts of the latter two. The only explanation, therefore, is that the poets at the end of the sixteenth century were consciously employing a particular linguistic preference – they were aiming at a pure style of language for their literature and, via that language, a separate identity for the Greek literary production of their homeland.
The flourishing Cretan school was all but terminated by the Turkish capture of the island in the 17th century. The ballads of the klephts, however, survive from the 18th century; these are the songs of the Greek mountain fighters who carried on guerrilla warfare against the Turks.
Enlightenment era (17th century - 1821)
After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 the only Greek regions which had not fallen to the Turks were Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes and the Ionian Islands, which were already under Venetian control. In these islands, and especially in Crete, literary production continued uninterrupted to a very high standard, in contrast with the Turkish occupied territories. This period of approximately 150 years from the fall of Crete (in 1669) to the beginning of the Greek War of Independence (in 1821) produced some of the greatest texts of the Greek Enlightenment, texts produced by Greek humanists, lay and clerical, which were not only portents of the national revival but also sought for the education and training of the subjugated nation which would guide them through a process that was to achieve a national consciousness and full independence.
The Korakistika (1819), a lampoon written by Iakovakis Rizos Neroulos and directed against the Greek intellectual Adamantios Korais, is a good example of its kind. Until recently, the first satire in the modern Greek tradition was thought to be the Anonymous of 1789. Today, however, an earlier work, dated 1785, and bearing the title Alexandrovodas the Callous, can claim to be the first of this genre in Greek. Written by Georgakis Soutsos-Dragoumanakis, the target of its invective is Alexander Mavrokordatos, ruler of Moldavia, referred to in the work as the Fugitive. Two works from the mid 18th century, the Stoicheiomachia (1746) and the Bosporomachia (1766), printed by Evgenios Voulgaris and attached to a verse translation of Voltaire’s Memnon were the products of Phanariot circles. Both texts display a growing awareness of the natural landscape and foreshadow the age of lyricism that was to follow, while also legitimizing to an extent the mixed linguistic register of the Greek then spoken in Constantinople, with its mingling of a great number of Turkish words, a feature that was to appear in Phanariot poetry a few years later.
The turn of the century saw the rise of two major authors. Rigas Feraios and Adamantios Korais. Rigas was born in Velestino, Thessaly, in 1757, where he received his basic education. With the capture of Bucharest by the Austro-Russian alliance he moved on to Vienna for a period of six months (1790), and it was there that he printed his first book: The School for Delicate Lovers. It brought the climate of pre-Romanticism and the ‘new sensibility’ to modern Greek prose writing, while at the same time it constituted a fiery declaration of the radical ideas that were shaking Europe. Marriage that broke the barriers of social class, demands for social equality, a new role for women – indeed, the entire programme of the Enlightenment – filled the sensuous tales of The School for Delicate Lovers, which, ‘giving pleasure and instruction’, can be seen to belong to the wider programme of social change and reform of the day. The literature of enlightenment which Rigas undertook to bring to the knowledge of his fellow Greeks constantly sought to find a balance between the didactic, the new ideology, and the social, thematic and technical innovations of a new literariness. The popular, Constantinopolitan language, as well as the interposed verses, many of which are to be found in the manuscript anthologies of the Phanariots, served to familiarize the readership with the new literary genre of the novella or short story.
Adamantios Korais spent most of his long life outside the bounds of the Ottoman state. Born in Smyrna in 1748, he learnt foreign languages at an early age and grew up in an environment that fostered respect for learning and literature. His translations and publishing activity were governed by a desire to give his countrymen access to the learning of the West and also to arouse their interest in the literature of their ancient forebears. In 1804, he gave material evidence of his interest in the ancient writers by publishing an edition of Heliodorus’ Aithiopika, the first in a series of ancient writers that was given the title Elliniki Vivliothiki (Greek Library). The books in this series, which included authors such as Aristotle, Plutarch, Isocrates, Xenophon and Plato, were prefaced with scholarly introductions and supplemented with detailed commentaries. Following the Franco-Turkish rapprochement, Korais came to believe that his people required systematic long-term preparation, above all in the field of learning, in order through their own efforts to gain independence.
