Elytis, Odysseus (2 November 1911 - 18 March 1996)

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Odysseus Elytis (2 November 1911 - 18 March 1996)

Marinos Pourgouris
Brown University


1979 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

Elytis: Banquet Speech

Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1979

Elytis: Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1979

BOOKS: Prosanatolismoi (Athens: Pyrsos, 1939);

Îlios o Prôtos (Athens: Glaros, 1943);

Asma Îrôiko kai Penthimo gia ton chameno Anthypolochago tîs Alvanias (Athens: Ikaros, 1946);

To Axion Esti (Athens: Ikaros, 1959); translated by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis as The Axion Esti (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974; London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1980);

Exî kai mia Typseis gia ton Oyrano (Athens: Ikaros, 1960);

O Îlios o Îliatora (Athens: Ikaros, 1971);

To Fôtodentro kai î Dekatî Tetartî Omorfia (Athens: Ikaros, 1971);

Ta Rô tou Erôta (Athens: Asterias, 1972; expanded edition, Athens: Ypsilon, 1986);

To Monogramma (Athens: Ikaros, 1972);

O Zôgrafos Theofilos (Athens: Ermeias, 1973);

Ta Eterothalî (Athens: Ikaros, 1974);

Anoichta Chartia (Athens: Ikaros, 1974); translated by Olga Broumas as Open Papers (Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1995);

Î Mageia tou Papadiamantî (Athens: Ermeias, 1976);

Sîmatologeion (Athens: Ermeias, 1977);

Anaphora ston Andrea Empeiriko (Athens: Ikaros, 1978);

Maria Nefelî (Athens: Ikaros, 1978); translated by Athan Anagnostopoulos as Maria Nephele: A Poem in Two Voices (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981);

Odysseas Elytîs: Eklogî, 1935-1977, edited by Renas Chatzidaki (Athens: Akmon, 1979);

Tria Poiîmata me sîmaia Eykairias (Athens: Ikaros, 1982);

Îmerologio enos Atheatou Apriliou (Athens: Ypsilon, 1984); translated by David Connolly as Journal of an Unseen April (Athens: Ypsilon, 1998);

O Mikros Nautilos (Athens: Ikaros, 1986); translated by Broumas as The Little Mariner (Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1999);

To Dômatio me tis Eikones, by Elytis and Eugenios Aranitsis (Athens: Ikaros, 1986);

Ta Dîmôsia kaí ta Idiôtikî (Athens: Ikaros, 1990);

Idiôtikî Odos (Athens: Ypsilon, 1990);

Ta Elegeia tîs Oxôpetras (Athens: Ikaros, 1991); translated by Connolly as The Oxopetra Elegies (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1996);

En Leukô (Athens: Ikaros, 1992); translated by Connolly as Carte Blanche: Selected Writings (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1999);

Dytika tîs Lypîs (Athens: Ikaros, 1995);

O Kîpos me tis Aytapates (Athens: Ypsilon, 1995);

2 X 7 E. (Athens: Ikaros, 1996);

Ek tou Plîsion, edited by Ioulita Iliopoulou (Athens: Ikaros, 1998);

Aytoprosôpografia se Logo Proforiko (Athens: Ypsilon, 2000).

Collection: Poiîsî (Athens: Ikaros, 2002).

Editions in English: The Sovereign Sun: Selected Poems, translated by Kimon Friar (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974; Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1990);

Odysseus Elytis: Selected Poems, edited by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (New York: Viking, 1981; London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1981);

Six and One Remorses for the Sky: And Other Poems, translated by Jeffrey Carson (Helsinki: Eurographica, 1985);

What I Love: Selected Poems of Odysseas Elytis, translated by Olga Broumas (Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1986);

The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, translated by Carson and Nikos Sarris (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997);

Eros, Eros, Eros: Selected and Last Poems, translated by Broumas (Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1998).

TRANSLATIONS: Deuterî Grafî [anthology] (Athens: Ikaros, 1976);

Sappho, Sapfô (Athens: Ikaros, 1984);

Î Apokalypsî tou Iôannî (Athens: Ypsilon, 1985;

Krinagoras, Krinagoras (Athens: Ypsilon, 1987).

Odysseus Elytis is one of Greece’s most celebrated writers, and in 1979 he became the second Greek poet (after George Seferis in 1963) to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. He is generally credited, along with other poets of the 1930s generation, with redefining modern Greek identity in his poetry. His 1959 collection To Axion Esti (Worthy It Is; translated as The Axion Esti 1974) exemplifies this redefinition of “Greekness.” In his early career, Elytis was a fervent supporter of Surrealism and Freudian theory. Apart from his prolific poetic career, Elytis is known as a theorist and a painter. Influenced by Max Ernst’s technique of collage, his paintings are often visual depictions of his poetic images, combining Byzantine iconography with sexuality, geographical loci with aesthetic symbolism, or abstract colorful representations with sensuality. Many of Elytis’s poems have become relatively popular through having been set to music by such composers as Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, Dimitris Lagios, and Linos Kokotos.

