UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
22 February 1938 - 22 June 1991
THE SCHOLAR-POET George Thaniel died of unexpected kidney failure in Athens' General Hospital. In the pocket of his suit coat was found an unused air ticket to the island of Ikaria. Like Ikaros--in Thaniel's English poem Athens-Rome, Summer 68--"who never made it," Thaniel never reached his last intended destination. Yet, appropriately to his lifelong devotion to Greek letters, he was in Greece when he died in the Summer of 1991.
George Thaniel was born in the seaside village of Trahila, Messinia, where he spent his early years. During World War II, he lived within sight of German gunboats and a large cave where the Trahiliotes frequently hid from the strafing of the German aircraft. Because his father was a sea captain, Thaniel sometimes went out with his father on clandestine fishing trips to obtain fishmeat for the family and neighbors, a rare wartime commodity. Such was the childhood that lay behind Thaniel's poetic self-description, in "The Poet," as an artist who, threatened with victimization by the very honors he yearns for, bravely escapes and "takes the boat / goes out to the open sea / and there vies / between heaven and earth / prey to the lightning / spoil of the waves."
In 1949, Thaniel's family and he moved to Piraeus, where from 1950-1956, he attended Ionidhios High School and learned English. During three of those same years, he also took courses in French at St. Paul's Roman Catholic School; there, he read French poetry and developed speaking fluency in French --achievements that benefited him later when he became a citizen of bilingual Canada. It was at St. Paul's too where his monastic teachers first instilled in him a special affection and reverence for Latin letters, especially Vergil. Later, as a doctoral candidate at MacMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Thaniel would write a dissertation on Latin literature, centered on Vergil.
Thaniel's success in French studies was recognized in 1955, when he received a trip to France as a prize from the Alliance Franšaise. This trip held a special meaning for Thaniel throughout his life, since as a boy he had been a voracious reader, first in translation and later in French, of French Romantic writers like Chateaubriand, Hugo, Dumas, Mrime, and Stendhal. The visit to Paris was for Thaniel less a sightseeing trip than it was a personal validation of his Romantic character and yearnings. Romantic themes were later to dominate his poetry, especially descriptions of nature, the commonplaces of daily life, adventures into the unknown, the transience of life and its reverse, the inexorability of death.
Thaniel often identified with the Romantics, as when, for example, he would later elaborate on the epitaph of the English Romantic poet Keats, "Here lies one whose name is writ in water," in his poem "How": "How does a man write his name / knowing that cranes migrate / waves hurry back to the nameless sea / and rain climbs back to the sky?."
Thaniel's love of travel was to intensify gradually over the years along with his maturity, success, and means. In the years before his death, he spent nearly as much time abroad as in Canada. His travels not only enriched his knowledge of peoples and letters, they also perhaps reflected the restlessness resulting from a kind of emotional detachment to which he confesses in the autobiographical poem, "Self-Portrait" (closing the 1968 edition of Οι ∏ρσκες (The Nails), but not, mysteriously, the 1981 edition): "I was always an alien / dracin, partaker in Hellenism / and Latinism... / traveler and fugitive /.../ ever chasing the more real / with my feet in the void."
In 1956, Thaniel enrolled in the School of Philosophy of the University of Athens and graduated in 1962. His university years were interrupted in 1960-61 with twelve months of service in the Greek Navy where he served as translator and teacher of English. In those same years, he published two chapbooks of poetry Κυκλος (Cycle) and Αργυρη Βροχη (Silver Rain)and wrote some of the lyric poems later published in The Nails. In those same years, he mixed in Athenian theatrical circles and wrote a series of one-act plays. Although one of these, Αποδειπνο Μικο (Short Vespers Service), was dramatized on Cypriot radio, staged by two different theatrical companies, and published in 1975 in the opulent magazine Θεατνο—in general the short plays drew little notice and had no commercial success. The last of these, Επιsτροφη (Return), was written for Thaniel's Greek-Canadian students at the University of Toronto, and vividly illustrates the very special cultural shock encountered by Greek emigrants upon their first return to Greece (e.g., the popularity of American-style discos and Coca Cola). The one published play and four unpublished plays were collected into a small book and published in Greece as Πεντε Μονοπρακτα (Five One-Act Plays) only a month before Thaniel died.
