Odysseus Elytis 1911–1996
(Also transliterated as Odysseas; born Odysseus Alepoudelis) Greek poet, essayist, graphic artist, translator, and critic.
The following entry provides an overview of Elytis's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 15 and 49.
A Nobel laureate, Elytis gained international acclaim for his poetry, which combines elements of surrealism, eroticism, and lyricism. His poems attempt to define the Greek identity and, more universally, to help man cope with the dualism of life. The sun is a central symbol in his work; he often referred to himself as a "solar metaphysician."
Elytis was born in Iraklion, Crete, to a wealthy industrialist and his wife. In 1914 his family moved to Athens, where he attended primary and secondary schools and briefly attended the University of Athens School of Law. Elytis spent his summer vacations on the Aegean Islands, and the landscape and imagery of the islands infuses his poetry. The free association of surrealism, especially the French Surrealism of such artists as Paul Eluard, was also a major influence on his art and his poetry. After leaving law school in 1935, Elytis displayed several visual collages at the First International Surrealist Exhibition in Athens. At this time he also began publishing poems in various Greek periodicals under the name Odysseus Elytis, "Elytis" is a combination of the Greek words for Greece, hope, freedom, and Eleni (a figure in Greek mythology representing beauty and sensuality), which are all elements in his poetry. He chose not to publish under the name of Alepoudelis to avoid associations with his family's popular soap-manufacturing business. Elytis was hailed as a poet of the avant-garde and was part of the generation of the thirties including other important Greek writers such as George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos. He served on the Albanian front during the World War II as a second lieutenant in Greece's First Army Corps, an experience which became the basis for Azma iroiko ke penthimo yia ton hameno anthipologhaghotis Alvanias (1945; Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania). From 1948 to 1953, Elytis lived in Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and wrote articles in French for Verve magazine. After returning to Greece, Elytis wrote his famous To Axion Esti (1959; The Axion Esti), which won Greece's First National Award for Poetry. Elytis won the Nobel Prize in 1979, which garnered him international attention. Elytis never married because he claimed his poetry would suffer, and for the same reason he did not change his lifestyle upon winning the Nobel Prize with its accompanying $190,000 award, instead continuing to live in a small apartment in Athens. Elytis died on March 18, 1996, at the age of 84.
Aspects of surrealism and the landscape of the Aegean Islands dominate Elytis's poetry. Sensual imagery and Eros in its physical and spiritual sense fill his earlier work such as Prosanatolizmi (1939; Orientations) and Ilios protos (1943; Sun the First). Darker themes of death, age, and mortality crept into Elytis's poetry after he served in World War II. His Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania centers on the death of a young Greek soldier whose transfiguration and resurrection serves as an affirmation of justice and liberty. The work advances Elytis's concerns with the merging of physical and spiritual existence and celebrates the defense of freedom and victory over oppression. Considered one of the poet's greatest works, To Axion Esti has been called Elytis's "spiritual autobiography." The collection borrows much of its symbolism from the Greek Orthodox Church, along with folk tradition and other elements which Elytis fused to create his own version of Greek tradition. While it identifies the defeat and alienation of Greece after World War II, it also affirms the regenerative power of living in the present. In Exi ke mia tipsis yia ton ourano (1960; Six and One Remorses for the Sky) Elytis furthers his effort to reconcile elements of the dualism of human existence. Both Thanatos ke Anastasis tou Konstandinou Paleologhou (1971; Death and Resurrection of Konstandinos Paleologhos) and To Fotodhendro Ke i Dhekati Tetarti Omorfia (1971; The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty) center on the triumph of hope over despair, the union of spirit and flesh, and the richness of Greek culture and tradition. While most of Elytis's poems are inspired by real life, they do not transcribe actual events. A real woman Elytis met inspired Maria Nefeli (1979; Maria Nephele), who represents a departure from his typical female character. Maria is a modern, urban woman who is fighting for recognition, not protection. The setting is the polluted city instead of the open country of purity and fresh air usually at the center of Elytis's work. The dialogue between Maria and the poetic persona illuminates Elytis's preoccupation with humanity's ability to attain harmony amid the chaos of the modern world. By the time Elytis wrote Ta elegia tis Oxopetras (1991; The Elegies of Jutting Rock), the darker images became a stronger element in his poetry. Death becomes just another step in the journey instead of something to overcome. However, there is acceptance on the part of the poet rather than defeat or despair.
Elytis did not receive international attention for his work until the publication of The Axion Esti. Critics praised his formidable technical skill and his merging of the demotic and classical aspects of the Greek language. Reviewers lauded his lyricism, musicality, and imagery. Much of the criticism of Elytis's work centers on the skill of his translators. The dense linguistic structure of Elytis's poetry makes it difficult to translate, and critics faulted many who have tried for losing the lyricism of his work.