Twenty years ago I bought and read The Hill of Kronos by Peter Levi. This memoir of Levi’s love affair with Greece and its literature formed, along with The Flight of Ikaros by Kevin Andrews and of course lascivious old Henry Miller’s irresistible The Colossus of Maroussi, the basis of my image of Greece before my own visit (which thoroughly lived up to expectations).

In the first chapter, after saying “it was not difficult to meet poets in Athens, since they all went to the same three or four cafes and bars,” Levi introduces one of the heroes of the book, who recurs throughout as a touchstone of Greekness:

When I arrived I walked straight to Flocca and left a message with a waiter for Nikos Gatsos. He was in the cafe and he came over. He was the most enchanting and unexpected friend I had ever made. His appearance is that of an elephant of brilliant intelligence and extraordinary kindness. In forty years he has moved cafes once, when the old one was pulled down, and tables twice. His smile is seductive, his shoulders hunch, his eyes are hooded but distinctly mischievous. His conversation, which ranges widely, is humourous and subtle, pausing like a river to take in any strange object that presents itself. He knows more about poetry than anyone else I have ever met. He is admirably mysterious.

He makes his living as a song-writer, which means that over many years the Greeks have had better-written songs than anyone else, and by translations. As a poet he claims to have been on strike for forty years, but his long early poem, Amorgos, named after an island he has never seen, is one of the master works of the century; and if ever I knew a poet, and a great poet, he still is one. He was the son of an innkeeper in what was then a remote village in Arkadia. George Seferis once said to me that the only person alive he envied for his grasp of the Greek language was Gatsos. There is an element of surrealism in Amorgos, like cold water so refreshing it makes one gasp. But his language, the form of his speech, has a continuity with folk-songs. In his childhood that was still a living language:

And because of this I would have you, young men, to go down naked into the rivers
With wine and kisses and leaves in your mouth
To sing of Barbary as the carpenter follows the track of the wood’s grain
As the viper moves out from the garden of the barley
With her proud eyes furious
And as the strokes of lightning thresh the young

The translation I quote is by Sally Purcell.

Needless to say, when I got to Greece I set about looking for a copy of Amorgos, and I found one in Iraklion (a city to be recommended mainly for its proximity to Knossos—if you want a Cretan city to hang out in, I highly recommend Khania), a slender and beautiful Ikaros reprint. But my Greek, while decent, is not really up to long semi-surrealist poems, and the book languished on my shelves until today, when I discovered an online translation by Vasili Stavropoulos (from the Australian “literary arts magazine” Masthead). The translation is decent and the notes are useful; I would expand on the final one to say that Golfo, an 1893 play by Spiridon Peresiadis that was wildly popular in the first half of the last century (you can read a summary of the plot here), is the play the traveling troupe kept performing in O Thiasos, the four-hour epic of Greek history by director Theodoros Angelopoulos, and the villain who lures the heroic shepherd Tasos away from his beloved Golfo is named Kitsos, which can be confusing if you’re thinking of it when you run across the mention of that name in the poem—fortunately, Stavropoulos is there to point out that this is another Kitsos, a Greek chieftain who fought the Turks and whose mother threw stones at the river so it would allow her to cross and save him.

If you’re interested in the original Greek text, it’s online here.

Addendum. Here’s the start of the Stavropoulos translation:

With their homeland tied to the sails and their oars hanging in the wind
The sailors slept peacefully like wild beasts dead in sheets of sponge
But the eyes of the seaweed are turned to the sea
In case the southerly brings them back with lateens freshly painted
And a single lost elephant is always worth more than a girl’s breasts that sway
Only to ignite in the mountains the roofs of deserted churches with the yearning of the evening star
So that birds may ripple at the masts of the lemon tree
With the steady white breath of the new walk
And then shall come breezes swan’s bodies that remained spotless tender and motionless
Among the steamrollers of the shops among the vegetable gardens’ cyclones
When the women’s eyes became charcoals and the hearts of the chestnut vendors were broken
When the harvesting ceased and the hopes of the crickets began.

And here’s the passage quoted above in Purcell’s translation:

So that is why my fearless young men with the wine the kisses and the leaves in your mouth
I want you to come out naked to the rivers
To sing of Barbary as the woodworker seeks the mastic tree
As the viper passes through the fields of barley
With her proud eyes furious
And as the lightning threshes youth.

Update (Oct. 2020). POEM OF THE MONTH: “Amorgos” by Nikos Gatsos.


  1. Fantastic, really appreciate this post. I picked up that same lovely Ikaros volume (with the heavy blue cover and a handful of color illustrations?) ages ago (ran across it in a bookstore in Austin, of all places). The last time I picked it up, a year or two back, I found it pretty rough going. Nice to have access to an English translation.

  2. Thanks very much for commenting! I worked so hard on this post, and thought it was doomed to molder in oblivion…

  3. I see the Ikaros edition is out of print (εξαντλημένο) — glad I got my copy when I did.

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