A Nobel poet's 'liberating image'

Jaroslav Seifert, the first Czechoslovak writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was honored last week for poetry that ''provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man.'' An example was recorded on this page Aug. 20, 1980, after Seifert surprised everyone with a new cycle of poetry when he was thought to have written his final work. Here we reprint the poem, introduction, and photograph that appeared on that date.

Jaroslav Seifert is, by universal consent, the greatest living Czech poet. Chairman of the Czech Writers' Union at the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he issued a strong condemnation. Because for 12 years he has refused to withdraw the condemnation, he has remained a muzzled poet. Living in a curious literary twilight, he has not been allowed to publish any new writing; on the other hand his popularity and distinction are so great that the authorities have been compelled to republish many of his pre-1968 volumes of verse. The following poem is part of a larger poem, circulated clandestinely in Prague last year (1979). It is published here for the first time.

Whenever I gaze out on Prague

- and I do so constantly and always with bated breath

because I love her -

I turn my mind to God

wherever He may be,

beyond the starry mists

or just behind that moth-eaten screen,

to thank Him

for granting that magnificent setting

to me to live in.

To me and to my joys and carefree loves,

to me and to my tears without weeping

when the loves departed,

and to my more-than-bitter grief

when even my verses could not weep.

I love her fire-charred walls

to which we clung during the war

so as to hold out.

I would not change them for anything in the world.

Not even for others,

not even if the Eiffel Tower rose between them

and the Seine flowed sadly past,

not even for all the gardens of paradise

full of flowers.

When I shall die - and this will be quite soon -

I shall still carry on my heart this city's destiny.

And mercilessly, just as Marsyas,

let anyone be flayed alive

who lays hands on this city,

no matter who he is.

No matter how sweetly he plays

on his flute.

Translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers.

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