Elytis was born Odysseus Alepoudellis on 2 November 1911 in Heracleion, Crete. He was the sixth and last child of Maria and Panayiotis Alepoudellis, both from the island of Lesbos, who had moved to Crete and established, in 1895, a successful soap factory. In 1914 the Alepoudellis family business moved to the suburb of Piraeus in Athens, and young Odysseus and his family spent their summer vacations on Lesbos, a place often visited by the prominent Greek politician Eleftherios Venizelos, who became a close friend of the family. Elytis’s childhood memories of the Aegean landscape and seascape later significantly influenced his poetry.

In 1916 he enrolled in the Makris Private School, which he attended for seven years. In the years that followed, the Alepoudellis family traveled extensively in Italy, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and Germany and spent some summers on the island of Spetses. In 1918 the family suffered the loss of Elytis’s eldest sister, Myrsini, who died on 31 December. In 1925, while vacationing on Spetses, Elytis’s father died of pneumonia. Elytis later recounted the impact of these emotional wounds in “The Chronicle of a Decade,” published in Anoichta Charta (1974; translated as Open Papers, 1995). He was deeply affected by these losses; less than two years after his father’s death, Elytis suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced to spend two months in bed. His aspirations of becoming a track athlete were ended. While recovering in bed he fervently read Greek and foreign literature. The most profound influence on him was the work of Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, which introduced him to poetry. “Cavafy was needed for me to be shaken,” he later wrote in Anoichta Chartia; “A deep curiosity got hold of me, that was later destined to turn into a deep interest, and later on, a deep admiration.”

In 1928 Elytis graduated from high school. That year the poet Kostas Karyotakis, whose pessimistic poetry explored the miserable state of society in the aftermath of industrialization and capitalism, committed suicide, and in subsequent years he became more popular among the youth than any other poet of the time. Strongly influenced by both Cavafy and Karyotakis, Elytis attempted to write his first poems in imitation of them. When, however, he discovered in Kaufmann’s bookstore, in Athens, the Surrealist poetry of Paul Eluard, he came to the realization that the poetry of Cavafy and Karyotakis did not correspond to the way he experienced life as a young man. The discovery of Eluard’s poetry is, perhaps, the most significant event in his early poetic orientation.

In 1930 Elytis entered the Law School of Athens University, where he met the young poet George Sarandaris, who ushered him even further into Surrealism. By 1934 Elytis destroyed all the poems he had written previously and wrote a new, short collection titled “Prota Poiîmata (First Poems). These poems were published in 1939 in the volume Prosanatolismoi (Orientations), in an edition of 310 copies. The first lines of the first poem of the collection read: “Eros / The archipelago,” and these words became the most frequently repeated and explored concepts in his poetry. As the poet later confided in an interview on National Greek Television (included in Aytoprosôpogra-fia se Logo Proforiko [2000, Self Portrait]), “It is characteristic that the first two verses of my book [Prosanatolismoi] are: ‘Eros, the Archipelago.’ In a way this foreshadows the entire evolution, in terms of content, of my poetry.”

The most important year in Elytis’s poetic development was 1935, the year he met and befriended the poet Andreas Empeirikos. Together they attempted to promote the movement of Surrealism in Greece. Empeirikos had recently returned from France and was close to the French Surrealist circle. Along with Empeirikos and the painter Stratis Eleftheriadis-Teriade—the publisher of the Well-known French Surrealist periodical Minotaure— Elytis traveled to Lesbos, where he was involved in the discovery and promotion of the art of folk painter Theophilos Hadjimichael (known by his first name), who died in 1934. Their efforts eventually culminated in the opening of a Theophilos Museum in Lesbos (in 1964) and the recognition of Theophilos by European artistic circles. Elytis’s experiences in this regard are recounted in a 1973 long essay titled O Zôgrafos Theofilos (The Painter Theophilos).

Also in 1935, mobilizing around the literary magazine Nea Grammata, which presented his first poems, Elytis met the renowned poets Giorgos Katsimbalis and Seferis—a close friend of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In 1936 he also met the poet Nikos Gatsos, of whom he became a lifelong friend. In the next few years, this generation of mostly young writers and artists established Greece’s first literary cafés and produced some of the most profound poetry in modern Greek literature. They became known as “The Generation of the Thirties.”

