(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Green (review date 26 June 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andonis Decavalles (review date Winter 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roderick Beaton (review date 9 October 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Karl Malkoff (essay date Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andonis Decavalles (review date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andonis Decavalles (review date Summer 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joseph Garrison (review date July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Booklist (review date 1 September 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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C. E. Fantazzi (review date December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeffrey Carson (review date Winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 22 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The Virginia Quarterly (review date Autumn 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Andonis Decavalles (essay date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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R. A. Picken (review date February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Hugh M. Crane (review date June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Shannan Peckham (review date 26 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeffrey Carson (review date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 3 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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T. L. Cooksey (review date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Christopher Merrill (review date 1 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mel Gussow (essay date 19 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


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