Odysseus Elytis Elytis, Odysseus (Poetry Criticism) - Essay

Odysseus Alepoudhélis


(Poetry Criticism)

Odysseus Elytis 1911–1996

(Also transliterated as Elýtis; born Alepoudelis, also transliterated as Alepoudhélis) Greek poet, essayist, and critic.

An internationally acclaimed poet considered among the foremost Greek literary figures of the twentieth century, Elytis celebrated the splendors of nature while affirming humanity's ability to embrace hope over despair. Combining his interest in surrealism with lyrical evocations of Greek landscape, history, and culture, Elytis created poems that exalt the virtues of sensuality, innocence, and imagination while striving to reconcile these attributes with life's tragic aspects. Through his rejection of rationalism, Elytis suggested that truth resides in mystery, and he endeavored to establish parallels between the physical and spiritual worlds by blending elements of mythology, pantheism, anthropomorphism, and Christianity. A recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in literature, Elytis was cited by the Swedish Academy for writing "poetry which, against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clearsightedness modern man's struggle for freedom and creativity."

Biographical Information

The youngest of six children, Elytis was born in Iráklion, Crete, to a wealthy industrialist and his wife. He attended primary and secondary schools in Athens before enrolling at the University of Athens School of Law. As a youth, Elytis spent his summer vacations on the Aegean Islands, absorbing the seaside atmosphere that deeply informs the imagery of his verse. Also essential to Elytis's poetic development was his attraction to surrealism, which he developed during the late 1920s through the works of French poet Paul Éluard. In 1935, after leaving law school, Elytis displayed several visual collages at the First International Surrealist Exhibition in Athens and began publishing poems in various Greek periodicals.

During the fascist invasion of Greece in 1940 and 1941, Elytis served on the Albanian front as a second lieutenant in Greece's First Army Corps. The heroism he witnessed amid the tragedy and suffering of combat is reflected in his long poem Azma iroikó ke pénthimo yia ton haméno anthipologhaghó tis Alvanías (Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign). Following the publication of Heroic and Elegiac Song, Elytis ceased producing poetry for more than a decade, immersing himself in civic and cultural affairs. From 1948 to 1953, during the civil strife in Greece, Elytis lived in Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and wrote

articles in French for Verve magazine. After returning to Greece, Elytis published To áxion estí (The Axion Esti), which received both the National Poetry Prize and the National Book Award in 1960. Elytis died following a heart attack on March 18, 1996, in Athens.

Major Works

Elytis's early poems are light and sensual. His first collection of verse, Prosanatolizmi (Orientations), which focuses on the beauty of the Aegean landscape, emphasizes the significance of erotic forces in the progression of natural and human events. These poems also display Elytis's affinity for such surrealistic devices as the portrayal of supernatural occurrences, exploration of the unconscious, and personification of abstract ideas and natural phenomena. His poems became more erotic with each collection. Ilios protos (Sun the First Together with Variations on a Sunbeam) was interpreted by Andonis Decavalles as a catalog of "the seven stages in a girl's erotic experience and growth." Sun the First also touches on suffering and the need to transcend it, a theme that frequently reappears in later works. The long poem Heroic and Elegiac Song centers on the death of a young Greek soldier whose transfiguration and resurrection serves as an affirmation of justice and liberty. The poem advances Elytis's concerns with the merging of physical and spiritual existence and pays tribute to those individuals who resist oppression and defend freedom.

Elytis's later poems, which are often elaborately structured, combine the idyllic innocence and beauty of his early works with the painfully achieved wisdom of Heroic and Elegiac Song. In these later poems, Elytis examines the triumph of hope over despair, the union of spirit and flesh, and the richness of Greek culture and tradition. The Axion Esti, which is perhaps Elytis's best known work, is an intricately structured cycle alternating prose and verse. Indebted for much of its tone, language, symbolism, and structure to the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, The Axion Esti combines Christian elements and Grecian culture in an effort to reconcile life's dichotomies. Maria Neféli (Maria Nephele), another significant work in Elytis's canon, consists of a series of antiphonal passages between a liberated woman, who functions as a symbol of the individual in contemporary society, and an intelligent and mature poetic persona. This work further illuminates Elytis's preoccupation with humanity's ability to attain harmony amid the chaos of the modern world.

Critical Reception

Criticism of Elytis's poetry, though sparse, has for the most part been laudatory. Much of it centers on analysis and interpretation, which has proved challenging since his poetry varies significantly from one collection to the next in terms of theme, language, structure, and style. Several critics have attempted to place Elytis within a more established poetic tradition, comparing his works to that of such poets as Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and William Blake. As Decavalles noted "We cannot afford not to think of Blake, his innocence, his experience and his eventual marriage of heaven and hell. Elytis's progress has been identical, even to the point of his turning himself into the prophet of a new Paradise." Even so, Elytis is decidedly a Greek poet as Greece "for which he had always felt the most soul-stirring devotion, an almost sensual yearn ing for physical possession," according to Vincenzo Rotolo, is the most predominant feature of his poetry. It is the common thread that binds his early and more recent poetic works and distinguishes Elytis from other great poets.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Prosanatolizmi [Orientations] 1936

Ilios o protos, mazi me tis parallayies pano se mian ahtidha [Sun the First Together with Variations on a Sunbeam] 1943

Asma iroikó ke pénthimo yia ton haméno anthipologhaghó tis Alvanías [Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign] 1945

I kalosíni stis likoporiés [Kindness in the Wolfpasses] 1946

To áxion estí [The Axion Esti] 1959

Éxi ke mia típsis yia ton ourano [Six and One Regrets for the Sky] 1960

To fotódhendro ke i dhekáti tetárti omorfiá [The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty] 1971

