Odysseus Elytis Elytis, Odysseus (Pseudonym of Odysseus Alepoudelis) - Essay

Odysseus Alepoudhélis


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elytis, Odysseus (Pseudonym of Odysseus Alepoudelis) 1911–

Elytis is a Greek poet, essayist, and critic whose work combines French surrealism with the Greek tradition of heroism and myth. His poetry is infused with surrealistic images, celebrating the splendors of the natural world: the Aegean Sea, the sun, the human body. Elytis was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Hans Rudolf Hilty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The broad perspective of an open mind and a vital, concrete bond with the archetypal gestures of life, magical surrealism and unbroken Hellenic substance merge in [Elytis's] poetry to form painfully illuminating images of Mediterranean existence. (p. 675)

The landscape [evoked in the poem "Body of Summer"] is perceived by the poet as archaically harsh and glaring—considering Elytis's birthplace, one is tempted to say "Cretan"—and man does not appear here as lord of creation, as the measure of all things. Human "Morphé," human form is, to be sure, assumed by the forces of the landscape and of time: the summer, the earth, youth, memory. But man, for his part, is scarcely anything other than a lens, in which the burning force of the landscape and of time is refracted—a reflection, and perhaps a deceptive one. It becomes apparent that whenever Elytis introduces man into the landscape, he almost always resorts to questioning inversions…. In the unquestionable process of landscape and time, man is a disruptive, painful question—there is the Act, in which man can participate directly in the unquestionableness of nature:

It was April, I remember, when I felt for the first time
your human weight
Your human body of clay and corruption
As on our first day on earth
It was the festival of the amaryllis….

To be sure, Elytis never speaks of love in the present, but rather always in the form of memory. Memory, however, can incorporate not only things past but also things future; every utterance about paradise lost engenders the hope for a paradise to be regained. "Echo" is both a favorite word and a key word in Elytis's poems. Sky and sea, sea and land, landscape and man, man and woman, and also the ecstasies of time—past, present and future—stand opposite one another in an echo-relationship: the one the echo and reflection of the other. The oeuvre of this Greek poet is a canon of such echoes and reflections. Hence, the singularity of his images: they are never pale, always colorful, vivacious; but as soon as they begin to coalesce into something tangible, they flicker out again. It is in this flickering realm that Elytis finds his most beautiful poetic signatures: "earth of Boeotia brightened by the wind," "dressed in the music of grass," "dust of maiden dreams," "a clover of light on your breast."

In the poetry of Lorca, of Ungaretti, of Quasimodo and of Montale, and in recent Hebrew poetry from Israel, there can be found related poetic emanations of Mediterranean life. Precisely such a juxtaposition of thematically similar literary phenomena, however, serves to clarify and delineate the Greek's highly individual poetic profile: it is more expansive and inclusive, with longer lines and multi-layered images. A characteristic feature of the Greek language is that, even in the hands of modern Greek poets, it has preserved...

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Lawrence Durrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is no easier way to damn a poet than to call him "a poet's poet," and this has so frequently happened to Odysseus Elytis that it is time to insist on the accessibility of his work, on its timeliness and relevance to ourselves. His language is so choice, his range of metaphor so large, that he has presented quite a task to his translators. He has a romantic and lyrical mind which deploys a metaphysic of complete intellectual sensuality—the rocks, the islands, the blue Greek sea, the winds; they are at once "real" and also "signatures" in the alchemical sense. He makes his magic with them, and it is peculiarly Greek magic that he makes. Using the most up-to-date methods in technique, he has, at the same time, insisted that at bottom poetry is not simply a craft or a skill but an act of divination. His poems are spells, and they conjure up that eternal Greek world which has haunted and continues to haunt the European consciousness with its hints of a perfection that remains always a possibility. The Greek poet aims his heart and his gift directly at the sublime—for nothing else will do. That is why we respond with ardour and wonder when we see a poet like Elytis taking the same path as the ancients, and at his best, joining forces with them to affirm the eternal Mediterranean values of his land and tongue.

Lawrence Durrell, "The Poetry of Elytis," in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 4, Autumn, 1975, p. 660.