In 1940 Benito Mussolini’s army invaded Greece, and Elytis was recalled to serve as a second lieutenant on the Albanian front. He had already joined the army in December 1936 and had trained at the School of Reserve Officers in Corfu from January to September 1937, completing his service in March 1938. During Mussolini’s invasion, Elytis’s unit served under fire, and after a long and tiring campaign, he contracted typhus and was admitted, severely ill, to a hospital in Ioannina. He recovered and returned to an Athens that was, by then, occupied by German forces. During the Nazi occupation of Greece (1941-1944), Elytis worked on two collections of poetry: Îlios o Prôtos (1943, Sun the First, published in an edition of 600 copies) and Asma Îrôiko kai Penthimo gia ton chameno Anthypolochago tîs Alvanias (Song Heroic and Mourning for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, first published in 1945 in the periodical Tetradio, then as a book in 1946).

Îlios o Prôtos is filled with images of beautiful naked bodies, sunny Greek landscapes, and blooming orchards. It clearly states the refusal of the poet to succumb to the weight of oppression and presents his resistance to whatever violates the free expression of the human spirit. The first poem of the collection—all the poems are numbered and usually bear no titles-expresses precisely this resistance to the “darkness” that is often imposed on people: “I no more know the night death’s fearful anonymity / In an inlet of my soul moors a fleet of stars.” This refusal to compromise and adjust to an oppressive force does not simply refer to the particular historical period of Greece’s occupation by the Germans. The suggestions are clearly universal, referring to a wider definition of oppression. In some poems, resistance to the historically dark times is suggested in images of natural regeneration:

It’s a long time since the last rain was heard
Above the ants and lizards
Now the sky burns boundless
Fruits paint their mouths
Earth’s pores slowly open
And by water dripping in syllables
A huge plant looks the sun in the eye!

Sanguine messages of both personal and collective regeneration are scattered throughout the collection: “What I love is born incessantly,” and “we build and dream and sing.”

The second collection that draws from Elytis’s wartime experience is Asma Îrôiko kai Penthimo gia ton chameno Anthypolochago tîs Alvanias. Elytis described the principal concept behind the collection to his translator Kimon Friar:

The virtues I found embodied and living in my comrades formed in synthesis a brave young man of heroic stature, one whom I saw in every period of our history. They had killed him a thousand times, and a thousand times he had sprung up again, breathing and alive. He was no doubt the measure of our civilization, compounded of his love not of death but of life. It was with his love of Freedom he recreated life out of the stuff of death.

As in Îlios o Prôtos, Elytis constructs an alternative reality that transubstantiates the enslaving conditions of war and death into a song for freedom. The heroic stature of the second lieutenant is juxtaposed to those forces that violate human freedom: “Those who committed the evil—a black cloud took them / But he who confronted it in the sky’s roads / Ascends now alone and resplendent!” The mood of the collection is slowly uplifted with each poem: whereas the collection begins with a mournful lament over the passing of the sun and the coming of darkness, it ends with a hope of regeneration made possible because of the second lieutenant’s sacrifice: “Now the dream beats faster in the blood / The world’s rightest moment rings out: / Freedom, / Greeks show the way in the darkness: / FREEDOM / For you the sun will weep with joy.”

Following the conclusion of World War II and the departure of the German occupying forces from Greece, a civil war broke out between leftist guerillas and the national government. Like many other Greeks who were suspected of leftist sympathies, Elytis was denied a passport and remained confined in Greece until 1948, when he was finally given permission to travel outside the country. Leaving Greece, he went to Paris, where he met most of the poets he had been admiring from a distance, including André Breton, Pierre Reverdy, Pierre-Jean Jouve, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eliot, and Eluard (Elytis had already met Eluard during the latter’s visit to Greece in 1946). The painter Eleftheriadis-Teriade also put him in contact with Pablo Picasso. Still in Paris in 1949, he met the painters Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, and Alberto Giacometti. Though the Greek government refused to renew his passport, he stayed in Paris, and in 1950 he met Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. His encounters and friendships with these writers, painters, and thinkers are described in “The Chronicle of a Decade.” He returned to Athens in 1951.

