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Cats, Snakes and Poetry: A Study of Seferis' "The Cats of Saint Nicholas"* Katerina Krikos-Davis Shortly before he died, Seferis gave an interview to Anne Philipe for the French daily Le Monde. When asked about "The Cats of Saint Nicholas" he answered: C'est un poème qui appartient au cycle de mes poèmes de Chypre. Il s'inspire d'une légende chypriote déjà mentionnée au seizième siècle par un religieux appelé Lusignan et apparenté à la famille royale du même nom. La campagne entourant le monastère était alors infestée de serpents venimeux, les religieux possédaient de véritables troupeaux de chats pour les détruire et cependant ils leur distribuaient une certaine quantité de viande pour que ces pauvres chats ne soient pas uniquement nourris de viande venimeuse . . . C'est un poème que j'ai mis très longtemps à écrire, je n'arrivais pas à le terminer, je ne trouvais pas la ligne courbe qui le fermerait. Et puis, tout d'un coup, j'ai trouvé. C'était en février 1969, si je ne me trompe. (Le Monde 27 August 1971, 12) The date of composition, or rather the day he completed it, 5 February 1969, is appended to the poem which was first published in 18 Κείμενα, and subsequently reprinted and circulated in pamphlet form. In posthumous editions of Seferis' poetry, George Savidis included it both in Log Book HI and in Book of Exercises II, in the former since the poet himself considered it as belonging there, in the latter since this contains all of Seferis' poems not actually published in collections before his death.1 *My thanks are due to Professor A. A. M. Bryer, Dr. M. B. Alexiou, Dr. T. Michaelidou and my husband for reading a draft version of this article and making valuable comments. Obviously the views expressed remain my responsibility alone. '18 Κείμενα (Athens, 1970), 13-15; G. Seferis Ποιήματα 9th ed. (Athens, 1974), 271-73; Seferis Τετϕάδιο Γυμνασμάτων B ' (Athens, 1976), 45-47. Rather than the original Greek titles I have generally used those found in George Seferis, Collected Poems, tr. E. Keeley and P. Sherrard, 3rd ed. (London, 1982). It must be pointed out that the translators' rendering of the present poem is not altogether up to their usual standard: κοντοστÎ-κομαι (v. 14) cannot be translated as "to be close by" nor, in this context, στϕαβή (v. 46) as "twisted." 225 226 Katerina Krikos-Davis My aim in this article is to examine the poem in some detail with particular emphasis on handling of sources, levels of meaning, and the relationship with Seferis' "Declaration" against the recent Greek military dictatorship. Time and place are specifically noted as the poem opens: a ship is traveling on Christmas day with the Cypriot promontory, Cape of the Cats, coming into view through the mist. The characters can be divided into two groups: those of the here and now and those who are recalled. The first group consists of the narrator, the captain and the helmsman; the second of the narrator's cats, his unnamed friend, the monk who originally related the story, the monks of St. Basil and, above all, the cats and the snakes. The characters of the first group belong to the narrative present whereas, with the exception of the narrator's friend, those of the second belong to the past. Thus, these two groups neatly correspond to the two levels of time (i.e., past and present) on which the poem operates. It is interesting to examine the rôle in the development of the poem of the first set of characters, the dramatis personae proper, as well as the relationship between them. The narrator holds the poem together by telling us what he saw, thought and heard. In his case we are offered an insight into his private thoughts; this is not true of either the captain or the helmsman. The captain, on the other hand, is the one who actually tells the Cape of the Cats story—the main subject matter of the poem. Both he and the narrator, but not the helmsman, are involved in it. Lastly, the captain and the helmsman are...


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