Odysseus Elytis

by Odysseus Alepoudhélis

Start Free Trial

Peter Green (review date 26 June 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Poets' Greece," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVII, No. 11, June 26, 1980, pp. 40-4.

[In the following excerpt, Green traces Elytis's relationship to the tradition of Greek poetry.]

When the Swedish Academy announced its choice for the Nobel Prize in literature last year, the general reaction was one of bewilderment. Who on earth, people asked, was Odysseus Elytis? Some students of the international literary scene ("irritated," as a friend wrote me, "at the selection of a man who hadn't been published by Penguin") hinted that the Academy's recent habit of honoring elderly obscure poets such as Vicente Aleixandre or Harry Martinson was rapidly becoming an affectation. This is unfair to Elytis, a poet of large achievement; but it does pinpoint, with some force, the problems involved in getting Greek poetry across to a Western audience. An unfamiliar alphabet and language are only the first hurdles to be overcome. Behind them lie an attitude to life and a cultural tradition that are at odds with the Anglo-American literary scene.

Poetry in Greece remains a natural part of popular life in a way that has long ceased to be true in the West. The editors of Twenty Contemporary Greek Poets claim that, on average, Greece sees two new volumes of poetry published daily, and from my own experience I would think their estimate no exaggeration. A spate of literary periodicals, some shorter-lived than others and with names like Tram and Parallax, provides a regular forum for young writers. What is more, they sell. One of the best-known and most popular recent Greek songs was a setting of a short lyric by George Seféris—another Nobel Prize winner, Greece's second in only thirteen years.

Nor is this efflorescence exclusively urban or intellectual. Today, despite the destructive inroads made on local culture and dialects by the transistor radio and, latterly, television (still, luckily, hard to beam to some of the more remote islands and mountain fastnesses), Greece preserves, to a surprising degree, her tradition of oral poetry. In Crete, peasants continue to learn by heart long sections (sometimes all) of the 10,000-odd lines of Komaros's seventeenth-century epic, the Erotókritos, and couplets from it are printed on the back of the tear-off sheets of the little religious calendars that hang in almost every Greek home. Memory is reinforced by spontaneous composition: this is especially true of the ritual lament for the dead, the moirológhi, which has its roots deep in antiquity, and still flourishes in certain rural areas, above all the Deep Mani of the southern Peloponnese, where Patrick Leigh Fermor recorded a moirológhi composed for an English airman shot down at Limeni during World War II.

Greek poetry stands in a curious and ambivalent relationship to the literary traditions of the West: at once their ancient fountainhead and, more recently, an odd tributary that, ever since the Greek War of Independence (1821–1830), has been moving uneasily back toward the main cultural tradition. On the one hand, Greek poetry offers the virtually unique phenomenon of a language and a poetic tradition that have evolved, unbroken, over three millennia. (To grasp this one need only leaf through a comprehensive anthology such as the bilingual Penguin Book of Greek Verse, which starts with the Iliad and ends with the early surrealist verse of Odysseus Elytis.) On the other, the impact, first of Byzantium, and then of the long Turkish occupation, effectively cut Greece off from the Renaissance, with all the impoverishment of language, parochialism, and subjugation that that implies. What other Western country, as Kimon...

(This entire section contains 4093 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Friar rightly asks, has retained so clear an identity and integrity under such crushing odds?

This isolation brought, nevertheless, certain unpredictable advantages. It threw the Greeks back on their own idiosyncratic resources, sharpened imagination, bred suspicion of fashionable trends. Elytis, himself an accomplished painter and art critic as well as a poet, was one of the first to point out how, in the visual arts, Greece, unconscious of experiments in chiaroscuro and perspective, "still clung to the flat ideography of Byzantine icons and mosaics, which in their clear linear shapes and colors … were flattened out as though in a blazing and absolute light." Those bright flat colors, that scouring sun, those mosaic fragments recur again and again in Greek poetry no less than in Greek art. Obsessions with freedom and death, both heightened by alien domination and incessant wars; the complex liturgical forms of the Eastern Orthodox Church: the vigorous oral tradition of folksong, epic, and ballad—these form the core of the modern Greek poetic tradition, on to which such latterday influences as Marxism or French surrealism have merely been grafted.

Another problem unique to Greece—at least in so exacerbated a form—has been the emergence of two competing literary languages, the demotic tongue, spoken on every street, and the so-called katharévousa, or "purist" speech. The latter, a largely artificial construction based on ancient Attic, was developed shortly before the Greek War of Independence, at the insistence of those philhellenes, both Greek and foreign, who dreamed of restoring Greece's classical heritage, and found the common spoken tongue, with its slang, borrowed words, and lack of abstract terms, singularly inadequate for this purpose. Inevitably, having two languages not only created confusion in Greek education and literature, but also very soon acquired political connotations: advocates of katharévousa tended to be conservatives of the right, demoticists to be populists, liberals, ethnic idealists. Demotic was first recognized by Venizelos's Ministry of Education in 1917, and has been in and out ever since, depending on the political views of those in power. George Papandhréou had school texts put in demotic Greek; the Colonels switched them back to katharévousa.

The best compromise, known as kathomilouméni, or "daily speech," is a flexible blend of the two employed by some daily papers, based on demotic, but freely introducing abstractions and coining neologisms from the ancient tongue. It has, typically, attracted nothing but scomful criticism from purists in either camp. Ultimately, every serious Greek writer is, in effect, forced to invent his own language. Kalvos experimented with katharévousa, and so, surprisingly, did Cavafy, revealing "cunningly placed bits of whalebone in the more sinuous demotic."

But this linguistic ambivalence was also a sign of a far deeper fission, and conflict, in the body of Greek society. For over a millennium, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West by Theodosius (AD 395), Byzantium, renamed Constantinople in honor of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had preserved the Roman tradition in the shape of a proud, indeed unique, Christian theocracy. After the Great Schism of 1054 over the nature of the Holy Ghost, Eastern Orthodoxy's links with the West were severed. The Byzantines did not think of themselves as Hellenes: to them "Helléne" was rather an opprobrious synonym for "pagan." In their own eyes they were, rather, Romans (Romaioi). Ethnically, the mainland Greeks, whom they called "Helladics," were no more than the occupants of an unimportant province of the Byzantine Empire. Apart from a brief Hellenizing movement in the early fifteenth century, shortly before the fall of Constantinople (1453), the notion of recovering, let alone emulating, the glories of ancient Greece gained no real ground until after the French and American revolutions, about 1800. Its chief proponents were Greek intellectuals educated, and for the most part resident, abroad, encouraged by romantic foreign philhellenes such as Shelley and Byron.

The idea of "Hellenism" was thus anathema, not only to the Orthodox Church but also to those countless simple, devout Greeks for, whom patriotism meant the latterday revival of Byzantium: their talisman was not the Parthenon, but the great Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. (Even today travel agencies in Athens offer packaged Easter tours "to the City": no need to name it, for a Greek only one city is worth consideration.) Their contempt for the ancient past was reinforced by ignorance. When one klephtic (guerrilla) leader heard himself compared to Achilles, he snapped: "Who is this Achilles? Did the musket of Achilles kill many?" Was the long, proud tradition of survival under the Turks, with its religious separatism, its klephtic ballads, its fighting priests, even its Karaghiozi shadow-theater, to be jettisoned in favor of some pagan dream foisted on the Romaioi by godless foreigners, who—brought up on Gibbon—dismissed Christian Byzantium as a barbarous, obscurantist medieval aberration?

Yet despite all this the notion of Hellenism took root. No one could deny that it played a vital role in winning the War of Independence, or that (with Constantinople still in Turkish hands) it offered a focal point, in Athens, for the nationalist aspirations of the new state. However much populist heroes of the anti-Turkish resistance like Kolokotronis and Makriyannis might grumble, Hellenism was from now on a permanent factor in Greek life. To encompass the tensions between Hellenism and Romaiosyne has ever since been an overriding concern of all Greek writers, a problem as difficult to ignore as to resolve.

The work of Elytis demonstrates that the closest links between modern and ancient Greece have little to do with intellectual theory or refurbished myth. The true perennial factor is Greece itself: that mountainous, harsh, limestone peninsula, with its scatter of islands, its violent storms, its white washed chapels, its poverty, its superstitions. In their isolation, the Greeks have preserved, below the threshold of public history, a peasant culture of extraordinary tenacity and complexity that reaches back into the remote pre-Christian past. Countless modern superstitions, legends, and beliefs have survived intact. A modern Boeotian farmer working the land around Mt. Helicon could feel a sense of kinship with his Hesiodic ancestor of the Works and Days (c. 700 BC), and indeed still shares many of his legends and agricultural observances. The liturgical fabric of the Orthodox Church is seamed with a rich assortment of pagan symbols and ritual. That intricate modern taverna dance the zeïbékiko is directly descended from the classical Pyrrhic dance, while Lydian and Dorian modes still survive in the music that accompanies it.

Metternich once remarked, scornfully, that it was impossible to define what the word "Greek" meant, whether ethnically, politically, or geographically. In the climate engendered by the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) this attitude was understandable, but it provided an agonizing legacy for the Greeks themselves, of which their imposed Bavarian monarchy was only the most obvious symptom. Inevitably, much of their new literary theory was imported, for the most part from France. The educated Phanariot Greeks from Constantinople, who after 1830 flocked to the new capital in Athens, were French-speaking cosmopolitans, accustomed to high office, often in key diplomatic posts; not surprisingly, they had romantic visions of a rejuvenated classical Greece, in the style of Hugo or Byron. They also wrote in katharévousa—"the ugly purist screech," as a distinguished (but far from impartial) contemporary critic describes it.

Equally foreign in its antecedents was the remarkable school of poetry that developed in the Ionian islands, Zakynthos in particular, off the west coast of Greece. Since these islands had never come under Turkish domination, their links with Western Europe, in particular with England and Italy, were strong. It is one more paradox in the odd story of modern Greek poetry that the two main representatives of the Ionian School, Dionysios Solomos (1798–1857) and Andreas Kalvos (1792–1869), both began their poetic careers writing in Italian, and in fact never acquired perfect fluency in Greek. Both, further, wrote passionately patriotic poetry (the first few verses of Solomos's Ode to Liberty were adopted as the Greek national anthem) while for the most part living abroad. It is doubtful whether Solomos ever set foot on the Greek mainland at all. Kalvos's brief and disastrous encounter with the ugly internecine factionalism of the Greek resistance movement at Náfplion not only sent him scuttling back posthaste to Corfu and thence to England, but seems to have fatally damaged his poetic impulse. Yet it is in Solomos and Kalvos that we first catch that characteristic sensuous celebration of the light and landscape that has haunted Greek poets ever since, and that reaches its apotheosis in the work of Elytis.

Born in 1911, on Crete, of Mytileniot descent, Odysseus Alepoudhelis took the pen name "Elytis," compounding it from the Greek words "Ellas" (Greece), "Eleni" (Helen), "elpidha" (hope), and "eleftheria" (freedom). Hope proved the dominant element in this conflation. Although Elytis became a mature writer during the Thirties, he stayed apart from the fashionable Angst and pessimism of the time—in sharp contrast to many of his contemporaries who affected poésie maudite in the manner of Baudelaire, above all Kostas Karyotákis, with whose highly public suicide in 1928 "despair, loneliness and anxiety erupted into Greek poetry." Elytis saw that the Smyrna disaster of 1922 effectively killed the "Great Idea" of a revived Byzantine Empire centered on Constantinople, but his work, from his first collection, Orientations (1939), to the magnificently orchestrated personal and ethnic testament, The Axion Esti ("Praised Be" or "Worthy it is," a phrase from the Liturgy), published twenty years later, has a kind of passionate optimism about the possibilities of his small Aegean world.

Yet he has never been a mere romantic sentimentalist: his "Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign" (1943) would alone suffice to disprove that. It is true that one of his most lyrical collections, Sun the First, was actually published during the German-Italian occupation of Greece (the "Heroic and Elegiac Song," for obvious reasons, had to wait until 1945). Asked why, in a time of darkness and loss, he wrote poems of exaltation, he replied that "it was not the events of the age that interested him as poetry but the emotions with which these events were confronted and transfigured." His hope springs from inner spiritual certainty.

The beauty and lyricism of Elytis's work, so imbued with the Greek genius loci, at once bring it within reach of the sympathetic European or American reader—especially those who have experienced a Greek summer.

     In these whitewashed courtyards where the South Wind blows
     Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me is it the mad pomegranate tree
     That frisks in the light scattering her fruit-laden laughter
     With a wind's caprice and murmuring, tell me is it the mad pomegranate tree
     That quivers with newborn foliage at early dawn
     Unfolding all her colors on high with a triumphant tremor?

There's a touch of Dylan Thomas in such lines of Elytis, and more than a touch of French surrealism (in his case by way of Paul Eluard), something which, after André Breton's famous Manifesto of 1924, took root and flourished with peculiar vigor in Greek soil.

What I find really remarkable about French surrealism in Greece is the diversity of poets whom it influenced, from an out-and-out romantic like Nikos Gatsos to the dedicated communist Yannis Ritsos. Gatsos (b. 1911) wrote his extraordinary poem Amorghos (the name of a Greek island, which Gatsos had never visited, nothing to do with his poem, and chosen as its title merely for euphony) in a single night, surfing on a wave of imagery that never quite slips out of control:

      Only if birds should ripple amid the masts of the lemon trees
      With the firm white flurry of lively footsteps
      Will the winds come, the bodies of swans that remained immaculate, unmoving and tender
      Amid the streamrollers of shops and the cyclones of vegetable gardens
      When the eyes of women turned to coal and the hearts of the chestnut hawkers were broken
      When the harvest was done and the hopes of crickets began …
                                 [translated by K. Friar]

In the hands of Ritsos (b. 1909) surrealism becomes an effective political weapon. After describing a nocturnal interrogation, with its floodlights, cigarette butts, and forced confessions, he picks up a surprising scene through the window:

        Close by, in the big well-swept sportsground, with its wire netting,
        They saw the three diplomats, in tophats and starched shirts,
        Collecting eggs from the floodlit chickenhouse. The hens,
        Up and awake (white, for the most part) weren't clucking,
        Just peering carefully at their glinting cufflinks, well aware,
        Like expert pawnbrokers, that these weren't genuine diamonds.
                              [translated by P. Green]

There is something about the sharp Greek contrasts of light and shade, the unpredictable paradoxes of the Greek mind, that makes surrealism seem a natural mode of expression: one with which both Aeschylus and Pindar were already, each in his own way, familiar.

The poem by Elytis quoted above goes on to rhapsodize about naked sunburned girls in the meadows. This motif, a recurrent feature of Greek poetry ever since the days of Kalvos and Solomos, stands out as pure Hellenizing fantasy, since the contrast with actual social mores, despite modernizing trends in the last two decades, remains absolute. Greek women (as the number of secretaries' parasols in Athens eloquently testifies) hate getting sunburned, and blush at the very thought of public nakedness. Such literary conceits are more likely to score with visiting foreigners than with the Orthodox Church, still the most all-pervasive spiritual and moral force in Greece, and not noted (to put it mildly) for egalitarianism or permissiveness toward women. So a classic tension develops in Elytis's work, not only between the demotic and the Hellenizing traditions, but also between the sensuousness and the equally passionate spiritual instinct that hold the Greek psyche in an uneasy balance.

This tension is most clearly expressed in The Axion Esti, the work above all on which Elytis's reputation rests, and which almost certainly won him the Nobel Prize. One measure of its achievement is the degree to which Elytis succeeds in reconciling fire and rose, the world of the senses and the world of the spirit. Just as he did in an earlier poem "The Autopsy" (1957)—where "it was found that the gold of the olive root had dripped into the leaves of his heart"—Elytis here merges and symbolically identifies his own being and history with that of Greece. He wants his childhood to become that of all poets, of Greece, of the Creation. The sufferings he observed as an adult, from the Albanian campaign of 1940 to the terrible civil war of 1946–1949, he wants to make universal in a formal liturgical setting. The poem closes with a doxology of praise that seeks to transfigure and sanctify the simple, eternal features of Aegean life that recur in Elytis's verse.

The tripartite structure of The Axion Esti—"Genesis," "Passion," "Gloria"—not only echoes in its symbolism the Orthodox Liturgy, but even suggests the architecture of a Christian basilica. Linguistically, Elytis's supple Greek exploits an equally wide, and symbolically apt, range of usage, from the formal vocabulary of the Septuagint or ecclesiastical hymnology to demotic folk ballads, from Cretan epic (the Eroiókritos) to the simple vernacular prose of General Makriyannis (1797–1864), the homespun autodidact hero of the War of Independence, whose Memoirs, now a kind of demoticists' bible, have provided stylistic inspiration for several generations of Greek writers. Elytis echoes Makriyannis not only in passages describing the drizzle and sweat and lice-ridden exhaustion of the Albanian campaign, but also, with horrific effect (and, again, a touch of surrealism) as a postlude to a wartime execution:

      And the boys were very frightened; and the men,
      with leaden faces, straw hair,
      and black boots, turned waxen. Because the shacks
      all around shook as in an
      earthquake, and in many places the tarpaper fell off
      the walls, and far off, behind
      the sun, women appeared weeping, kneeling down
      in a vacant lot full of nettles
      and black clotted blood. While the great clock of
      angels chimed exactly twelve.

It is impossible to convey, except through extended quotation, the complexity and power of this great poem, at once so universal and so quintessentially Greek.

            Take away my sea with its white north winds,
          the wide window full of lemon trees,
            the many bird songs, and the one girl
          whose joy when I merely touched her was enough for me,
            take them away, I have sung!
          Take away my dreams, how can you read them?
            Take away my thoughts, where will you utter them?
          I am clean from end to end,
            Kissing, I enjoyed the virgin body.
          Blowing, I colored the fleece of the sea.
            All my ideas I turned into islands.
          I squeezed lemon on my conscience.

The poet's early years blend into the dawn of the world; the Greek islands, irradiated with sunlight, become a primal Eden; while the final Gloria—that exultant paean to earth and sky, winds, mountains, love, all moments of bright perception: "nine in the morning like fragrant bergamot," "the wooden table, / the blond wine with the sun's stain / the water doodling across the ceiling," "conscience radiant like a summer"—recalls, in its innocence and intensity, nothing so much as Christopher Smart's A Song to David.

The only modern work I know with which it is remotely comparable, in spiritual force, complex verbal beauty, length, structure, and doxological allusiveness, is David Jones's The Anathemata, and The Axion Esti seems to me the better poem.

Not only is the feeling deeper, the structure more intricate, the imagery more intense; it also possesses a natural depth of perspective that the Anathemata cannot match, since beyond Orthodox Byzantium lies the whole rich Hellenic tradition reaching back to Homer, whereas the Catholic "Matter of Britain" rests on a Roman military occupation, woad-covered warrior tribesmen, and Druidic sacrifices at Stonehenge.

When Elytis made his acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony he said: "I would like to believe that the Swedish Academy wants to honor in me the entire canon of Greek poetry." Whether or not we agree with Constantine Trypanis's claim that "in the last hundred years much greater and more original poetry has been written than in the fourteen centuries which preceded them," no one can deny the amazing richness and diversity of Greek poets in this century: Sikelianos, Caváfy, Seféris, Kazantzakis, Yannis Ritsos, and Elytis alone would constitute a quite exceptional list for so small a country. Of these, it is perhaps Anghelos Sikelianos (1884–1951) who best exemplifies the near-schizophrenic dilemma of the Greek intellectual committed to neo-Hellenism. Like Eliot, he saw the modern world as a wasteland, in his case to be redeemed by a reversion to the supposed values of the pre-Socratic thinkers, and, beyond them, to that universal feminine principle he saw at the heart of Aegean civilization. Yet his attempt to by-pass two millennia of Christian belief was doomed to inevitable failure, and there was a sadly appropriate irony in the fact that his Delphic festival of the arts had to be financed by his rich American wife. What would a modern Spartan peasant see in his passionate "Hymn to Artemis Orthia"? Plain blasphemy, I suspect; the syncretism he aimed at ("sweet child, our Dionysus and our Christ") never really took, and only Elytis has ever come near achieving it.