During the 1950s Elytis worked on and published two major collections: To Axion Esti (1959, Worthy It Is, translated as The Axion Esti, 1980) and Exî kai mia Typseis gia ton Oyrano (1960, Six and One Remorses for the Sky, published in an edition of 550 copies). To Axion Esti is, without a doubt, Elytis’s most popular collection both in Greece and abroad. He began working on it around 1954 and sent it to his publisher in 1959; the first edition was 815 copies. It is a monumental and long work divided into three sections that bear hymnological titles: “The Genesis,” “The Passion,” and “The Gloria.” In “The Genesis” seven freeverse hymns are presented, each describing stages in the creation of the Greek landscape (by the poet/seer) and the aesthetic principles that accompany it. The first line of the section is “In the beginning the light,” bringing to mind the Book of Genesis (“Let there be light,” 1.3) as well as the first sentence of John’s Gospel (“In the beginning was the Word,” 1.1). The poet continues to literarily re-create the Greek landscape (the intense light of the sun, the archipelago, the islands) until his psyche begins to resemble the world he has created: “This then am I / and the world the Small the Great.” The second section, “The Passion,” is the most architecturally complex part. Translators Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris, in The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis (1997), describe the structural division of this section (”sequence”):

Three forms are represented in this sequence: free verse psalms (P), odes of complex metrical responsion (O), and prose readings (R). There are three sections, identically structured: PPOROPPOROPP. In the first, consciousness confronts tradition (Greeks resist in Albania in World War II); in the second it confronts danger (occupation of Greece in WWII); in the third, it overcomes danger (civil war, post WWII).

“The Gloria” is a celebration of Greek landscape, poetic creation, and the feminine body. It celebrates the triumph of the eternal creative forces (both natural and human) over ephemeral human concerns: “Now the Gods’ humiliation Now the ashes of Man / Now Now the zero / and Forever the world the small the great!” Though To Axion Esti was highly praised in academic and artistic circles, it remained largely unknown to the Greek public until the composer Theodorakis set it to music in 1964. The success that followed the first performance of the work was unprecedented.

Like To Axion Esti, Exî kai mia Typseis gia ton Oyrano was sent to the publisher in 1959. This collection, however, does not present a unified theme but rather consists of seven poems with different topics. In one of the most powerful poems of the collection, “The Autopsy,” the body of a young man is dissected; but instead of flesh and blood, what is revealed is emotional or imagistic experiences, always connected to Nature: “the olive root’s gold” in his heart, “the intense cyan-blue horizon line” beneath his skin, and “glaucous traces in the blood.” In what became a recurring technique in Elytis’s poetry, landscape is infused with sentiment and becomes a projection and celebration of the human body.

In the 1960s, translators abroad began to take notice of Elytis’s poetry, and translations of his poems appeared in German, English, Italian, and French. During this period, Elytis traveled extensively. In 1961 he journeyed to the United States as a guest of the State Department; he visited New York, Washington, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Buffalo, and Boston, and he met Yves Bonnefoy and Allen Ginsberg. In 1962, invited by the Soviet government, he visited the Soviet Union along with Empeirikos and Giorgos Theotokas; the three traveled to Odessa, Moscow, and Leningrad, and met Yevgeny Yevtuchenko. In 1965, invited by the Union of Bulgarian Writers, he visited Bulgaria and toured the country accompanied by the local poet Elisaveta Bagriana. In 1967, just before the military coup, he visited Egypt (Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan), and in 1969, unable to work under the fascist regime in Greece, he moved to Paris, where he stayed for about a year. In 1971, still in self-exile, he stayed in Cyprus for four months.

In 1961, while aboard the ship bringing him to the United States, Elytis composed the song cycle “Little Cyclades,” included in his 1972 collection Ta Rò tou Erôta (The Rhos of Eros), which was later set to music, like To Axion Esti, by various Greek composers. The songs of “Little Cyclades” praise the luminous beauty of the Cycladic landscape, as presented through emotionally charged moments in life: love (as in the song “Marina”), separation (as in “The Little Northern Wind”), or simply joy (as in “The Poulia”). Elytis’s interest in lyric poetry and music also led to the composition in 1970 (during his stay in Cyprus) of a libretto, O Îlios O Îliatora (1971, The Sovereign Sun), which was put to music by Lagios. These songs return to the ever-present (in Elytis’s poetry) symbol of the sun and the emotional values it comes to represent in the Greek landscape. As in Îlios o Prôtos, Elytis evokes natural elements of the Greek landscape (sun, winds, mountains, sea) and man-made elements that harmoniously coexist with this landscape (fishing boats, orchards, beautiful young bodies) in order to confront the historical darkness of political oppression and social stagnation.

