On 'Seferis on Eigg'

by Sebastiaan Verweij

George Seferis (1900-1971) was a Greek poet and diplomat who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. Seferis probably visited Eigg - a small island off the west coast of Scotland - while he was vice-consul in London in the 1930s, or earlier when he travelled to England in 1924. Morgan opens his poem with an amusing twist: the first two lines, 'The isles of Scotland! the isles of Scotland! / But Byron sang elsewhere; loved, died elsewhere', echo Byron's famous lines from Don Juan, 'The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece! / Where burning Sappho loved and sung'. Instead of a Scotsman singing the glories of Greece, we are presented with a Greek singing the glories of the Scottish isles. But, as Morgan indicates, Byron ironically spent a large part of his life, and died, in Greece. Morgan imagines Seferis finding on Eigg some of the same qualities he found, and described often in his own poetry, on the Grecian isles in the Aegean Sea.
There is a marked turnaround, a volta, at the ninth line. After the reflective, pensive first two quatrains, Morgan turns to a particularly violent episode in the history of Eigg. The 'silent cave' referred to is a small cave on the southern shore, also known as Massacre Cave. There, in 1577, an unknown number of MacDonalds hid from a McLeod raid, but they were discovered and the McLeods built a large fire in front of the entrance to the cave, to try and smoke them out. Everybody choked to death. But how is Walter Scott connected to this event? The answer can be found in Scott's own notes to his poetry. While explaining a reference in his own poem 'The Lord of the Isles', Scott quotes his own journal:

26 August 1814. - At seven this morning we were in the Sound which divides the Isle of Rum from that of Eigg. […] We manned the boat, and rowed along the shore of Egg in quest of a cavern, which has been the memorable scene of a horrid feudal vengeance. […] This noted cave has a very narrow opening, through which one can hardly creep on his knees and hands. It rises steep and lofty within, and runs into the bowels of the rock to the depth of 255 measured feet: the height at the entrance may be about three feet, but rises within to eighteen or twenty, and the breadth may vary in the same proportion. The rude and stony bottom of this cave is strewed with the bones of men, women, and children, the sad relics of the ancient inhabitants of the island, 200 in number, who were slain on the following occasion: [here Scott provides a lengthy synopsis of the event] I brought off, in spite of the prejudice of our sailors, a skull from among the numerous specimens of mortality which the cave afforded.(1)

Thus, Morgan brings together the historical event, an obscure detail from Scott's journal and Seferis' imagined view of the entire matter. 'Tawdry Ulysses' is interesting, perhaps comparing Scott's adventures to that of Ulysses, whose ramblings brought him to the cave of Polyphemus, where half his crew was eaten by the cyclops and the rest kept prisoner. The presence of Ulysses is double relevant, because in Seferis' own work Greek classical poetry plays a major role. In his volume Mythistorima, for instance, Homeric figures narrate the poems, in a modern vernacular, but dealing with ancient mythic themes. Seferis is dismissive of Scott's irreverence for the dead, but by the last line - 'Greeks too, could shrug the cull' - he indicates that in fact it is the same in Greece: 'the lave [rest] can whistle for dignity', and only the kings are remembered.

 

(1) Scott, Sir Walter, The Poetical Works, Edinburgh: Houlsten and Stoneman, 1847, p. 482.

 

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