Anyone who dips into Kimon Friar's huge anthology, Modern Greek Poetry, will soon realize that the poets I have discussed form only a small fraction—if, arguably, the most distinguished—of those whose work has left its mark on modern literature: while the gifted young writers represented in Twenty Contemporary Greek Poets show very clearly that the Greek tradition has great vitality, and, incidentally, that under Valaoritis's influence French surrealism is still flourishing in Athens: Vassilis Steriadis can write:

           Dear Tassos
          my dying and coming is out of question
          Katia won't let me
          But Katia is full of holes and a bit mad
          as she falls from the clouds
          into a box of sugared almonds

If these young poets use traditional myths, it tends to be with a conscious off-handedness. When Yorghos Chronas's mermaid asks a sailor, in a storm at sea, if Alexander the Great still lives, and gets the ritual answer (to avert shipwreck) "He lives!" the poet comments:

          Maybe he lived, maybe he didn't, how did he know?
          he was just a sailor by himself at sea …

For Yannis Yfantis the Achaean siege of Troy resembles spermatozoa assaulting an ovum, till "like a penis that old horse entered her." The scars of occupation and civil war recur grimly among the pop-culture American icons (TV, refrigerators, Marilyn Monroe). Greece has suffered more than most countries in the course of her history, and put her bitter experiences to better poetic use. Elytis himself should have the last word:

                    The noon bell chimes
                  and slowly on the scorching stones
                     letters are carved:
                    NOW and FOREVER and
                    PRAISED BE.
                  Forever forever and now and now
                     the birds sing
                    PRAISED BE the price paid.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Andonis Decavalles (review date Winter 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of I Mayia tou Papadhiamandhi, in World Literature Today, Vol. 54, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 149-50.

[In the following review, Decavalles praises Elytis's rediscovery of the turn of the century prose writer Alexandros Papadhiamandhis in his I Mayia tou Papdhiamandhi.]

Deep intellectualand emotional affinity has obviously inspired this perceptive and brilliant, touching and revealing evaluation of Alexandros Papadhiamándhis by the outstanding contemporary Greek poet and 1979 Nobel laureate. Papadhiamándhis was a saintly man from the island of Skiathos whose several narrative tales, written around the turn of the century, made him the first original and unsurpassed master in modern Greek prose. His stories were all drawn from that Aegean island, the integrity of its closed and tiny world, its rocky natural beauty, its simple, unsophisticated and religiously inspired people, the picturesquenessand tragic nature of their lives. A poetic genius and a wise innocence in their author lent those narratives, in their strange mixture of elevated language and the demotic tongue, of exquisite art and careless journalistic improvisation, an irresistible charm. In subsequent years the prosaic narrow-mindedness of critics failed to see the inherent greatness and lasting universality of the stories.

Hence Elytis's affectionate concern to rediscover, reveal and defend, in his forty-five-page essay and the seventy-page selection that follows it, the personality and peculiar genius of the old master with whom he shares much in many respects; this fact makes the defense of Papadhiamándhis very much Elytis's own self-defense. Elytis too has suffered from the narrow-mindednessand prejudice of his younger critics. What he reveals and stresses in Papadhiamándhis is his love of life in its universality, its closeness to nature and its cycles—the things that make it stand beyond what is perishable in temporality. Papadhiamándhis is the last survivor and reporter of a small, marvelously integral, materially poor but spiritually rich world destined to die culturally in the experience of two world wars and what they brought.

Totally identifying himself with Skiathos, he raised that island into a poetic reality untouched by time's ravages. Out of quantities he built a world of quality in his mixing inseparably the physical with the spiritual essence. In his stories he dealt with "pure units," the souls "sculpted by the winds" and made "imperishable like sea-cliffs." He lent that reality his dream in its "continuous contact with the world beyond." His so-called "saintliness," his wise and tested innocence, never lost its humanity, its sensual desires, its eros for beauty in nature and in lovely girls, an eros for the physically unattainable (afthasto) which only imagination can reach. Apart from his undeniable poetic gifts, it was his human sensuality itself for physical and spiritual beauty and the beauty of words in their marvelous weddings that strangely made him the more saintly and the more pure.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Prosanatolismi [Orientations] (poetry) 1940
Ilios o protos [Sun the First] (poetry) 1943
Azma iroiko ke penthimo yia ton hameno anthipologhagho tis Alvanias [Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania] (poetry) 1945
To Axion Esti [The Axion Esti] (poetry) 1959
Exi kai mia tipsis yia ton ourano [Six and One Remorses for the Sky] (poetry) 1960
To Fotodhendro Ke i Dhekati Tetarti Omorfia [The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty] (poetry) 1971
O ilios o iliatorus [The Sovereign Sun: Selected Poems] (poetry) 1971
Thanatos ke Anastasis tou Konstandinou Paleologhou [Death and Resurrection of Konstandinos Paleologhos] (poetry) 1971
The Monogram (poetry) 1972
Ta Ro tou Erota (poetry) 1972
O Fillomandis [The Leaf Diviner] (poetry) 1973
Anihta Hartia [Open Papers] (essays) 1974
Ta eterothale (poetry) 1974
Sappho—Anasinthesi ke apodosi [translator] (poetry) 1976
Simatologion [The Siblings] (poetry) 1977
Maria Nefeli: Shiniko Puma [Maria Nephele: A Poem in Two Voices] (poetry) 1978
Tria poiemata me simea efkerias [Three Poems under a Flag of Convenience] (poetry) 1982
To imerologio enos atheatou Aprilou [Diary of an Invisible April] (poetry) 1984
O mikros naftilos [The Little Mariner] (poetry) 1986
What I Love: Selected Poems of Odysseas Elytis, 1939–1978 (poetry) 1986
Ta Demosia ke ta Idiotika (essays) 1990
Idiotiki Odos (essays) 1991
Ta elegia tis Oxopetras [The Elegies of Jutting Rock] (poetry) 1991

Roderick Beaton (review date 9 October 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "On the Parnassian Slopes," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4097, October 9, 1981, p. 1175.

[In the following excerpt, Beaton finds fault with the contemporary language of Edmund Keeley's and George Savidis's translation of Elytis's The Axion Esti, but asserts that they have achieved a readable version of a complex poetic work.]

A consequence of Greece's recent accession to the EEC predicted in a light-hearted mood by an academic colleague was the likely establishment of a Greek "poetry mountain". With a population of less than a fifth of that of Great Britain, Greece nonetheless produces annually a greater volume of published poetry. Who reads it all is another matter; but it is not only in quantity of published work that Greek poets excel. Since the time of Constantine Cavafy in the early part of this century, several of them have established international reputations, while others have produced work of exceptional quality which remains little known abroad.

Odysseus Elytis was surprisingly little read in this country until the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979 brought him into the international limelight. This is not wholly the fault of translators—he is well represented in the early translations of Greek poetry by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translations of his poetry have been appearing in magazines such as Agenda for many years, and Kimon Friar's book-length selection, The Sovereign Sun, was published in America in 1974. The truth seems to be that poetry which is lyrical, optimistic and which exults in the possibilities of language does not so easily find favour with British readers as it does say, in France, where Elytis is much better known. Be that as it may, it is a sad reflection on British publishers and readers that the translation by Keeley and George Savidis of Elytis's greatest work, The Axion Esti, has only recently been brought out in this country, six years after it appeared in a limited edition in the United States.

Edmund Keeley is a veteran translator of Greek poetry, having collaborated with Philip Sherrard on the now classic Collected Poems of Seferis and more recently on translations of Cavafy and Sikelianos, while Savidis is one of Greece's foremost editors and textual scholars. The result is a translation of a high degree of accuracy, with a useful explanatory preface and an excellent and wisely selective set of notes, many of them based on the poet's own unpublished commentary, and a valuable adjunct to the original Greek text, which is unannotated. The English translation aims above all to be faithful to the Greek, and it is a pity from this point of view, that the publishers have not been able to retain the parallel-text format for which the translation was originally intended, and to which reference is still made in the preface.

As the translators themselves concede in this preface, no English equivalent can do complete justice to the linguistic exuberance and allusiveness of Elytis's text, and it must be admitted that they have not always risen fully to its challenge. In particular the decision, explained in the preface, to avoid echoes of the King James Bible is arguably a mistaken one, in that the enrichment of the contemporary poetic language by judicious allusion to the language of earlier periods is one of the major achievements of the poem. The language of the translation is too consistently contemporary, and in the prose passages the introduction of modern slang to reproduce the "early nineteenth-century demotic" of the original obscures the deliberate datedness of that idiom, and of Elytis's inspired exploitation of the common elements between the styles of General Makriyannis and of the Greek New Testament. Similarly, the inclusion of one each of the best known Anglo-Saxon four-letter words may have seemed to the translators obligatory for publication in America in the mid-1970s, but jars a little today. Elytis is a poet who calls a great many things by their names without prurience, but without vulgarity either.

These are small criticisms, however, when set beside the very considerable achievement of the translators in giving us a fresh and always readable version of a poetic work of such magnitude and complexity.

Karl Malkoff (essay date Summer 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Eliot and Elytis: Poet of Time, Poet of Space," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 36, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 238-57.

[In the following essay, Malkoff compares and contrasts Elytis's To Axion Esti to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and asserts that both poets are seeking a unity of being in their work.]

In this essay I propose to explore the differences between T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Odysseus Elytis' To Axion Esti, in the hope of discovering patterns that may contribute to an understanding of their poetry in general. As a preliminary to such an investigation, it would be prudent to establish a common ground of discourse for two poems that are only rarely mentioned in the same breath, and which, at first glance, may seem quite unrelated. Is is a commonplace in criticism of modern Greek literature to note that while George Seferis, Greece's first Nobel Prize-winning poet, came very much under Eliot's spell, her second, Elytis, though admiring his American contemporary, has gone out of his way to characterize Eliot's work as being far too despairing. Nonetheless, the Quartets and the Axion Esti often coincide in theme—that is, in historical focus, and in the attempt to bridge the gap between man and God—and in form, as Eliot and Elytis use strikingly similar structural principles in their struggle to perceive order in the world's apparent chaos.

I use the word "historical" in two senses. First, and more generally, I refer to the concern of each poet with the nature of man's involvement in time. In "Burnt Norton" Eliot is preoccupied with the irredeemability of time, with an irrevocable past and a determined future. To participate in eternity, perhaps mystically, offers the only release; but we still face the paradox that "Only through time time is conquered." It is hardly necessary to document the importance of the idea of time to the Quartets, so frequently and explicitly does it appear. Time is sometimes linear or progressive, sometimes cyclical, sometimes chaotic; it is often understood, though not necessarily experienced, as a function of eternity. It is also noteworthy that while Eliot begins with emphasis on the individual's experience of time, there is a movement through the Quartets toward a more public context, from the Rose Garden to the streets of London. In fact, the final formulation of the paradox that time can be conquered only through time reads:

                 A people without history
         Is not redeemed from time, for history is a
         Of timeless moments.

Although Elytis is far less concerned with the idea of time, with its abstraction (a point important later in this essay), he gives ample attention to the experience of time. In the first section of To Axion Esti, "Genesis," which is at once about the creation of the universe, the Greek people, and the poet himself, the hours of the day—the precise o'clock is important enough to be referred to three times—tick away as well as the months of gestation and the seven days of the Creation. The passing seasons are almost characters in the poem, so forcefully do they participate in its actions. And just as ontogeny is said to recapitulate phylogeny, in Elytis' world the individual Greek seems destined to bear the burden of his race's history. When, for example, in "The Passion," the poem's second section,

           They came
        dressed up as "friends,"
           came countless times, my enemies,
        trampling the primeval soil,

the language is equally appropriate to the innumerable invasions of Greece through the centuries, to the wars of the poet's own time, or to even some incident in his private life. In To Axion Esti's third and final section, "Gloria," Elytis most nearly approaches Eliot's concern with the idea of time. The section concludes with seven couplets, each first line praising the now—the ephemeral world—and the second the always—the eternal. This sense of the dual nature of things is related to Eliot's "still point of the turning world." Although there are important differences in means of expression, both poets are seriously concerned with the notion that our lives take shape at the point where time and eternity intersect.

The second sense of "historical" has to do with a specific cataclysmic event in the lives of both poets: the Second World War. We have already noted Eliot's tendency toward the abstract and therefore should not be surprised to find a less consistent preoccupation with the particular. Nonetheless, the war, frequently the unspoken but crucially implied backdrop to Eliot's speculations, becomes increasingly important as he moves from his exploration of time as a universal to the historical moment. "Burnt Norton" (1935) was written before the start of World War II (though not before Hitler's rise to power). By the time "East Coker" (1940) was published, the war had begun, and though the suggestion of its opening lines that houses rise and fall may be influenced by that fact, the only certain reference to the war is in Section V, where Eliot mentions his wasted "years of l'entre deux guerres." "The Dry Salvages" (1941) is even less explicit, but two movements of "Little Gidding" (1942) focus specifically on the war. In Section II, in lines whose form and content evoke Dante's Inferno, air-raid warden Eliot walks through the hellish streets of London during the Blitz, encountering there a ghostly poetic ancestor, while "the dark dove with the flickering tongue," the war plane, passes overhead. Section IV is devoted wholly to that dove "With flame of incandescent terror," at once war plane and Holy Spirit, creature of both time and eternity. Eliot patrolling the wartime streets is perhaps the most eloquent testimony of all to his dictum that "only through time time is conquered"; though the path of the mystic beckons, there is no escape from the world of the particular. Or, to borrow (steal?) Dante's formulation, in order to see God we must first descend into Hell.

Although the threat to Europe's survival is the Quartets' most pressing historical context, Eliot pursues a more private historical quest through the poems: the establishing of his roots in England. That they require establishing is acknowledged tacitly in "The Dry Salvages," a quartet which takes its title from the scene of Eliot's childhood vacations in Massachusetts and opens with a mediation on the Mississippi, near whose banks the poet was born. However, the titles of the other three Quartets refer to places in England, including East Coker, the village from which the Eliots emigrated in the seventeenth century. In this context, Eliot's birth in America comes to seem an accident of exile; the Quartets, insofar as they partake of time, are grounded on English soil—"History is now and England."

In To Axion Esti, where Greece is the link between microcosm and macrocosm, between the individual and the universe, there is no similar complication: this is a national poem. And there is no need to scour the text for allusions to World War II. The heart of the poem is its series of six Readings, whose architectural functions we shall soon have occasion to clarify. They consist of a generalized prose account of Elytis' experiences during the Albanian campaign, the Occupation, and finally the Civil War that without respite followed the liberation of Greece. These Readings literally provide the text that the contemporary Greek must interpret in order to understand his place in the universe. Elytis is not coy about giving the temporal its due; it is around the major historical events of his time that To Axion Esti coalesces.

The search for God, which involves doing business with eternity, is nonetheless pursued under the pressures of history. By what path does one reach the God who has either presided over the horrors of our world or has ceased to preside over anything? Enmeshed in time, how do we taste eternity? For both Eliot and Elytis, the solution—if solution it can be called—lies in immersion in the destructive element, whether that element be called Time or War or the Dark Night of the Soul. In "East Coker," Eliot says:

         O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,…
         I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come
                 upon you
         Which shall be the darkness of God.

In Elytis' Second Reading, the soldier (whose name means "Freedom") says that "only he who wrestles with the darkness inside him will find his own place in the sun someday." Of course, the mystic's Dark Night is Eliot's concern, while Elytis, whose religious forms sometimes seem like empty shells, is far more secular. But in each case there is the notion of sacrifice, of denial, as the path to salvation; and in each case the instrument of salvation is a love whose darker implications are scarcely disguised. Our only hope, insists Eliot, is "To be redeemed from fire by fire. / Who then devised the torment? Love." And for Elytis, "The blood of love has robed me in purple / And joys never seen before have covered me in shade."

Ultimately most significant, if not most immediately obvious, are the similarities in structure between the Four Quartets and To Axion Esti. It is arguable that a poem's form is its most important statement about the nature of reality, that content is simply a commentary on form's assertions. In any case, if we suggest that two works embody similar visions of reality, we may look to form as a promising source of confirmation. The structure of the Four Quartets is far more familiar to English-speaking readers. Each of the Quartets, modeled loosely on the last quartets of Beethoven, has five movements. The first is always a verbal equivalent—if we can speak of such a thing—of a sonata; the second, a lyrical mode shifting abruptly to the prosaic; the third, development of a theme; the fourth, a relatively brief lyric; and the fifth, a further variation on themes suggested by the opening movements. Perhaps most important is the simple fact that in the Four Quartets form is repeatable and recognizable. Although Eliot may have labored long hours inventing his verbal equivalents to musical form, the effect of using the same formal sequence in each of the Quartets is to reinforce the illusion that the poem's structure precedes its content (this is, in fact, literally true for the last three poems, some of whose materials—e.g., the Blitz—could hardly have been foreseen when "Burnt Norton" was written, but whose basic shapes had already been determined by that earlier poem). This may not seem extraordinary in itself, but if the composition of the Quartets is placed in its proper historical context, their shapeliness becomes noteworthy. In the mid-1930s, Ezra Pound was well into the Cantos, an open-ended poem in free verse, almost entirely devoid of repeated formal patterns. Eliot's previous major poem, The Waste Land (1922), written with substantial editorial help from Pound, and whose subject may be described as the fragmentation of western culture, eschewed symmetry. Since there was ample precedent for the "open" poem, and since The Waste Land seems to exhibit an interdependence of form and content, one might expect the form of Four Quartets to be similarly mimetic.

The very title of To Axion Esti suggests that its organizational principles will be ecclesiastic. The phrase "Worthy it is" is drawn from the Greek Orthodox liturgy, where, as in Elytis' poem, it is a frequently recurring refrain. The poem has three—obviously theologically significant—broad divisions, "Genesis," "The Passion," and "Gloria," which reflect the Christian itinerary of birth, suffering and death, and rebirth.

The first section, "Genesis," is divided into seven "hymns," each corresponding to a day of the biblical creation. The Genesis itself, however, applies simultaneously to the cosmos, eons in the making, the Greek people, and the poet himself. In fact, a tension persists, not only through this section but through the entire poem, between theologically inspired form and generally secular content. This has the effect of utilizing Christianity as a source of myth, and therefore of metaphor, much in the way that William Butler Yeats used his Vision to inform his poetry (with the significant difference that Elytis' myth is immediately and emotionally available to his audience).

By far the most substantial segment of the triptych, as well as the most complexly structured, is part two, "The Passion." It is as if the experiences of the war years, unless subjected to rigid discipline, could yield no more than an undifferentiated cry of pain and terror; only under the most formal circumstances can the emotions provoked by those years be revisited. The matter of "The Passion" is contained in its Readings, prose passages stylistically reminiscent of General Makrigiannis (whose Memoirs of the war of liberation against the Turks—an adumbration of World War II—have become a touchstone of demotic prose). As in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, whose general structure is suggested by "The Passion" (just as Beethoven's quartets are suggested by Four Quartets), the Readings are centerpieces for liturgical music, represented here by Psalms and Odes. Each Reading is preceded and followed by an Ode, a strictly metrical lyric (although the meter varies from Ode to Ode). The unit of Ode-Reading-Ode is itself preceded and followed by two Psalms, poems in free verse. Two Readings, with their attendant poems, form a structural unit, of which there are three all told, so that "The Passion" may be represented as follows:


The precise nature of these intricacies is less important than the fact that they exist at all. And though the need to contain the experiences of the Readings, which are absorbed and transformed by the encompassing lyrics, partially justifies such form, we may still hope to find further support for such complexities.

"Gloria" has a less obvious, but in its own way intricate, structure which, as Edmund Keeley and George Savidis point out, serves to prevent "this section … from degenerating into a random enumeration of things 'worthy of praise,'" though, again, other explanations are possible. This section of the poem is also divided in three, with the arrangement of quatrains, triplets, and couplets of the first and third sections identical to each other, and similar to that of the second section. There are further refinements: for example, the triplets always provide specific instances—specimens. I am tempted to say—of the generalizations made in the quatrains preceding them; the groups of seven couplets, always introduced by a quatrain headed by "Axion esti," in turn echo the Ave, praise Him, and distinguish the Now from the Always.