After graduating from the University of Athens, Thaniel taught English for two years in various Greek schools and then emigrated to Canada in 1964. During his early years in Canada, his St. Paul's training stood him in good stead as he taught French and Latin in Canadian high schools, one in Chapleau in northern Ontario by Lake Superior. Here he became acquainted with the white beauty of the snowy Canadian heartland--a color he was to contrast with the purplish evening hue of the Mediterranean he remembered from boyhood: "The violet flowering of the sea / and the white-clad pointers of the sky / your fate."
In 1967, Thaniel stopped teaching high school and enrolled in the Classics graduate program at MacMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He received his Ph.D. there in 1971, after writing his dissertation on "Themes of Death in Roman Religion and Poetry" under the supervision of Vergil specialist Alexander G. McKay. This dissertation not only consolidated the studies in "Latinism" that he had begun at St. Paul's in Piraeus, but also focussed on poetic attitudes toward death, one of the interests that had evolved from his Romantic readings in boyhood. The classical figuration of death known as the katabasis or hero's descent, would figure largely in Thaniel's later articles, particularly those on George Seferis' Κιχλη (Thrush) and Ezra Pound's Cantos 1 and 39, works constructed around the katabasis theme.
Thaniel's interest in Seferis was not only professional, as Seferis was an internationally-known poet, but also personal. Although he did not know him personally, through a third party (Nikos Kachtitsis), Seferis had praised Thaniel's publication of The Nails in Montreal. The Nails comprised a cycle of unnamed lyric poems, divided into five parts, with no unity other than that provided by repeated themes and images. These gravitated between the opposing poles of antiquity (its glorious pleasures) and modern-day life (its inglorious, but no less satisfying pleasures), e.g., "Dusk is descending at Olympia / beneath the plane tree / I reflect on life and death / current life sets traps for death / the living present traffics badly with the past." Behind these louder notes was heard the poet's softer introspective, but never self-pitying tone of regret for past misunderstandings, e.g., "Encounters always leave me / with something like a light sting inside / my God, Your ways are hard."
These poems attracted the notice of the Greek emigrant writer Nikos Kachtitsis, living in the 1960s in Montreal. Kachtitsis and Thaniel became close friends, and their correspondence grew to be voluminous. Kachtitsis wrote and sometimes himself published superbly crafted poems and novellas (e.g., Ο Ηρωας τηs Γανδης [The Hero of Ghent]). At the time, few of these works were widely known, either in Greece or in Canada, but later, partly because of the tributes paid his friend by Thaniel in his two books on Kachtitsis, Ο Λεπιδοπτερολογοη της Αγωνιαη (The Lepidopterist of Suffering) and Αιγλη και ′ Αγχος (Radiance and Anguish), Kachtitsis was to become widely acknowledged in Greece as one of her leading Modernist writers.
Kachtitsis empathized with his fellow emigrant man of letters and appreciated the evocative Romanticism of many poems in The Nails. Thus, he undertook to publish and distribute the collection, in 1968, under his Montreal imprint Λοτοφαγος (Lotus-eater). After the publication of The Nails, Kachtitsis sent a copy to George Seferis, who in a letter of acknowledgment wrote back: "For many years, I have not read such genuine (ατοφια) poems." Kachtitsis presented this letter to Thaniel as a gift and until the end of his life, it remained his most treasured possession, validating, as it did, his poetry as a substantial addition to the Greek tradition of fine poems that had spanned some three thousand years. The Nails was reissued in Athens, in 1981, with some changes-largely the removal of some katharevousa, or puristic, affectations in language. English translations by Edward Phinney of many of the poems in The Nails appeared later in the books Beyond the Moment and Seawave and Snowfall. Although Thaniel continued writing and publishing fine poetry until the end of his life, The Nails remained his greatest critical success as a poet.
It is still too early to issue a final verdict on the merit of Thaniel's poetic contribution to Greek letters since not all the evidence has been fully considered. Many of the poems of his last years were published in little magazines and have yet to be collected, and he left a large group of poems in his papers unpublished. On the basis of the poems in The Nails alone, however, Thaniel's place among the important middle-aged poets collected by Kimon Friar in Contemporary Greek Poetry, e.g., Katerina Angelaki-Rooke, Dinos Siotis, Nasos Vayenas, Yorgos Hronas, Jenny Mastoraki, is secure.