19th century literature (1821 - 1880)
This period, which begins with the struggle for independence in 1821 and ends sixty years later when the fledgling Greek State was confronting new situations and challenges, is marked by many important literary works.
Ionian or Heptanese School of Literature
Dionysios Solomos, born in Zakynthos in 1798, is generally recognised as the leading spokesman for the great values which inspired the struggling nation. His first considerable achievements, the lyrical poetic composition Lambros (1824 and after) and the satirical prose poem Woman of Zakynthos (1826 and after) brought him to the forefront of modern Greek and European literature. A striking example of the thematic and ideological evolution evident in Solomos’ works of his mature Corfu period are the successive revisions (1833 and later) of a previous attempt (1826) to compose a poem on one of the most important events of the revolution, the siege and fall of Mesolongi, the town where Lord Byron died. The main theme of the poem continues to be the heroic exodus of the inhabitants under siege, yet that which is stressed in the latter versions is human spiritual suffering, strength and moral freedom, as eloquently expressed by the poem’s new title: The Free Besieged.
The poetic work of the Ionian islander Andreas Kalvos, also born in Zakynthos in 1792, consists of twenty Odes written in the Greek language. He penned a total of twenty Odes about the Greek revolution. The language he used is highly poetic, his versification classical, and the ideology expressed within these lines worthy of great poetry. They are contained in two collections he published at a young age, The Lyre (Odes 1-10 headed by a short invocation to the Muses in verse) and Lyric Poems (Odes 11-20). These twenty poems together bear the title of Odes. His other, less important, works were written in Italian in the previous decade (1811-1821) and comprise three tragedies and a few odes, marked by the literary influence of Ugo Foscolo and Neo-classicism. During the rest of his life Kalvos published no other poems. His overriding aim was to achieve a combination of Romanticism and Neo-classicism and to lend kydos to the revolution. Initially his work was unknown, but today the quality of his writing and his importance in the shaping of the modern nation is undisputed.
Makriyannis (1797 - 1864) was a distinguished memoir writer. Ioannis Triantaphyllodimitris, or Triantaphyllou, his real name, was born in the village of Avoriti in Doris. His turbulent life, driven by a fighter’s spirit and passion and endowed with the genuine sensibility of simple folk, has been rightly seen as a symbol of modern Hellenism. Makriyannis’ Memoirs were initially published as an important historical document. It was for this reason that his rambling Visions and Marvels were ignored at the time, being considered not worth publishing. Makriyannis had been illiterate. His need to record the events he had lived through persuaded him to acquire just enough knowledge of reading and writing to enable him to set down his memoirs; he was untouched by scholarly tradition. However, that they have been acknowledged and survived is not only because of their importance as an historical source of information or because of their ideology. It is also because of the language in which they were written. The immediacy and passion of his writing as well as his total absorption in popular tradition and popular mores distinguish his Memoirs from those of other patriots, making him one of the most authentic writers of modern Greek prose. This is proved by the wide appreciation of his work in later years.
If any one individual were to be considered responsible for the image the Greeks have about themselves and their history, that person would be Constantine Paparrigopoulos (1815 - 1891). He wrote his five-volume History of the Greek Nation between 1860 and 1874 and, since then, his ideas have been promulgated in every conceivable way: incorporated into other texts, repeated by thousands of lecturers, memorised by generations of students and eventually absorbed by the nation, which gradually saw itself in the image conceived by Paparrigopoulos. The success of this work was so great that few remember the image-maker and even fewer are aware of the imagery involved in the formation of the concept of Greekness. Paparrigopoulos succeeded in convincing his public that things had always been so. The picture he presented was seen as a mirror of the collective self. History of the Greek Nation was re-issued several times with additions concerning more recent events by other authors. A century later, in 1971, when a new monumental history began to be published, incorporating all the research and studies carried out in the meantime, Paparrigopoulos’ History retained its title and its original historiographical pattern.
The publication of the first volume of Study of the Life of Modern Greeks and of Modern Greek Mythology by Nikolaos Politis (1852 -1921) in 1871 constitutes the birth certificate of folklore as a science. Its young author had recently been awarded a prize for his essay On the customs and lore of modern Greece in comparison with those of ancient Greece. Thus was born Greek folklore as a field of study; to be more precise, the study of folklore was now being born in Greece, for in that same year The Folk Life of Modern Greeks and Greek Antiquity by Bernhard Schmidt appeared in Leipzig and signalled a transition from archeological folklore. It reached adulthood, however, much later, since twelve years had to pass before it was acknowledged in 1883 and another twenty-five years before its official name laography was validated in 1908.