In 1972 the Greek fascist government offered him the Grand Prize for Literature, which he refused. Around the same time he was awarded a grant by the Ford Foundation, which enabled him to survive the economic hardships of the early 1970s. Meanwhile, he continued to compose poetry but refused to publish anything in Athens (because of the dictatorial regime). His two collections of poetry composed during the Junta rule were published in Cyprus instead. To Fôtodentro kai î Dekatî Tetartî Omorfia (The Light-Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty) was written between 1969 and 1970 and was published in 1971. In these poems, as he explained in a 1979 interview with Andonis Decavalles (quoted in The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis), Elytis returns to the use of light: “I give Greece again through the analogy of light upon the senses.... I express in them [the poems] my poetic understanding of the quintessence of the Greek realm.” The twenty-one poems of the collection are united not only in their use of light but also, as the critic Mario Vitti notes, in their attitude toward death:

In the Light-Tree death is something immanent in humans, a natural, unavoidable, and unknown episode. Fear towards it remains in the boundaries of stoicism. The poet does not attempt a mood of rebellion against it; neither does he try to justify it by turning it into a power tending towards light....

The second collection of poetry published by Elytis in Cyprus during the Junta years was To Monogramma (The Monogram), which appeared in 1972. It is one of his most erotic collections, consisting of seven poems, all addressed to an unknown and absent beloved. One of its astounding characteristics is its strict architectural structure. Each poem has a specific number of lines (all multiples of seven), and the lines within each poem are visually symmetric. The first poem (seven lines) has a 3-1-3 line structure; the second poem (twenty-one lines) has a 3-4-7-4-3 line structure; the third poem (thirty-five lines) has a 1-7-5-9-5-7-1 line structure; the fourth and longest poem (forty-nine lines) has an 11-1-7-11-7-1-11 line structure; the fifth poem is symmetrical to the third; the sixth to the second; and the seventh to the first. This volume was not the first time Elytis used symmetry and architecture in his poetry. In fact, all of his collections are related to the number seven (usually including seven poems or multiples of seven). In addition to To Monogramma, the number appears continually in his poetry: Prosanatolismoi includes “Seven Nocturnal Heptastichs” (seven poems of seven lines each), “Windows toward the Fifth Season” (seven poems), “Orion” (seven poems of seven lines each), “Dionysos” (seven poems), “Clepsydras of the Unknown” (seven poems), “Clear Skies” (twenty-one poems), and “The Concert of the Hyacinths” (twenty-one poems); Îlios o Prôtos includes twenty-one poems; and Asma Îrôiko kai Penthimo gia ton chameno Anthypolochago tîs Alvanias includes fourteen poems. Many of his collections are also symmetrical, as, for example, the poems of Prosanatolismoi.

In 1974 Elytis published Ta Eterothalî (The Stepchildren), two units of seven poems each. All the poems of this collection are dated and placed in chronological sequence: the first, “Psalm and Mosaic for Spring in Athens,” is dated 1939, and the last, “Mystic Versicles,” is dated 1972. Apart from the abundant references to ancient Greek sources, this collection includes odes or poems referring to particular individuals that Elytis befriended: Picasso (“Ode to Pablo Picasso”), the poet Sarandaris (“George Sarandaris”), the painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos Ghikas (“Small Analogon”), and Eleftheriadis-Teriade (“Villa Natacha”).

After the fall of the Junta, Elytis began working on two poetry collections and various essays. In 1974 he published Anoichta Chartia, a volume of essays dating from the mid 1930s to the 1970s. This volume includes the lengthy “Chronicle of a Decade,” one of the most important accounts of the reception of the Surrealist movement in Greece and one of the first attempts to establish a specifically Hellenic modernist literary tradition. He also worked extensively on a series of essays that were eventually published, in 1992, under the title En Leukô (translated as Carte Blanche: Selected Writings, 1999). This publication includes Anaphora ston Andrea Empeiriko (Report to Andreas Empeirikos, first published in 1978)—a moving eulogy of his good friend, who passed away in 1975. Around 1974 Elytis also began working on one of his most powerful collections, which was published in 1978 under the title Maria Nefelî (translated as Maria Nephele, 1981).

Maria Nefelî is divided into three parts, each representing a “dialogue,” or simultaneous monologues, between two voices: Maria Nephele, a girl of the city, and the Antiphonist, the voice of the poet. Etymologically, “Nephele” in ancient Greek means “cloud,” giving a mood of inapproachable melancholy to the character; apart from its literal meaning as “the other voice,” the word “Antiphonist” designates, in the Orthodox tradition, the chanter who sings responsively to, or reciprocates, the main chant. Elytis also returns to a strict architectural structure and the use of the number seven. Each of the three parts is divided into fourteen poems: seven are narrated by the Antiphonist and seven by Maria Nephele. Visually, each poem narrated by the Antiphonist is placed next to a poem narrated by Maria Nephele (or vice versa), forcing an exchange between the two characters. When Maria Nephele is distressed (as in “Bonjour Tristesse”), the Antiphonist transforms sadness into a playful song (as in “Morning Exercises”); Maria Nephele talks about the tourist-filled modern island of Mykonos as the island of her choice, whereas the Antiphonist prefers the more isolated and unpopular island of Patmos; she speaks of her “Twenty-Four-Hour Life,” while he speaks of “The Lifelong Moment”; she argues that every age has its Trojan War, and he responds that every age has its Helen.

