The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

“The Autopsy” is a short free-verse poem consisting of ten lines, the majority of which are long and flowing as well as rich and evocative. The remainder—the fifth, seventh, and tenth lines—are economic, almost laconic, and comment on or serve as links to the lines that precede or follow them.

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The poem is written in the third person; this not only amplifies the objective, detached perspective that the title implies but also contributes to the analytical tone of the poem. The nostalgic, evocative language which the poet uses to describe the “findings” of the autopsy, however, belies this objectivity, thus creating the tension of the poem; this tension is sustained until the final line, which signals completion and fulfillment.

The poet permits only certain parts of the body to be dissected. Specifically, those parts are related to the senses through which he perceives the sources in the physical world which awaken and aid him in expressing his inner, poetic world.

First, the heart, the seat of all emotions, is examined and found to be permeated with the “gold of the olive root.” The olive traditionally symbolizes peace, immortality, and the Golden Age. For Odysseus Elytis, however, it is emblematic of Greek culture, its fruit having sustained the Greeks, physically as well as economically, through the olive oil trade. It is the quintessential Greek commodity, the “golden” gift of the gods. In the second line, the entrails are seized by “a strange heat,” the result, apparently, of the poet’s quest for light—whether in the candle’s flame or in the coming of dawn. The entrails represent the physical self but also signify intuition, and Elytis typically intuits in light the presence of pure spirit.

In the third line, the tactile sense is recalled, as the veins beneath the skin are likened to the “blue line of the horizon.” This image occurs frequently in Elytis, who, from the onset of his career, has elevated the landscape—and particularly the sea, sun, and sky—of his native land. The “cries of birds” in the fourth line also represent an element of this landscape, the divine realm of nature filtered through the subjectivity of the senses, which the poet has attempted to distill and express through poetry. If, in these attempts, he has been led astray or fallen short of the mark, “Probably the intention sufficed for the evil.”

If the poet has succumbed to this evil in any way, the reader is told in the sixth line, it was the result of his own ingenuousness, his openness toward and his desire to participate fully in life, as evidenced by the vision of the “whole forest moving still on the unblemished retina.” The forest symbolizes, on the one hand, society, and on the other, the realm of the psyche. In the seventh line, the brain, the reliquary of memory, is left empty. Only an echo of the poet’s former ideal—the clear, inviolate sky—remains.

The auditory sense is summoned once again in the eighth line, which recalls more sea imagery; the sounds of the wind and the waves are, as is so often the case in Elytis’s work, almost palpable. In the ninth line, the poet cites the power of erotic love as one of the sources which have inspired his poetic voice. The tenth and final line acts as a coda, commenting on all that has preceded. It suggests that the poet has succeeded in entering and confronting life with purpose and courage and that his virtue will be rewarded with the promised renewal: “We shall have early fruit this year.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

The most impressive device employed in the poem is the analogy of the autopsy, which the poet develops through a series of extremely effective, related metaphors, all of which reinforce the image of a surgeon performing this act. The analogy of the autopsy reinforces, in turn, the image of ritual sacrifice—the poet as an Adonis figure whose life has been dedicated to the quest for truth and beauty—which is implied in the regeneration indicated in the final line of the poem.

The imagery in this poem is typical of Elytis’s work in two respects: First, it evinces his roots in his native Greek tradition, and second, it reflects his fundamentally surrealist orientation. The Greek heritage, for Elytis, is not merely that of classical Greece. Rather, it encompasses a number of indigenous sources, including pagan mysticism, animism, and nature worship, as well as the Byzantine, Eastern Orthodox, folkloric, epic, and demotic traditions. The Greek tradition is most frequently expressed in Elytis’s poetry, however, through the imagery of the sea. This sea imagery so dominated his early collections that, early in his career, he became known as the “poet of the Aegean.”

For Elytis, the seascape is not only the quintessential icon of Greece but also the only one that can convey the holistic worldview which he embraces, which constantly seeks to reunite man’s physical and spiritual natures. In his poetry, the essence of things resides in the divine natural realm, which he perceives as a point of contact, a link between man’s physical self and his divine inner world, the fusion of which Elytis seeks to attain through the poetic act.

Surrealism enabled Elytis to succeed in this effort to a great degree, as the images in “The Autopsy” attest. In the poem, the spiritual is constantly juxtaposed with the physical, and man and nature undergo a metamorphosis which renders the one indistinguishable from the other. The olive root becomes the human heart, the core of being; the blue line of the vein is transmuted into the horizon, and all that the body retains are the melancholic cries of birds and a few grains of fine sand. These incongruous juxtapositions are standard in the work of French surrealist poets such as Paul Éluard, to whom Elytis is frequently compared. In Elytis’s work, however, they are always grounded in his native Greek environment. Moreover, Elytis rejects the “automatic,” unordered flow of thoughts, which the French surrealists admired; his poetry consistently reflects a clear, preconceived aim, subject unity, and the carefully controlled ordering of images.

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Themes