Romantic or First Athenian School of poetry
See Dimitrios Paparrigopoulos, Achilleas Paraschos, Alexandros Rizos Rangavis, Alexandros Soutsos, Panagiotis Soutsos, Dimitrios Vikelas.
Late 19th - Early 20th century literature (1880 - 1930)
E. Roidis, G. Vizyinos,
Emmanuel Roidis (1836 - 1904), distinguished cosmopolitan writer and great stylist of katharevousa, became famous at the age of thirty, following the publication of his provocative novel, Pope Joan, in 1866. This sensational book was translated immediately into many European languages and was, until the mid-20th century, the most widely translated Greek novel. Numerous Greek editions have been published up to the present day as well as many new editions of the translations. Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Jarry are two of the many distinguished translators of Pope Joan. An astonishingly original and fascinating work, Pope Joan is the female Greek version of Don Juan. Roidis’ ambitious and cynical heroine wanders around medieval Europe in the ninth century.
Georgios Vizyinos (1849 - 1896), author of poems, short stories, children’s literature and essays of philosophical, psychological and ethnological subject matter, is thought of as the pioneer of modern Greek prose. According to Costis Palamas, he is a "short story writer-poet", who "has a penchant for novel writing" and his texts, "if published in a community better prepared to receive them, would constitute a great and unforgettable event". In a span of merely fifteen months (1883-1884) Vizyinos wrote and published five short novels in the magazine Hestia, thus opening the way for a new literary form and at the same time demonstrating unique thematic, narrative and structural inventiveness. The short stories Who was my Brother’s Murderer?, The only Voyage of his Life, The Consequences of an Old Story and Moskov-Selim deal with the controversial subject of relations and the terms of coexistence among Greeks, Slavs and Turks in the Balkans, as well as the dialogue between the Greeks of Greece and the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire and the Diaspora, and also between Europe and modern and ancient Hellenism. The symbolic function of language and the self-referring function of literature are reflected mainly in the short stories Between Piraeus and Naples and The only Voyage of his Life. These issues are also the subject matter of his poems.
1880s Generation or New Athenian School
The poet and critic Costis Palamas dominated the Greek literary scene for almost fifty years, from about 1880 until 1930. With his eighteen books of poetry published between 1886-1935 and the abundance of essays and articles that he wrote during the same period, he is considered the chief proponent of the fundamental changes brought about in Greek letters by the 1880s generation, the generation of which he was undeniably the greatest poet. Palamas promoted, perhaps more than anyone else, the use of the colloquial language in literature, establishing its eventual dominance, and contributed to the appreciation of Greek popular culture. The poem "Palm Tree" is held to be the epitome of his work. It is a short composite poem of thirty-nine eightline stanzas written in 1900 and published in The Inert Life in 1904. In this poem symbolism, musicality and versification are evolved and combined as never before or since by Palamas, making it perhaps the most perfected and successful of all symbolist poems in the Greek language.
See also: Georgios Drosinis, Ioannis Gryparis, Miltiadis Malakasis.
In Alexandria, Egypt, on the south-eastern periphery of the Greek diaspora there lived Constantine Cavafy wrote the poetry that was to earn him international recognition as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. The one hundred and fifty-four poems that comprise Cavafy’s recognized work (some thirty additional examples were left unfinished at his death) fall into three categories, which the poet himself identified as follows: poems which, though not precisely ‘philosophical’, “provoke thought”; ‘historical’ poems; and ‘hedonistic’ (or ‘aesthetic’) poems. Many poems may be considered either historical or hedonistic, as Cavafy was also careful to point out. The poems of the first category (to which belong some of Cavafy’s best-known pieces, such as The City and Ithaca), all published before 1916, often display a certain didacticism. The historical poems (often historical in appearance only), the first of which was published in 1906, are usually set in the Hellenistic age (including Late Antiquity), the period which Cavafy believed was “particularly fitting as a context for his characters”, although Byzantium does not disappear entirely from his poetry.