In 1975 Elytis was offered an honorary doctorate from the Philosophical School of the University of Thessaloníki, and he was proclaimed an honorary citizen of Lesbos. In 1979 he was proclaimed an honorary citizen of Heracleion, Crete. In 1975 Books Abroad dedicated an entire issue to his poetry; in 1976 Exî kai mia Typseis gia ton Oyrano was translated into French; and in 1978 Ingemar Rhedin began translating To Axion Esti into Swedish. The greatest surprise for the poet, however, came in October 1979, when the secretary of the Swedish Academy announced the awarding of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Literature to Elytis “for his poetry, which, against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clear-sightedness modern man’s struggle for freedom and creativeness.” Other candidates for the 1979 Nobel Prize in Literature included Graham Greene, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Simone de Beauvoir. The announcement was understandably received with tremendous enthusiasm in Greece.

Elytis went to Stockholm to receive the prize. His lecture was delivered in French rather than Greek, not simply because he was fluent in that language but because, as evident throughout his essays, he wished to emphasize direct communication rather than translation, which (as he stressed in his lecture) is always bound to fail. On 8 December, in the Stockholm Concert Hall, Elytis began his lecture by setting the general mood of his poetic ideology:

May I be permitted, I ask you, to speak in the name of luminosity and transparency? The space I have lived in and where I have been able to fulfill myself is defined by these two states. States that I have also perceived as being identified in me with the need to express myself.

The connection between poetical expression and life as well as the association of life with “luminosity and transparency”—inevitably linked with the Greek landscape-are indeed characteristics that underline the conceptualization of his entire poetic creation. To put it simply, he links ethical values to physical values. In Anoichta Chartia the concept is further elaborated: “In Greece light and history are one and the same thing—meaning that in the final analysis the one reproduces the other, the one interprets and justifies the other, even the void which is blackness; for this country, by offering equality of ethical and physical values, does not happen to know any other chiaroscuro.”

The awarding of the Nobel Prize increased media attention to Elytis’s work, and for the first time public interest was also drawn to his artwork, which he had engaged in as far back as 1935. Stockholm’s Thyelska Galeriet exhibited many of his collages in 1979, and the Zoumboulakis Gallery exhibited them in Athens the following year. His first artistic attempts had been greatly influenced by Surrealism and particularly by the paintings of Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Oscar Domínguez. Elytis turned to the art of collage more seriously in the 1960s, and he continued to create collages, inexhaustibly, until his death. His conceptions are sometimes purely based on color and shape (as in the work of Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque, or Matisse), or they represent images that are often found in his poetry. Some of these collages were published in his collections: his early collages are included in Ta Rô tou Erôa and in Ilias Petropoulou’s Elytîs, Moralîs, Tarouchîs (1974), while the collages of the 1980s and 1990s are mainly collected in the 1986 publication To Dômatio me tis Eikones (The Room with the Icons, with text by Eugenios Aranitsis) and Elytis’s 1995 book of prose titled O Kîpos me tis Aytapates (The Garden with the Self-Deceptions).

Elytis lived and continued to create for seventeen years after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. His post-Nobel popularity kept him busy. The few years that immediately followed the Nobel presentation were spent almost entirely on award receptions, presentations, and speeches around the globe. In 1980 he was presented with an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne in France, and in 1981 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of London. He was also declared an honorary citizen of Larnaca and Paphos (Cyprus), and he was invited by the Spanish prime minister Adolfo Suárez González to visit Spain, where he was declared an honorary citizen of Toledo (in the fall of 1980). The Royal Society of Literature (United Kingdom) presented him with the Benson Medal in 1981, an award given as lifetime recognition in poetry, fiction, history, and belles lettres. Also in 1981, Rutgers University, in the United States, established the Elytis Chair of Modern Greek Studies in honor of the poet, and in March 1982 he was presented, by Mayor D. Beis of Athens, with the Gold Medal of Honor of the City of Athens.