To this point, both similarities in theme and complexities in structure have been observed in the two poems. Do their structural complexities also share some common characteristic? One way of approaching this question is suggested by George Savidis' remark in his essay "'Axion Esti' To Poiema tou Elyti": "The numbering of the sections by Elytis, not according to their typographical order, but distinguished by each genre … permits us also to read in their own order all the corresponding sections." In other words, all the Psalms can be taken from their sequential place in the poem and read together, as can the Odes and the Readings; most important, the new groupings have unity and coherence. Curiously, the same is true of Eliot's Quartets. For example, excerpting the fourth movement from each Quartet would give us a series of lyrics devoted to God the Father, Christ the Redeemer, the Virgin, and the Holy Spirit; the sequence as a whole could comprise Eliot's vision of Godhead. A cross-section of the opening movements would reveal the range of his perspectives on time: linear, cyclical, chaotic (in flux), and as a function of eternity. In neither poem, of course, would the aesthetic wholeness of the original work survive. We can nevertheless learn a great deal about the Quartets by reading the fourth movements in sequence, or, in To Axion Esti, all of, say, the Readings.

We now face the task of interpreting this similarity in structure. I acknowledge at once that it is futile to attempt to put into words what is expressed by a poem's form; the material will be too complex, or too subtle, or both. Nonetheless, statements general enough not to do violence to the form, but specific enough to shed light on its purposes, are not out of the question. By facilitating readings of their poems in other than typographical order, Eliot and Elytis invite their readers to recognize the spatial, as well as the more obvious temporal, aspects of poetry. That is, to borrow the notion E. M. Forster applied to the novel, the poem exists not only in time insofar as we are in the process of reading it but also in space insofar as we can apprehend it as a whole, a pattern. Eliot, whether or not he had Forster in mind, is quite explicit about this dimension of poetry:

                          Only by the form, the pattern,
       Can words or music reach
       The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
       Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Although we can only experience one moment at a time, our awareness of pattern, as it is pressed on us by Eliot and Elytis (not only in passages like Eliot's cited above but continuously in the structures of their poems as well), reminds us that every moment of the poem exists simultaneously. The analysis of any complete poem implies recognition of its spatial dimension, but few poems suggest so clearly their own reordering, insist so strongly on their existence in space as well as time.

What makes this hypothesis especially interesting is that both poems are deeply involved in the exploration of the relationship between time and eternity, which, as Eliot's metaphor makes evident, correspond to typographical sequence and pattern respectively. In addition, both poets deal with the tension between place and infinity ("England or nowhere" in Eliot, the microcosm and macrocosm in Elytis), between the one and the many. If we look at the epigraphs—taken from fragments of Heraclitus—to Eliot's Quartets, we find that they have as their common theme the resolving of dichotomies:

        Although there is but one Center, most men
        live in centers of their own.

        The way up and the way down are one and the

The epigraphs would not be out of place affixed to the beginning of To Axion Esti. In content as well as form, both poems are committed to the recognition and resolution of dualisms.

Dualism, the perception of such dichotomies as time and eternity, the one and the many, spirit and matter, body and soul, may be either cause or symptom of man's separation from God or of the alienation of the individual from his society. The dualistic perception of reality has been a characteristically Western way of—or obstacle to—looking at the world, but at certain times in history it has been felt as more particularly painful. Clearly, the Second World War, when man had even more reason than usual to suspect God's absence and the very fabric of society was in danger of disintegrating, was one of those times. But our century as a whole has been preoccupied with the apparently widening gap between man and God and the fragmentation of Western culture; in fact, we have had to confront the waste land given mythic reality by Eliot in the 1920s, and to which both the Four Quartets and To Axion Esti are answers, assertions that in spite of apparent difficulty—or impossibility—the isolated individual can experience his existence as part of a greater whole.

It is now clear that in certain themes, and in principles of structure as well, there are important similarities between Four Quartets and To Axion Esti. Both are located in the mainstream of a poetic tradition which has had as its chief concern the identification and reconciliation of dualisms. It reached its greatest notoriety in the French Symbolistes, but also included such poets as John Donne, William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. Eliot and Elytis stand out because they have made the structure of their poems directly bear the weight of their visions of reality. The nearly contemporary appearance of these poems—little or no direct influence is involved—helps argue the existence of a common European literary tradition, not simply in the more obvious sense that in an age of relatively accessible translations international contemporaries affect one another, but in the more profound sense that they have emerged from a common store of preoccupations and strategies (rather as breakthroughs in science sometimes occur independently in two or more places, based on a common body of understanding, instead of on the more usual collaborations). There are, however, crucial differences between Eliot and Elytis which should not be overlooked.

My preliminary remarks, designed to emphasize similarities, have nonetheless touched on contrasts. I have said in passing that in Eliot an emphasis on time and eternity is accompanied by a tendency toward the abstract, while in Elytis an emphasis on the one and the many is accompanied by a tendency toward the concrete. I shall develop these propositions in greater detail. At the same time I shall be interested in determining whether the differences are accidental or are an inevitable and orderly consequence of distinct sensibilities being applied to the same problem.

I shall begin by examining how Eliot and Elytis treat the paradox that is important to both their works (although more nearly central to Eliot's): that salvation comes from the awareness that time and eternity are in contact with each other, and consequently that only through time can time be transcended. Eliot characteristically expresses this paradox in abstract language:

         Time past and time future
         What might have been and what has been
         Point to one end, which is always present.

                                           the light is still
         At the still point of the turning world.

         Time the destroyer is time the preserver.

         Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
         Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

These examples could, of course, be multiplied considerably. They are nevertheless sufficient to indicate that Eliot's vision of reality invites abstract formulation, and that a good deal of the appeal of his verse is to the conscious, logical intellect. If it were entirely that, Eliot need hardly have bothered to write a poem; an essay would have sufficed. (Indeed, Eliot's Ph.D. dissertation was a study of the philosopher F. H. Bradley.) There are, however, at least two reasons why these abstractions are distorted when removed from context.

First, Eliot uses ideas the way other poets use images; they do not appear in an absolute sense, but rather are juxtaposed with other, often contradictory, ideas, so that the poem's significance lies not in the idea but in the tension between ideas. For example, the proposition offered by Eliot at the start of "Burnt Norton" has sometimes been taken as the poet's unambiguous assertion about the nature of reality.

       Time present and time past
       Are both perhaps present in time future,
       And time future contained in time past.
       If all time is eternally present
       All time is unredeemable.

The key words in this passage are "perhaps" and "if." But even if the syllogism stands on its own feet logically—because time present and time past are both present in time future—the conclusion is nonetheless seriously challenged by the rest of the poem. Time is redeemable poetically by the imagination and theologically by the Redeemer and the mystery of the Incarnation, that is, by the paradoxes central to the Quartets.

Second, the poems are hardly devoid of imagery, and the images, in juxtaposition to the abstract statements, alter the abstractions. In the example given above, the images of rose garden, birds, children, and light which fill the first movement of "Burnt Norton" do not so much illustrate as explore the opening lines, so that the abstractions do not limit the meanings of the images, which retain a fine mysteriousness. In some cases, as when Eliot refers to the light that is "At the still point of the turning world," imagery and abstractions are thoroughly entwined, as in the Metaphysical poets.

Still, in Eliot, as in the Metaphysicals, it is the abstract mode that organizes and dominates the poem. The poet appeals to the conscious intellect, and he must supply in condensed and rationally apprehensible form his vision of reality. This emphasis on the abstract does not necessarily amount to that "dissociation of sensibility," the splitting of intellect and emotion that Eliot felt the Metaphysicals had been the last to avoid. But it does entail enough condensation for the conscious intellect to grasp in a given moment what is placed before it. Ezra Pound's well-known definition of an "Image" can be applied to the "conceits" used by Eliot in Four Quartets: "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

In Elytis, the convergence of time and eternity is rarely expressed so abstractly, so baldly as in Eliot. In "Genesis," the persona of To Axion Esti describes himself as "the One I really was, the One of many centuries ago, / the One still verdant in the midst of fire, the One not made by human hand." The convergence of time and eternity is implicit in the notion that the self in the present is also the Self that has always existed; but it is characteristically in terms of the merging of selves, of the One and the many, that the paradox is expressed—abstraction is given bodily form.

In "The Passion," the eternal is overshadowed by immersion in time. The war makes one painfully aware of accident and chaos, and obscures visions of underlying permanence and harmony. Only—as Eliot might have put it—the pattern imposed by the poem's structure stands up to the welter of events. In "Gloria," which is unmistakably an assertion of underlying harmony, the connection between time and eternity again comes to the fore. The poem ends with seven couplets, each celebrating the now in its first line, the forever in its second. For example, "Now the Moon's incurable swarthiness/Forever the Galaxy's golden blue scintillation." The first line depicts the heavens in terms of the mutability of their separate parts, the second the everlastingness of the totality. Elytis works paratactically rather than through the syntax of metaphor, by accretion rather than concentration. It is by the piling up of images rather than the distillation of ideas that his perspective takes shape.

As noted earlier, the dominant dualism in the Quartets is temporal, that is, it involves the tension between time and eternity. But spatial dualism is unquestionably important, if only because imagery is by necessity spatial, even when it is used metaphorically to express temporal duality, as, for example, in "the still point of the turning world." At times Eliot is also interested in spatial imagery for its own sake, in the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm, and in the ancient Hermetic formula—"As above, so below"—which unites them. For instance, the first stanza of "Burnt Norton" 's second movement begins in mud—its first word, "garlic," is symbolic of whatever is at home in the earth's embrace—and ends with "stars." In between, Eliot spells it out:

             The dance along the artery
             The circulation of the lymph
             Are figured in the drift of stars.

In short, "as above, so below," with one proviso. Below is war, below is conflict: above is reconciliation. Even here temporal dualism is implied—below is the world of time, above, eternity. The "bedded axle-tree" of the first stanza will soon become "the still point of the turning world" of the second.

For Eliot, the individual's relationship to God is at the heart of things. From this perspective, space is nearly illusory. What principally separates man from God is the former's existence in time. His chief problem is how to bridge this gap. God managed it in the Incarnation. For man, it is indeed an imposing task. To achieve it, it seems that one must escape rather than celebrate the physical world.

           Descend lower, descend only
         Into the world of perpetual solitude,
         World not world, but that which is not world,
         Internal darkness, deprivation
         And destitution of all property,
         Desiccation of the world of sense.

This is a dominant—if not exclusive—mode in the Quartets: to escape from space in order to be able to escape from time through time. Eliot's poetry, as I have already noted, contains a good deal of imagery, which by nature is spatial. However, I have also observed that these images are often temporal metaphors. Even in one of the Quartets' most impressive (spatial) images, the evocation of the Mississippi which begins "The Dry Salvages," Eliot soon reveals that the river corresponds to time, as the ocean into which it flows corresponds to eternity: "The river is within us, the sea is all about us."

Far more secular, Elytis hopes not to transcend time—he seems unable, in this poem, even to imagine transcending it—but to be aware of his existence as part of an entity (or series of entities) greater than himself, which is, for all practical purposes, eternal: Greece, the human race, the cosmos. For him, the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm is central. Indeed, each of the last six hymns of "Genesis" concludes with the following formula:

                  the small world, the great [world].
                                  (AE, p. 6, etc.)

At times the distinction between great and small seems to break down. In Psalm XV, which compares the poet's self to God, Elytis writes:

          Look, it is you who speak and I who come true,
       I hurl the stone and it lands on me.
          I deepen mines and elaborate the skies.
       I hunt the birds and lose myself in their weight.
          I was your will, my God, and here I pay you
                                               (AE, p. 99)

It is not inconsistent with the distinctions I have been developing between Eliot and Elytis that the former's god disappears into the featurelessness of undifferentiated being and seems, like the god of the via negativa, describable only in terms of what he is not, while the latter's god is close enough and definite enough to be addressed face to face, superior but somewhat fathomable, perhaps to be argued with, certainly to be appealed to. This god is not always distinguished from the poet's self and sometimes seems to be the self's creation. Clearly, in Elytis' world, man performs many of God's functions, for example, in the poet's sanctification of the things of this world by naming them in "Gloria." In general, Elytis' poet shares with God the title of "Master-builder." For Eliot, the vastness of the gulf between the poet on the one hand and God and his universe on the other is far more important than what they might have in common. Eliot's view of the poet as creator can be understood as a function of this belief.

Throughout the Four Quartets, the theme of creativity, of art, is always near the surface. The arrangement of what is essentially a search for God in the form of a musical composition says volumes about art's relevance to that quest. But on at least three occasions, Eliot turns directly to confront the shortcomings of art, and most particularly of literature:

      Words move, music moves
      Only in time; but that which is only living
      Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
      Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
      Can words or music reach
      The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
      Moves perpetually in its stillness.
      Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
      Not that only, but the co-existence,
      Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
      And the end and the beginning were always there
      Before the beginning and after the end.
      And all is always now. Words strain,
      Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
      Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
      Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
      Will not stay still.

The first twelve and a half lines of this passage provide still another metaphor for "Burnt Norton"'s main theme. The pattern is the conception of the work as a whole; but at any given instant only one finite point in the work, rather than its wholeness, can be experienced. In other words, the reading of the poem (or listening to the piece of music) is to time as pattern is to eternity. As part of man's world, art participates in the temporal paradox and assists greatly in helping us to understand it. However, the last four and a half lines develop the linguistic consequences of the gap between time and eternity. Like the individual grappling with the implications of his distance from God, words—timeborn creatures—are in danger of collapsing under the burden of sustaining the timeless pattern. In a sense, it cannot be done. Poetry is an attempt to get around the imposing task of abstracting truth from reality. But even poetry is only a relative improvement.

In "East Coker," the critique of language continues:

        That was a way of putting it—not very
     A periphrastic study in a wom-out poetical fashion.
     Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
     With words and meanings. The poetry does not

It is somewhat ambiguous whether this discouraging conclusion applies merely to the lyric passage which immediately precedes it in the text or to poetry in general. What follows, however, is an explicit indictment of language, and particularly of the attempt to embody an understanding of the world in language. Wisdom, we learn, "is only the knowledge of dead secrets." Experience seems to teach us to impose patterns on reality, but the patterns are necessarily false.

         For the pattern is new in every moment
         And every moment is a new and shocking
         Valuation of all we have been.

Language, striving to capture the passing moment, the now, falls into the trap of time's continual movement. Not only does the moment remain tauntingly out of reach, but even the past is beyond our mastery, since the inexorable wave of new presents cannot fail to modify whatever pattern we think we have seen—a more pessimistic application of the position Eliot had taken earlier in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919).

Eliot returns once more to this theme in the fifth movement of the same Quartet.

         So here I am, in the middle way, having had
                   twenty years—
         Twenty years largely wasted, the years of
l'entre deux guerres
         Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
         Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of
         Because one has only learnt to get the better of
         For the thing one no longer has to say, or the
                   way in which
         One is no longer disposed to say it.

As significant as the fact that the world the poet observes exists in time is that he himself is subject to time and change. How to give permanent shape to experience, when both the experiencer and the world experienced simply will not stand still, is yet another version of the problem of reaching the still point of the turning world while still a part of that changing world. If there is any solution to this apparent dilemma, it must lie in paradox, beyond ordinary logic and analysis. The still point, for example, may be reached mystically, in the place where "the fire and the rose are one." Perhaps the pattern that is permanent yet reflects change can exist in the poem grasped as a whole. Surely nothing less, no mere part of it, would do, nor would analysis demonstrate adequately that it had succeeded. It is arguable, of course, that neither solution can be realized. One may contend that mysticism has no connection with the affairs of time, and that one is therefore left with existential hope and anguish, and that the struggle of words and with words must continue without final victory and be its own reward. However we read the poem and interpret Eliot's final position—if, indeed, he has one—on the feasibility of such final victories, time remains language's chief tormentor.

In Elytis, although the passing of time may evoke occasional nostalgia—as in the naming of women in the poet's past—this aspect of reality is not poetry's signal enemy. Elytis' decision to confront experience not as an individual but rather as part of a greater whole results in a far more relaxed—though not less respectful—attitude toward language. While Eliot addresses the difficulties of using words throughout the Quartets, Elytis only once self-consciously considers his language, in Psalm II of "The Passion," and here not to wrestle with words but to establish their connections with those greater entities, cosmos and country.

Elytis' Greek language is seen in connection with the Greek people and their history, from Homer, whose great epics fathered classical civilization, and the Byzantine hymns which are the backbone of Greek orthodoxy—not to mention of To Axion Esti—to the first words of Dionysios Solomos' "Hymn to Liberty," the national anthem of Greece, grounded in that nation's war of independence from the Turks.

Words, however, are connected not only with things Greek but also with the universe at large; they are creatures in nature. Bream and perch are "wind beaten verbs," the songs of the sirens "rosy shells with the first black shivers," and sweet psalms to God "the first chirping of finches." It is out of this intimate relationship between words and things that a definition of the poet emerges which does not arise in Eliot's work: the poet as namer. As "Genesis" is given over to the creation of the world, so "Gloria" is devoted to the naming of its representative features. In the first instance, it is God or the powers of nature which do the making; in the second, it is the poet. Elytis will become a "monk of things verdant, / And reverently serve the order of birds." He names and praises winds, islands, flowers, women, ships, mountains, and trees, a selection with universal applicability, but in its particulars characteristically Greek. In addition, there is for each category a stanza made up of proper names of eight or nine items in that class. The name—the poet's contribution—is a palpable entity in its own right, not quite separable from the object it designates.

Concern with words leads each poet into the past of his language; but here, too, differences in their approach to that past conform to the general pattern. Eliot, in "East Coker," quotes from The Governour of Sir Thomas Elyot, originally published in 1531:

         Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
         Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
         Whiche betokeneth concorde.

This passage, of course, evokes a particular moment in English history. It is equally significant that Elyot is an Eliot—or Eliot an Elyot—an ancestor of the poet, a part of his personal past. This is perfectly in keeping with the Quartets' emphasis on the individual's struggle as an individual to overcome the constraints of time.

For Elytis, on the other hand, language is the instrument of a people, in this case the Greek people, which leads him both to a sense of language in history, in time, and of its overriding unity—that is, of both the movement and the pattern. In addition to acknowledging the past in a number of allusions (such as the one to Solomos mentioned above), Elytis also seems to deny time's effects in his use of words drawn from the full range of the Greek language. Okypoda, agkhemakhos, and simantores, for example, are Homeric; ikthyophores, classical; ta Minaia ton Kipon, Byzantine; Thee protomastora, from folk tradition. By combining such words and phrases with contemporary demotic Greek, e.g., okypoda philia 'swiftfootedkisses,' Elytis downplays the fact that those words are archaic and makes them part of a continuous, living language. The tension between demotic Greek and katharevousa—between the language as it is commonly spoken and the scholarly attempt to preserve as many as possible of the characteristics of the ancient tongue—has existed since the Greeks achieved their independence from Turkey and has always had strong sociological and political overtones. It has resulted in a sensitivity to language on all levels of society quite unparalleled in the modern English-speaking world. The sense of continuity is also unique. Despite the far greater time span, there is less difference between Homeric and Modern Greek than there is between Middle and Modern English. The Greek persistence in pronouncing all Greek from Homer on—to the horror of most non-Greek classicists—in the same (that is, modern) way, has also served to reinforce this sense of wholeness of the language—a sense that Elytis has taken full advantage of.

Not surprisingly, then, Eliot's and Elytis' attitudes toward language turn out to be special instances of their broad visions of reality. Eliot, who must in a single instant capture an essence which partakes of both time and eternity, is, at least on the surface, humble in his inability to make words do what he demands of them (although we may well suspect a certain coyness in such protestations); Elytis exults in the godlike power to name and sanctify, and, although respectful of the formidable tradition to which he belongs, is consequently far less critical of language's ability to perform as required.

For Eliot, struggling with time, the most significant confrontations of words are with the abstract. Time is an experience of the intellect rather than of the senses (except for the present; but without an awareness of past and future, the present has nothing to do with time); language, which originates in concrete experience, must always borrow from the spatial world of the senses in order to express the abstract. Such borrowing (more commonly known as metaphor) is not without special power, but used extensively it risks diminished impact. Elytis, committed to space, can push language back to its sources, where, like the giant Antaeus, it gains strength by making contact with the ground from which it sprang. This does not, of course, necessarily make Elytis a better poet than Eliot (even if his work were utterly free of the abstract, which it is not); but it helps to explain Eliot's sense of struggle and tension with regard to language as opposed to Elytis' sense of sheer pleasure.

