His residence in Arseniou Street, the high boulevard along the seaside, offered poet Dionysios Solomos one of the most spectacular views in Corfu Town. Now a museum, inside you can picture him looking down at the horsedrawn carts rattling by, the sailing ships passing to the nearby Old Port against the background of the lush green of Vido Island. No wonder Solomos called this house his home longer than any other, until his dying day in February 1857.
The poet of Greece’s national anthem was born in 1798 on Zakynthos, an Ionian island, a day’s sailing southward from Corfu. He was the son of a sixty years old count and his sixteen years young housekeeper. Father recognized the son by marrying his mother on the night before he died, in 1807. The next year young Dionysios was sent to Italy, where over the next ten years he attended the Lyceum in Cremona and the University of Pavia. While studying literature he started writing sonnets in Italian and after his return to Zakynthos he continued his poetic work.
War of Independence
After several attempts to write poetry in Greek in 1823 he finished the 158 four-line verses of his Hymn to Liberty, saluting the Greek War of Independence (after centuries of Ottoman rule), that started two years earlier. In this work he addresses a personified image of Liberty, reborn and renewed out of “the sacred bones of the Greeks”. It was published in Messolonghi in 1824 and a year later in Paris and soon his fame as a poet spread. He went on writing lots of material, although – driven by his quest for perfection – a good deal of his poetry and prose remained fragmentary and incomplete.
Settling in Corfu
In 1828 Solomos settled in Corfu, the capital of the Ionian Islands, and soon became the center of a circle of intellectual admirers and friends like composer Nikolaos Mantzaros, the poet Iakovos Polylas and others. He reworked older poems and experimented with metrical form, rhyming and non-rhyming verses, lyrical, epic and satirical poetry. He read it to his friends, but would publish very little of it.
In 1851 he suffered the first of a few strokes, after which he rarely left his house at Arseniou street. At his death by apoplexy at the age of 59 the Ionian Parliament interrupted its work and a state of public mourning was declared. In 1864 the Ionian Islands were reunited with the new Greek state and a year later Solomos’ old friend Mantzaros set the first three stanzas of his Hymn to Liberty to music and made a different choral version for the entire poem.
The three stanzas (later reduced to two) were soon promoted to become Greece’s national anthem. That same year Solomos’ remains were transferred to Zakynthos. The irony of history: how Solomos would have loved to see the reunion of his islands with Greece and the promotion of his hymn to the highest national level! In 1966 the hymn also became the national anthem of Cyprus.
Hymn in translation
In translation the Greek national anthem would be something like this:
I recognize you by the fearsome
sharpness of your sword,
I recognize you by the look in your eyes
forcefully defining the land.
From the sacred bones
of the Hellenes arisen,
and brave again as before,
Welcome, o welcome, Liberty!
Now this may sound a little patriotic and moralising but we have to keep in mind that Solomos – who when he wrote this was save in Zakynthos under British protection, while the struggle for independence was raging on the mainland and the Peloponnese – desperately wanted to do his bit. By raising his pen instead of the sword. While one of his aims surely was to incite a national conscience. He would have been so proud to know these lines above are still taught at school to every boy and girl in Greece and Cyprus.
Today Solomos is considered as the national poet because of his important legacy to Greek literature and national identity, connecting the early traditions to modern literature and promoting the Greek language spoken by the common people (the “dhimotiki”) as a literary vehicle.
It may be that Solomos’ most famous work was not composed in Corfu; without the music of Corfiot Nikolaos Mantzaros it would not have been promoted to the national anthem. So to get the full story it is a good idea to visit the former Solomos residence – now a museum – and then stroll from Arseniou 1 to Nikiforou Theotoki 10, where Nikolaos Mantzaros, the first director of the Corfu Philharmonic Society, is honoured in the society’s museum. For the opening hours of the Solomos Museum: check the website.