During the 1980s Elytis published three collections of poetry: Tria Poiîcmata me sîmaia Eykairias (1982, Three Poems Under a Flag of Convenience), Îmerologio enos Atheatou Apriliou (1984; translated as Journal of an Unseen April, 1998), and O Mikros Nutilos (1986; translated as The Little Mariner, 1999). He also published three books of translations: Sapfô (1984, Sappho), Î Apokalypsî tou Iôannî (1985, St. John’s Revelation), and Krinagoras (1987). Along with Deuterî Grafî (Second Writing), published in 1976, these translations are testimony to the wide spectrum of poetic interests and influences in Elytis’s work. His translations include the poetry of Jouve, Eluard, Ungaretti, Arthur Rimbaud, Comte de Lautréamont, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Federico García Lorca, Bertolt Brecht, and Isidore Lucien Ducasse.

Tria Poiîmata me sîmaia Eykairias presents three long poems (“The Garden Sees,” “The Almond of the World,” and “Ad Libitum”), each divided into seven subsections. In “The Garden Sees,” the poet reaffirms his conviction that art is a force that creates life:

Whether Plotinus was right
or not will one day become clear
the great eye with its transparency
and a sea behind it like Helen
binding the sun
together with other flowers in her hair
a million signs
omega zeta eta.

(A rearrangement of the three Greek letters “omega zeta eta” reveals the word “Zoe,” which means Life.) The Garden “sees”: it is not merely a decorative realm but also a creative force that looks back at the viewer, much like art does. Life is also celebrated in “The Almond of the World,” where the poet playfully views it as “One more cigarette / which lasts until we expire,” but “with really superb moments.” The last section, “Ad Libitum,” ends with a revealing postscript: “the more I age the less I understand / experience untaught me the world.” Old age brings the poet to a wise silence, where “the omega leans to alpha” and “disunites time.”

Elytis returns to the beginning of his youthful interests with Îmerologio enos Atheatou Apriliou. It is a dated diary of forty-nine entries, spanning from 1 April to 7 May 1981, and it is reminiscent of his early experiments with Surrealism. Although, as he often repeated, he was never an orthodox Surrealist, the entries in this collection appear to be more personal; the images are dreamlike, often reaching deep into the poet’s childhood memories.

Elytis’s greatest poetic achievement of the 1980s is undoubtedly O Mikros Nautilos. Like To Axion Esti and Maria Nephele, it is a highly structured collection composed of four sections in prose, titled “To Anoint the Repast” (each section is divided into seven short narratives), alternating with three sections in verse, titled “With Both Light and Death” (each section is divided into seven poems). Each prose section is preceded by a separate part, titled “Spotlight,” and each verse section is followed by a section titled “What One Loves.” The entire collection is introduced with an “Entrance” and concluded with an “Exit.”

The “Entrance” introduces “journeying” as the underlying theme of the collection. The seven scenes of each “Spotlight” describe horrible moments in the history of Greece and specific moments of betrayal from ancient to modern Greece, such as Miltiades’s condemnation and Phidias’s imprisonment in the fifth century b.c.; Emperor Constantine’s arrest of his own son Crispus in the Byzantine years; and the imprisonment of Kolokotronis, a celebrated Greek hero of the 1821 revolution. “What One Loves” is a compilation of “snapshots,” or moments, that the poet collects in his metaphorical travel bag: lines of poetry (from Sappho, Sophocles, Cavafy, William Blake, Friedrich Hölderlin, Novalis, and Pound), references to concerts, symphonies, and songs (by Antonio Vivaldi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig von Beethoven, Theodorakis, and Hadjidakis), paintings (by Paul Klee, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, and Jean Arp), or simply words that the poet finds interesting (such as Alexandra, anemone, bergamot, and bougainvillea) and geographical places with which he has some emotional connection (Corfu, Lesbos, Aegina, Cyprus, Chios, and Cairo). “Anoint the Repast” and “With Both Light and Death” are the most elaborate sections of O Mikros Nautilos, as the poet expresses himself in lucid philosophical concepts or emotionally charged images. The “Exit” ends in a surprisingly pensive tone with the poet speculating whether his personal creations are able to influence the public sphere (and as a consequence provide a sense of justice), or whether they simply remain “small happinesses” relevant only to himself.