Despite his Romantic affinities, Thaniel was very much a Modern. He was included by E. D. Karampetsos among the "Poets of the Pinball Generation" (to coin a phrase from Vassilikos). Children, for the most part, of former villagers who moved to the concrete and steel of Athens, these poets were rootless and eager to learn the new urban ways of the West. They ordered their own lives amid the confusion of Athens and cities elsewhere, made beauty wherever they could find the makings, and reshaped the poetic language of Greece to express their new global, more proletarian identity.
Thaniel's book-length critical study of Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis, called Homage to Byzantium, only apparently stood at an angle to his essays—which often took the form of notes or observations—on other authors. Pentzikis, devoutly loyal to the Greek Orthodox tradition, and a person of many talents —collector, moralist, poet, novelist, and studio artist—fascinated Thaniel by his realism (e.g., the Virgin Mary changing Jesus' diapers) and his vivid use of unusual metaphors (e.g., blue strawberries). The artist Pentzikis, who called himself a "garbage dump," was said by Thaniel to prepare matter for recycling into the world, to deny linearity and espouse spherical time, to make the old new and yet ever the same. In short, when it came to artistic method, Pentzikis was a kindred spirit.
Thaniel was a generous man of letters. Not only did he help establish a well-deserved reputation for his fellow Greek-Canadian friend Kachtitsis, but he was always willing to help lesser, aspiring poets, whether Greek or not. Many of the poems of obscure Greek poets appeared in English translation in Thaniel's publication called The Amaranth. Although this little journal was a very personal publication and not widely distributed or known, it was perhaps the only journal in the world devoted to showcasing contemporary Greek poetry in English translation for North Americans. The Amaranth was edited, typed, duplicated, and distributed by Thaniel free of charge as the "Bulletin of the Modern Greek Studies Program" at the University of Toronto. Eleven issues were distributed between 1981 and 1988. In 1990, a new series of the Bulletin was inaugurated, called Παλιρροθιον (Ebb and Flow); in this first issue of the new series of the Bulletin, Thaniel included not only English translations of Greek poetry, but also Greek translations of Canadian poetry. Only one issue of Ebb and Flow appeared. The very best translations of Greek poetry from The Arnaranth were collected and reprinted in a little chapbook called Κληματδες (Tendrils): A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Greek Poetry (Toronto: Amaranth Editions, 1989), a booklet with as much poetic charm as its name implies and one that deserves a far wider distribution in North America than it has perhaps received.
In his later years, Thaniel added the genre of prose travelogues to his annual output of poetry, criticism, translations, and reviews. The travelogue came natural to a scholar who had become an inveterate traveler, who was deeply devoted to Greece, a country where the tradition of travel-writing went as far back as the Ionic logographers and Herodotos, and who was beginning to define himself as a citizen of the world rather than of Greece or Canada. His travelogues were published mostly in Greece and described Italy, the Greek islands, Epirus, and even Cuba. Inevitably, with Thaniel's increasing interest in travel and the recording of it, his critical slant on the venerable Seferis changed, and he began writing articles on Seferis's travels in England, and on literary luminaries like Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller whose travels to Greece had brought them into Seferis's orbit.
Thaniel's literary career was based on and supported by his career as a professor and scholar. In 1971, Thaniel was hired by the Department of Classics at the University of Toronto to teach Modern Greek, where he remained, gradually climbing the professorial ladder and reaching the rank of full professor in 1987. In the year of his death, 1991, Thaniel was preparing to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Modern Greek program he had fostered at the University of Toronto. Instead, a memorial service at University College, Toronto, on October 17, 1991 (attended by many of his former students, friends, and colleagues), was substituted for the celebration. The service provided a retrospect into Thaniel's career, particularly--given the venue--his role as a revered teacher and professorial colleague. But in the words of a speaker at that service, George Stubos, a young Greek poet whom Thaniel had encouraged, George Thaniel would surely have "wanted to be remembered chiefly as a poet." For Thaniel, "poetry was a record of the human struggle that makes life worth living." Or in Thaniel's own words,
Why poetry, if you please?
The modern Sibyl asked rhetorically
with a firm hand on the tea kettle
already whistling poetically.
The information provided here is by permission of Mary Ruscillo, sister to George Thaniel, for more information please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
George Thaniel's works copyright © to the Estate of the author.