Elytis, Odysseus (Poetry Criticism)
Odysseus Elytis 1911–1996
(Also transliterated as Elýtis; born Alepoudelis, also transliterated as Alepoudhélis) Greek poet, essayist, and critic.
An internationally acclaimed poet considered among the foremost Greek literary figures of the twentieth century, Elytis celebrated the splendors of nature while affirming humanity's ability to embrace hope over despair. Combining his interest in surrealism with lyrical evocations of Greek landscape, history, and culture, Elytis created poems that exalt the virtues of sensuality, innocence, and imagination while striving to reconcile these attributes with life's tragic aspects. Through his rejection of rationalism, Elytis suggested that truth resides in mystery, and he endeavored to establish parallels between the physical and spiritual worlds by blending elements of mythology, pantheism, anthropomorphism, and Christianity. A recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in literature, Elytis was cited by the Swedish Academy for writing "poetry which, against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clearsightedness modern man's struggle for freedom and creativity."
The youngest of six children, Elytis was born in Iráklion, Crete, to a wealthy industrialist and his wife. He attended primary and secondary schools in Athens before enrolling at the University of Athens School of Law. As a youth, Elytis spent his summer vacations on the Aegean Islands, absorbing the seaside atmosphere that deeply informs the imagery of his verse. Also essential to Elytis's poetic development was his attraction to surrealism, which he developed during the late 1920s through the works of French poet Paul Éluard. In 1935, after leaving law school, Elytis displayed several visual collages at the First International Surrealist Exhibition in Athens and began publishing poems in various Greek periodicals.
During the fascist invasion of Greece in 1940 and 1941, Elytis served on the Albanian front as a second lieutenant in Greece's First Army Corps. The heroism he witnessed amid the tragedy and suffering of combat is reflected in his long poem Azma iroikó ke pénthimo yia ton haméno anthipologhaghó tis Alvanías (Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign). Following the publication of Heroic and Elegiac Song, Elytis ceased producing poetry for more than a decade, immersing himself in civic and cultural affairs. From 1948 to 1953, during the civil strife in Greece, Elytis lived in Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and wrote
articles in French for Verve magazine. After returning to Greece, Elytis published To áxion estí (The Axion Esti), which received both the National Poetry Prize and the National Book Award in 1960. Elytis died following a heart attack on March 18, 1996, in Athens.
Elytis's early poems are light and sensual. His first collection of verse, Prosanatolizmi (Orientations), which focuses on the beauty of the Aegean landscape, emphasizes the significance of erotic forces in the progression of natural and human events. These poems also display Elytis's affinity for such surrealistic devices as the portrayal of supernatural occurrences, exploration of the unconscious, and personification of abstract ideas and natural phenomena. His poems became more erotic with each collection. Ilios protos (Sun the First Together with Variations on a Sunbeam) was interpreted by Andonis Decavalles as a catalog of "the seven stages in a girl's erotic experience and growth." Sun the First also touches on suffering and the need to transcend it, a theme that frequently reappears in later works. The long poem Heroic and Elegiac Song centers on the death of a young Greek soldier whose transfiguration and resurrection serves as an affirmation of justice and liberty. The poem advances Elytis's concerns with the merging of physical and spiritual existence and pays tribute to those individuals who resist oppression and defend freedom.
Elytis's later poems, which are often elaborately structured, combine the idyllic innocence and beauty of his early works with the painfully achieved wisdom of Heroic and Elegiac Song. In these later poems, Elytis examines the triumph of hope over despair, the union of spirit and flesh, and the richness of Greek culture and tradition. The Axion Esti, which is perhaps Elytis's best known work, is an intricately structured cycle alternating prose and verse. Indebted for much of its tone, language, symbolism, and structure to the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, The Axion Esti combines Christian elements and Grecian culture in an effort to reconcile life's dichotomies. Maria Neféli (Maria Nephele), another significant work in Elytis's canon, consists of a series of antiphonal passages between a liberated woman, who functions as a symbol of the individual in contemporary society, and an intelligent and mature poetic persona. This work further illuminates Elytis's preoccupation with humanity's ability to attain harmony amid the chaos of the modern world.
