Odysseus Elytis
(Greece, 1911–1996)   
 
 
 
Odysseus  Elytis

Odysseus Elytis, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Heraklion, Crete, in 1911 and died in Athens in 1996. A major poet in the Greek language, Elytis is also one of the most outstanding international figures of 20th-century poetry. In his work, modernist European poetics and Greek literary tradition are fused in a highly original lyrical voice.

Elytis became acquainted with French surrealist poetry in the ´30s and was captivated by surrealism´s affirmation of feeling and the subconscious self, its rejection of traditional forms and rigid modes of poetical expression. An advocate of free verse, he discarded established verse forms and conventions considering them to be "vessels for the containment of the most heterogenous material". He believed that poetical content determines an inventible form and he was dismissive of rhyme which he described as "lulling" and "superficial delight". But he did not adopt surrealism´s free associations and automatic writing as proclaimed by Andre Breton. His is a mild and controlled surrealism, the syntax in his poems is not violated and, thanks to his talent, the juxtaposition of images is coherent and pleasurable. These qualities are manifest in his first collections of poetry (Orientations, 1939, and Sun the First,1943) which are joyous and radiant, celebrating the Greek landscape as an ideal world of sensual enjoyment and moral purity. The blue seas and the azure skies, the explosive light, the Aegean islands with their white cottages and bare rocks, the olive trees and the crickets, ancient amphorae and ruins, summer high noon and the etesian winds define the scene where life is liberated and triumphant, mystical and deeply meaningful. This free functioning of the human self against all restraints imposed by moral, social and aesthetic conventions, the creation of "a countryside of the open heart" is the young poet Elytis´debt to surrealism. But, as he put it, he did not serve surrealism, he asked surrealism to serve him.

In 1940 Elytis was called up as a second lieutenant and served on the Albanian front, where the Greek army checked the Italian invasion. His experience of war marks a departure from the sunny atmosphere of his early youth and poetry, colouring his long poem Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania (1943). The figurative language still retains the wealth and boldness, the unexpected metaphors and startling images of his previous works, but the tone is sorrowful, albeit proud, and the context wider: the poet identifies himself with the lost lieutenant and the lamenting voice is the voice of his suffering nation.

The attempt of Elytis to identify himself with his nation and speak for himself and also for his country reaches its peak with Axion Esti (1959), his central and most ambitious work. This is a poetical Bildungsroman, a three-part composition of intricate formal structure, aiming to present modern Greek consiousness through the development of a first-person narrator who is simultaneously the poet himself and the voice of his country. It is at once an interpretation of the world as it is and the valiant proclamation of a belief in what it might be. Its three parts are named characteristically "The Genesis", "The Passions" and "The Gloria", and it culminates in a glorification of all ephemeral things, of what is Axion- that is, Worthy - in "this small, this Great World". Elytis´poetical theory as regards "the view of things" is fully realized in this work. As he said in his address to the Swedish Academy on receiving the Nobel Prize, "apart from the physical side of objects and the ability to percieve them in their every detail, there is also the metaphorical ability to grasp their essence and bring them to such clarity that their metaphysical significance will also be revealed". In Axion Esti, a major poem by any standards, these ideas are materialized poetically.

Elytis´later work consist of ten collections of poems and a substantial number of essays. Outstanding among them are The Monogram (1972), an achievement in the European love poem tradition, and The Oxopetra Elegies (1991), which include some of the most difficult but profound poems written in our times. It is significant that in these mature works the tone is no longer jubilant. Melancholy, reflection and solemnity gradually prevail, although the poet´s faith in the power of imagination and the truth of poetry (a belief that brings him close to the Romantics) is still unshakeable.

In all his poetry Elytis has consistently emphasized man´s primary innocence, dismissing guilt and fate, and professing the redeeming quality of light, the "Judicious Sun". He criticized the vulgarity of contemporary society and culture; showed the possibility of a different relation with the things of this world; corrected our reading of nature and our concept of love; reformulated the fundamental, minimal essentials of life, insisting that History can be written anew, reaffirming Shelley´s famous dictum that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

In the art of poetry he restored the high romantic expression in a modern and most convincing way, gave fresh vigour to metaphor, image and alliteration, and created his own original forms of versification. Above all, he brought to Greek poetry a clarity and sharpness which it had not known since Solomos.

An ardent apologist of the poet´s vocation, Elytis never ceased from exploring poetry´s role in these materialistic times and it is perhaps apt to conclude this appreciation by quoting a concise statement he once made concerning the aims of his poetry:

"I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my consience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses into greater harmony with my dreams. I am referring to a contemporary kind of magic which leads to the discovery of our true reality¡­ In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraints and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood."

© Aris Berlis

in Greece Books and Writers. Athens, Ministry of Culture-National Boook Centre of Greece and Agra publications, 2001

Publications (selection):
The collected poems of Odysseus Elytis Trans. Jeffrey Carson.Baltimore,John Hopkins University Press. 1997
What I love Trans. Olga Broumas. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press. 1986.
Selected poems Trans. Edmund Keeley. London, Anvil, 1981.
The sovereig sun Trans. Kimon Friar. Newcastle, Bloodaxe Books, 1990.
Journal of an unseen april Trans. David Connoly. Athens, Ypsilon books, 1998.
Carte blanche - Selected writings Trans. David Connoly. Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999.
Maria Nephele Trans. Athan Anagnostopoulos. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.
The oxopetra Elegies Trans.David Connolly. Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.
Lof zij Trans. Hero Hokwerda. Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 1991.
The Axion esti Trans. Edmund Keeley. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974.

 



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