Christopher Robinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fascination that French poetry exerted on Elytis is a force in his creative development to which he himself has frequently referred, but only in general terms. It has been described as the influence of "surrealism," but that in itself is an umbrella concept covering a great many different writers and approaches to poetry. To define the French influence we must look first at what overlap exists between the esthetic views of Elytis and those of his French contemporaries, and then see how far that common view of poetry is the controlling factor in Elytis's own poetic development. (p. 679)

In fact, what Elytis means when he aligns himself with the French surrealists is simply a) that he accepts the attempt to achieve an ideal world without giving up the values of the sensual world, and b) that he accepts the role of poetry as a revelatory medium rather than a literary form. He himself seems to realize that, in that sense, his use of the term "surrealist" is misleading, for he … [maintains] that it is merely a convenient label for a group of experimenters who are not held by it to fixed beliefs on any aspect of poetry, since their allegiance is to the ideal of poetry itself and not to a school. Clearly Elytis's views sit awkwardly alongside the official surrealist line proposed by Breton. (pp. 679-80)

[In an article on Éluard published in Nea Ghrámmata in 1936], Elytis concentrates largely on compositional aspects, stressing that the elliptic syntax, reliance on conglomerations of logically unrelated images and the boldness of epithets all contribute to the immediacy of poetic communication by eliminating rational response…. In all this Elytis emphasizes the "surreal" elements of disconnectedness and "surprise." But when we turn to the poems chosen, the impression is rather different. Rather than the Éluard of "la terre est blue comme une orange," Elytis has selected eleven poems that represent Éluard in his more direct approach to the physical world and the human senses, where the interpenetration of man and nature in erotic imagery is more easily accessible to the reader.

I am not suggesting that Elytis in any way misrepresents Éluard. His selection emphasizes the way in which Éluard's poems appeal to the senses in their imagery, with nature, especially sunlight, birds and stones, and the four elements very much to the fore, alongside the human body. But it also shows the degree to which Éluard's images are not random…. The composite picture of Éluard's poems offered by Elytis's selection is primarily that of [the] interrelation between psychological states—mostly erotic—and the external world through carefully selected sets of images blending dynamic and static qualities in a language that is highly elliptic but firmly grounded in the vocabulary of ordinary life. (pp. 680-81)

We can observe a similar pattern in Elytis's translations from Jouve. This time, the article [published in 1938] concerns itself less with technical matters than with the metaphysical implications of Jouve's poetry, which Elytis defines as blending mysticism, awareness of death, erotic passion, the forces of nature and the desire for a permanent solution to the paradox of life…. The only slight distortion in his theoretical presentation of Jouve—but it will be a significant one—is the insistence on the importance of the physical world, for, though important to the thought of the poetry, it plays a lesser part in the imagery than is suggested.

However, the selection of poems by Jouve that Elytis translates is a great deal less representative than the objectivity of his article might lead one to expect....

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Declining the immaculate discipline and the consent to eliminate that rescues Cavafy's poetry for the critical intelligence, Elytis is a paragon of enthusiasm, of protean moods, multiple forms; his purpose, in essence: the deification of the sun and of the body of man. An early poem, "Breasting the Current," establishes the mercurial disposition which—despite commentators' belief that the invasion of Crete and combat experience universalized his reactions—thereafter characterizes his oceanic output…. [The Sovereign Sun] will give you the full range of this unconfined and to me bewildering poet; it also includes a part of Elytis' masterwork, The Axion Esti…. The title simply (!) means "worthy it is" and has a double Mariolatric connotation. When you learn further (as a merely introductory sample) that Elytis plays with anagrams that include his own name and Ellas (Greece), you begin to suspect that an advanced degree of Eliotic abstruseness lurks in the translator's description of the three-part poem as "a kind of spiritual autobiography which attempts to dramatize the national and philosophic extensions of a highly personal sensibility." I'm forced to add that for me this seems a highly arrogant sensibility, trying to be all things to all men while incorporating the national tragedy in his own persistently conspicuous ego. Part One ("Genesis") is a truly beautiful invocation of eternal Greece; the second, a kaleidoscopic vision of the War and its sequel, written in an anthology of styles, prose and verse, descends into bathos at the end with a vulgar and recognizably Whitmanesque prophecy; the final section is a Gloria in praise of some state of mind or soul I can't trust myself to interpret briefly, since I haven't half clarified its eloquent if unrestrained idealism and its eclectic imagery. I fear you have to be Greek to accept this poem (and many more by Elytis) in all its verbal diffusion and its emotional importunity. (pp. 587-88)

Vernon Young, "The Body of Man," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975/76, pp. 585-600.∗

Edmund Keeley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Odysseys Elytis … was the youngest of the group of pre-World War II poets, sometimes called the Generation of the 30's, who established the new voice and new sensibility that still dominate modern Greek literature.

George Seferis, Greece's other Nobel laureate in literature, also belonged to this group and helped to shape the direction of Elytis's early work, which shared an enthusiasm for contemporary French poetry as well as for sources in the rich Greek tradition.

Elytis's first poems offered a surrealism that had a distinctly personal tone and a specific local habitation. The tone was lyrical, humorous, fanciful, everything that is young; the habitation was the landscape of...

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