Criticism of Elytis's poetry, though sparse, has for the most part been laudatory. Much of it centers on analysis and interpretation, which has proved challenging since his poetry varies significantly from one collection to the next in terms of theme, language, structure, and style. Several critics have attempted to place Elytis within a more established poetic tradition, comparing his works to that of such poets as Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and William Blake. As Decavalles noted "We cannot afford not to think of Blake, his innocence, his experience and his eventual marriage of heaven and hell. Elytis's progress has been identical, even to the point of his turning himself into the prophet of a new Paradise." Even so, Elytis is decidedly a Greek poet as Greece "for which he had always felt the most soul-stirring devotion, an almost sensual yearn ing for physical possession," according to Vincenzo Rotolo, is the most predominant feature of his poetry. It is the common thread that binds his early and more recent poetic works and distinguishes Elytis from other great poets.
Prosanatolizmi [Orientations] 1936
Ilios o protos, mazi me tis parallayies pano se mian ahtidha [Sun the First Together with Variations on a Sunbeam] 1943
Asma iroikó ke pénthimo yia ton haméno anthipologhaghó tis Alvanías [Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign] 1945
I kalosíni stis likoporiés [Kindness in the Wolfpasses] 1946
To áxion estí [The Axion Esti] 1959
Éxi ke mia típsis yia ton ourano [Six and One Regrets for the Sky] 1960
To fotódhendro ke i dhekáti tetárti omorfiá [The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty] 1971
O ílios o iliátores [The Sovereign Sun: Selected Poems] 1971
To Monograma [The Monogram] 1971
Thánatos ke anástasis tou Konstandínou Paleológhou [Death and Resurrection of Constantine Paleologhos] 1971
Ta ro tou erota [The Ro of Eros] 1972
O fillomandis [The Leaf Diviner] 1973
Ta eterothali [The Stepchildren] 1974
Maria Neféli: Skiniko piima [Maria Nephele] 1978
Tria piimata me simea evkerias [Three Poems Under a Flag of Convenience] 1982
Imeroloyio enos atheatou...
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SOURCE: "Odysseus Elytis: A Contemporary Greek Poet," in Nette Zürcher Zeitung, July 17, 1960, pp. 59-63.
[In the excerpt below (an article especially liked by Elytis himself), Hilty explores Elytis's relationship to French surrealists and its impact on his use of traditional Greek themes and images in his poetry.]
Elytis (born Odysseás Alepoudhélis) is descended from an old family native to Lesbos and was born in 1911 in Iráklion, Crete—where, by the way, Kazantzakis also first saw the light of day (1883). He grew up in Athens and began studying law in 1930, but soon felt himself drawn more to writing and to art. He was particularly captivated by the expressive world of the French surrealists. He translated Lautréamont, Éluard, Jouve and Lorca into modern Greek, wrote studies on modern art, traveled, then settled for a time in Paris in 1948; and without this expedition into the wide-open spaces, without the element of an open and expanding intellectual curiosity, his poetry would be inconceivable. His roots in the singular nature of his homeland remained strong, however, as was demonstrated during the war, when, following his return from the front, he became a poet of the Greek Resistance through his works Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign and the "Albaniad," both of which could only be circulated by hand in manuscript form until the end of...
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SOURCE: "Eros: His Power, Forms and Transformations in the Poetry of Odysseus Elytis," in Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light, edited by Ivar Ivask, University of Oklahoma Press, 1975, pp. 45-58.
[Below, Decavalles explores one of Elytis's principle themes, the "progressive story of Eros's nature … his external and internal discoveries in the process of building a world at once natural, human esthetic, earthly and universal, timely and timeless, finite and infinite, mortal yet immortal. "]
I have conceived my figure between a sea that comes to view right behind the whitewashed little wall of a chapel and a barefoot girl with the wind lifting her dress, a chance moment I struggle to capture, and I waylay it with Greek words.