Elytis further continues to explore the relationship between the public and the private spheres in two works published in 1990: Ta Dîmôsia kaí ta Idiôtikî (The Public and the Private) and Idiôtikî Odos (The Private Road). In the last five years of his life he also wrote two poetic collections, Ta Elegeia tîs Oxôpetras (1991, The Elegies of the Jutting Rock, translated as The Oxopetra Elegies, 1996) and Dytika tîs Lypîs (1995, West of Sorrow). Publication of Ta Elegeia tîs Oxôpetras coincided with the celebration of Elytis’s eightieth birthday. It is a book of fourteen poems that, as Carson suggests, are modeled after the elegies of Hölderlin. Like O Mikros Nautilos, this collection also begins with the announcement of a journey: “Now, I look forward to the boat that, even if you get in it, / Will arrive empty at a long sea Kerameikos / With stone Korai holding flowers.” The poems that follow take the reader to a fixed time where the actions of poets are “elegized.” The poet remembers Hölderlin’s mad love for Susette Gontard (in “Cupid and Psyche”), Novalis’s beloved, twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn (in “Elegy of Grüningen”), and one of his favorite nineteenth-century Greek poets, Dionysios Solomos (in “Awe and Whelming of Solomos”). One of the most personal elegies of the collection is “La Pallida Morte” (Pale Death), which, as Elytis’s translators suggest, was composed after he “spent part of the winter of 1989-90 in the Evangelismos Hospital in Athens, suffering from anemia.” The poem announces this “near-death” experience from its opening line (“Scentless is death yet / The nostrils catch it like / A flower. . .”), and it gradually moves to declaring Death’s inability to kill the poet: “But of these men, death, nobody knows anything to say / Except the poet. Jesus of the sun. Who then rises every Saturday / He. The Is, the Was, and the Coming.”

Elytis’s final collection, Dytika tîs Lypîs, was written in the summer of 1995 in Porto Rafti, Greece, where the poet was vacationing with fellow poet Ioulita Iliopoulou, who had been his partner for about a decade (he had never married nor had children). The seven poems of the collection are “more dense,” as Elytis wrote to Carson, “and for this reason more difficult, but closer to my ideal.” The title of the collection signals its mood: on one hand, the life of the eighty-three-year-old poet is moving westward toward its setting; but on the other hand, it also moves “west of sorrow,” that is, beyond where sorrow itself sets. The biographical events in the poet’s life are insignificant: “what remains,” the collection concludes, “is poetry alone.”

Elytis died of a stroke in his apartment in Athens (23 Skoufa Street) on 18 March 1996. A posthumous collection titled Ek tou Plîsion (From Nearby) was put together by his heir, Iliopoulou, and was published in 1998.

Odysseus Elytis’s popularity in Greece remains astounding. He became a national commodity after the Nobel Prize, as evident in a continuous inclusion of his name in cultural and national symbolism: more than a dozen streets in Greece and Cyprus are named after him; a life-sized statue sculpted by Yiannis Papas was placed in one of Kolonaki’s most central squares (Plateia Dexamenis); and a cruise ship, a theater on the island of Ios, and a hotel in Thessaly have all been given his name. Biographical information and scattered lines from his poetry adorn tourist pamphlets enticing visitors to travel to the Greek islands. Such cultural incorporation comes as a stark contrast not only in relation to the deeper essence of his poetry but also to the ascetic life he had led in his small apartment. Elytis’s poetry clearly resists superficial classifications. His multifaceted style of writing, along with his lucid theoretical formulations, earned him an enduring place in modern Greek literature.


Roderick Beaton, Eisagôgî stî Neoellînikî Logotechnia (Athens: Ekdoseis Nefelî, 1996);

Books Abroad, special Elytis issue, 49, no. 4 (1975);

Andonis Decavalles, O Elytîs: Ap? to Chryso ôs to Asîmenio Poiîma (Athens: Kedros, 1988);

Decavalles, Odysseus Elytis: From, the Golden to the Silver Poem (New York: Pella, 1994);

Nikos Demou, Odysseus Elytis (Athens: Ekdoseis Nefelî, 1992;

Daniil Iakov,Î Archaiognôsia tou Odyssea Elytîs (Athens: Ekdoseis Zîtros, 2000);

Ivar Ivask, Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981);

Andreas Karantonis, Gia ton Odyssea Elytîs (Athens: Ekdoseis Papadima, 1992);

M. G. Meraklis, Dekapente Ermîneutikes Dokimes gia ton Odyssea Elytîs (Athens: Ekdoseis Patakî, 1984);

Andreas Mpelezinis, O Opsimos Elytîs (Athens: Ikaros, 1999);

Ilias Petropoulou, Elytîs, Moralîs, Tsarouchîs (Athens: Pleias, 1974);

Mario Vitti, Gia ton Odyssea Elytîs (Athens: Ekdoseis Kastaniôtî, 1998);

Vitti, Î Genia tou Trianta: Ideologia kai Morfî (Athens:Ermîs, 2000);

Vitti, Odysseas Elytîs (Athens: Ermîs, 1991).