There is a relationship between the two poets' preferred locations along the space-time continuum and the respective literary traditions where they sought support early in their careers. Eliot's well-known essay "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921) has long been taken as an accurate signpost identifying the poetic preoccupations of that stage of his development. He complained of the dissociation of sensibility that has taken place since the seventeenth century, of poets who do not "feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose." In a sense, all of Eliot's poetry has been an attempt to counter that long-dominant tendency by reuniting feeling and intellect; indeed, such conceits as Christ the wounded surgeon (in the fourth movement of "East Coker") healing us with "sharp compassion" are closer in sensibility to John Donne—for example, in the paradoxes of Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV, "Batter My Heart"—than to most of Eliot's contemporaries. Though the purpose of such poetry may be the joining of feeling and intellect, it is through intellect that feeling must be reached (just as eternity must be reached through time), both in Metaphysical poetry and in Four Quartets. It is not illogical to suppose that Eliot's concern with time contributed to his predilection for this poetic mode.

Elytis, on the other hand, is known for his early interest in (especially) French surrealism. Surrealism, of course, rather than emphasizing the claims of intellect as a means of organizing one's response to experience, pays homage to the irrational, or at least to the nonrational. Logical distinctions between inner and outer realities (including the one and the many), conscious and unconscious, fantasy/dream and objective perception are broken down. Even more important, the "reality" of surrealism is fully available to the senses. When Elytis follows Paul Eluard's "blending of the human body and the nature of the world" in a poem like "Body of Summer," he is not simply exploring a rich source of metaphor but also anticipating the emphasis of To Axion Esti on spatial rather than temporal relations. As in To Axion Esti the individual is not clearly distinguishable from his surroundings. While he may be subject to the cyclical time of nature, he is oblivious to linear, irredeemable time.

Unity of being. In the end, that is what both Eliot and Elytis, like so many of their contemporaries, seek. Of all dualities to be resolved—thought and feeling, time and space (with the crucial subdivisions of time and eternity, the one and the many), body and spirit—none is more imposing than the alienation of the individual from that which is greater and more enduring than himself. The Second World War, bringing to the forefront of consciousness the often repressed awareness of death, superseding with its peculiar chaos the ordinary structures of society, questioning by giving shape to human evil the very notion of a divinely ordered universe, makes even more pressing than usual the need to escape from accident to necessity, from helplessness to strength. What similarities in structure and theme between Four Quartets and To Axion Esti possess are due to this underlying sameness of purpose.

As important to the poems' final nature as their creators' need to resolve dualities is the difference in sensibility which determines from which end of the continuum the attempt to bring unity will begin. Eliot struggles to give body to his abstractions; Elytis must impose intelligible order upon the sensory world. It is arguable, then, that Eliot and Elytis not only define the chief preoccupations of twentieth-century European poetry but also establish the boundaries within which poets so preoccupied may operate.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Deligiorgis, Stavros. "Elytis' Brecht and Hadzidakis' Pirandello." In Modern Greek Writers, edited by Edmund Keeley and Peter Bien, pp. 192-204. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Discusses the role of translation and foreign influences in the modern period of Greek writing, specifically using Elytis's Brecht and Hadzidakis's Pirandello.

Friar, Kimon. "The Imagery and Collages of Odysseus Elytis." Books Abroad 49, No. 4 (Autumn 1975): 703-11.

Discusses the relationship between Elytis's painting and poetry.

Gregory, Dorothy M-T. "Odysseus Elytis." In European Writers: The Twentieth Century, edited by George Stade, pp. 2955-88, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.

Traces Elytis's career in light of his relationship with Greek poetry.

Ivask, Ivar. "Analogies of Light: The Greek Poet Odysseus Elytis." Books Abroad 49, No. 4 (Autumn 1975): 627-30.

Asserts that Elytis is one of the three major modern Greek poets.

Ivask, Ivar. "Odysseus Elytis on His Poetry." Books Abroad 49, No. 4 (Autumn 1975): 631-45.

Elytis discusses his poetry, including the place of surrealism and Greekness in his work.

Jouanny, Robert. "Aspects of Surrealism in the Works of Odysseus Elytis." Books Abroad 49, No. 4 (Autumn 1975): 685-89.

Analyzes the aspects of surrealism found in Elytis's poetry.

Keeley, Edmund. "Elytis and the Greek Tradition." In his Modern Greek Poetry, pp. 130-48. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Analyzes Elytis's poetry in light of the full scope of Greek tradition.

Keeley, Edmund. "The Voices of Elytis' The Axion Esti." Books Abroad 49, No. 4 (Autumn 1975): 695-700.

Discusses the narrative voice in Elytis's The Axion Esti.

Keeley, Edmund, and George Savidis. "Preface." In The Axion Esti, by Odysseus Elytis, pp.xiii-xv. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974.

Provides an introduction to the translation of Elytis's The Axion Esti.

Andonis Decavalles (review date Spring 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Elytis's Sappho, His Distant Cousin," in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 226-29.

[In the following review, Decavalles asserts that although Elytis and Sappho were separated by time, their common language and culture enabled Elytis to bring new life to Sappho's work.]

To those familiar with Odysseus Elytis, it is no surprise that the 1979 Nobel laureate has now lent his modern voice to that old "distant cousin" of his, as he calls Sappho. This was almost bound to come. After a lengthy flirtation, these two representatives of a three-millennia poetic tradition have finally joined in a poetic-erotic embrace, an identification through which the younger poet has poured new life and voice into the older one. Elytis has even restored the much-fragmented Sappho to her inherent fullness.

The fate of Sappho and her poetry through the ages is well known. The originality she once brought to poetry and the popularity and fame she gained and enjoyed in the ancient world were later darkened by defamation, persecution, and even extinction, first through the zeal of the early Christians and later through others and through historical events from the third to the thirteenth century. She was for a while painstakingly and partially restored during the Renaissance, only to disappear again, then later be recovered once more, mostly in fragmentary quotations, papyri, and mummy wrappings from the late nineteenth century onward. Ever since, scholars and poets have felt the challenge to discover Sappho in her fragmented self, to decipher her and her message, and even to derive a spark of inspiration from that message and its manner. The restoration has ranged from textual editing and literal renderings by J. M. Edmonds, Theodore Reinach, Denys Page, and Edgar Lobel—to mention some of her most distinguished restorers—to freer and more or less imaginative treatments by such writers as Hilda Doolittle, Ezra Pound, and, more recently, Mary Barnard and Willis Barnstone, among others. There have, besides, been understandings and intentional misunderstandings, as well as moralistic, often perverse "purifications" and "justifications" of her where she was found "offensive" to the purity of certain social standards and tastes. Fortunately, these have been counterbalanced by the honest longing of more liberated minds wishing to find and restore her true essence: not a priestess and a schoolmistress of manners for wealthy girls, but a passionate, freeminded, down-to-earth, sincere and frank lover speaking her own truth, admiring and loving beauty in nature and her female comrades, and not free of envy, jealousy, bitterness, or vengefulness toward her betrayers and enemies. All these did not, however, reduce her wish for affection, trust, innocence, purity, even virginity.

There was a remarkable individuality in Sappho, and she was gifted with an extraordinary zest for life, a bright and playful mind, and an originality and creative skill that combined to voice the honest truth concerning herself and her experience. If we may accurately judge from what we can sense, there was little if any artificiality in her diction and her manner. She spoke and wrote in the language of daily life to worship her preferred gods, Aphrodite and Eros, to celebrate social festivities and events (much of her poetry is occasional), and to address her sweethearts in letter form to tell them of her feelings toward them.

The systematic grammarians of Alexandria divided her poems into nine books according to their metrical arrangements, a practice followed by most of her editors ever since. The more imaginative her presentation, particularly by poets, the more it has tried to deviate from that technical rule. All this until Elytis came to lend his mind, heart, and skill to restore her to what he thought was her true essence and voice. His connection and relation with her has been long and intimate, based on deep-rooted ties. There is first of all their common origin, the Aegean, Elytis's poetic realm, and there is more specifically the Aeolian island of Lesbos, Sappho's Lesbos and Elytis's own cultural and ancestral origin, the shaper of much of his intellectual and emotional personality and his view and interpretation of life, besides being the storehouse of his imagery—in short, the motherlode of his poetic creativity. The Aeolian Sappho was once the poetic voice which Elytis found the closest to his own mind and heart, next to that of the Ionian Homer.

The most extensive prose commentary Elytis has written on Lesbos is the article he published on his fellow countryman, the folk painter Theophilos, compiled in 1967 yet begun as early as 1947. The first part, subtitled "The Other Lesbos," speaks of the island as a realm of fascinating individuality, shared equally by its rulers the sun and the moon, who impose equal justice on it. In Elytis's poetry, it is "The Light Tree and The Fourteenth Beauty" which clearly has Lesbos as its setting, a locale of physical as well as spiritual experience, of growth from childhood to full poetic maturity. As for his connection and references to Sappho herself, his "Open Book" is full of them. There we are told that a fragment of Sappho he once came upon by chance in the British Museum made him conscious for the first time of the origin of his love for poetry. Elsewhere he tells us how Sappho—among other poets, including even Dylan Thomas—made him feel that when divine myths are lost, it is the ego of the poet which must shape the world. In the midst of a nature bestowed upon him by his ancestors, he was once made to feel that "the old voices of Sappho" were one of the two main "currents starting from remote springs" and bound to intersect in him, the other current being "the passion to cross out and to rewrite from the beginning at the point where Eros should be the real Eros, true and free." He adds elsewhere that it was she, Sappho, who taught him how to see the blue of the sky and how to listen to the sound of the sea. Where her name is not clearly mentioned (as on page 21 of "Open Book"), we sense the sound of her Aeolian voice echoed in the musically fascinating nonsense verse that he believes he hears coming out of the mouth of an angelically beautiful girl, whose voice mingles with the noise of the sea and the foliage.

This is the least we can say as to connections and references. Need we add that whatever liberating and self-liberating force Elytis felt he found in surrealism as springing from one's deeper, intuitive, unimpeded self, he undoubtedly, felt he found also expressed in Sappho? In the introduction to Sappho he speaks of her as follows in connection with the world that produced her:

Historians have spoken about the exquisitely refined yet plush manner of life developed on Lesbos in the seventh and sixth century B.C. A mixture of free morals and customs based on models of worship where nature and Eros had a leading position. If one adds the facing yet not distant Asiatic hinterland, the site of Lydia, renowned like Sardis for women's cosmetics and clothing, one would understand that, near the Paris of that time, the women of Mytilene might speak the way Sappho spoke.

There was no shame in their being true to themselves and frank concerning their passions and desires. No puritanical moralism impeded them. As to Elytis's own poetry itself in this connection, anyone familiar with it should know how much, from its very beginning, in its lyricism, its musicality, its erotic content, its positing of life's full enjoyment and transcendence in the process, always in the name of love, it does not lie far from that of Sappho. The work of both poets has been to a great degree the spring blossom of the same soil under the same sky, the same sunlight, despite the huge expanse of time between them.

What was then still left for Elytis to do with Sappho? If her other, mostly foreign translators-interpreters were bound inescapably to approach her from their respective distances in time and culture and language, doing variously the best they could under the circumstances, Elytis, for several reasons, could easily reduce that distance thanks to his multiple affinities with her. His only separation was that of time, and even that was only apparent. Their languages had common roots and common natures, the one being much the heir of the other. Technically speaking, a strong link between them was the common idiom of the spoken Greek rendered marvelously lyrical through demotic songs of loves, joys, and sorrows, through virginal songs, prothalamia and epithalamia, or wedding songs. Of that stock Elytis could take wonderful advantage, yet little echoing the demotic songs themselves, for the language in his Sapphic renderings is the everyday, contemporary, spoken Greek in its lively richness. The voice here may be said to be the translator's as well as Sappho's, for it has grown through long years of poetic creativity to the point where these renderings unfailingly sound like original poems, Elytis's own.

It is gratifying, moreover, to see that Elytis has taken the additional original step of attempting to overcome the fragmentariness of the historical record and augment the seven hundred surviving lines of Sappho's verse. Where he found complete poems, he faithfully reproduced them; but where he met with fragments, he took them as pebbles to produce faithful, uncompromising, and only slightly altered poetic mosaics as full as those fragments allowed him, combining their thematic and emotional aspects where they could be fit together. One naturally wonders whether such combinations might not allow endless variety, decided by the taste and personal inclination of the one who attempts them. Elytis's choices and his skillful practice with Sappho's fragments leave no doubt that, for the most part at least, he has been faithful to her spirit and art.

The number 7 has long been Elytis's favorite as a structural element in his poetry. In most of his later collections the poems are grouped by sevens and multiples of seven. Sappho followed the same practice. Her entire extant work is divided, arranged, and organized in seven thematic groups under headings drawn from that oeuvre. The first group, entitled "Aerion epéon árhome" (I Start with Airy Words), is composed of four poems in which, by way of introduction, she speaks of being inspired by the Muses to serve beauty and tell the truth, so to be remembered in times to come. She is haunted by Aphrodite, and so she burns with desire and pain. She is not filled with wrath against her enemies and does not wish revenge; although she has done only the best for others, she has received only the worst in return, but complaints and laments should not be heard in poets' homes. In her mortality, she does not aspire toward touching heaven. Her mind is innocent and pure, and she wishes to stay eternally virginal.

In the second group, entitled "Iros ángelos" (Messenger of Spring) and comprising eight poems, spring is announced by the nightingale, Cretan girls dance and step on little flowers, and Hesperus eventually restores what the Dawn has dispersed. The Moon in her bright light effaces all the stars, and Sappho in her loneliness suffers the pains of Eros, who is summoned to come down from heaven, since he has always been eager to respond kindly to her wishes and entreaties. The group closes with Sappho's fullest and best-known poem, the prayer to Aphrodite to descend from her heavenly throne and give solace to the suffering poet, victim of love's traps and machinations, and to bring back her beloved.

The most extensive group is the third, containing sixteen poems under the heading "Tais émes etíres" (To My Beloved Girl Comrades). These are invitations to Sappho's sweethearts to come and join her in songs and festivities and love embraces, wishing that her nights with them could be twice as long, remembering their youthful beauty, complaining of their unfaithfulness, admitting her jealousy of them, and reminding them of their mortality. In the most outstanding among these poems the poet suffers ecstatically, in a frantic seizure, all the physical and mental pangs of envy toward the man who is privileged to contemplate the beauty and enjoy the sweetness of voice and the laughter of her own beloved. Much is said of the unsurpassed power of Eros, to which women are the most vulnerable; Helen was its victim when she deserted her husband to follow her beloved to Troy. The section closes with another of Sappho's most memorable pieces, her poem to Anaktoria, who has departed to Sardis, in Lydia; there Anaktoria distinguishes herself among the Lydian women, whose beauty pales all stars and light and gives life to plants and flowers. She, however, must still be thinking nostalgically of Atthis, and her inviting voice seems as if conveyed across the distance.

The seven poems under the heading "Imináon" (Wedding), in the fourth group, are wedding songs, prothalamia and epithalamia, introduced by a lament for the death of Adonis. Bridegrooms and brides are alternately addressed in praise or invitation to prepare for their union, for the loss of their virginity. The fifth group, containing five poems and titled "Kípri ke Niriídhes" (Cypris and Nereids), opens with Sappho's bitterness for her misbehaving, corrupt, wasteful, and insulting brother, whom she implores Aphrodite and the Nereids to bring back from abroad, purify, and make once again a joy to his friends and a bane to his enemies. After a short yet affectionate address to her daughter Kleis, she offers a young lover of hers the equally affectionate advice to look for another, younger companion more suitable to his age. Lastly she tells us of her mother's instructions as to how a young woman should take care of her coiffure and headdress.

Two poems under the joint title "Plásion dhi mi pot ónar" (Come Close to me in My Dream) make up the sixth group; one is a prayer to Hera, the other a celebratory account of how young Hector brought Andromache as his bride from her native Plakia to Troy for the first time and the warm welcome they received. The seventh and final group, "Pantodhápesi memihména" (Mixed in All Manners), comprises what still remains of Sappho's fragments, including the most mutilated selections. Elytis combines these into nine still-fragmentary poems, or rather parts of poems, with numerous gaps which the boldest imagination might attempt to fill. The resulting compositions are riddles of defective syntax, shards of sentences, portions of words, clusters of unclear references and unclear meaning. They constitute mostly sounds, with their mysterious Aeolian musicality, like those that Elytis once heard from the mouth of that angelically beautiful young girl somewhere on Lesbos, near the sea. In the introduction to Sappho the poet tells us:

Two and a half millennia ago, in Mytilene, I still see Sappho, like a distant cousin with whom I played in the same gardens, round the same pomegranate trees, above the same cisterns. She was somewhat older than I, a brunet, with flowers in her hair, and secret album full of verses that she never let me touch.

Of course we lived on the same island. We had the same sense of the physical world, a characteristic one, which continues unalterable, from that time until today, to follow the children of little Aeolia.

Did that young brunet ever suspect, or even hope, that this younger cousin of hers, her playmate in several deeper respects, would at some future time get hold of her secret album and learn all her secrets, in full or in part, in order to lend them his own Aeolian voice and thus restore and revive her as our contemporary? With no little fascination, she would have seen her words sumptuously printed in a beautiful edition face to face with their modern echo, and she would also have seen herself, her beloved comrades, and her Aeolian world in bright colors as drawn by her younger cousin in his illustrations.

Andonis Decavalles (review date Summer 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of O mikros naftilos, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 3, Summer, 1986, p. 500.

[In the following review, Decavalles praises Elytis's O mikros naftilos stating that it "stands unquestionably on a level with Elytis's other major poems and also constitutes a comprehensive summation of his life and creativity."]

Odysseus Elytis has dominantly and insistently been the poet of the bright and affirmative view of life. A worshiper of the sun, he has seen its light bathe and make lucid and diaphanous his eternally youthful Aegean world, which he has wished to see inspired, purified, and sanctified by Eros or Love in both its physical and its spiritual sense. Hence his "solar metaphysics."

Increasingly, however, personal and historical experience, age, mortality, and the approach of death have brought into Elytis's vision the darker, more pragmatic aspects of life as well, to which he constantly opposes his heavenly light. In one major poem after another—e.g., The Axion Esti (1959), "The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty" (1971), Maria Nephele (1979), and now "The Little Mariner"—he has given an account of that struggle. What varies most in these poems is the form, manner, tone, and range of his craft in expressing an unswerving faith in his convictions, yet with an increasing and deepening recognition and consideration of the darkness that must be countered and transcended by spiritual wisdom. In Elytis's later poetry the Platonic belief in the existence of an "upper earth" that is truer than the one on which we live provides solace in the face of approaching death.

In "The Little Mariner," as in Elytis's previous poems, the Pythagorean number seven and its multiples serve as a structural unit in the complex ordering of the fifty-eight pieces that make up the poem, pieces widely divergent in nature, manner, and content, ranging from mostly personal lyricism, to prose accounts, to lists of various kinds—the latter making their first appearance in his poetry. The title itself reminds one of the "sailor boy in the garden" of Elytis's early verse, who, however, now approaches the end of his odyssey.

A short opening selection titled "Entry" asks, "Golden air of life, why don't you reach us?" What follows is arranged in four major sections, three long and one somewhat shorter. The former are each divided into four parts under identical headings, whereas the latter has only two divisions. Under the first heading, "The Little Mariner," a "Projector" speaks in each major subsection, enumerating prominent injustices and political crimes committed throughout Greek history from ancient times to the present. This is the guilty side of life that needs purging. Under the second heading, "Smelling the Best," four major subsections, each containing seven poems, provide the mariner's account of his growth through experience and the attainment of the wisdom necessary to combat the evil inherent in life. Under the third heading, "With Life and with Death," three of the four subunits contain seven poems each, in which the forces of light clash with the forces of darkness, then eventually merge on a higher plane of transcendence. Finally, in the first three of the four, the common heading "Whatever One Loves" unites the poems "Traveling Bag," "Guide through the Aegean," and "Snapshots." Each selection provides lists of literary and artistic works, quotations, vocabulary, and a view of different places and women, all of which represent the indispensable treasures that the Little Mariner has gathered during his life's journey. The poem ends appropriately with a piece titled "Exit."

"The Little Mariner" stands unquestionably on a level with Elytis's other major poems and also constitutes a comprehensive summation of his life and creativity.

Joseph Garrison (review date July 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of What I Love, in Library Journal, Vol. 111, No. 12, July, 1986, p. 88.

[In the following review, the critic praises Elytis's What I Love.]