If I spoke at the beginning about a girl and a chapel, at the risk of sounding less than serious, I had my reasons. I would have liked to draw that girl into the chapel and make her my own, not to scandalize anyone, but to confess that the eros is one, and also to make more dense the poem I wish to make out of the days of my life.
I would then see pomegranate branches sprouting from the iconostasis, and the wind singing at the little window together with the sea-wave, when the South Wind, blowing stronger, would help that wave jump over the stone parapet. Once, such a parapet touched my naked body, and I felt my...
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SOURCE: "The Voices of Elytis's The Axion Esti," in Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light, edited by Ivar Ivask, University of Oklahoma Press, 1975, pp. 81-6.
[Keeley argues that Elytis's The Axion Esti follows in the tradition of earlier twentieth-century Greek poets such as Angelos Sikelianos, and examines the various voices present in the poem.]
The response of Greek readers to Odysseus Elytis's most ambitious poem, The Axion Esti, has been ambivalent during the fifteen years since it appeared in Athens in late 1959 to end more than a decade of silence by a poet then considered to be Greece's best hope among the "younger" generation of poets to follow George Seferis. Though the poem earned the First National Award for Poetry in 1960 and was widely read during the years that followed, the attitude of leading critics remained mixed. A similar ambivalence was also evident in the response of English-speaking readers to the two sections of the poem that appeared in this country and England during the 1960s. For those brought up on the post-Eliot/Pound mode—or on the Cavafis/Seferis mode-—the poem was seen to be excessively rhetorical and subjective, at times too obviously programmatic in its formal and thematic projections, at other times too obscure.
Given a commitment to these anti-rhetorical modes, one could find ample ground for regarding the poem as overblown...
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SOURCE: "The 'Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign': The Transition from the Early to the Later Elytis," in Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light, edited by Ivar Ivask, University of Oklahoma Press, 1975, pp. 75-9.
[In the following excerpt, Rotolo argues that the Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign marks a transition in Elytis's poetry, the war between Italy and Greece heightening his love for his native land and forcing upon him a wider consciousness, at once more human and more political.]
The poetry of Odysseus Elytis prior to the Ázma iroikó ke pénthimo yia ton haméno anthipolohaghó tis Alvanías (Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign) has long engaged the critics' attention. In addition to those who stubbornly rejected all innovation, even Marxist criticism, which in Greece more than anywhere was rooted in the then current concept of socialist realism, was unkindly disposed toward Elytis's first compositions. He was even stigmatized as a "Sunday" poet. Though the supporters of modern poetry had accepted the technical novelties of his language, they had stereotyped him as an aristocratic, solitary poet who could only sing lyrically of the beauty of nature and life. This conventional frame managed to stand even after Ílios o prótos (Sun the First;...
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SOURCE: "The Two Voices of Odysseus Elytis," in The Washington Post Book World, September 6, 1981, pp. 8, 14.
[In the following review, Economou explores the two narrative voices present in Maria Nephele and compares Elytis's Maria to Dante's Beatrice.]
That The Nobel Prize for Literature creates a specialized, sometimes ephemeral, industry for translators and publishers is a fact of modern literary history. It is also true that a good deal of poetry of the 1979 recipient of the prize, the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, while not popular in this country at that time, was fairly widely translated and available to those who make it their business to know the international literary scene. The publication of an English-language version of his Maria Nephele, therefore, can be as easily regarded as part of a continuity of interest as it can an inevitability in the wake of his award by the Swedish Academy.
Published in Athens in 1978 and started 18 years before, Maria Nephele represents an important advance in Elytis' development as a poet both in its form and its subject matter. The growth that results from the setting and meeting of new challenges has become as prominent a trait of the poet's career as some of the personae, landscapes and modes that typify the body of his work. Elaborately structured like his The Axion Esti (1959), which figured so importantly in the...
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SOURCE: "Poetry with an Accent," in American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, January-February, 1987, pp. 22-3.
[In the review below, Malkoff examines Olga Broumas's literal translations in the collection What I Love: Selected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, and concludes that the translations, though problematic and inconsistent at times, are still "interesting" and of some value.]