O ílios o iliátores [The Sovereign Sun: Selected Poems] 1971

To Monograma [The Monogram] 1971

Thánatos ke anástasis tou Konstandínou Paleológhou [Death and Resurrection of Constantine Paleologhos] 1971

Ta ro tou erota [The Ro of Eros] 1972

O fillomandis [The Leaf Diviner] 1973

Ta eterothali [The Stepchildren] 1974

Maria Neféli: Skiniko piima [Maria Nephele] 1978

Tria piimata me simea evkerias [Three Poems Under a Flag of Convenience] 1982

Imeroloyio enos atheatou Apriliou [Diary of an Invisible April] 1984

O mikros naftilos [The Little Mariner] 1985

Krinagoras 1987

Ta elegía tis Oxópetras [The Elegies of Jutting Rock] 1991

Other Major Works

Ho Zographos Theophilos [The Painter Theophilos] (criticism) 1973

Anihta hartia [The Open Book] (essays) 1974

I mayia tou papadiamandhi [The Magic of Papadiamantis] (essays) 1978

Anafora ston Andrea Embiriko [Report to Andreas Embirikos] (prose) 1980

To Domatio me tis ikones [The Room of Images] (note-books) 1986

Ta Dimosia ke ta idiotika [Public and Private Matters] (prose) 1990

I idiotiki odos [Private Way] (prose) 1990

En lefko[In White] (prose) 1992

Hans Rudolph Hilty (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odysseus Elytis: A Contemporary Greek Poet," in Nette Zürcher Zeitung, July 17, 1960, pp. 59-63.

[In the excerpt below (an article especially liked by Elytis himself), Hilty explores Elytis's relationship to French surrealists and its impact on his use of traditional Greek themes and images in his poetry.]

Elytis (born Odysseás Alepoudhélis) is descended from an old family native to Lesbos and was born in 1911 in Iráklion, Crete—where, by the way, Kazantzakis also first saw the light of day (1883). He grew up in Athens and began studying law in 1930, but soon felt himself drawn more to writing and to art. He was particularly captivated by the expressive...

(The entire section is 1964 words.)

Andonis Decavalles (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eros: His Power, Forms and Transformations in the Poetry of Odysseus Elytis," in Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light, edited by Ivar Ivask, University of Oklahoma Press, 1975, pp. 45-58.

[Below, Decavalles explores one of Elytis's principle themes, the "progressive story of Eros's nature … his external and internal discoveries in the process of building a world at once natural, human esthetic, earthly and universal, timely and timeless, finite and infinite, mortal yet immortal. "]

I have conceived my figure between a sea that comes to view right behind the whitewashed little wall of a chapel and a barefoot girl with the wind lifting her...

(The entire section is 7286 words.)

Edmund Keeley (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Voices of Elytis's The Axion Esti," in Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light, edited by Ivar Ivask, University of Oklahoma Press, 1975, pp. 81-6.

[Keeley argues that Elytis's The Axion Esti follows in the tradition of earlier twentieth-century Greek poets such as Angelos Sikelianos, and examines the various voices present in the poem.]

The response of Greek readers to Odysseus Elytis's most ambitious poem, The Axion Esti, has been ambivalent during the fifteen years since it appeared in Athens in late 1959 to end more than a decade of silence by a poet then considered to be Greece's best hope among the "younger" generation of poets to...

(The entire section is 2395 words.)

Vincenzo Rotolo (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The 'Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign': The Transition from the Early to the Later Elytis," in Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light, edited by Ivar Ivask, University of Oklahoma Press, 1975, pp. 75-9.

[In the following excerpt, Rotolo argues that the Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign marks a transition in Elytis's poetry, the war between Italy and Greece heightening his love for his native land and forcing upon him a wider consciousness, at once more human and more political.]

The poetry of Odysseus Elytis prior to the Ázma iroikó ke pénthimo yia ton...

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George Economou (review date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Two Voices of Odysseus Elytis," in The Washington Post Book World, September 6, 1981, pp. 8, 14.

[In the following review, Economou explores the two narrative voices present in Maria Nephele and compares Elytis's Maria to Dante's Beatrice.]

That The Nobel Prize for Literature creates a specialized, sometimes ephemeral, industry for translators and publishers is a fact of modern literary history. It is also true that a good deal of poetry of the 1979 recipient of the prize, the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, while not popular in this country at that time, was fairly widely translated and available to those who make it their business to know the...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

Karl Malkoff (review date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry with an Accent," in American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, January-February, 1987, pp. 22-3.

[In the review below, Malkoff examines Olga Broumas's literal translations in the collection What I Love: Selected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, and concludes that the translations, though problematic and inconsistent at times, are still "interesting" and of some value.]

New translations of poems (which, like most of those selected by Olga Broumas for What I Love, have been recently rendered into English by more than competent translators) promise something new. In this respect, Olga Broumas, for better and for worse, does not disappoint. She informs us...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

Andonis Decavalles (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

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

[In the excerpt below, Decavalles examines Three Poems under a Flag of Convenience, suggesting that the collection effectively captures Elýtis's transcendental vision and the transformative powers of art.]

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,...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Gregory, Dorothy M. T. "Odysseus Elytis." in European Writers, Vol 13, edited by George Stade, pp. 2955-988. New York: Scribner, 1983.

Provides an overview of Elytis's background and influences; contains selected bibliography.


Elytis, Odysseus. "Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1979." Georgia Review XLIX, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 99-104.

Translation of Elytis's acceptance speech upon his receipt of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1979.

Friar, Kimon. "Introduction." In The Sovereign Sun, pp....

(The entire section is 218 words.)