The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

“Body of Summer” is a free-verse poem of four stanzas. The poem can be divided in half: The first two stanzas describe a landscape in the voice of a third-person narrator; the last two stanzas address the personified landscape directly in the song of the “little siren.”

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A deceptively simple description of midsummer opens the poem: “A long time has passed since the last rainfall was heard.” The landscape is dry, parched from long drought. “Now the sky burns endlessly.” Populated by ants and lizards, the landscape seems inhuman, yet the fruit trees “paint their mouths” with the colors of overripe fruit splitting in the sun, and the earth is slowly opening its thirsty pores. Instead of the elemental sound of rain from above, the “syllabic” drip of water is heard from a hidden spring below that trickles the rudiments of language, as though the earth itself is beginning to speak.

Beside the spring, a “huge plant” gazes into the eye of the sun. Like the fruit trees and the water, which are nonspecific (neither pears nor pomegranates, neither fountain nor stream), the plant is generic and anonymous. Perhaps it is a sunflower, which, like the soul of man (especially Greek man), follows the sun.

The second stanza compares this landscape to a personage, not really a person, that is reclining sensuously on the shore, huge and naked, smoking olive leaves, like Gulliver stranded on the beach. Like Lilliputians, cicadas are in his ears, ants are on his chest, and lizards are in his armpits. He swarms with life. The question is asked: “Who is this who sprawls on the far beaches?”

This is the body of summer. The reader discovers this in the second half of the poem, an apostrophe sung by the “little siren,” who addresses the personified season directly: “O naked body of summer.” Unlike the aloof narrator of the first two stanzas, the singing siren is celebratory, admiring, perhaps even seductive, and certainly erotic. Her catalog of physical traits gives the abstract season substance, weight, and texture. His skin is eaten by oil and salt, his body is rock, his heart throbs. His hair is the willow, and his breath is as fragrant as “basil on the curly groin.” Like a sailing ship, his body is a “vessel of day!”

This lazy eroticism gives way to a violent sexual coupling in the final stanza, as winter returns to descend on this vessel-rock, whose “hills plunge into thick udders of clouds.” Winter is depicted as a “savage” beast with claws and udders, the female equivalent of the masculine body of summer. When this period of strife is over, however, the body of summer reemerges, smiling “unconcernedly” in its “deathless hour” and reasserting its “naked health” and vigor under both sun and sky.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

In an interview with Ivar Ivask (March, 1975), Odysseus Elytis cites “Body of Summer” as an example of the way in which he has kept “the mechanism of myth-making but not the figures of mythology.” In this poem, he says, it is “the idea of summer which is personified by the body of a young man.” Such transformations are typical of his first period of poetry, which was influenced by Surrealism and written before and during World War II. “In my first period nature and metamorphoses predominate (stimulated by surrealism, which always believed in the metamorphosis of things).”

Elytis is a visual artist as well as a poet, and his collages are reminiscent of his poetry in the way they transpose various photographic images. In “Body of Summer,” for example, there are visually surprising images that could occur only in the literal medium of collage—cicadas in the ear, lizards in the grass of armpits—images that employ synesthesia, using one sense to evoke another, the visual evoking the tactile: one hears, sees, and also feels the cicadas’ warmth and the lizards’ glide.

The figure of the little siren animates the physical world of the first two stanzas, in which the transformations are merely metaphorical, with the mythical world of the last two stanzas. By addressing the body of summer directly, the little siren turns the poet’s metaphorical language into living myth. She is the poem’s animating soul (its anima, in Jungian terms).

This is what connects Elytis’s poetry with the Surrealism of Paul Éluard (1895-1952), for whom the poem exists as a vehicle by which to discover the erotic link between landscape and the human psyche. Elytis felt such a sensuous and loving connection between the language and the landscape of his native Greece.

Elytis insists on the untranslatable significance of objects named in their own language. “If I say in Greek, for example, ‘olive tree’ or ’sea,’ these words have completely different connotations for us than, say, for an American.” The poet’s private associations are similarly untranslatable. Lizards are, for example, creatures who thrive in a parched landscape; they are, for Elytis, personal symbols. In the Ivask interview, he tells how “once, at high noon, I saw a lizard climb upon a stoneand then, in broad daylight, commence a veritable dance, with a multitude of tiny movements, in honor of light. There and then I deeply sensed the mystery of light.”

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