This selection, covering the years 1943 to 1978, will please readers already familiar with Greece's 1979 Nobel Laureate and serve as a good introduction to those reading him for the first time. Elytis has said that Paradise and Hell are made of the same materials and that "only the perception of the order of the materials" differs, an idea illuminated here. If we perceive the moon as "hemorrhaged" or believe that "the beautiful can't happen twice," we have perceived wrongly. To perceive rightly, we must look at "the shells," "the leaves," and "the stars" in the right way. Elytis thus takes us back beyond the Latin word ars to its Greek root harmos—that is, to the weaver's loom, where, in the warp of reality, we perceive our realities and create our human designs.

Booklist (review date 1 September 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of What I Love: Selected Poems, in Booklist, Vol. 83, No. 1, September 1, 1986, p. 22.

[In the following review, the critic complains that much has been lost in Olga Broumas's translation of Elytis's What I Love.]

Eternal freshness, clarity, the ability to convey the abstract through the concrete, even the mundane, a sheer musicality—these are among the gifts the Greeks have given to poetry, from earliest times. One of the most famous of post-World War II Greek poets, Elytis maintains this great tradition, but he does so with a personal voice, especially in his love lyrics. In this selection of about two dozen poems, translator Broumas presents a range of the poet's interests and styles, some of which borrow heavily (perhaps too much so) from French surrealism of the early part of the century. The result is a curious amalgam of sensual particulars set amid almost mythic frames. Broumas has attempted high fidelity to Elytis' music and rhythms, but somehow, perhaps inevitably, much seems to have been lost in translation.

C. E. Fantazzi (review date December 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of What I Love: Selected Poems, in Choice, Vol. 24, No. 4, December, 1986, p. 632.

[In the following review, Fantazzi states that Olga Broumas's translation of Elytis's What I Love loses the music, the images, and sometimes the sense of the original.]

Broumas, who translated these poems, has an obvious devotion to her fellow countryman, Odysseas Elytis, whose voice she professes to recreate in English, "with an accent, idiosyncratic," as she states in her prefatory note. She does indeed give him a distinct voice in English, but the accent and the idiosyncrasies are so pronounced that the renditions are often incomprehensible. Elytis is a difficult poet in Greek, shunning punctuation, running words into one another in clusters with little syntactic joining, but one can catch the sense, and the music of his language is enchanting, the imagery limpid and luminous, reflecting the effulgence of the Greek air and the sparkling waves of the Aegean. The same cannot be said of the facing English translation. The music is gone, the images faded, the sense often lost altogether or mutilated beyond recognition. The first line of the first poem from "Sun the First" may serve as an illustration: "I don't know anymore the night terrible anonymity of death." Add a little rhythm and punctuation and the line begins to make sense: "I no longer know the night, death's terrible anonymity" (translation of Edmund Keeley in Voices of Modern Greece, ed. by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, 1981). The instances of outright errors of translation and infelicities mar every page. Broumas's heart was in the right place, but she should have made use of an English interpreter.

Jeffrey Carson (review date Winter 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of What I Love: Selected Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 139-40.

[In the following review, Carson criticizes Olga Broumas's translation of Elytis's What I Love for its inaccuracy.]

Odysseas (or Odysseus) Elytis's great poetry is so rooted in the Greek language that transplantation into the alien soil of English is unlikely to take. How can one make readers unrooted in his Aegean world feel his seeming abstractions as emotions or respond deeply to "olive-tree," "whitewash," "Kore"? Each new graft by a serious translator brings fresh hope that the shoots will live, that more of Elytis will leaf in our foreign air.

Elytis's Greek varies, often in a single strophe, from literary to slang, from rhetorical to simple, from learned to folk-song-like. Profoundly personal without being at all confessional, he requires us to make the harsh and timeless Hellenic world of the poems into our own truth, and so professes a Shelleyan belief in Poetry's transforming magic. His poetry depends on musical values for its urgency and to conjoin word and inner feeling, so to change us through our relationship with language—something like a mixture of Stevens and the Pound of "Drafts and Fragments."

Thus Elytis demands more than the translator's usual patience and discipline, a discipline to which Olga Broumas has evidently not submitted herself. Since all but two early pieces in What I Love have been accurately translated by others, one wonders why her translations are shockingly inaccurate. There is not one poem in the book that is carefully or skillfully rendered. Examples of lapses in simple accuracy, giving one per page (there are many more on each page cited here, as on every page) from the first four pages: "greens" for "gardenpatch" (p.5), "arbor" for "grapevine" or "vineyard" (7), "drawing" for "dreaming" (9), "sharing" for "portioning out" (11). Printing the Greek en face amounts to hubris.

Such inaccuracy would be somewhat less culpable if the translations captured Elytis's rich, allusive poetic sensibility or were themselves at least good English. They fail in both respects. Let us examine one of Elytis's most graceful lyrics, the twenty-two-line "Small Green Sea" (translated by others twice before). The image of Kore, the maiden, is crucial to all of Elytis's books. She embodies the beginnings of fertility, fresh and virginal: she is Poetry herself. He calls her by many names. Here she is Sea (Thalassa), whom he wishes to educate in Ionia, where so much of the Greek miracle began. He would have her inspire him through all of Greek history with divinity, to be communicated in a sexual embrace. In the second line Broumas tones down Elytis's urgent phrasing: her "I want to adopt you" ought to be "How I would like to adopt you." Four lines later Broumas renders the simple word for "little tower" as "tight tower," whatever that may mean. Two lines later Elytis wants Sea to learn "to turn [rotate] the sun," not, as Broumas has it, "turn to the sun." In line 14 Broumas writes, "Go through Smyrna's window" for Elytis's "Enter Smyrna by the window." Her line 17 reads, "With a little north a little levantine." What she wants with the north and a diminutive Eastern gentleman I cannot tell: Elytis wants Sea to return "With a little bit of Northwind a little Eastwind." When the poet sleeps with Sea to get the essence of Ionia, Broumas either misunderstands or (as I suspect) suppresses this act. Broumas's "come back / Illegally to me to sleep / To find deep in your keep / Pieces of stone the talk of the Gods" (the clanging rhymes are gratuitous) should be something like "come back / Little Green Sea thirteen years old [this line is omitted by Broumas] / So I may sleep with you illicitly / And find deep in your arms / Pieces of stones the words of the Gods." Broumas has lost the poem. This is not an isolated instance of bowdlerization. In the last stanza of "Ode to Picasso" and in the biting fourth stanza of "Maria Nefele's Song" (whose astringent meter and rhyme are not even suggested), Broumas again alters the sexual imagery Elytis clearly intends, and on page 71 she translates "buttocks" as "thighs." If Elytis's sexuality discomfits or offends her, she should leave his work, drenched in the erotic, alone.

Half of What I Love is made up of out-of-sequence selections from Elytis's book-length poem Maria Nefele. Broumas strives for a punchy style; this could have been appropriate here. To see why it is not, let us look at "Nefelegeretes" (Cloud-Gatherer). The ancient Greek word is a frequent Homeric epithet for Zeus. The first line literally is, "Ah how beautiful to be cloudgatherer." Broumas translates this as "Ah how beautiful to hang out with the clouds." The slang does not fit. In the next line her word-for-word translation "on old shoes" misses the idiomatic meaning Elytis intends, "for the heck of it." In the first line of this poem's second stanza, Broumas's "to reap unpopularity" should be "enjoy unpopularity." Nine lines later, "the fat people" should be subject, not object, as here. Broumas's penultimate line, "and with large leagues open yourself freely to cry," is incomprehensible; an idiom, the Greek means, "and with great strokes you swim out to weep freely." As translated here, the poem is unintelligible. Broumas has not worked out the poem's meaning before translating.

Perhaps Broumas's own grammar is insecure: "don't be afraid / of what is written you to feel" (89); "I they threw me from the doors outside" (87). Her "It's me to who shouts" (43) must be making Elytis sad. If sometimes her style is usefully crisp and direct, as in certain lines of the difficult piece titled "The Monogram," in no poem is her version superior to her predecessors', although improvement is the point of retranslation.

What I Love has a handsome cover, but the words "Nobel Laureate" on it may mystify the reader who finds the book's contents unworthy of that award. May I recommend Kimon Friar's Elytis translations The Sovereign Sun, which is what the Nobel Committee read?

Publishers Weekly (review date 22 April 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Little Mariner, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 233, No. 16, April 22, 1988, p. 79.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that Elytis's The Little Mariner is about a journey.]

This major work by Nobel laureate Elytis is composed in an elaborate symphonic form but has the simplest and oldest of story lines: a journey or quest—in this case, as the poet writes, "to find out who I am." The "I" is multipartite—representing not just the poet or the Greek nation but all humankind; and the journey takes place on many levels—geographical, historical, philosophical, linguistic, spiritual—alternating among four different kinds of "movements" that approach the problem of human self-realization from various angles using multifarious styles of verse. The poems are by turns lyrically luminous and simply direct; the sheer beauty of the Aegean pelago shimmers throughout as does the tradition of Greek ideals, which are set counterpoint to a millennium of political injustices and betrayals. The translation by Broumas, Greek-born and -bred and a Yale Series of Younger Poets prizewinner, is a wonder in itself. Where the poems are not quite translatable (because they are written in ancient or demotic Greek, for example), Broumas supplies notes to clarify Elytis's intention.

The Virginia Quarterly (review date Autumn 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Little Mariner, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn, 1988, pp. 134-35.

[In the following review, the critic states that Elytis's The Little Mariner is "more interesting for its experiments in form than for its lyrical content."]

Elytis, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for literature, is the last in a distinguished line of modern Green poets, beginning with Cavafy and including George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos. This book includes, as the jacket tells us, his major work since he received the prize. It is also the second translation of his poetry by Olga Broumas since she won the Yale Younger Poets Award. All honors aside, I found the book more interesting for its experiments in form than for its lyrical content (is this Elytis or is it the translation?). The book is framed by an "Entrance" and an "Exit"; and each section entitled "The Little Mariner" opens with a "Spotlight," or a series of scenes from Greek history. Elytis includes prose poems, lists of his favorite words, his favorite places, and his favorite cultural artifacts (for better or worse, this reader was reminded of E. D. Hirsch's lists for the culturally literate). He has even written his own Sapphic fragment, in parts of words strewn over a page; and one poem in Ancient Greek, rendered by Broumas in slightly archaic English. This poet believes that Paradise "was a right," but his tone throughout is elegiac. The best poems express a sense of loss, even as they refuse nostalgia.

Andonis Decavalles (essay date Winter 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Time versus Eternity: Odysseus Elytis in the 1980s," in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 22-32.

[In the following essay, Decavalles discusses the themes of death and eternity in Elytis's Diary of an Invisible April and asserts that this poem is darker than the poet's other work.]

For close to five decades, the poetry of Odysseus Elytis grew and blossomed with unaging and hopeful youthfulness in its battle against time and decay. It kept its undiminished commitment to extend and raise the material world to a higher sphere, to its pure, immaterial, imperishable essence. It kept alive its power to transform sorrow into joy, darkness into light, and negation into affirmation of life. Insistently it repeated its belief in man's potential and capacity to detect, to discover in the world of matter the lasting, spiritual, visionary messages that reveal a superearthly realm abiding within it. It created its own universe through Eros, the beauty of nature, and the Aegean sunlight as embodiments and expressions of an ancient yet still-vital Greek spirit of which they are the forces and analogies.

That youthfulness matured in wisdom through experience and the increasing awareness of sufferings—personal, racial, historical—the products of time that poetry needed to face, purge, and surpass through its belief in the existence of a paradise made of exactly the same elements that also constitute hell, where Heraclitan conflicts and antitheses meet in their extension. To quote the ancient thinker: "Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony." The battle with time, in Elytis's verse, gave birth to a continuous series of scintillating, timeless poetic "moments," instantaneous "meteoric" uplifts, "signals" witnessing the "lastingness" of a "real Earth," the "Earth of an upper world," a "second Greece" as the realm of poetry itself.

However, our individual mortal nature has its decline and end as well. Time, that vrotolighos or "destroyer of men," has not left the aging Elytis (b. 1911) unaffected. Together with developments in world affairs and circumstances and the spiritual and moral decline of our day, it has increased in the poet a certain awareness, a need to defend himself and the values that are part of his longtime creed, his message: first against those who have challenged, negated, or ignored it; and then against his own deeper, growing wonderings. Preaching his own gospel, he has long repeatedly expressed sorrow and militant complaint that his message of redemption has not borne the fruit expected through its wider acceptance and response, specifically in his own country, for which it was meant. On the other hand, the reality of human passions, life's darker side, which he has believed inseparable from the brighter one, has, in declining times, caused him increasing consternation, and the poetry of his full maturity has had to submit its faith to the test of nostalgic recollection and introspective reevaluation in order to deepen and widen the meaning of its "weapons."

With regard to death's challenge, that was initially met with its reversal in the Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant (1945) and The Axion Esti (1959). Later, in "The Autopsy" from Six and One Remorses for the Sky (1968), that autopsy of his own body revealed what was imperishable and eternal in his elemental self and gave signs and promise of regeneration. In "The Sleep of the Valiant" from that same book it was life that was miraculously the victor in a spiritual sense despite the death of the heroes. Soon thereafter, the poems in The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty (1971) were to recollect nostalgically Elytis's entire spiritual life in terms of "meteoric," instant, revealing communications with the "sovereign sun," yet with an already painful eventual realization that the "light tree" of youth had become difficult to recover, if at all, and that the sun of life was also bound to set, leaving behind the darkness of the night sky. Still, the aged poet, not yielding to final despair, passed ingeniously to the lunar, mystical, occult, internal, meditative reflection of his "solar metaphysics," thus moderating the sorrow for the losses that time had brought. That reconsideration concluded with "Silver Gift Poem" as the only lasting final gain from life's losing game—silver being both the poet's age and the coloring of the trees of paradise.

Among Elytis's poems published in the 1970s, history and an old legend of the Greek people inspired 1971's "Death and Resurrection of Constantinos Paleologhos" (the last, tragic emperor of the Byzantine Empire), whereas in The Monogram (1972) it is love that sings the hope of its continuation and fulfillment in paradise. In Maria Nefeli (1978), on the other hand, Elytis embraced in his verse the word and mind of postwar youth in its nightmarish, urban, technological world estranged from nature, so as to argue that behind the apparent change life still remains changeless in its deeper essence. The hippie girl Maria, the suffering victim of what surrounds her, demonic as she appears, still maintains within her the angelic and transcendental elements and virtues Elytis has always bestowed upon his "girls."

The awareness of time, as decay and death, and of its encounter were to become central, prominent, in Elytis's three poetry books published in the 1980s. Their proper consideration as stages of development requires our taking them in the sequence of their composition rather than that of their publication. Architecturally conceived and mathematically ordered as wider thematic units, as larger poems in parts—where, however, the parts are full individual poems in themselves—thesebooks, or rather long poems, varied in the length of time required for their completion. This explains why O mikrós naftílos (The Little Seafarer), one of the three poems under consideration, mostly composed between 1970 and 1974, according to the poet's testimony, was not published until 1985, following Tría piímata me siméa efkerías (Three Poems under a Flag of Convenience; 1982) and Imerológhio enós athéatou Aprilíou (Diary of an Invisible April; 1984)—the last volume being, by all indications, a product of 1981.

The content, manner, style, context, and issue of each of these long poems are different as they all face time's challenge. Of the three, "The Little Seafarer" and "Three Poems" recapitulate at least in part much of the Elytian creed, though in different ways, in the fight against the odds they face, and they both end in doubt as to whether the poet has succeeded through his lifelong message in becoming the enlightener and savior he aspired to be. In times of turmoil the darker side of reality, previously repressed, overcome, and surpassed, needs now to be more frankly recognized and more painfully combatted, and with perhaps not as much certainty as before. Harder questioning succumbs to an invading despair, although resisted to the utmost. The "Diary," on the other hand, opens a new realm in Elytis's poetry. Death is met face to face as "imminent" and inescapable. The poet himself is not exempted from that final share of mortality.

The remote precedent of "The Little Seafarer" was certainly "Sailor Boy of the Garden" from Ilios o prótos (Sun the First; 1943). That was the poet's initial youthful self. Even since, Elytis has often projected himself as a mariner (in the Homeric if not the Coleridgean or the Rimbaldian sense), with that seafarer's appearances reflecting the gradual stages and moments in his life's spiritual journey. There is an "Odyssey" in The Light Tree (1971) emotionally influenced by the painful feeling of self-exile and nostalgia during Greece's sufferings under the colonels' junta of 1967–74.

"The Little Seafarer" has its factual challenge in the memory of Greek history considered in its darker aspects. That history had already provided the "mythical" basis of The Axion Esti, but there "the Passion" in it, the sufferings of the war decade of the 1940s, and all the long travails of the past were eventually overcome through the poet's still-youthful hopefulness, his sunlit affirmation of life, and his expectation of recovery of an earthly, physical, yet spiritual paradise made possible through what he deemed "worthy" in the Greek realm and the Greek soul. On the contrary, in "The Little Seafarer" a different predisposition, awareness, and circumstance makes him view Greek history in the light of political and other injustices and murders committed there for centuries, crimes which no sunlit limpidity can purify in their stark truth and perpetuity.

The poem consists of fifty-eight pieces (structured mostly around multiples of seven, as usual in Elytis) plus a short "Entrance" and "Exit" which frame the poem emotionally as well as physically, summarizing it in terms of its desperately expectant struggle and frustrating outcome. The "Entrance" reads:

             SOMETIMES IT'S
                    no more than a glow behind the
     mountains—there toward the sea. Sometimes again
     a strong wind that stops suddenly just outside the
     harbors. And those who know, their eyes fill with
Golden wind of life why don't you reach us?
        No one hears, no one. They all go holding an
     icon and on it fire. And not one day, one moment
     in this place when injustice doesn't occur or some
Why don't you reach us?
        I said I'll leave. Now. With whatever: travel
     bag on my shoulder; Guidebook in my pocket;
     camera in my hand. Deep in the earth and deep in
     my body I'll go to find out who I am. What I give,
     what they give me and left over is injustice
Golden wind of life …

The concluding "Exit" adds:

                    no one hears. The burning
bird of Paradise goes ever higher. The voice was
turned elsewhere and the eyes remained
Helpless are the eyes
               One among thousand of murderers, I
lead the innocent and powerless. I wrap myself in
an ancient cloak and again descend the stone stairs
beckoning and exorcising
Helpless are the eyes, that you beckon to
   centuries now above the blue volcanoes. Far on
my body and far on the earth that I tread I went to
find out who I am. I stored up small happinesses
and unexpected meetings, and here I am: unable to
learn what I give, what they give me and left over
is injustice
Golden wind of life

The italicized verses are from one of the fragments of The Free Besieged, the unfinished final masterpiece of modern Greece's first national poet, Dionysios Solomos (1798–1857), where the "free besieged" were the starving population of Mesolonghi, who, after successfully resisting a Turkish siege in 1825–26 during that country's war of liberation, made a heroic sortie in which most of them perished under the guns of the enemy. (As is well known, it was at Mesolonghi that Lord Byron died in 1824, and Solomos wrote a long ode on his death.) The body of the poem is in four major parts, with the first three containing four sections each and the fourth containing two sections. In the first section of each part, "scenic" in nature, a provolefs or "speaking projector" gives short prose accounts in chronological order of seven major political injustices and murders—a total of twenty-eight—committed in Greek history from antiquity and the classical era, through the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods, to the present. The awareness of this grim reality is what instigates, in the following three sections, the seafarer's recollective journey in search of his Aegean identity to fight against the evils.

The common title of the four separated sections of the second part, "Myrisai to áriston" (To Scent the Excellent), is taken from the sixth-century Byzantine hymnist Romanos the Melode's "Hymn to the Whore" with its allusion to Matthew 26:6-13, where the whore pours her precious ointment on Christ's head. The analogy to Elytis's "girls," on the one hand, and to the objective and function of his poetry on the other as insinuated in the twenty-eight prose pieces of these four sections is obvious. The poet recapitulates his spiritual growth through the discoveries he made of life's essence and its redeeming truth, notions long familiar to his readers. There is the "material of feelings" which he "touched" in his struggle to restore the "innocence" he found everywhere, "so powerful that it washes away blood." "I resided," he says, "in a country that came from the other, the real one, as the dream comes from the facts of my life. It too I named Greece and I drew it on paper so I could look at it. It seemed so little; so elusive." In its extension, "with a blissful light above the sea," that "true Greece" came to reveal "the real grandeur of this littleness," this "second world that always comes first within me." Poetry gave him "a kind of special courage" to win his own "transparency," the movement within the moment which gives it "duration," whereupon "Sorrow becomes Grace and Grace an Angel."

