02 September 2019

How Corfu became home
to Dionysios Solomos,
national poet of Greece

The Greek flag flying on a boat in the Ionian Sea … Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos spent most of his working life in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) was born on the Ionian island of Zakynthos in 1798, but he spent most of his working life here in Corfu, and – although he was buried in Zakynthos – he died in Corfu on 9 February 1857.

Dionysios Solomos (Διονύσιος Σολωμός) was born into a family that originally hailed from Crete. His grandfather was from Iraklion but moved to Zakynthos after Crete was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1669.

He was the central figure in the Heptanese School of poets, based in Corfu and the Ionian Islands. He is best known for his Hymn to Liberty (Ὕμνος εις την Ἐλευθερίαν), whose first two stanzas were set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros and became the Greek national anthem in 1865. His other great poems include Τhe Cretan (Ὁ Κρητικός), The Day of Easter (Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής) and The Free Besieged (Ἐλεύθεροι Πολιορκημένοι). However, none of his poems, apart from the Hymn to Liberty, was completed.

Solomos was born on Zakynthos, the illegitimate child of a wealthy count, Nikolaos Solomos, and his housekeeper, Angeliki Nikli. Count Nikolaos Solomos married the poet’s mother a day before he died on 27 February 1807, making the young Dionysios legitimate and a co-heir to the family estate, along with his half-brother.

The poet spent his childhood years on Zakynthos until 1808, and then studied law and literature in Italy.

He gained fame early on with his ‘Hymn to Liberty’ (1823), a 158‐quatrain poem – the first two stanzas are sung as the Greek national anthem.

After frictions and economic disputes with his brother Dimitrios, Solomos move to Corfu, the most important intellectual centre of the Ionian islands at the time. Corfu offered him a more stimulating environment and the isolation he sought for a solitary lifestyle.

His happiest years were the first years he spent on this island. Here he soon found himself at the centre of attention from admirers and poets in a group of well-educated intellectuals with liberal and progressive ideas. The most important people in his circle included Nikolaos Mantzaros who composed the tune for his Hymn to Liberty that would become the Greek anthem.

However, Solomos later alienated himself from many of these friends and after a third stroke he did not leave his house. He died in Corfu on 9 February 1857 from apoplexy. When the news of his death became known, Corfu’s theatre closed down, the Ionian Parliament suspended its sittings, and mourning was declared. His body was later moved to Zakynthos and buried there in 1865.

His poem ‘The Free Besieged’ regained fame and popularity in Greece some years ago with the 1998 film Eternity And A Day (Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα) by Theodoros Angelopoulos.

The film tells the story of Alexandros (Bruno Ganz), a poet in Thessaloniki with a terminal illness who is spending his last day getting his affairs in order before checking himself into a hospital.

Alexandros has one final project – to complete the unfinished poem, ‘The Free Besieged,’ by Dionysios Solomos.

As the story unfolds, he saves a young boy (played by Achilleas Skevis), a Greek-speaking illegal immigrant from Albania, first from police in traffic in Thessaloniki and later from child kidnappers in a warehouse, and tries to help the boy return home. In one eerie scene, with recollections of the Crucifixion, man and boy are at the snowy mountain border between Greece and Albania, where a barbed wire fence has the bodies of fleeing refugees clinging to it after being killed by border police.

It was a harrowing scene that came to mind when I visited Greek-speaking parts of southern Albania last week.

In one scene, Alexandros and the unnamed boy are on a bus journey when they come across the poet Solomos (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), who recites verses from this poem <Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής> (‘The Easter Day’), with the opening line: «Καθαρότατον ήλιο επρομηνούσε ...»

During the bus journey the dying Alexandros and the boy take through Thessaloniki, the poet Solomos gets on the bus. He sits across from Alexandros and the boy, and recites his unfinished poem, The Day of Easter. When Solomos gets to the unfinished last line of the poem, ‘Sweet is the life ... and, ...’ he repeats these first few words and is unable to complete the line. As he leaves the bus, Alexandros asks: ‘Tomorrow, how long does it last?’

Close to the end of the film, the dying Alexandros imagines he has met Anna once again, and he says to her: ‘One day, I had asked you, how long does tomorrow last?’ Anna answers: ‘An eternity and a day.’ She leaves, and Alexander is left alone, facing the sea.

The Greek anthem is based on the Hymn to the Liberty (Ὕμνος εἰς τὴν Ἐλευθερίαν) written by Solomos in a single month, May 1823, in Zakynthos in the home of his friend Loudovikos Stranis.

In 1828, the composer Nicolaos Mantzaros from Corfu set the Hymn to the Liberty by Solomos to music. He composed two choral versions – a long one for the whole poem and a short one for the first two stanzas. His 6/4 tempo is reminiscent of the Tsamiko, a traditional Greek men’s dance.

Although King Otho decorated both the poet and the composer in the 1840s, he retained his royal anthem, which was of German origin and praised King Otho and his Germanic dynasty. However, when Otho’s dynasty was overthrown, the new King George I adopted the Hymn to the Freedom as a new patriotic anthem in 1864.

The anthem has been performed at every closing ceremony in the Olympic Games as a tribute to Greece as the birthplace of Olympics.

The Liberty or Ελευθεριά (Eleftheria) of the anthem is female, and this is also a popular female name in Greece. But this Eleftheria is not as erotic and earthly as the Liberty of Delacroix. Instead she is more like an exiled ancient goddess, identified by Solomos with Greece itself.

In his hymn, the poet recalls the history of the Greek Revolution, and describes the pains and sacrifices of the rebels, criticises their dissensions, and calls for unity for the sake of Eleftheria.

However, the Greek anthem runs to only the first two of the 158 stanzas in the Hymn to Freedom. All 158 stanzas would make it the longest national anthem.

On this day, Greeks must be wondering who will say a strong and singular No to the forces of fascism in Golden Dawn that are bringing Greece to the precipice of violence? And who for the sake of Liberty will voice a strong and singular No to German and international fiscal demands that are bringing Greeks to the brink of defeat once again?

Σε γνωρίζω από την κόψη
Του σπαθιού την τρομερή,
Σε γνωρίζω από την όψη
Που με βιά μετράει τη γη.

Απ’ τα κόκκαλα βγαλμένη
Των Ελλήνων τα ιερά
Και σαν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη
Χαίρε, ω χαίρε Ελευθεριά!

Και σαν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη
Χαίρε, ω χαίρε Ελευθεριά!

Και σαν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη
Χαίρε, ω χαίρε Ελευθεριά!

I shall always recognise you
by the dreadful sword you hold
as the Earth with searching vision
you survey with spirit bold.

From the Greeks of old whose dying
brought to life and spirit free
now with ancient valour rising
let us hail you, oh Liberty!

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