Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

“Body of Summer” aims, as does all Elytis’s poetry, to reveal what he calls the mystery of light: limpidity, clarity, transparency. This is why the sun (hylios) and sky (ouranos) figure so prominently in his poems. Some translators have exchanged the two terms, as in line 3: “Now the sun burns endlessly,” although Elytis has written ouranos (sky or heavens) and not hylios (sun).

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This is a key difference in this poem because it points out the distinction between the pagan Greek sun worship and the Byzantine Greek yearning for heavenly transcendence. Elytis would hope to unite the two, the Christian and the pagan, in his modern poem.

The final lines of the poem illustrate this theme, which can best be seen by comparing two translations. The Keeley-Sherrard translation reads: “As the sun finds you again on the sandy shores/ As the sky finds you again in your naked health.” The pagan sun beats down, earthward, while the Byzantine sky lifts up, heavenward. The final emphasis is on the sky’s approval of “naked health.”

The poem ends with the word ouranos, however, which in Greek (like the French ciel) means both sky and heaven. This detail is captured in Kimon Friar’s translation: “As once more you are found on the beaches by the sun/ And amid your naked vigor by the sky.” Here, the final position of the subject of the verb (which is active in Greek syntax) makes the sky’s discovery more forceful and memorable. The naked vigor and health of the body is approved by both the sun and the sky (hylios and ouranos), the final word turning the emphasis away from the pagan “naked health” of the Keeley-Sherrard translation toward the Christian “sky” of Friar’s. It is important to end the poem on this high note, because it turns a poem of hedonistic sun worship into a poem of spiritual transcendence.

Elytis calls this movement upward in his poems “meteorism” or “a tendency to mount up to the sky, to rise toward the heights.” This is why he denies being a pagan or Dionysian poet, insisting always on the “clarity” of his poems—not la belle clarté of French rationalism, but rather what he calls “limpidity.” “What I mean by limpidity,” he notes in the Ivask interview, “is that behind a given thing something different can be seen and behind that still something else, and so on and so on. This kind of transparency is what I have attempted to achieve. It seems to me something essentially Greek.”

This double-exposure or montage effect is what attracted Elytis to Surrealism. The Surrealist juxtaposition of images allows the emanative essence of a thing to break through, to rise above the surface of things. This is particularly evident in the poet’s collages, in which certain images, a Greek kouros statue or a naked girl, seem to be emerging through a rip in the surface of the colorful Greek postcard landscape.

Yet it is not only the classical world that emanates through Elytis’s poetry, as it is for example in that of his contemporary George Seferis, but also the Christian heritage of Byzantine Greece. The collage that serves as frontispiece to Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light (1981) is a good example. “Votive Offering” shows a Byzantine angel rising above a cluster of whitewashed island rooftops as though bestowing a blessing on the village; from the village blossoms a cluster of shells. Clearly, the elements of water, earth, and sky are connected in these figures that represent the animal, human, and divine worlds.

This benediction of the Byzantine that is bestowed on what is sensuous and “pagan” is at the heart of Elytis’s erotic poetry, which is always striving to change the world “through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams,” and to create “a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality.”

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