As for time, "The clock that concerns us is not that which counts the hours but that which allots the portion of things' decay and indestructibility, in which, in any case, we participate, as we participate in youth or age." He has refused to accept death as "hooded in black," as he was told when a child, for "he who chewed bayleaf [this must be the Pythia at Delphi] said something else." Also, "Man is never so great, or so little, as the concepts he conceives, starting from Angel up to Demon. He is equal to the part that remains when the two opposing forces neutralize each other." With regard to death, "If there is a way to die without disappearing—it is this: a transparency in which your ultimate components—dow, fire—become visible to all, and one way or another, you shall exist forever." As to paradise, all religions have lied about it: "Yes, Paradise was not a nostalgia. Nor, even more, a reward. It was a right." Things change and we change with them, yet our nature will stay "irreparably engraved on the geometry that we disdained in Plato." The external things in nature are "the same natural and spontaneous movements of the soul that give birth to matter and set it in a certain direction; the same reformations, the same risings toward the deepest meaning of a humble Paradise, which is our true self, our right, our freedom, our second and real ethical sun"—an obvious affinity with Plato's notions.

These and other substantial components of Elytis's creed are recalled and newly expressed as his defense against an acrid awareness of time as a dark historical inheritance, and several ideas here will find their poetic expression in the third part of the poem as well, whose separate sections bear the common title "With Both Light and Death"—taken from the ode "To Death" by Andreas Kalvos (1792–1816), Solomos's contemporary and a major poet whom the latter apparently ignored. As early as 1942, in his essay "The Lyric Physiognomy and Lyric Daring of Andreas Kalvos," Elytis had voiced his admiration for his short-lived predecessor and the technical skill in the sui generis, unorthodox, strange individuality of his language, his stanzaic form, his sound and rhythm. In the cited ode the ghost of the poet's mother, like the Homeric Antikleia, appears to him to tell him "not to investigate the inexpressible mystery of death," adding that life is "unbearable toil" whereas the dead enjoy "endless peace, with no fear, sorrow, or dreams." The quoted stanza reads: "My son, you saw me breathing, / The sun, chasing in cycles / like a spider, enfolded me / unceasingly with both light / and death." Again the relevance and affinity with Elytis's circumstance and concerns are obvious here.

In a variety of forms, manners, and tones, the twenty-one (three times seven) mostly lyric pieces of "With Both Light and Death" summon as a solace and defense all they can recall in facing the increasing nearness of death itself. In the opening selection the hopeful expectation of a celestial transformation still exists.

         I turned death toward me like a gigantic
         Adramyttion Bay appeared with the
                   northwester's curly
         A moveless bird between sky and earth and the
         Lightly set one in the other. The child appeared
                   who ignites
         Letters and runs to turn back the wrong in my
         In my breast where appeared the second Greece
                   of the upper world.

         This I say and write not to be understood
         Like a plant satisfied in its poison until the
         Turns it to fragrance which it scatters right to
                   the world's
           four points:
         My bones will appear later phosphorescing an
         Which the Archangel carries in his arms and
                   lets trickle
         As with great strides he traverses the second
                   Greece of the upper world.

There is still expectation of the "mercy-giving orchard."

         I await the hour when a
         Mercy-giving orchard will assimilate
         The refuse of all centuries—when a
         Girl will declare revolution in her body
         Beautifully with tremulous voices and glisters
         Of fruit bringing history back again
         To its starting point
                                   in which case
         Probably even Westerners will go Greek
         Reaching all the way to the figtree's liver
         Or the perfection of waves will be dictated to
         While asleep
                      and from a breach in their thought
         Of a certain courageous lavender encountered
                   in childhood
         Will propitiate the starry spaces full of angers.

One selection will ask, "where is the meaning that fell from your hands / … / … what burning / Dress is this that detaches your flesh," recalling the "Youth kneeling in the transparent deep / … / Biting as if a coin [the funereal obol] the same sea that / Gave you the very shining the very light the meaning you seek." Another has truncated words and phrases like those in the Sapphic fragments. Still another says:

          I speak with the patience of the tree that rises
          Before the window just as old
          Whose shutters the wind has dilapidated
          And keeps pushing it open and getting it wet

          With water of Helen and with words
          Lost in the dictionaries of Atlantis
          I alone—and earth from the opposite place
          The place of destruction and of death.

The poet will imploringly address the Holy Virgin, the Mother, in the language of Byzantine hymns, calling her by the numerous imaginative, poetic names that the Greek people have given her, beseeching her to come to him in his loneliness.

Some inherited bitterness in the Greek temper, the product of long historical suffering, Elytis has constantly decried and opposed. It becomes again the subject of some lovely, sorrowful lyricism in this series of sections.

          Where shall I say it—night in the air
          To the stars' medlars to the blackness smelling
          The sea. Where shall I speak the Greek of
          With trees for capitals where shall I write it
          That the sages know to decipher
          Between the second and third wave
          Such an anguish heavy with stones that did not

          Saint Sozon—you who watch over storms
          Raise me the eye of the sea
          That I go miles in it to the green translucence
          That I arrive there where the sky's
                   masterworkers dig
          And may I find again the moment before I was
          When the violets were fragrant when I didn't
          The way the thunderbolt doesn't know its
          But doublestrikes you—all luminous!

The section's final piece, an elegy, appears to have been inspired by a dear dying friend, whom the poet wishes and begs to be his forerunner, to guide and welcome him when he too goes across.

          And most important of all: you will die.
          The other Golden Horn will open
          Its mouth for you to pass with white face
          While the music continues and on the trees
          Which you never turned to see the hoarfrost
                   will release
          One by one your works.
                                Well then! Think now
          If the truth gives off
          Drops if the Milky Way widens
          Substantially: then wet gleaming with your
                   hand upon
          Noble laurel you leave even more Greek
          Than I who blew for you the propitious wind in
                           the strait
          Who packed for you bags of whitewash and
          The little icon showing gold July and August
          And you know I being a lost
          Voyager when to give me hospitality
          Setting on the tablecloth
          The bread the olives and the consciousness
          Day first for us in the second homeland of the

Sappho provides the common title "Otto tis erate" (Whereof One Loveth) of the three sections that make up the fourth and final part of the poem. Their individual subtitles are the three items of luggage and equipment mentioned in the "Entrance" which the seafarer takes with him on his journey in search of his identity. "The Traveling Bag" contains the names of fifty-four poets, writers, thinkers, artists, and composers, with three or four of their verses, phrases, works of art, musical compositions, and some monuments, "only what's necessary" from things he has gathered throughout Greece and the Western world through all times since prehistory. "Aegean Route" is an alphabetical list of some four hundred Greek nouns and names, "Only Words. But words to guide with precision to what I was looking for. So, bit by bit, turning the pages I saw the place take on form like the tear from emotion." "Snapshots," finally, includes thirty-one short prose sketches, images that the camera of the poet's eye and sensibility and preference has caught in various parts of Greece and elsewhere as instantaneous revelations.

All those have been his equipment and wealth, found as he went "deep in the earth and deep in my body." As the "Exit" implies, however, these have brought him no final redemption, apparently leaving him estranged and uncomprehending, deprived of the response he was expecting. The "small happinesses and unexpected meetings" have left him "unable to learn what I give, what they give me and left over is injustice." For the first time a poetic work by Elytic ends in despair, without a "meteoric" reversal. The uncured evils still thrive.

When we turn to the "Three Poems under a Flag of Convenience" (1982), we may possibly understand the evoked efkerías (opportunity, convenience) as another chance, another try to admonish and so to break the isolation, the increased loneliness always extant in Elytis's admonitions. In their unity and sequence the three poems here, each divided into seven parts, bear the individual titles "The Garden Sees," "The Almond of the World," and "Ad Libitum." The viewing garden is obviously the paradise-oriented angle of vision, detecting through sunny lucidity and projecting through in-stantaneous revelations life's real essence and truth. The "almond of the world" must be that real essence and truth itself, Elytis's equivalent of Plato's to agathon, yet bitter at times, as almonds are. As to the phrase "ad libitum," ironically enough, instead of pleasurable ease it expresses the strain in a losing battle of the poet's identity against the odds that time has brought.

No less the vates that he has always been, the poet has the garden's eye detect and reveal ingredients of his transcendental creed and its salvatory potential, as yet unfortunately ignored by those to be rescued.

         1. Maybe
                    if we except Anchorites
                    I might be the last player
                    to exercise his rights


                            I don't understand
                            what profit means

         a Panselinos who paints though God does not
         and proves exactly the opposite


                    what water
                    blue with sparks

         beyond the barrier of the Sirens' sound
         signals to me


                            come on


                    Perfection lies completed
                    and lets a rivulet roll up to here

Art makes real the unreal; it even creates God where He does not exist. Perfection is there, accomplished for those who care for it. There are always its "raging" messages, one after another, but "what to do / no one knows." As to the future:

                    So what will happen when
         sometime social struggles stop when inventions
         obsolete themselves when all demands are


                    inside which will fall those (serves
                  them right)
                    who turn the wheel for the sake of
                  the Wheel


                           we others
         shall commence to live initiates in the body's
         essentially and metaphorically speaking

We are the microcosms of a macrocosm, a universe made of "antimatter," and there are "a million signs / omega zeta eta [i.e., zoe or 'life'] / and if these don't form a word for you / tomorrow / will be yesterday forever." If the words will raise life to its affirmation, then "at a second level wars will recur / without anyone's being killed / there are sufficient reserves of death," where war gains its Heraclitan meaning. The garden then "starts off the countdown / withering / acme / waking / a young woman's breast is already / an article of the future's Constitution."

It is in this spirit that the poem unfolds to its end with the belief that "the decay of time at last will turn against it." The urging comes with a reference to Oedipus's reaching his transcendence at Colonus.

       … advance
              you encounter the famous grove of Colonus
              you follow Oedipus

       suddenly daybreak
              the cock on the weathervanes
              it's you in the church
              the icon-screen superb with pomegranate trees

       Kore stepping on the waves
              a gentle westerly

              your hand copies
                  the Inconceivable.

But this is not easy. As the second poem states:

the almond of the world
                 is deeply hidden
                        and still unbitten

          a myriad possibilities shudder
          around us which we idiots wouldn't
                       even touch

          we never understood how pigeons think
          two hand-spans above our head
                       what we have lost already is in

No doubt, "the almond of the world / is bitter and there's no way / you can find it unless / you sleep half outside of sleep." That he himself has strived for.

    at night
          when I speak as if to stir up constellations
    in the upper embers for a moment the face
          is formed that God
          would give me if he knew
          how much the earth in truth cost me
    in desperation
          in "it was destined" whispered variously
                      at night
               in cypresses
               centuries old like poems
          during the making of which I was

Though his strife has caused him isolation and loneliness, and despite the dislike he may have encountered, he would not give up. He would continue his "course / against this society / against inhibiting idiocy." Poetry needs to produce a spark in its fruit, for "something surely / must surreptitiously have been subtracted / from the terraqueous globe / for it to pant so / to turn pale / and for mourning to spread itself" The sad truth is that "Even if you have it all / something's always lacking / it's enough the Integral not be accomplished / and Fortune feel fortunate."

Man's longing for perfection is always plagued by limited potential, as was earlier expressed in The Light Tree. "We always sought / precisely that which cannot be"—one of heaven's sins which led to the Six and One Remorses. As you strive to cut "the almond of the world," you have your hand scorched and end up writing "some white / poems on the black page." Further on are implications of Plato's notion of our preexistence, forgotten upon birth, to be recollected and regained in a lifelong struggle: "man is as if coming from elsewhere / and so he sounds out of tune / with a memory all fragmented." Loneliness is the price, with only instantaneous gratifications.

         all alone
                I am hanging
                      since Heraclitus' time
         like the almond of the world
               from a branch of the North Aegean
               an ancient fisherman with his trident
               who has known many gales until there:
               sometime the moment arrives

         the waters around him become
              he squints his eyelids
                      it's because the reflection
                      all absolute beauty
         shows with whom it briefly had with no
                intention on his part

                      a confidential meeting.

An expectation of a kind of afterlife can be seen in the lines "axiomatically I am living beyond the point where I find myself / besides / continuing along my mother / you will meet me even after death." Such still-inherent hope for spiritual timelessness, for eternity, carries on in dialectical fashion its desperate battle against increasing doubts and questionings as we reach the third poem, "Ad Libitum," which represents a more pragmatic encounter with and consideration of temporal reality. Much as in The Axion Esti, the poet begins here by defining his personal yet ethnic and historical identity, but with a more painful awareness of the present and the future.

          I am alpha years old and European to the
                       of the Alps or Pyrenees
                       I never never touched the snow

                there's not one who can represent me
                war and peace ate at me on both sides
                what remained endures still

                       till when

                must we lift up the excommunicated past
                filled with kings and subjects

                       I feel like a seduced cypress

            to whom not even a tombstone remained
            only empty plots rocks stone-enclosures
            and the inconsolable northwind
            beating yonder on the factories' high walls

                   all of us enclosed there we work as
                   elsewhere in History



            years say spilled crude oil
            set ablaze

                Rintrah roars and shakes
                his fires in the burdend air

          my unfortunate allalone one
                       what's to become of you
          five or six zeroes on the side will eat you up

                       and it is finished

          there already now
                Authority dresses as Fate and whistles to
Ad libitum.

Never before has Elytis spoken in a language of such stark and hopeless pragmatism about time's advance and the accompanying physical, mental, and moral decline, where death is in view. Rilke had wished one's death to be individual, chosen, one's own, in agreement with the identity of his soul. Here instead we read:

          fortunately the ambient wind has no memory
          it persists in smelling of rose
          and in punishing you
          while you die wretchedly

          ready in line behind the others
          for passport control
          with an airline bag on your shoulder

You resist such impersonal, mechanical, mass departure, where "you call to mind your limits / always in the dark / conducted by a ground-stewardess / completely uninterested in your personal luck." The air-flight scenery and much else was part of Maria Nefeli's world as well, but in that poem was eventually redeemed through the revelation of Maria's deeper purity and victimized innocence and through the poet's still-solid faithfulness, whereas here it remains unpurified and unredeemed. The "girl" in this poem seems to have lost her old, gratifying nature, remaining strange and indifferent as to the traveler's movement toward "the cryings of birds-of-prey / and the complete petrification / wherein you shall be enlisted / thee little one / how can you magnified by thought / defy natural phenomena."

The poet had been deemed a "phenomenon" by those who heard at night a pen scratching "like a cat on the closed / door of the Unknown" guarded by "infamous / personae turpi." The victims of our times, "amid revolutions and wars we all grew up / that's why on our foreheads / the mark of the bullet not shot / at all times continues to cause death." Confronting such despairing circumstances, the "final conclusion" asks:

                        what can one say

          until we become men whom health does not bore
          some Beauty will be traveling in space
          camouflaged never struck by anyone

                              an idol that still

              knows to preserve the olive-tree's aspect
                              among the Scythians

                        and that will be restored to us
                   like a lovely echo from the Mediterranean
                              smelling still of a deepsea goat

              one for the other Odysseus
                                upon a raft

                                        centuries now

             I cry out in Greek and no one answers me

                        it is that no one knows any more
          what noon reflection means
                        how and whence leans omega to alpha
          who finally disunites time
Ad libitum.

How much hope is there still left for time's transcendence? The highly unexpected and puzzling postscript reads: "P.S. But there is a different version: don't believe me / the more I age the less I understand / experience untaught me the world." Is this only an ironic joke, or a moment's mood, or a way to say that negation too has not been overlooked or omitted? Or does it express the poet's utter bitterness for the lack of response he feels he has received? Or does it say that even he himself has not been left untouched by doubt as to the validity, the truth, of his message? The fact remains that even if this postscript comes gently, sotto voce, as an epilogue, an afterthought, it is still the last word of the poem, its conclusion, with an emotional precedent in the "Exit" of "The Little Seafarer."

The next step in the confrontation with time comes in "Diary of an Invisible April." When the book appeared in 1984, its tone and spirit caused no little surprise and perplexity as well as debate among critics. The poet's subsequent comments on it in an interview with the Athenian daily To Vima (3 February 1985) added to the controversy. In the preamble to that interview Nikos Dimou said he found in the poem "a goodbye, a foreboding of death, a pessimistic lyricism," adding, however, that "this perhaps most difficult of Elytis's poems so far … does, on a second, secret level, certainly still recall eternity."

Elytis objected to the poem's being called "pessimistic," as he has always objected to the optimism attributed to his previous poems. Optimism and pessimism, he has said, are only a matter of tone as required by the subject that concerns him each time he writes. His point has always been that a poem, as a work of art, is autonomous and self-subsistent, independent of its creator's personal experience and feelings—a view theoretically not all that far from T.S. Eliot's contention (in "Tradition and Individual Talent") that significant emotion "has its life in the poem and not the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal." The meaning and extent of such "objectivity" in the work of the two poets, however, would require careful consideration. At present, I would only say that, whereas Eliot was fervently antiromantic, the same is not true of Elytis's temperament and practice. The latter has been above all the lyric poet speaking in the first-person singular, powerfully expressing and projecting his own experience, views, feelings, and emotions. This does not deny the fact that he has been an extraordinary craftsman with an almost unfailingly conscious and masterful, "classical" control of his means and objectives. Moreover, he has always aimed at widening the personal to embrace the traditional, the ethnic, the human, the universal. His work, to a considerable extent, can be viewed as his spiritual autobiography, encompassing the conscience of the world within which he has grown and out of which he has shaped his own world. As to the "Diary" in particular, no matter how universal it may be in the experience it reflects, it is emphatically a personal poem, in fact Elytis's most sincerely, most intimately personal work.

The view that "Diary of an Invisible April" "still recalls eternity" has caused most of the controversy among its interpreters. Such a view would have to draw its support from the spirit of long precedents in Elytis's poetic world. However, whether the notion of eternity is still positively viewed in the "Diary" itself is what has been questioned. Disagreeing with Dimou's view in several vital respects, Stratis Berlis has remarked: "Elytis in the 'Diary' changes manner. It is not a simple change of atmosphere—cloudiness taking the place of the sun…. It is a change (or at least an intense differentiation) of attitude, view, and function. An essential change that goes much deeper…. There is a change of soul and spirit." In a well-taken and interesting comment, Berlis adds that the "Diary" should be viewed as

     … a "marginal work" in Elytis's poetry which has no precedent in his oeuvre.
     Such boundary works, almost confessional records of extreme experiences, we
     find in other great poets as well, especially in the romantic and idealistic ones
     (e.g., Igitur, Une saison en enfer, and others). In all these there are projected
     situations which the poets had previously rejected because of their inclination
     toward an absolute purity, an ideal rendering of the world. They project, that is,
     the antipode of their poetic ego, the "demonic" side of an "angelic" world as
     shaped in the rest of their work…. The poet does not simply reveal the dark side
     of his luminous self: i.e., he does not let what is repressed in him come out, but he
     goes deeper; he questions and even negates in a way what he has accomplished,
     thus giving it its true meaning.

"Diary of an Invisible April" does indeed have the "marginal," private, intimate, confessional nature described by Berlis. It consists of forty-nine (seven times seven) entries or short poems varying widely in form and manner—some in poetic prose and some in verse—preceded by an introit and closed by an epilogue. Chronologically, it covers the period from Wednesday, 1 April, to Thursday, 7 May of 1981. Commenting on his choice of April, the poet has said, "The actual April serves as the body of the 'poetic' one." Containing Holy Week, April implies (as Elytis has conceded) the notions of death, rebirth, and resurrection as well as the mystery cults of the fertility gods, Christ's Passion, Eliot's "cruelest month," and also April Fool's Day to serve as a "safety valve to keep the reader in a mysterious uncertainty." Still, considering the poem's tone and the power of its emotional, intimate sincerity, one wonders whether that "safety valve" was genuinely part of the work's original conception and composition or appeared more as an afterthought.

