Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751

Like many other Greek poets, Odysseus Elytis (EHL-ee-tees) was a product of the islands. His family is originally from Lesbos, the home of the lyric poets Sappho (c. 650-590 b.c.e.) and Alcaeus (c. 625-575 b.c.e.). Elytis himself was born on the island of Crete. On numerous trips, Elytis visited other islands throughout the Aegean, each with its unique history and customs. The poet’s childhood was thus rich in visual images, time-honored traditions, and the sights and sounds of a vast poetic heritage.{$S[A]Alepoudhélis, Odysseus;Elytis, Odysseus}

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Elytis’s mother, Maria Vranas, and his father, Paniotis Alepoudhelis, had become wealthy through the marketing of soap. Later in his life, Odysseus adopted the pseudonym “Elytis” to distinguish himself from the mercantile associations of his family. In 1914 Elytis moved to Athens and began a broad education in the humanities and fine arts. His interests included not only poetry but also art, ballet, theater, and history. These concerns would help shape many aspects of his later career.

One school of poetry held a particularly strong fascination for the young Elytis: French Surrealism, represented at that time by such figures as André Breton, Tristan Tzara, and Louis Aragon. Elytis himself became associated with this literary movement in 1929 when he met the poet Paul Éluard. Éluard’s union of the surreal with the realistic and his belief that poetry was an art for every stratum of society had a profound impact upon Elytis’s thought. Éluard’s resistance to fascism also influenced Elytis, who would become an outspoken voice against Nazism.

From 1930 to 1935 Elytis studied law at the University of Athens. In his final year there, he met the Greek poet Andreas Embirikos, who furthered his interest in Surrealism as a form of artistic expression. Elytis began publishing his own works, especially in the avant-garde journal Nea Grammata (new letters), founded by Andreas Karadonis. As one of the figures who translated Surrealism into the Greek idiom, Elytis became a part of the same literary movement that included George Seferis, a poet who was just establishing his reputation with the publication of Mythistorema (1935) and Gymnopaidia (1936). At the same time, Elytis continued to be involved in the visual arts, producing a number of surrealistic collages.

When the Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, Elytis fled to Albania, where he served with those fighting against fascist Italy. Attaining the rank of second lieutenant, Elytis was later hospitalized with a severe case of typhoid fever. After World War II he drew upon his experiences in Albania while writing Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, which was published in 1945. This work was quickly embraced by the public, who viewed it as a ballad of freedom against totalitarianism, and Elytis’s career as a poet seemed secure.

Almost immediately upon the publication of this volume, however, Elytis turned to other concerns, producing no major poetry for the next fifteen years. He briefly served as the local director of programming and broadcasting for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in Athens. He then moved to Paris, continuing his studies at the Sorbonne, traveling widely, and associating with some of the most important artistic and literary figures of Europe. In addition to his friendship with Éluard, Elytis also met Breton and Tzara, the modernistic poet Pierre-Jean Jouve, and the painters Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Giorgio de Chirico. In 1953 Elytis returned to Greece, where he resumed his work for NBC. He then served on a number of advisory panels in the arts, before finally becoming president of the governing board of the Greek Ballet in the late 1950’s.

In 1959 Elytis published The Axion Esti, a highly personal poem that contains elements of both lyric and epic poetry and bears certain similarities to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass (1855). One year later, Elytis was awarded the Greek National Prize for Poetry, and in 1964 the composer Mikis Theodorakis set portions of The Axion Esti to music for baritone, speaker, mixed chorus, and instrumental ensemble.

With the military coup of George Papadopoulos in 1967, Elytis returned to Paris, where he lived until 1971. His literary reputation continued to grow, culminating in 1979 with the Nobel Prize in Literature and in 1980 with his receipt of an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne. Though Elytis published many additional volumes of poetry, few of his later works have attracted the attention of Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign or The Axion Esti.

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