Neo-romanticism or Neo-symbolism
In Greece, the decade of the 1920s signalled a period of manifold crises: ideological, political and social. The experience of national discord and the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922 seriously injured the concept of Greek ‘grand idealism’. The dictatorship of Pangalos (1925 - 1926) and a succession of governmental crises (1926-1928) created an atmosphere of widespread instability and insecurity. The refugee problem, unemployment and the wretchedness of state employees sparked a series of protest demonstrations and demands from the unions. Kostas Karyotakis gave existential depth as well as a tragic dimension to the emotional nuances and melancholic tones of the Neo-symbolist and Neo-romantic poetry of the time. Elegies and Satires (1927) is his last and most complete collection of poems published by Karyotakis. A landmark work in the history of Greek poetry of the 20th century, it is remarkable for its simplicity of expression, its condensed meaning, its existential anguish and the social pressure endured by the poet.
Nikos Kazantzakis is paradoxically the best-known Greek novelist outside Greece: paradoxically, because he himself rated his poetry and dramas far above his novels, to which he devoted himself seriously only during the last decade of his life. Paradoxically, too, because Kazantzakis has tended to be regarded more highly in international circles than at home. His wanderings temporarily halted by the occupation of Greece during the Second World War, Kazantzakis in the winter of 1941-1942, at the age of fifty-eight, began work on the novel that would mark his second début in Greek literature. This was Zorba the Greek. Zorba was the first of seven novels (if we count the autobiographical Report to Greco, on which he was still working at the time of his death) that Kazantzakis wrote in his final years, and on which his international reputation now principally rests.
20th century literature (1930 - 1981)
1930s Generation (Γενιά του '30)
Mythistorima is the most definitive work of George Seferis and the most truly representative text of Greek Modernism. It is a composite poem comprising 24 sections in free verse –- a poem that contains the basic concepts and recurring themes of the poetry to follow: ‘common’, almost unpoetic speech, a familiar, narrative but also dramatic voice; a continued intermingling of history and mythology as everyday figures parade through the poem in the company of mythical “personae” and symbolic figures. Everything takes place in “typical” Greek landscapes, sometimes recognisable, while the mythical subject matter (drawn chiefly from Homer and the tragic playwrights) appears fragmentarily, “peaks” of myths, as the poet himself would say, nevertheless capable of providing stability and clarity to the emotion possessing the poet.
Odysseus Elytis, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Heraklion, Crete, in 1911 and died in Athens in 1996. A major poet in the Greek language, Elytis is also one of the most outstanding international figures of 20th-century poetry. In his work, modernist European poetics and Greek literary tradition are fused in a highly original lyrical voice. Elytis’ later work consists of ten collections of poems and a substantial number of essays. Outstanding among them are The Monogram (1972), an achievement in the European love poem tradition, and The Oxopetra Elegies (1991), which include some of the most difficult but profound poems written in our times. It is significant that in these mature works the tone is no longer jubilant. Melancholy, reflection and solemnity gradually prevail, although the poet’s faith in the power of imagination and the truth of poetry (a belief that brings him close to the Romantics) is still unshakeable.
The Surrealists (Late 1930s - )
Postwar literature (1944 - 1974)
Manolis Anagnostakis, critic and poet, confronted the chaotic period of the Greek Civil War in his two major poetry series, the Epoches, and the Synecheia. Publishing and writing while imprisoned, Anagnostakis explored the role of the poet under tyranny. His award-winning work was arranged by composer Mikis Theodorakis and thereby continue to influence Greek poets and songwriters in the present.
Contemporary literature (1974 - )
The Annual Poetry Symposium started in 1981 by an ad hoc committee made of poets and Professors of the University of Patras. In its 25 years of activity it has significantly contributed to the promotion of Greek poetry and its study from antiquity to present, having hosted hundreds of poets, professors and delegates from Greece and abroad.
- R. Beaton, "An Introduction to Modern Greek Literature", Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.
- M. Vitti, "Ιστορία της Νεοελληνικής Λογοτεχνίας" (History of Modern Greek Literature), ed. Οδυσσέας, Athens, 2003. (in Greek)
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