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."
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.
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.
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.