BORN: 1911, Heraklion, Crete, Greece
DIED: 1996, Athens, Greece
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
The Axion Esti (1959)
Maria Nefeli (1978)
The Little Mariner (1988)
West of Sadness (1995)
An internationally acclaimed poet who is considered among the foremost Greek literary figures of the twentieth century, Odysseus 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. 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 clear-sightedness modern man's struggle for freedom and creativity.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Summers by the Sea The youngest of six children, Elytis was born in Heraklion, 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.
Artistic Awakening 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. His first collection of verse, Orientations, focuses on the beauty of the Aegean landscape. 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. In his next volume, Sun the First, Elytis confirmed his predilection for examining nature's intrinsic relationship with human spirituality.
Reflections of War in Poetry During World War II, Italy and Germany were allied. Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini, grew anxious to emulate the territorial expansion of Germany's leader Adolf Hitler, and resolved to seized Greece. During the Italian 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 Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign. Centering on the death of a young Greek soldier whose transfiguration and resurrection serves as an affirmation of justice and liberty, this work advances Elytis's concerns with the merging of physical and spiritual existence and pays tribute to those individuals who resist oppression and defend freedom.
Immersion in Civic and Cultural Affairs 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 a period of civil war and subsequent civil unrest in Greece, Elytis lived in Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and wrote articles in French for Verve magazine. Several years after returning to Greece, Elytis published The Axion Esti, 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 incorporates elements of Christianity and images of Grecian landscapes and culture while augmenting Elytis's concern for the spirituality of the material world.
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; in 1962 he visited the Soviet Union; in 1965 he toured Bulgaria; in 1967, just before the military coup, he visited Egypt; and in 1969 he moved to Paris.
1979 Nobel Prize in Literature 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. 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 received with tremendous enthusiasm in Greece.
Post-Nobel Popularity 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 Poiîmata 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 Nautilos (1986; translated as The Little Mariner, 1999).
West of Sadness Elytis's final collection, Dytika tîs Lypîs (1995, translated West of Sadness) 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, “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 on March 18, 1996. A posthumous collection titled Ek tou Plîsion (From Nearby) was put together by his heir, Iliopoulou, and was published in 1998.
Works in Literary Context
Elytis's poetry is often read in the context of surrealism, the artistic movement known for its rejection of objective reality. Indeed, he is the translator of numerous surrealist texts into Greek and has written extensively on the subject, many of these essays collected in the volume The Open Book. Significantly, in 1991 an exhibition of Greek poetry and painting, including work by Elytis, was staged at the Georges Pompidou Centre Paris, titled “Surrealist Greeks.” This title is especially accurate in describing Elytis, because although Elytis's work does incorporate many of the elements of surrealism, it is equally important to remember where Elytis comes from, as he infuses his writing with the rich culture, heritage, landscapes, and literary traditions of his native Greece.
“Greek Reality” Although Elytis engages with contemporary surrealism in his poems, it would be misleading to exaggerate the extent of the poet's commitment to any movement. Even in the early verse, surrealism is adapted (to borrow Elytis's own term) as the poet confronts “Greek reality,” drawing upon the resources of a native poetic tradition. In fact Elytis has been outspoken in stressing his intimate poetic relationship to Greek literary figures as diverse as Andreas Kalvos (1946) and Alexandros Papadiamantis (1976). Moreover, echoes from Greek folk poetry, Byzantine hymns, and liturgical texts reverberate through his poetry. As Elytis remarked in his Nobel acceptance speech in 1979, the poet must simultaneously “recast the elements to the social and psychological requirements of [his] age.” Echoes from the German poets Friedreich Holderlin and Novalis interact with allusions to the national Greek poet Dionysios Solomos.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Elytis's famous contemporaries include:
George Seferis (1900–1971): Greek poet who became the first Greek to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963.
Mikis Theodorakis (1925–): One of Greece's best-known composers, Theodorakis scored films such as Zorba the Greek (1969) and Serpico (1973), and also put Elytis's The Axion Esti to music.
Panagiotis Kanellopoulos (1902–1986): Greek author and politician who briefly served as prime minister of Greece twice, in 1945 and in 1967.
André Breton (1896–1966): French writer often credited as the main founder of the surrealist movement.
PaulÉluard (1895–1952): This French poet, partially influenced by the American author Walt Whitman, was associated with the founding of the surrealist movement.
Surrealism and the Free Association of Ideas Elytis adapted only selected principles of surrealism to his Greek reality. Some other characteristics of surrealism, such as automatic writing, were considered unacceptable to Elytis. Free association of ideas, a concept he often made use of, allowed him to portray objects in their “reality” but also in their “surreality.” This is shown in various poems, as when a young girl is transformed into a fruit, a landscape becomes a human body, and the mood
of a morning takes on the form of a tree. “I have always been preoccupied with finding the analogies between nature and language in the realm of imagination, a realm to which the surrealists also gave much importance, and rightly so,” claimed Elytis. “Everything depends on imagination, that is, on the way a poet sees the same phenomenon as you do, yet differently from you.”
