February 9 was named International Greek Language Day, last year, in honor of the national poet of Greece Dionysios Solomos who died on that day in 1857. The day had previously been designated as the Solomos Commemoration Day, and other days including the birthdays of other notable Greek writers including poet George Seferis and author Nikos Kazantzakis had also been considered for the celebration.
The day is also controversial since it follows the celebration of the Three Hierarchs on January 30, which traditionally celebrates the Greek language and letters as well. The move towards a secular celebration of the Greek language just ten days later was criticized by some who saw it as unnecessary and somewhat disrespectful to the Church Fathers who had done so much, historically, for the promotion of the Greek language. Solomos, of course, also made great contributions to the Greek language, having composed the Hymn to Liberty, the verses of which became the lyrics of the Greek National Anthem in 1865.
Solomos was born on the island of Zakynthos in 1798, the illegitimate son of Nikolaos Solomos, a wealthy nobleman, and his housekeeper, Aggeliki Nikli. Count Nikolaos Solomos was legally married to Marnetta Kakni, who passed away in 1802. From that marriage, he had two children: Roberto and Elena. From 1796, Nikolaos Solomos had a parallel relationship with his housekeeper Angeliki Nikli, who gave birth to Dionysios and also Dimitrios, later President of the Ionian Parliament. Just a day before his death, Nikolaos Solomos father married Angeliki Nikli, making the young Solomos and his brother legitimate heirs of his estate.
Solomos then studied in Italy, at the Lyceum of St. Catherine in Venice, then in Cremona where he finished high school. He graduated from the University of Pavia’s Faculty of Law in 1817 and had begun writing poems in Italian and became a part of literary circles which included his fellow Zanythian Ugo Foscolo who became one of his friends.
Returning to Zakynthos in 1818, he joined the literary circles on the island and his improvised Italian poems during that period were published in 1822, under the title Rime Improvvisate. A turning point in Solomos’ life and career came when he met Spyridon Trikoupis in 1822. Trikoupis told him, according to his biography on ellines.com, “Your poetic aptitude reserves for you a select place on the Italian Parnassus. But the first places there are already taken. The Greek Parnassus does not yet have its Dante.”
Solomos told Trikoupis that his Greek was not fluent, but Trikoupis helped him through studying Athanasios Christopoulos’ poems. In May 1823, Solomos completed the Hymn to Liberty, 158 stanzas, inspired by the 1821 Greek Revolution. The poem was published in Greece in 1824 and throughout Europe one year later. Solomos’ reputation soon spread throughout Greece and abroad. The Hymn to Liberty was set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros, and is the longest national anthem in the world by length of text.In 1865, the first three stanzas (and later the first two) officially became the National Anthem of Greece and, from 1966, also that of the Republic of Cyprus.
After completing The Hymn to Liberty, Solomos continued to write impressive poetry, but never fully completed another work, and very few of his works were published in his lifetime. He had moved to Corfu and established the literary circle there. Solomos suffered a series of strokes towards the end of his life and passed away on February 9, 1857. His remains were returned to his native Zakynthos in 1865.
The Hymn to Liberty, The Collected Works of Dionysios Solomos, and Ta Italika Poimata (The Italian Poems) are all available online.
Modern Greek Writers: Solomos, Calvos, Matesis, Palamas, Cavafy, Kazantzakis, Seferis, Elytis (Princeton Essays in European and Comparative Literature, No. 7) edited by Edmund Keeley and Peter Bien is an excellent collection of essays which includes Zissimos Lorenzatos’ discussion of Solomos as well as Peter Bien’s analysis of Nikos Kazantzakis’ fervent demoticism. The essays are evidence of the creative activity of Greek writers in all genres as they turned outward to Europe and inward to Greek culture to form a unique modern literature. First published in 1972 by Princeton University Press, the 2015 Princeton Legacy Library edition is available in paperback online.