Romos Philyras (1888-1942), a lyrical poetic voice

In 2022 we mark 80 years from the death of the lyrical Greek poet Romos Philyras (Filyras), and 95 years from his admission into the Dromokaiteion Psychiatric Clinic in Haidari, Athens. This article revisits some of his work and especially Romos Philyras, He Zoi mou Eis to Dromokaiteion kai Alla Autobiographika, ed. Giannis Papakostas, Ekdoseis Kastanioti, A.E. (Athens, 2007).

A manuscript by Romos Philyras writing from Dromokaiteion Psychiatric Clinic in Haidari, Athens. Dated 15.7.1938.

Ego pariltha, tragoudontas ti hara,

tis omorfes, ta roda kai t’ aidonia

Romos Philyras (Diatheke)

Tora simono stou tafou ton oudo

Parte me, klapste oraia moirologia

Romos Philyras, ([Tora simono stou tafou ton oudo])

The Corinthian poet Romos Philyras (the pen name of Ioannes or Giagkos Oikonomopoulos, 1888-1942) is a pioneer of Greek letters, whose lyricism and love of Piraeus give him a special place in the hearts of lovers of Greek literature. For those who are not familiar with his work, I will put him briefly in a stylistic context. [For a more thorough appreciation of Philyras please read Romos Philyras: synvole ste zoe kai sto ergo tou, ed. Tasos Korphes (Athens, 1974); Romos Philyras: mia parousiasi apo ton Gianni Dalla (Athens, 1999).] As a poet and also as a prose writer, Philyras has the musicality of Nikos Karouzos, the lyricism of Napoleon Lapathiotes, the wistful tone of Kostas Ouranis, the beautiful mikti glossa of Kostas Karyotakis and the freshness of Iosif Raftopoulos. Furthermore, Philyras is modern, and relentlessly self-critical. In his writings the future of Greek literature has been foretold, so to speak. Many interpretations of his work have taken place and some have seen Philyras as a fore-runner of surrealism. Varnalis dubbed Philyras the Rimbaud (Arthur Rimbaud, French Surrealist poet) of Greece.

Aimilios Chourmouzios collected the Apanta of Philyras in 1939 as ‘an act of justice’ for a poet who was not in a position to do so himself. The work deserves to be better known. Manolis Anagnostakis in a similar vein points out that from the poets of the post-Palamas era – Melachroinos, Gryparis, Philyras, Karyotakis, Agras – only Karyotakis is read by a wide audience. Romos Philyras, He Zoi mou Eis to Dromokaiteion kai Alla Autobiographika is a handsome volume of the prose writings of Philyras. The fact that the book has hardly been reviewed since it has come out in 2007 is indicative of the great Lethe (forgetfulness and oblivion; cf. the beautiful sonnet by Lorentzos Mavilis) that has befallen the poet. Another symptom of this Lethe is that most of the writings of Philyras are still scattered in obscure back catalogues of newspapers and journals where, as a journalist, he used to publish. His works for the theatre, as Philyras himself laments in his writings, have never been performed and they may, by now, have been lost forever. His poems where published in five separate collections and they are not so easy to get hold of nowadays. The edition of the Apanta (poems and prose writings) which was produced by Aimilios Chourmouzios in 1939 mentioned above, is no longer available. It is hoped that the laudible efforts of the philologist Giannis Papakostas will do something to shake up this Lethe. Papakostas is a champion of Modern Greek literature and has also worked on Kostas Karyotakis, Georgios Drosinis, Napoleon Lapathiotes, Georgios Vizyinos, Michael Mitsakis and Miltiadis Malakasis, among others. We must remember that Georgios Vizyinos and Michael Mitsakis also died in Dromokaiteion.

Although the contents of this prose volume have been published before in serials, only one of the three items was ever published as a book. Their collective appearance in this splendid production by Papakostas makes them available to a wider audience for the first time. His thoughtful comments, which accompany the works, provide invaluable insights to the reader. Two of the three pieces in the book are autobiographical, with the earlier third being a metaphorical work. The pieces are presented in chronological order.

Philyras writes very much in the first person. The directness of his voice is alluring. His affection for Piraeus dominates his memories, while his illness is another major theme. In those traits he resembles the much later Giorgos Ioannou who, although from Thessalonica, has used Athens and his hospital experiences as anchors for his writing. Philyras was also one of the very few fortunate authors to be able to write a final draft that did not need revision. This immediacy makes his work sparkle. Additionally, in this volume of prose writings, one will encounter the same pre-occupation with death and loss found in Philyras’s poetry, a characteristic he had in common with poets such as Kostas Ouranis, Maria Polydouri and Lorentzos Mavilis.

Back on the Lethe that has befallen him: Philyras did not work in isolation. From the study of his work it emerges how he maintained an internal dialogue with other poets and writers of his era: they appear in his work and he appears in theirs. He practices literary criticism in his poetry. Others find him an inspiration. Yet this was only within a small circle - that was not the case when it came to public opinion.

In 1937, Gregorios Xenopoulos and Vassos Daskalakis asked on the behalf of the Society of Greek Authors that Philyras was moved from the Dromokaiteion hospital ‘oste na mi grapsei I metagenesteri istoria mas oti o poitis Romos Philyras pethane stin epohe mas, se pliri egkataleipsi sto Dromokaiteio’.

In 1938, the poet Giorgos Kotzioulas (1909-1956) said of him:

demenos heiropodara, apartos tis moiras

htypietai akoma ki o Philyras mas frichta.

Is this abandonment the fate of the mid-war poets? Earlier, in 1923, at the death of the poet Iosif Raftopoulos, Karyotakis warned of the same danger. He sensed a silence over his dead friend ‘pou ton eskepase tora varyteri apo to homa’ [that covered him now heavier than the soil (of the grave). K.G. Karyotakis, Ta Peza, ed. G.P. Savvides (Athens, 1989), pp. 49-50.]. A small selection of the poems of Raftopoulos has been published thanks to the efforts of the philologist Petros Triantafyllos soon after the poet’s death. The rest remain scattered. Karyotakis makes a passionate plea to his friend Philyras at the end of his poem Ypothekai (1927), urging him to hold on to his ‘sceptre and lyre’ in his state of illness. Romos Philyras spent fifteen years alone in the clinic. He never stopped writing. We know that Karyotakis visited him.

One of the literary magazines that published Philyras. The poet was one of the ten editors of the magazine.

Like Oscar Wilde wrote on prison paper in Reading Gaol, Philyras wrote on hospital paper. He even made an oblique reference to the Irishman in his prose writings, in the context of the turns life takes. Romos Philyras’s He Zoi mou Eis to Dromokaiteion is a testimony to his suffering. It is his De Profundis. With this offering, the eminent philologist Giannis Papakostas does something to ensure that we will not forget Philyras all over again. A translation of this beautiful volume into several languages would be highly desirable.