Jaroslav Seifert
Jaroslav Seifert; drawing by David Levine

There were five of them: Vítezslav Nezval, Jaroslav Seifert, Konstantin Biebl, Frantisek Halas, and Vladimír Holan. Poets of the generation born with the century, the greatest constellation in the entire history of Czech poetry. Vladimír Holan was the first to go under. In 1948, after the Stalinist assault on him, he shut himself into his Prague apartment as if into a monastery, never to leave it again. Jaroslav Seifert came under attack at the same time and for a long while he withdrew from public life. Then Frantisek Halas died. He had written:

From down below you will smell the
as you live out your death
and there in the dark you will throw
love, your shield.

The day after his funeral, an unshielded corpse, he became the object of a violent ideological campaign that turned his name into a symbol for everything evil. Next, it was Konstantin Biebl’s turn. I adored this modest poet who loved women,

and lazy as a funeral procession.

I was twenty-one. They had just hanged Zavis Kalandra, a Czech surrealist. Biebl, with his great frightened eyes, asked me, “Did you hear about Eluard’s reaction?” He explained: In an open letter, in Paris, André Breton had exhorted his fellow surrealist, the poet Paul Eluard, now a great figure of world communism, to protest the charges brought in Prague against their mutual friend Kalandra, and Eluard, publicly and solemnly, had refused to defend an enemy of the people. It was the last time I saw him. A few months later, Biebl threw himself out of a window. Meanwhile, Vítezslav Nezval was desperately trying to manage the impossible role of a loyal son of the party who is also an artist faithful to art and to his artist friends. In 1957, as he put it, he went

to seek out the violet eyes
with only death behind them.

He died, but not by throwing himself from a window. It was his son (the very image of his father) who did that, twelve years after Nezval’s death in 1969, when the Russian horror was battering the country. The Czech writers—the occupier’s main target—then elected Seifert president of their union. I can still see him. He already had great difficulty walking, with crutches. And—perhaps because of that—there in his seat he seemed a rock: unmoving, solid, firm. It consoled us to have him with us. This little nation, trampled and doomed—how could it possibly justify its existence? There before us was the justification: the poet, heavy, with his crutches leaning against the table; the poet, the tangible expression of the nation’s genius, the sole glory of the powerless. I was already in France when I learned that Vladimír Holan had died in his apartment/monastery. I will never forget his terrible lines:

And still the evil rises
through the spinal marrow of
covered with bloody spittle
like a dentist’s staircase.

When Holan died, Seifert wrote:

In the wretched aviary that is
he tossed his poems around him
with contempt
like chunks of raw meat.

The wretched aviary, Bohemia. He was the only one left. A good fifteen years late, the Nobel Prize found him in his hospital bed.

Translated from the French by Linda Asher

This Issue

November 22, 1984