New translations of poems (which, like most of those selected by Olga Broumas for What I Love, have been recently rendered into English by more than competent translators) promise something new. In this respect, Olga Broumas, for better and for worse, does not disappoint. She informs us at the outset that she intends to preserve the strangeness, the foreignness of Elýtis's texts. It ought to be, she asserts, "English with an accent."
This raises basic questions. In the very first poem, "Sun the First," a critical sentence is translated: "I don't know anymore the night." Clearly, English with an accent. Broumas's line indeed follows the original word order. To the Greek reader, however, this order is natural and idiomatic, as other translators have more or less made clear (Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard: "I no longer know the night"; Kimon Friar: "I know the night no longer"). Sometimes the point of reproducing Elýtis's foreign accent seems to make sense. For example, another section of "Sun the...
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SOURCE: "Time versus Eternity: Odysseus Elytis in the 1980s," in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 22-32.
[In the excerpt below, Decavalles examines Three Poems under a Flag of Convenience, suggesting that the collection effectively captures Elýtis's transcendental vision and the transformative powers of art.]
When we turn to the Three Poems under a Flag of Convenience (1982), we may possibly understand the evoked efkerías (opportunity, convenience) as another chance, another try to admonish and so to break the isolation, the increased loneliness always extant in Elytis's admonitions. In their unity and sequence the three poems here, each divided into seven parts, bear the individual titles "The Garden Sees," "The Almond of the World," and "Ad Libitum." The viewing garden is obviously the paradise-oriented angle of vision, detecting through sunny lucidity and projecting through instantaneous revelations life's real essence and truth. The "almond of the world" must be that real essence and truth itself, Elytis's equivalent of Plato's to agathon, yet bitter at times, as almonds are. As to the phrase "ad libitum," ironically enough, instead of pleasurable ease it expresses the strain in a losing battle of the poet's identity against the odds that time has brought.
No less the vates that he has always been, the poet has the garden's eye detect...
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SOURCE: "Elegiac Elytis: 'Elegies of Jutting Rock'," in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 445-46.
[In the following review, Carson examines the influences on Elytis's elegies, focusing specifically on the "eternal values" of Elytis's verse: love, awe, and redemption.]
Odysseus Elytis's eightieth birthday, on 2 November 1991 was widely celebrated in Greece. Literary journals undertook dedicatory issues, television and radio produced special programs, concerts were given. Elytis answered us with the best gift of all, a new volume of poems, Ta eleyía tis Oxópetras (The Elegies of Jutting Rock), his fourth since his Nobel Prize in 1979.
Jung suggests that the artist in old age must reverse the expansions of youth and focus on what is most meaningful and permanent. The aged Rembrandt's sitters radiate a dim halo of inner, unnatural light, and Titian's later backgrounds smolder with sanguine brushstrokes. The old Yeats climbs in his last works toward a joyful simplicity based on reality's archetypes, and the euphonious Stevens grows harsher in his imagination's recasting of memory and desire. Beethoven's mysterious late quartets plumb imagination and introspection as a deliverance from the tragedy of experience, and Bach wrote fugues in his last year that to this day no one is sure how to execute. With the concentration and ardent assurance of his recent...
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Gregory, Dorothy M. T. "Odysseus Elytis." in European Writers, Vol 13, edited by George Stade, pp. 2955-988. New York: Scribner, 1983.
Provides an overview of Elytis's background and influences; contains selected bibliography.
Elytis, Odysseus. "Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1979." Georgia Review XLIX, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 99-104.
Translation of Elytis's acceptance speech upon his receipt of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1979.
Friar, Kimon. "Introduction." In The Sovereign Sun, pp. 3-44. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974.
A detailed introduction to Elytis's poetry.
Green, Peter. "The Poets' Greece." The New York Review of Books XXVII, No. 11 (June 26, 1980): 40-44.
Discusses Elytis's poetry in the context of modern Greek literature.
Hamill, Sam. "A Paradise of One's Own: Odysseas Elytis." Georgia Review XLIX, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 105-10.
Examines the insights that shape Elytis's poetry.
Jouanny, Robert. "Aspects of Surrealism in the Works of Odysseus Elytis." Books Abroad 49,...
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