Orientations, published in 1936, was Elytis's first volume of poetry. Filled with images of light and purity, the work earned for its author the title of the “sun-drinking poet.” Edmund Keeley, a frequent translator of Elytis's work, observed that these “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.”
Popularity Today Resists Classification 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-size 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.
Works in Critical Context
When Maria Nefeli was first published in 1978, it met with a curious yet hesitant public. M. Byron Raizis related in World Literature Today that “some academicians and critics of the older generations still [wanted] to cling to the concept of the ‘sun-drinking’ Elytis of the Aegean spume and breeze and of the monumental Axion Esti,” and for that reason viewed this new work as “an experimental and not-so-attractive creation of rather ephemeral value.”
The Eternal Female The reason behind the uncertainty many Elytis devotees felt toward this new work stemmed from its radically different presentation. Whereas his earlier poems dealt with the almost timeless expression of the Greek reality, “rooted in my own experience, yet … not directly [transcribing] actual events,” as he once stated, Maria Nefeli is based on a young woman he actually met. Different from the women who graced his early work, the woman in Elytis's poem has changed to reflect the troubled times in which she lives. “This Maria then is the newest manifestation of the eternal female,” noted Raizis, “the most recent mutation of the female principle which, in the form of Maria, Helen and other more traditional figures, had haunted the quasi-idyllic and erotic poems of [Elytis's youth].” Raizis explained further that Maria is the “attractive, liberated, restless or even blasé representative of today's young woman…. Her setting is the polluted city, not the open country and its islands of purity and fresh air.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Surrealism is often remembered as a movement in the visual arts—painting, in particular. But as its striking images and the way the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images impressed viewers of the visual arts in the early years of the movement, it is easy to forget that surrealists developed out of a literary school—the Dadaist school—that emphasized sound over reason in their poems. Here are a few more works of surrealism that were produced at the time Elytis worked in the form:
The Magnetic Fields (1920), a novel by André Breton and Philippe Soupault. This work is considered the first surrealist novel because its authors utilized the “automatic writing” technique characteristic of surrealism. In “automatic writing,” a writer attempts to write continuously while purposely trying not to think about the words he or she is writing.
Night of Loveless Nights (1926), a poem by Robert Desnos. Desnos is considered one of the founding fathers of literary surrealism, and this extended poem about unrequited love is one of his finest.
Le Paysan de Paris (1926), a surrealist text by Louis Aragon. This work represents a loving portrayal of the places and people that make up the surrealist movement—a kind of literary portrait—written at the peak of surrealism's influence.
The Persistence of Memory (1931), a painting by Salvador Dalí. In this surrealist work, clocks are depicted as melting and hanging over a tree, a horse, and a desk, thereby exemplifying surrealism's interest in juxtapositions of unlikely images
Lyrical Humanism Despite the initial reservations voiced by some critics, Maria Nefeli has come to be regarded as the best of Elytis's later writings. Gini Politi, for example, announced: “I believe that Maria Nefeli is one of the most significant poems of our times, and the response to the agony it includes is written; this way it saves for the time being the language of poetry and of humaneness.” Kostas Stamatiou, moreover, expressed a common reaction to the work: “After the surprise of a first reading, gradually the careful student discovers beneath the surface the constants of the great poet: faith in surrealism, fundamental humanism, passages of pure lyricism.”
Responses to Literature
- Surrealism is a fairly unique artistic movement insofar as it has influenced artists of various media, including both visual and literary arts. Read Elytis's Orientations and look at Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory. In what ways do both works use surrealist elements similarly? In what ways do the two works display different surrealist traits?
- Read The Axion Esti. This text has been said to be indebted to the Greek Orthodox Church. How does Elytis use the themes and language of the church in these poems, either to evoke a tradition or to critique that tradition? In your response, make sure to cite specific passages from Elytis's work to support your claim.
- Many authors who otherwise were in tune with the artistic ideals of surrealism eventually moved away from the movement because of its communist ethics. Using the Internet and the library, research the surrealist movement's relationship to communism. Then, in a short essay, analyze how surrealist authors—including but not limited to Elytis—and artists use their work to support or refute communist ideals.
- Elytis loved his home country of Greece and wanted to express its beauty through his poems. Because of the effectiveness of these poems in expressing the beauty of Greece and the Aegean Sea, Elytis has been called a “sun-drinking” poet. Think about your own hometown. If you were a poet who was interested in describing the physical terrain and culture of your hometown, what would critics call you? Why? In order to answer these questions, you might try writing a few lines of verse in honor of your hometown to get you going.
Decavalles, Andonis. Odysseus Elytis: From the Golden to the Silver Poem. New York: Pella, 1994.
Demou, Nikos. Odysseus Elytis. Athens: Ekdoseis Nefeli, 1992.
Ivask, Ivar, ed. Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.