March is designated as Greek History Month, culminating in the celebration of Greek Independence Day on March 25. Unlikely as it may seem today, poets and poetry played a vital role in the fight for independence. Poets galvanized the spirit of the people and energized the support of Philhellenes around the world. Here are a few patriotic, springtime poetry favorites to add to your reading list.
The inspiring verses of the Greek national anthem are in fact the first two stanzas of the poem Hymn to Liberty written by Dionysios Solomos on his native Zakynthos in 1823 and published in 1824 in Messolonghi. Inspired by the War of Independence, the poem is actually 158 stanzas long and holds the record for the longest national anthem in the world. The poem depicts several events of the war, including the execution of Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople and the siege of Tripolitsa. Set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros in 1865, the Hymn to Liberty was adopted as the official national anthem of Greece that same year. In 1966, it was adopted as the national anthem of Cyprus as well. Solomos is heralded as the national poet of Greece for his magnificent poems celebrating Hellas and freedom, but he also helped preserve the work of previous generations and influenced the spirit of modern Greek literature through his study of the Cretan literary tradition and the use of the demotic language. Having studied in Italy, Solomos wrote at first in Italian. Upon his return to his native Zakynthos, he began writing in Greek as well. Solomos joined the local literary circle and met with the author and statesman Spyridon Trikoupis who famously encouraged Solomos in 1822 to write in Greek by saying, “the Greek Parnassus does not yet have its Dante.” The Collected Works of Dionysios Solomos are available online.
Andreas Kalvos was another Greek poet of the Romantic period. He travelled widely in his lifetime, but published only two collections of his poetry, Lyra in 1824 and Lyrika (Lyrics) in 1826. The themes are timeless ones of freedom and the love of his homeland. A native son of Zakynthos, he studied in Italy where he met and became a copyist for Ugo Foscolo, the Italian poet and revolutionary also born on Zakynthos. Lyra by Andreas Kalvos is available online through Project Gutenberg.
Love (Trilogy) or H Agape (Trilogia) by Christos Christovasilis is a powerful poem in three parts. A collector of folklore, Christovasilis was instrumental in preserving the folk literary tradition of his native Epirus. Born in 1861 when Epirus was still under Ottoman rule, Christovasilis joined the Epirus revolt of 1878 as a teenager, was arrested twice and managed to escape a death sentence. Moving to Athens in 1885, he completed his education, wrote books on Greek history, and became a journalist. Christovasilis returned to his native Epirus after the end of the Balkan Wars when the region was ceded to Greece and published the newspaper Eleutheria. The third poem of the Love trilogy, H Megali Idea, poignantly describes through the symbolism of traditional courtship practice the vision of a unified Greece. The poem is available online through Project Gutenberg.