Kalvos, Foscolo, and not letting exiles be exiles

By: | Post date: June 11, 2023 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Culture, Greece, Language

I don’t like the poetry of Andreas Kalvos.

I don’t like it, because I find his archaic Greek stanzas stiff, and lifeless, and bombastic. Especially compared to the vigour and passion of his contemporary, Dionysis Solomos.

I may well continue to hold that judgement, but there is yet another bias behind it; the legacy of the Greek language question. By the 1960s, the battle lines were clear: to advocate for Puristic Greek at all was to be a reactionary, a servile nostalgic for the classical past, a creature with no literary taste, a figure of derision and scorn, if not outright hatred.

In such a worldview, Kalvos’ archaic patriotic odes could find  no welcome. Although he has continued to have his defenders, people who perhaps have a clearer view of poetry that diglossia polemics did not obscure. Perhaps.

Part of the problem Kalvos faces with modern reception among Greeks is that archaic Greek did not mean to him what it meant in 1960. In 1820, archaic Greek was the language of Westernisation, and progressiveness, and national rebirth. It was certainly a surer bet than the bet made by Solomos, and Polylas in Corfu, that the vernacular should be the national language. To many Greeks of the time, the vernacular was an embarrassment, a language corrupted by Turkish and Italian, a language dumbed down from its classical glories. When Korais launched Puristic Greek as a middle solution between ancient and vernacular Greek, it was a sensible if underspecified project; and indeed, it’s not like what is now Standard Greek did not undergo some of the “cleanup” that Korais prescribed.

And Kalvos’ legacy is compounded by the fact that a lot of what he was doing, neoclassicism, antiquarianism, constant longing for a lost homeland, was taken directly from Foscolo, his mentor, who was writing in Italian sonnets exactly what Kalvos ended up writing in Sapphic odes.

And because Kalvos and Foscolo ended up writing in different languages, they were claimed by different communities, and received differently.

Gregoria Manzin and I discussed this claiming:

[Foscolo] ended up dying in London, pretty much destitute. He is now buried in Santa Croce, Florence, after the ‘unified’ Kingdom of Italy (that of 1861, not the Napoleonic one) brought his remains back to Italy—which was not home.
And yet, by 1864, Zante wouldn’t have been either. Italian was already banished as a language of civil discourse, Greek nationalism was on the ascendancy, the islanders were putting their Italian past behind them.
There is still a lot more cultural contact with Italy than elsewhere in Greece (hence my folk singers singing “Volare” and the Forza Napoli song tonight, and lawyers’ awnings being bilingual in Italian not English: “avvocato”.) But you know… in a sense, Italy became his true home after his death. Even if some people here do seem to remember him.
I guess this matter of where home was for Foscolo is what interested me a lot. His birthplace was no longer his birthplace after it was handed over. It was just a place of memory, hence the pervasive nostalgia in his works.
My dad’s family suffered from a similar malady with the handing over of Istria and Dalmatia after the war. Foscolo’s lyrical tones were much different in form but he spoke of sentiments familiar to me in a way. Strange as it seems, as a young pupil in intermediate school, I could somewhat relate to this poet who lived centuries before – or perhaps it’s only that I could ‘translate’ some of his pain and understood what the experience might mean.
 I don’t know that I’m going to like Kalvos’ poetry any better, but what I read of his biography is tragic.
Unlike Foscolo, he did get to go home. He returned full of patriotic fervour, only to find the Greek Revolutionary War bogged down in sordid factionalism, and his own patriotic poetry ignored.
Disillusioned, he moved to Corfu, where he worked on and off as a teacher for the next 25 years, and never wrote another verse. Dionysios Solomos, the patriotic poet that everyone acknowledged, had also moved to Corfu: Kalvos either made a point of never meeting him (English Wikipedia) or else held him as “just an acquaintance” (Greek Wikipedia). In 1852, Kalvos moved to London, where he died.
A century later, the Greek ambassador to the UK, George Seferis (who also happened to be one of the great Greek poets of the 20th century) arranged for his remains to be sent back home to Zante.
Zante was the yearned for home that Kalvos hymned in 1824. By the time he died in 1869, Greece was where he was disillusioned, disappointed and ignored, eclipsed by the other Zante poet. It was the place he abandoned.
And a century later, Greeks reinter him in Zante, only to play second fiddle to that other poet again. There is only one statue in the mausoleum hosting both poets. Nobody even knows now what Kalvos looked like.
What the living do with the remains of the dead is for the gratification of the living. Seferis wanted Kalvos home, and he got his way.
I doubt Kalvos would have agreed. I doubt Kalvos by then thought of Zante as home any more.

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