Odysseus Elytis

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Principally a poet, Odysseus Elytis, in the eminently pictorial, imagistic, “architectural” nature of his verse, revealed his other, parallel propensity. Had he received any formal artistic education, he might have been a distinguished painter as well. As early as 1935, he produced a number of Surrealist collages; in 1966, he painted some thirty-odd gouaches, all but four of which he destroyed; and in the years from 1967 to 1974, the period of the dictatorship of the “colonels,” he produced about forty remarkable collages, nineteen of which are reproduced in Ilías Petropoulous’s book Elytis, Moralis, Tsarouhis (1974). Elytis’s longstanding interest in the arts and his friendship with some of the most prominent modern artists in Greece and France have qualified him as an acute art critic as well.

Elytis translated poets as varied as Le Comte de Lautreamont, Arthur Rimbaud, Pierre-Jean Jouve, Paul Eluard, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Federico García Lorca, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Elytis’s prose works include essays and monographs on sympathetic writers and painters. His most important work in prose, an invaluable companion to his poetry, is Anihta hartia (1974; open book), a work of widely ranging, often aphoristic reflections, in which Elytis spoke extensively about his poetics and his development as a poet.


Odysseus Elytis’s constantly renewed originality, his wise optimism, and his glorification of the Greek world in its physical and spiritual beauty have gradually won for him wide popularity and recognition as well as several distinctions, honors, and prizes—most notably the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979. In 1960 he also won the National Poetry Prize and the National Book Award, both for To axion esti. He won the Order of the Phoenix in 1965. He was honored with several honorary doctorate degrees from institutions such as the University of Thessaloniki (1975), University of Paris (1980), and University of London (1981). In 1989 he was commander in the French Legion of Honor.


The offspring of a family originating on the island of Lesbos (or Mitilini), in the eastern Aegean, Odysseus Elytis was born Odysseus Alepoudhelis in Heraklion, Crete, the sixth and last child of Panyiotis Alepoudhelis, a successful soap manufacturer, and Maria Vranas, of Byzantine extraction. In 1914, the family settled permanently in Athens, where Elytis went to high school, but summers spent in Lesbos, Crete, and other Aegean islands provided him with what was to be his poetic world in terms of imagery, symbols, language, and cultural identity.

Elytis’s early literary interests were given an outlet and direction through his chance discovery of the poetry of Paul Éluard in 1929. From 1930 to 1935, Elytis attended the law school of the University of Athens but never was graduated. His meeting with the orthodox Surrealist poet Andreas Embiriíkos (1901-1975) in 1935 decidedly enhanced his own Surrealist inclinations. That same year, Elytis published his first poems in the periodical Nea Ghramata, recently founded by the poet and critic Andréas Karandonis (1910-1982); under Karandonis’s editorship, Nea Ghramata soon became the rallying center of the new poetry and prose in Greece. Elytis’s first collection of poems, Prosanatolizmi (orientations), appeared in December, 1939.

Fascist Italy attacked Greece from Albania in 1940, and in 1940-1941 Elytis served as a second lieutenant on the Albanian front, where he almost perished in a military hospital from typhoid. During the Nazi occupation of Greece, his second book of poetry, Ilios o protos, mazi me tis parallayies pano se mian ahtidha (sun the first together with variations on a sunbeam), was published, followed, soon after the liberation, by Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign. In 1945-1946, Elytis served as director of programming and broadcasting for the National Broadcasting System in Athens. From 1948 to 1952, Elytis lived in Paris, where he studied literature at the Sorbonne, and traveled in England, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. During this period he associated with André Breton, Paul Éluard, Tristan Tzara, Pierre Jean Jouve, Henri Michaux, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and Giorgio de Chirico. In 1950, Elytis was elected as a member of the International Union of Art Critics, and in 1953, after his return to Greece, he was elected to the Poetry Committee of the Group of Twelve, which annually awarded prizes for poetry. Elytis served once again as director of programming and broadcasting of the National Broadcasting System in Athens until 1954. From 1955 to 1956, he was on the governing board of the avant-garde Karolos Koun Art Theater, and from 1956 to 1958 he was president of the governing board of the Greek Ballet.

The publication of his two epoch-making books of verse, The Axion Esti and Six and One Remorses for the Sky, broke Elytis’s poetic silence and won for him the National Prize for Poetry in 1960. A selection from The Axion Esti, set to music by the composer Mikis Theodhorakis in 1964, brought the poet wide popularity.

In 1961, Elytis visited the United States for three months at the invitation of the State Department, and in 1962 he visited the Soviet Union on the invitation of its government. From 1965 to 1968, he was a member of the administrative board of the Greek National Theater.

In 1967, the government of Greece was toppled by a military coup. For the next seven years, the colonels (as the ruling junta was known) ruthlessly suppressed opposition to their regime, exercising severe censorship and otherwise curtailing civil rights. From 1969 to 1971, Elytis lived in France, primarily in Paris. Following his return to Greece, he published seven poetry books, including The Monogram, The Sovereign Sun, and To fotodhendro ke i dhekati tetarti omorfia (the light tree and the fourteenth beauty), as well as the prose work Anihta hartia. Elytis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979, and in 1980 he received an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne. He died in Athens, Greece, on March 18, 1996.


The suicide of the Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis in 1928 may be said to have marked the end of an era in Greek poetry, which had long abided in Parnassianism, poesie maudite, Symbolism, and poésie pure. A spirit of discomfort, decadence, and despair prevailed, intensified by the military defeat suffered by Greece in Asia Minor in 1922. The year 1935 has generally been considered to mark the beginning of a great change in modern Greek poetry—a renaissance in which Odysseus Elytis, along with George Seferis and others, was most instrumental. Rejecting a tired traditionalism, these modernists invigorated Greek poetry by the adoption and creative assimilation of Western trends. The renaissance which they initiated is still flourishing; indeed, twentieth century Greek poetry is as rich as that of any nation in its time.

Adopting Surrealism as a liberating...

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