Poet, novelist, professor and a great friend of Greece, Edmund Keeley died on Wednesday at the age of 94. The son of an American diplomat, he was born in Damascus and lived in Greece for a few years before settling in the United States. He was a highly respected translator who gave the world some of the finest renderings of C.P. Cavafy, Giorgos Seferis, Yiannis Ritsos, Odysseas Elytis and Angelos Sikelianos in English, and was a fervent fan of the Greek way of life. He also spent four decades teaching English, creative writing and modern Greek literature at Princeton University.
“All of these American and British authors who came during the war, or immediately after it, were something more than visitors. Whether they liked it or not, they ‘married’ the country, they experienced romantic eras and eras filled with disappointments, and they also sampled renewal in that land, whilst remaining steadfast to their beliefs and opinions. Their story is another story and part of it is mine,” he wrote in “Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47,” which was originally published in 1999.
This friend of Greece, an intellectual who delved into some of the most fertile chapters of the country’s cultural history, was born in the Syrian capital in 1928. He spent a few years in the port city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece before the outbreak of World War II, falling in love with the country’s way of life and the language. He went to Princeton in 1945 as an undergraduate and got his degree in 1949 after serving in the US Navy. He then went on to get his PhD at Oxford, where he wrote his dissertation on Cavafy and Seferis, translating the work of the Alexandrian poet and becoming friends with the Greek Nobel laureate.
His wife, Mary, was Greek and the couple made Greece their second home.
Apart from an award-winning translator, he was also an accomplished poet and author, writing seven novels and dozens of essays, and was celebrated as an academic. He set a number of his novels in Greece, as well as other parts of Europe and the Balkans which he had explored extensively.
After settling in Princeton following a brief stint at Brown and a Fulbright Lectureship at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Keeley directed the Creative Writing Program and was a key proponent of the Hellenic Studies Program. He also became the first president of the Modern Greek Studies Association.
Keeley’s work as a writer and translator earned him numerous awards and distinctions, including the Landon Award of the Academy of American Poets and the European Poetry Translation Prize.
He was appointed Commander of the Order of the Phoenix in Greece in 2001.
Keeley’s death was confirmed by the Hudson Review, which said that the circumstances were not made public.