What is technically new in this poem in terms of Elytis's oeuvre is the "cinematic" nature of the work's structure and development, which, according to the poet, makes the "Diary"

       … a "serial of the soul" in which every episode has its own self-sufficiency, no
       matter how short the episode happens to be. Besides, my reference, in the first
       poem, to "a worn-out movie reel" is not a random one…. The motions of things
       are given the way a camera lens would record and project them. Such a technique
       has helped me, thanks to a bold decoupage, to maintain the notions of lastingness
       which does not coincide with the current time.

As he has explained, "The notion of eternity is not identical with the notion of duration in our personal life, as some would like to think." The "worn-out movie reel" is probably to be understood as his message, repeated for so long, like a movie "once filmed secretly and which nobody has even seen."

The short prologue reads: "Come now my right hand / paint that which demonically pains you, / but also strike it / The Madonna's silvering / that wildernesses have at night in the marsh-waters." (Worshipers in Greece cover parts of the Virgin's icons with silver engravings as offerings to her grace.) Summarizing much of Elytis's poetic objective, the prologue tells symbolically of his desperate, painful struggle against the "demonic" in life, against sorrowful reality and circumstance, against the corruption and decline that time brings, with death as their climax. Poetry once again strives, yet with less success, to turn the demonic into the angelic. Images and references show the struggle waged on several levels, external and internal, where death is "imminent."

In the nightmarish opening "The horses keep on chewing white sheets and keep / on penetrating triumphantly into the Threat," recalling instances in his previous verse (The Light Tree, for example) where images of horses were used to evoke the Apocalypse. Next, the coming of April, as "flora mirabilis," makes her "victims" bend and take "the position they / had before separating from the Mother." Such a return, rather than alluding to the Platonic immortality of the soul, is meant by the poet to be a descent to nonexistence, to the chthonic realm. The position itself reminds one somewhat of that in Dylan Thomas's "Twenty-Four Years," where "in the groin of the natural doorway I crouched like a tailor sewing a shroud for a journey," thus implying, however, that birth itself is the beginning of the macabre journey toward death.

Whereas in ode k of "Passion" in The Axion Esti the poet said, "I will tonsure my head, monk of things verdant," here he wonders, "but for what / tribe of people then is this funeral?," adding, "I must / take off the vestments to wear again my golden / breastplate and go forth with sword in hand," for "There are certain frightening facts that God is / taking away from me and my mind giving back to me." Further on, a sense of exhaustion is evident: "The percentage of beauty that was mine goes, / I've spent it all. / So I want the coming winter to find me, without / fire, with ragged trousers, shuffling blank paper / as if I were conducting the deafening orchestra / of an ineffable Paradise." Mixed feelings, prevalently of despair, make him feel that he is "ready for the worst."

Gloom causes the poet's need to escape into ancestralmemory, where Theotokopoulos (El Greco) comes with two gigantic wings to lift him "high in his heavens"—an attempt to idealize death as redemption. But other ancient memories come too: of "ancestors, wild and tormented," of the fighters in the Greek war of independence and those who suffered the holocaust of Ionia in 1922, of the "little church" he longed for years to build as a shelter for his soul; only its image remains to hang now on the wall as a solace. As for the "girl" who was forever his cherished embodiment of love and beauty, of life itself, its catalyst:

I saw her come straight to me from afar. She wore canvas shoes and advanced light-footed and in black-and-white. Even the dog behind her was half-immersed in black.

I got old waiting, truly.

And now it's too late for me to understand that as she advanced, so the void grew larger, and that we were never supposed to meet.

It sounds as if her loss is final. In her stead there is now the wild figure of a hag "with her loosened hair and / cat's eyes painted on the window pane." There is longing for his mother to come and see that

        … as I was
        born, I left. I was so very little—who knows
        these things?—and so many monsters crawled
        on splayed, greasy paws.

        Thus, in a life set up with such difficulty,
        there is nothing left except a half-ruined
        door and many big rotting water-anemones.
        I pass and go—who knows where?—to a belly
        sweeter than the homeland.

A bitter account of life. Introspection will grant its revelation.

        Past midnight my room moves about over all
        neighborhood and shines like emerald.
        within it searches—and the truth continually
        escapes him. Hard to imagine that this truth
        is found lower down
                 Much lower down

        That death also has its own Red Sea.

Not ascent but descent is the process; but is there still an expectation of a Promised Land in that descent?

Through sundry recollections, furtive and vanishing visions offering no solace at a time "full of revolutions, uprisings, / blood," where "God is away," the poem reaches its core. We find memory alphabetically recalling names of people, places, and events in Greek history, myth, and legend, from the Pelasgians and Homer to the unknown Master Anthony, covering the whole alphabet and the whole expanse of time, concluding with the sad comment: "Dawn found me having run through the history of / the death of History, or rather the history of / the History of Death (and this is not wordplay)."

I have already mentioned the two previous stages in Elytis's consideration of Greek history: the one in The Axion Estl, where the vision of hopeful expectation was to transcend its passions; the other in "The Little Seafarer," where that history's grim side apparently remained unpurged, unsurpassed, unredeemed. In this present third stage, history, the product of time, is identified with death itself. Elytis's coping with time and history would naturally again bring to mind T. S. Eliot, who made those his supreme concern and subject matter. One would perhaps hardly associate the Mediterranean Elytis, poet of the Aegean, worshiper of youth, of Eros, and of the sensual world, with the Northern, meditative, abstractionist, and rather stern Eliot. Karl Markoff, in the 1984 essay "Eliot and Elytis: Poet of Time, Poet of Space," was the first, so far as I know, to attempt an interesting comparison of the Four Quartets with The Axion Esti and to indicate temperamental and ideological similarities and differences between the two poets, and his perceptive remarks may have encouraged further comparative studies by Greek critics, studies instigated mostly by Elytis's insistent defense of his notion of timelessness and eternity as increasingly challenged by time in the years of his full maturity.

Different temperaments, different cultural backgrounds, different ideological foundations and traditions made the two poets create two considerably different worlds. Central in both is the notion of love as the supreme means of transcending time; yet whereas in Elytis love has had its foundation in ancient, primeval Eros, Eliot's verse drew its essence almost exclusively from Christian dogma, morality, and metaphysies. To the latter, Elytis has counterposed his "solar metaphysics," including a belief in eternity derived from ancient, pre-Socratic, and Platonic sources and their later transformation and extension in the Byzantine world and its mysticism.

As to history and its value for the living, the early Eliot expressed his reservations about it. Already in "Gerontion" he was to state:

          History has many cunning passages, contrived
          And issues, deceives with whispering ambi
          Guides us by vanities. Think how
          She gives when our attention is distracted
          And what she gives, gives with such supple
          That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too
          What's not believed in, or if still believed,
          In memory only, reconsidered passion….

Later on, in Murder in the Cathedral, he has Thomas à Becket say: "I know that history at all times draws / The strangest consequence from the remotest cause"; and through stages of development, years later still, time and history receive their full and final consideration in the Four Quartets, where memory—personal, ancestral, historical—and human experience all together, when liberated from time, confer "freedom" if they equip one with "another pattern" instead of bending one to dead imitation and repetition. Factions, opposites, conflicts, enmities, and divisions need to be reconciled and surpassed in that supratemporal, timeless, eternal pattern. To quote "Little Gidding":

                    This is the use of memory:
          For liberation—not less of love but expanding
          Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
          From the future as well as the past.
                    History may be servitude
          History may be freedom
          We die with the dying:
          See, they depart, and we go with them
          We are born with the dead.
          See, they return, and bring us with them.
          The moment of the rose and the moment of the
                    yew tree
          Are of equal duration. A people without history
          Is not redeemed from time, for history is a
          Of timeless moments.

There are obvious analogies between what is stated here and Elytis's belief in eternity as made of "timeless moments" within time. Such moments have been the spark of most of his poems, and their memory has been his poetic storehouse, his transcendental resource, until the present summoned history as a series of "injustices and crimes" perpetuated, which his "solar metaphysics" has failed to transform. The inescapable reality of death's approach was next, in the "Diary," to equate, to identify "the history of the death of History" with "the history of the History of Death." The identification as stated might cause some perplexity as to its meaning. Does the death of History, as identical with the History of Death, still leave eternity unaffected as separate from time, liberated from it? Or does it all end with death? It was within time, after all, that the eternal moments flourished. Only the context would encourage one understanding or another.

What prevails in the "Diary" are the low spirits of a soul contrite, bent by the burden of the inescapable, by life's finality; the desperate search for solace still continues, but it all seems in vain: "Death is an imminent event / burdened with some old happinesses / and that very well-known (bleached in wild deserts) despair." If Palm Sunday, opening The Light Tree, was soaked with recollected sunlight, "as when after someone sprinkled holy water and the new things they too seemed old," uniting past with present in an endless continuity, here

          Arriving the ship grew larger and blocked the
                    harbor. No movement on the decks.
          Maybe it's transporting the new midnights,
                    compact and boxed. Maybe just one
          soul, delicate as smoke and recognized by the
                    odor of burning.

          However it may be, there are many animals that
                    haven't yet managed to emerge
          from the Ark and they are showing impatience.
                    Even the crowd that floods the
          breakwater and casts uneasy glances, little by
                    little becomes conscious that the all
          depends upon a moment—

          the moment exactly when, just as you're about
                    to seize it, it vanishes.

The death summons brings up a teleological question: "Some unknown Gabriel signals to me /—Agreed, we shall all die; but for what? / … / The others sleep supine, either temporarily / or eternally, with faces uncovered to the sky. / I follow my remaining days /—Agreed, yes; but this life has no end." Is there resistance in the last line, or is this merely a positing of life's endlessness?

The Holy Week we enter at this point in the "Diary," the Week of Passion, does not end in reversal, in resurrection. On Holy Tuesday the poet will uncover the "little garden" of memory "like a coffin." On Holy Wednesday "the cactuses keep on growing and men keep on dreaming as if they were eternal," but "the inner part of Sleep," the liberating dream, has been darkened too by the "black bulk that moves," by the "black century." On Good Friday, "In Place of a Dream," in the "mournful meek sky in the incense / arise ancient Mothers upright as candlesticks," where the poet feels "As if I were, say, death itself though / still a beardless youth just setting out / who hears for the first time in the candles' penumbra / the 'come and receive the last kiss.'" This "last kiss," in the Orthodox funeral service, is given to the deceased before burial—for the poet, his first youthful acquaintance with death. Bitter is the realization, on Holy Saturday, of "Lost ones caught by the Uncaught," apparently contradicting the "signal" given in The Light Tree: "Unless you prop your foot / outside the Earth / you shall never manage / to stand on it." In his own attempt to do so, as he now confesses, "my lovestruck soul poured out of the earth." As to Easter Sunday, "You feel like flying high and from there to / freely share out your soul," then "you'd take the place in the / tomb that is yours." The 1st of May, when it comes, will not change the mood. Crushing, like the preceding "flora mirabilis," it advances with "many crawling or flying / bugs, snakes, lizards, caterpillars and other gaudy monsters," the offspring of nightmare rather than of paradise. In the same oppressive spirit comes the realization or rather impression that "My life (a tiny piece of my life) falling on / the life of others, leaves a hole." The epilogue then reads: "—Everything vanishes. To each comes his hour. /—Everything remains. I leave. We'll see about you," with the last statement meant by the poet as "a challenge by one who has passed the test."

What might we conclude as to whether the "Diary" "on a second, secret level, still recalls eternity"? And how is eternity to be understood here? The third Palm Sunday entry states that "we shall all die," but also that "this life has no end," and the epilogue distinguishes again between individual mortality ("Everything vanishes") and life's eternal nature ("Everything remains"). Spiritual eternity as immortality of the soul reaches its lowest point in the "Diary." It is mostly recalled with much longing, yet as inaccessible and fading under death's shadow. In this poem much of Elytis's preceding fervent affirmation seems undermined by doubt, uncertainty, a sense of loss in the awareness of decline and of death as inescapable. Sorrowful, nostalgic recollection increases the sense of loss itself. Resistance and self-defense recede. As to death, that is personal yet more than personal, being the reflection of the dying spiritual world of our times.

Viewed in the context of Elytis's entire poetic realm, the "Diary" is the darkest, most painful, and most desperate of all its moments. It is a de profundis questioning of the outcome of a life's effort, which seems to shake the truth and value of the poet's very message and its trust in eternity. Utter sincerity in its memorable utterings gives the poem its surpassing power. Correctly, the poem has been called oriako—i.e., the uttermost limits that the soul reaches in its naked sincerity, with no subterfuge. Thematically considered, as desired by the poet, it adds its extreme moment of doubt and depression, if not necessarily negation, to the brighter, sunnier moments in Elytis's poetry. It adds its own different poetic eternity, its own truth. Death is an end which poetry surpasses in its own eternity. One might say that the poem's closeness to the dark reality of death triggers exquisite reactions still springing, no matter how indecisively, out of life's affirmation. It should be added that the "Diary" is not to be taken as the poet's final word. A new volume, "Elegies of Exopetra," has already been promised and is now taking shape.

R. A. Picken (review date February 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Little Mariner, in Choice, Vol. 26, No. 6, February, 1989, pp. 946-47.

[In the following review, Picken calls Elytis's The Little Mariner his "most important work since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature," but complains that Olga Broumas's translation fails to convey the musicality and imagery of Elytis's poetry.]

The Little Mariner, published in Greece in 1985, and here translated into English for the first time, is quite clearly Odysseas Elytis's most important work since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979. In it he attempts, as he has done in so much of his poetry, to correlate his ecstatic, lyrical response to the physical world with a somber, reflective, even philosophical meditation on his country's long history. It is a highly structured work, in which alternating prose poems and lyrical passages are separated by four "spotlights," shining into dark corners of Greek history and illuminating scenes of injustice and betrayal. Olga Broumas, who has already translated a selection of Elytis's poems (What I Love), fails to convey in English very much of the poet's celebrated musicality, verbal magic, or sparkling imagery. More lamentably, certain passages of her translation are quite incomprehensible, while the Greek text always makes sense despite the poet's sometimes obscure use of language. There is a preface by Carolyn Forché, which gives the reader guidance on how to approach the poem, and brief notes that explain several possibly unfamiliar references and some of the linguistic choices the translator made.

Hugh M. Crane (review date June 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Little Mariner, in Small Press Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 3, June, 1989, pp. 47-8.

[In the following review, Crane complains that there are problems with the structure of Elytis's The Little Mariner.]

Out of his long life Odysseas Elytis has made a long poem, The Little Mariner. Ironically, it consists mostly of prose, as even a poet's life must. Another imbalance, in the structure, sharpens this point. Four types of sections—"The Little Mariner," "Anoint the Ariston," "With Light and Death," and "What one Loves"—are presented in succession three times, but with one more each of "The Little Mariner" and "Anoint the Ariston" rounding out the total to fourteen. Only the three sections of "With Light and Death," together with the "Entrance" and "Exit," are written in verse. The remaining prose modulates from "The Little Mariner" sections—where it reads like the captions of a bitter slide show of Greek history—through the ethical meditations in poetic prose of "Anoint the Ariston," to the catalogs of "What One Loves," a checklist of cultural literacy, a glossary of Elytis' poetic vocabulary, and "Snapshots" of islands and ports. Prose is, thus, the mode of the temporal and of defeat. The losses of "The Little Mariner" sections literally surround and out-number the personal experiences of "What One Loves." But the final image of the former, the escape of Bishop Makarios from assassins, suggests a way out, leading to the last section of "Anoint the Ariston," where a discussion of poetry, the mode of the immortal, is laid in the scales. Throughout the poems of "With Light and Death" Elytis has been developing images of eternal youth, powerful yet innocent, of androgynous but undeniable sexuality, and the "Exit" offers some grounds of assurance that we may return to the beginning.

The difficulties posed by the poem's structure, which is even more elaborate than this sketch suggests, do not arise from its complexity, although there is the weakness of summation, of an attempt to reconcile long accounts in shorthand. More problematic are the long, dull sections of "What One Loves," particularly "The Travel Sack" and "Aegeodrome." The former inventories a personal museum of Elytis' favorite masterpieces, right down to the Kochel numbers of Mozart's works. If this is to escape pedantry, if by its flatness we are meant to see the inadequacy of high culture in balance against injustice, we have a clear example of the fallacy of imitative form. Likewise with the lifeless lexicon of "Aegeodrome." Furthermore, the overall metaphor of journey and return produces too little sense of motion to raise it above the triteness and limpness of convention. And the central image of innocent sexuality is shaded at times by voyeurism.

Elytis' verse can excite the verbal imagination. His imitations of Greek epigraphy and of Sappho generate ambiguity at several levels, even about the identity of individual words; the second plays fully with Sapphic lacunae. Whatever form Broumas' pun on the "Greek state" takes in the original, it wonderfully encapsulates the forces pitted against each other.

Despite his inclusion of Mozart et al., however, Elytis' "Greek state" is no symbol for Western culture. Europeans, never mind Americans, will sense a call for Greek cultural hegemony ("a lost Greek empire. For the sake of language, not anything else"), a hope that "Even the Franks might Hellenize," and admiration for a "small Alexander the Great."

Robert Shannan Peckham (review date 26 April 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Encounters on a Voyage," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4595, April 26, 1991, p. 24.

[In the following review, Peckham discusses the themes of voyaging and seafaring found in Elytis's Idiotiki Odos.]

"The first thing God made", George Seferis once observed, "was the long journey." Images of voyaging and seafaring abound in modern Greek poetry, from Solomos to Cavafy and Seferis, and they also pervade many of Odysseus Elytis's own collections. Elytis has published a critical appreciation of the writer Alexandros Papadiamantis (1976), whose masterful short stories evoke the sea and coastline of his native Skiathos, and from Elytis's early volume Prosanatolismi (1940), through to his celebrated poem To Axion Esti (1959), and his more recent Anichta Chartia (1974) and O Mikros Naftilos (1985), a preoccupation with travelling and the sea is conspicuous.

The motif of sea and navigation is manifest in Elytis's new book, Idiotiki Odos, which consists of two prose meditations on poetry and painting. As the title suggests, many of its themes echo those of his previous booklet, Ta Demosia ké ta Idiotika, (1990). While the phrase "private way" itself carries connotations of travelling, the heading of the second section "Full and By" is explicitly nautical (as are many of the thirty-five coloured illustrations by the poet which accompany the text). In Idiotiki Odos, Elytis declares that "there are times when I feel like a boat in a garden" ("Iné phorés pou ésthanomé varka sé kipo") a phrase reminiscent of the "small sailor of the garden" of his earlier poetry. In "The Odyssey", from an earlier collection (1971), the protagonist fantasizes about a series of voyages and in the process his house is transformed into a boat, which he pilots through an imaginary landscape. The poet's hallucinatory journey recalls Rimbaud's "Le Bateau ivre" and becomes a fantastical expedition through the currents and undercurrents of a vast poetic tradition.

For Elytis, as for Seferis, the "long journey" is erotic. The foam of the ship's prow is associated with sexual energy; in Idiotiki Odos words jostle at the tip of the artist's pen, "as if they are looking for something, spring up to the point of sprinkling the face" ("San kati na zitané anapidoun os to simio na sé pitsilnané ké sto prosopo"). Many of Elytis's travel poems are punctuated by erotic encounters, whether actual or conjectural, just as the protagonist in "The Odyssey" fantasizes about a woman exposing her "sea urchin … in sea-depths unexplored". The poet is an explorer who manages the boat as best he can.

"The great sea is five to six thousand words", Elytis notes in Idiotiki Odos, "and my vessel a space of up to fifteen steps in length which goes up and down continually". With the standard Greek dekapentasyllavos, or fifteen-syllable line, as his measure, the poet must negotiate his passage through the turbulent history of the Greek language. This witnessed the contest for supremacy between demotic and purist. In 1976 the struggle formally ended when standard modern Greek was adopted as the official language, with dimotiki as its core. Elytis himself is a member of the "Greek Language Society" which was established in the early 1980s to promote the reciprocity of purist and demotic. In the same way Elytis's poetry moves between popular speech and highly stylized verse. As the poet himself asserted in a recent interview, he exploits the many linguistic registers, ancient, Byzantine, ecclesiastic, contemporary, idiomatic, purist and demotic. It is precisely this dense linguistic texture that makes his poetry so difficult to translate.

The travelling metaphor in Idiotiki Odos becomes progressively polysemous as it extends, not only to an itinerary through an imaginary geography, but to Elytis himself as he paces the constricted space of his Athenian apartment. There are references to painters such as Braque, Juan Gris, and Picasso, whom the poet befriended on his séjours in France from 1948 to 1952; and the relationship between painting and travel is expressed in a remark made by Picasso. When Elytis asked him about the fact that he never went on journeys, Picasso answered: "Instead of running after the world, isn't it better to get it to come close to you?… all five continents, I have them inside my atelier." In To Axion Esti painting, sea and poetry are inextricably bound up, as the poet dips his brush "into the humble bucket and paint: / the new hulls, / the new gold and black icons!" Just as Cavafy maintained that he felt a hundred and twenty-five voices telling him he could write history, Elytis has admitted that "a million voices inside me were saying yes—I could be a painter". It was Elytis's relationship to painting, as well as his many ties with france, that formed the basis of an exhibition held in 1988–9 at the Pompidou Centre, dedicated to the poet.

An admirer, like George Seferis, of the Greek artist Theophilos, who died in the year Elytis's first poems were published (1935), and about whom he has written, Elytis was also a close friend of the art-collector Tériade. It was Tériade who converted his Villa Natacha into an art centre, as well as inaugurating a museum dedicated to Theophilos in Mytilini; and who introduced Elytis to Matisse and Picasso, in 1948. It was during his first trip to Paris also in 1948, that Elytis made the acquaintance of André Breton, René Char, Paul Eluard, Pierre-Paul Jouve and Tristan Tzara. But although he was greatly influenced by French poetry, it was painting that proved a more decisive influence on his own work. Throughout Idiotiki Odos Elytis is intent on revealing the correspondences and equivalences of poetry and art. He is fascinated by what he calls "geometries", a preoccupation which relates to his interest in Cubist art. The complex architectonic form of poems like To Axion Esti, which alternates between odes, hymns, and prose passages, or The Monogram (1970), might be elucidated with detailed numerical charts, as Andreas Kalvos provided for his odes in I Lyra (The Lyre, 1824). A collage technique, including extracts from numerous writers, among them lines from another poet-artist, Blake, is employed in The Little Sailor.

Finally, Elytis's pseudonym itself constitutes a linguistic collage, incorporating four major components of his mythology: "Ellas" (Hellas), "Elpida" (Hope), "Eleftheria" (Freedom), and "Eleni" (Helen). At the same time the name Elytis puns on the modern Greek word alytis, meaning vagabond; the epithet, in fact, which Homer employs to describe the disguised Odysseus. The poet adopted the name Elytis as a way of evading the connotations of his own name, Alepoudelis, which had become inextricably linked with the brand of soap manufactured by his family. As Elytis observes in Idiotiki Odos: "Love for the material doesn't have any relation to the materialistic perception of life."

Jeffrey Carson (review date Summer 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Elegiac Elytis: 'Elegies of Jutting Rock'," in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 445-46.

[In the following review, Carson discusses Elytis's use of elegy as the form for his Ta elegia tis Oxopetras.]

Odysseus Elytis's eightieth birthday, on 2 November 1991 was widely celebrated in Greece. Literary journals undertook dedicatory issues, television and radio produced special programs, concerts were given. Elytis answered us with the best gift of all, a new volume of poems, Ta eleyía tis Oxópetras (The Elegies of Jutting Rock), his fourth since his Nobel Prize in 1979.

Jung suggests that the artist in old age must reverse the expansions of youth and focus on what is most meaningful and permanent. The aged Rembrandt's sitters radiate a dim halo of inner, unnatural light, and Titian's later backgrounds smolder with sanguine brushstrokes. The old Yeats climbs in his last works toward a joyful simplicity based on reality's archetypes, and the euphonious Stevens grows harsher in his imagination's recasting of memory and desire. Beethoven's mysterious late quartets plumb imagination and introspection as a deliverance from the tragedy of experience, and Bach wrote fugues in his last year that to this day no one is sure how to execute. With the concentration and ardent assurance of his recent period, Elytis joins this group.

In his collected prose Elytis, describing his paradise, invokes the kore poetry and "birds which even amid the truth of death insist on warbling in Greek and on saying 'eros,' 'eros,' 'eros.'" Elytis's first great poem, "Anniversary" (from his 1939 book Prosanatolizmí (Orientations) is a meditation on death. Eros and thanatos continue to be his theme. The Elegies, however, are not "about" death; rather, Elytis peers through death to eternal values as he used (and continues) to peer through pelagic waters and crisp ethers. Thus the title is apt, since an elegy is a lyric whose formal lament meditates on the death of a person or the tragedy of existence and finds solace in the contemplation of eternal values. "Jutting Rock" translates the Greek Oxópetra, the name of a deserted rocky promontory on the island of Astypalaea; the poet has in mind the sound and image rather than the place.

Elytis is doing nothing else than trying more concretely than ever to get into words the ultimate diaphaneity he has always attested. The difficulties of the book are not in the writing but in the subject. That is why Elytis has developed, yet again, a new style, different from the many he has previously found useful.

For a model, Elytis took Hölderlin's elegies, which deal with the impossible ideal and golden youth. The look of Hölderlin's lines and techniques of construction deliberately recall Pindar, always one of Elytis's exemplars. (Like Elytis, Pindar thinks perceptually, not conceptually, and, with one exception, no two of his elaborate meters are identical.)

In the third Elegy, "Cupid and Psyche," Elytis remembers how Hölderlin transformed his love for a real girl into poetry (called "Diotima"), and, like Hölderlin, he affirms that "within the Futile and the Nothing" exists "that unascertained something": this is the thesis of all fourteen of the Elegies. "Cupid" in Greek is Eros; Psyche is the word for "Soul." Their story was probably first told in Apuleius' Latin romance The Golden Ass (after 125 A.D.). After the girl Psyche lost her god-lover by looking at him, Venus set her many tasks, one of which was to bring back from Persephone a box containing Beauty; opening it, Psyche found nothing; Cupid eventually married her. In Plato's Symposium Socrates says that the priestess of Mantinea, Diotima, taught him his metaphysic of Eros. The disastrous end of Hölderlin's love affair with Susette Gontard (whom he called "Diotima") upset his fragile psyche; when he heard of her death in 1802, he went mad. Caught permanently in the "Harpy's claws" of madness, Hölderlin, who was Swabian, often signed his name "Scardanelli."

Elytis calls Dionysios Solomos "my master" and often invokes him in his poetry, always heroically. Solomos (1798–1857) is the founder of modern Greek poetry. Born on the Ionian island of Zakynthos, then part of Italy while most of Greece belonged to Turkey, he was educated in Italian, and so he did not know the purist Greek in which other writers waxed poetic. Though he never visited the Greek mainland, he proved that the spoken language was capable of great subtlety and exaltation in a poetry of national, ethical, and stylistic struggle. In his verse romantic emotion is controlled by exquisite diction, rigorous form, and undoubted sincerity. Because he was forging something new, he completed little, but every one of his fragments has seeded much Greek poetry. The short poem "Glory," for example, on the Ottoman slaughter of the populace of tiny Psara, showed how the demotic tongue could rival Simonides for grave brevity: "On the deepblack ridge of Psara / Glory walking in solitude / meditates on the bright young heroes / and on her hair she wears a wreath / woven of the scanty grasses / remaining on that desolate land."

Solomos's most famous longer poems are "The Hymn to Liberty" (whose first stanzas are the Greek national anthem), "On the Death of Lord Byron," and his masterpiece, the fragmentary work "The Free Besieged," in which the starving Greeks of Missolonghi heroically resist the Turks during the War of Independence. In his great 1985 sequence The Little Seafarer Elytis imagines the poet's spirit at Missolonghi, and in a set of epiphanies called "Snapshots" he recalls a visit to Solomos's house: "Late afternoon in Akrotiri, at the old house of Dionysios Solomos. In front of the large, round, stone table in the garden. Awe and silence. And also a muffled, strange consolation." These words are the starting point for "Awe and Devastation of Solomos."

What Yeats called Byzantium and Pound Ecbatana, Elytis calls "Lost Commagene," which in daily life is unattainable. Commagene was a small Hellenistic kingdom founded in 162 B.C. in northern Syria, later annexed to Roman Syria by Vespasian. Eupalinus of Megara built the underground aqueduct on Samos—a remarkable engineering feat—during the reign of Polycrates (d. 522 B.C.). (Possibly the association was triggered by the founder of Commagene's capital [150 B.C.], King Samos.)

The concluding elegy, "The Last of Saturdays," allows an ascension into the pellucid sea depths and sunlight of the other side. Socrates was warned by invisible powers to prepare for the ascension by writing poems. The line "the stone and the tomb and the soldier" refers to icons of the Resurrection. This is the Elegies' permanent principle of hope, tragically metaphorical. The last line is "Death the sun without sunsets." The last line, that is, of "The Elegies of Jutting Rock"; Elytis is still writing, and, as he has said, there is a different version waiting to be built on Homer's beaches.

Publishers Weekly (review date 3 October 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Open Papers, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 40, October 3, 1994, pp. 64-5.

[In the following review, the critic discusses how Elytis's Open Papers tells of a career guided by luck, risk, and a belief in modernism.]

Part autobiography, part statement of artistic principles, the five essays collected here cover Elytis's journey to poetry, from discovering the works of Sappho at age 16 to winning the Nobel Prize in 1979. Born in Crete in 1911, at 18 Elytis heard "a secret voice" that led him to abandon everything for his art. As a student in the 1930s he was totally absorbed in the Surrealists with Éluard, Breton and Lorca offering new perspectives to a young man already influenced by Freud, Baudelaire and Novalis. He pays tribute to these and other writers in the essay "For Good Measure," which also honors Picasso for his insistence on turning upside down one's view of the natural world. In the most interesting section of the book, "Chronicle of a Decade," Elytis recounts the time spent seeking out writers and periodicals that would be sympathetic to newfound passion for a lyrical and mystical vision of life. Elytis's credo is set forth in the title of the last essay—"Art-Luck-Risk." If, through the decades, Elytis did take political and artistic risks, this clear articulation shows that his art was not guided by luck or risk alone but by a real belief in modernism.

T. L. Cooksey (review date December 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Open Papers, in Library Journal, Vol. 119, No. 21, December, 1994, p. 91.

[In the following review, Cooksey praises Elytis's Open Papers.]

Ostensibly, these five essays by the Greek poet Elytis, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Literature, explore his development as a poet and his continuity with classical and modern Greek and European literature and myth. In a deeper sense, the selections represent autobiographical prose poems that reproduce the poetic process as Elytis meanders from an awareness of light and nature to passion and ecstasy, from the possibilities of metaphor in Greek to the influences of Rimbaud, Jouve, Lautréamont, Lorca, Ungaretti, and others. Joining the ranks of George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos, Elytis attempts to establish the contours of an authentic modern Greek poetry that is true to the Hellenic spirit. Of interest to students of modern poetry in general.

Christopher Merrill (review date 1 October 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Voyages of a Poet," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 1, 1995, p. 9.

[In the following review, Merrill discusses Elytis's development as a poet which the artist traces in his Open Papers.]

The flowering of Greek poetry in the 20th Century is one of the most interesting counterweights to the endless tragedy named modern European history. Constantine Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianos, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, Odysseus Elytis—these poets have shaped the internationalliterary landscape. And none is more exuberant in praising the things of the world than Elytis, about whom Lawrence Durrell wrote, "The Greek poet aims his heart and his gift at the sublime—for nothing else will do." Elytis calls himself a solar metaphysician; in the essays that make up Open Papers, his primary statement on poetry, he explores "the mystery of light," the dazzling heart of his work.

Born in 1911 on the island of Crete, Elytis has spent most of his life in Athens, writing poetry and creating collages. In the 1930s he helped introduce French Surrealism into Greek poetry—a signal event in contemporary letters. Elytis adapted the ideas of André Breton and Paul Eluard to the Mediterranean world, and thus he heard that "secret voice [moving] within and beyond reasonable order, above and independent from time and in constant duration. To render its presence sensible even for a moment," he realized, "was the poet's mission." This he has achieved in books of poems bearing such titles as Sun the First, Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, The Axion Esti and The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty. In 1979 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Open Papers, first published in 1974 and translated now by Olga Broumas and T. Begley, is a hymn to his poetic sources. Here are sketches of the Greek landscape, memories of his first encounters with Surrealist writings and appreciations of pivotal figures like Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Eluard, Lorca, Reverdy and Picasso. This last Elytis wrote in French, in one sitting in 1951, after lunching with the great artist, who "seemed a rascal of 17, not a personage in his 70s."

Picasso was "a deep breath" for the poet, who in the wake of World War II, "in the huge hospital that Europe had become," was struggling to find his bearings. He had traveled to Paris in search of the most unfaithful of lovers, Poetry. Albert Camus and René Char among others befriended him, but it was at Picasso's table—where the artist's "analogies to life, to how we love or hate, danced before my eyes," Elytis writes that he learned a central truth: "What must be practiced—assiduously, infinitely and without the slightest pause—is anti-servitude, noncompliance and independence. Poetry is the other face of Pride."

These lines conclude his autobiographical "Chronicle of a Decade," a sweeping essay of nearly 80 pages charting the growth of the poet's mind. From his earliest university days to his excursions around Greece and thence to life during the Nazi occupation of his homeland, we see Elytis come of age.

Now he is reading the Surrealists, "[breathing] in what was perhaps the last pure oxygen" available to the spirit in the years before the world was plunged into war. Now he is pinned down by artillery fire, unaccountably thinking about Cavafy's ability to adapt to anything.

"Deep down we knew, we felt it," Elytis says of his literary circle's wartime experience, "poetry was hope's ultimate refuge from general scorn, its only free stronghold against dark forces."

He recalls Matisse painting "the juiciest, rawest, most enchanting flowers and fruits ever made, as if the miracle of life itself discovered it could compress itself inside them forever," even as the ovens of Buchenwald and Auschwitz were burning.

If at times Elytis' sentences seem tangled, that is because he believes that even in prose, "it is the poet's duty to risk sudden and uncontrolled coups d'esprit, to provoke new oscillations by syntactical intervention and to acquire, in style and speech, something of a young organism's shimmer or the carriage of a bird toward the heights." Indeed, in many places in "First Things First" and "The Girls," the opening essays of Open Papers, Elytis' prose takes on both the color and accent of his verse:

          On death's eve, tell me, how is a body suffered?
          On death's eve, tell me, how is a white voice written?
          We walked on some shore, not feeling each other. Someone's walking "was
        bothered by angel's wings." Until suddenly everything turned dark, and it seemed
        to him the far neck of the cove groaned deeply.

        It's that I couldn't bear to be half in this world; I went after Poetry as after a
        woman, to give me child, as though from one to the other I might not die. I never
        thought to cry that everything was dim. If it were possible to save a palmful of
        clear water! I cried in front of waves and saw in poems the sky clear.

This version of Open Papers is roughly half the length of the original book; the missing essays are devoted to Greek poets and artists largely unknown in this country. This, then, is a selected edition of Elytis' most important prose work—a fact overlooked in Sam Hamill's introduction, which is notably short on information; a glossary would also have been useful. Nevertheless, readers will be grateful to Broumas and Begley for their labor of love.

"I want the first glimpse of the world," the poet declares. "May I never lose Columbus' emotion. There are so many little things no one has managed to explore." Fortunately, through all of his poetic voyages Elytis has kept that "rare excitement" Cavafy advised a certain traveler to cultivate on his way back to Ithaca. The record of his explorations—physical, spiritual and literary—is one of Greece's modern glories. In Open Papers we learn how and why that came to be.

Mel Gussow (essay date 19 March 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Odysseus Elytis, 84, Poet and Nobel Laureate Who Celebrated Greek Myths and Landscape," in The New York Times, March 19, 1996, p. D23.

[In the following essay, Gussow presents an overview of Elytis's life and career.]

Odysseus Elytis, a Nobel Prize-winning Greek poet celebrated for his lyrical and passionate evocations of his country's history, myths and rugged landscape, died yesterday at his home in Athens. He was 84.

When Mr. Elytis (pronounced ee-LEE-tis) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979, the Swedish Academy said that his poetry, "against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clearsightedness modern man's struggle for freedom and creativeness." He was the second Greek poet to be named a Nobel laureate; the first was George Soferis in 1963. Both were part of a group of poets sometimes called the Generation of the 30's, and had a profound effect on Greek literature.

The Swedish Academy praised Mr. Elytis's most famous work, The Axion Esti (Worthy It Is) as "one of 20th-century literature's most concentrated and richly faceted poems." First published in 1950, it was his spiritual autobiography. In an appreciation in The New York Times at the time of the award, Edmund Keeley, who translated Mr. Elytis's work into English, compared him to Walt Whitman in his presentation of "an image of the contemporary Greek consciousness through the developing perspective of a persona that is at once the poet himself and the voice of his country."

Because sections of The Axion Esti were set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, the poet became especially popular with young people in Greece; they sing his songs in tavernas. Mr. Theodorakis called the epic poem a "Bible for the Greek people." Mr. Elytis once said, "I am personifying Greece in my poems…. All the beautiful and bitter moments beneath the sky of Attica."

Notably reticent, he lived modestly and avoided literary circles. The Nobel Prize, awarded in a year when Graham Greene was reportedly a favorite, brought him sudden international fame. As a result, he became an unofficial cultural ambassador for Greece. Although he published three books of verse in 1979, it was several years before he began writing again.

In one of the paradoxes of his life, he was called the "sun-drinking poet," because he often wrote about the themes of sun, light and purity, and also "the owl," for his habit of sleeping during the day and working at night.

Mr. Elytis was born on Nov. 2 1911, in Iraklion in Crete. His surname was Alepoudhelis. He took the name Elytis when he began writing poetry in his early 20's in order to avoid association with the family's prosperous soap-manufacturing business. The pen name, he said, was derived from a combination of Greek words meaning Greece, hope, freedom and Eleni, the figure in Greek mythology that personifies beauty and sensuality. All these elements appeared in his poetry.

In 1914, the Alepoudhelis family moved to Athens, where Odysseus grew up, spending his summers on islands in the Aegean Sea. As a young writer, he was greatly influenced by the Aegean experience and by the poetry of Paul Eluard, the French surrealist. He studied at the University of Athens School of Law, but left before he received his degree in order to devote himself to poetry. His first collection was published in 1930. In the early 1940's, he was an officer in the Greek army, fighting against Italian fascists in Albania. From that wartime experience came the poem, "Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign," a tribute to the national consciousness.

In 1948, he began The Axion Estl. It was 11 years before the book was published, along with a collection of verse Six and One Regrets for the Sky. Together, the two books firmly established his reputation. In "The Autopsy," one lyric in the collection, the central metaphor is that of Greece personified, surgically opened to reveal essential elements; the olive root, the heat, the sky and sand.

When he won the Nobel Prize at the age of 68, Mr. Elytis took the long, Homeric view of the award. He said: "The Swedish Academy's decision was not only an honor for me but for Greece and its history through the ages. I believe that it was a decision to bring international attention to the most ancient tradition in Europe, since from Homer's time to the present there has not been a single century during which poetry has not been written in the Greek language."

At the time, in characteristic Spartan fashion, Mr. Elytis was living in a two-room apartment in downtown Athens, and he vowed that the award and the $190,000 prize would not change his life. He said his life was based on the same laws governing poetry: "concentration on the basics, elimination of all superfluous things and of all falsehoods."

When two collections of Mr. Elytis's verse, Maria Nephele and Odysseus Elytis: Selected Poems (including "The Axion Esti"), were published in the United States in 1982, Rachel Hadas wrote in The New York Times Book Review that his "unique strength is the celebration of a landscape that is his protean theme, his finest invention." It is, she said, a terrain that "is both his beloved Greece and the human body, a vision rooted in the past and passionately imagined in a kind of floating, timeless present."

He also wrote many essays and created collages. Art was an important part of his life, and he frequently wrote about artists he had known, including Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti.

Mr. Elytis's doctor said that the poet had been hospitalized repeatedly in the last decade. He continued to write, however, and published a volume of poetry last year. A bachelor all his life, he said, "If I married, my poetry would suffer."

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the Mayor of Athens, said that the city was in mourning and that, as a result of Mr. Elytis's death, "Greece and the world are poorer in spirit, in creation, in inspiration."


Elytis, Odysseus (Poetry Criticism)