Odysseus Elytis: In Memory of a Modern Greek Poet

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The death, in 1996, of the distinguished Modem Greek poet, Odysseus Elytis - who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979 - seems to deserve rather more than fervent national commemoration, within his native Crete. He must continue to embody, in his life and his work, the essential humanism of the Greek tradition in literature - its distinctive affinity with the elemental things, such as sea and sky, earth and heaven, birth and death, which ever since Homer has given to Greece and the Greeks a unique and vital role in the making of the literature of Europe, as a whole. Even in their English translations, the best of his Poetry - such as The Mad Pomegranate Tree, Commemoration, Aegean Melancholy, Body of Summer, and Drinking the Sun of Corinth, distils vividly and evocatively the typical features of the Aegean scene: its closeness to the natural world, its startling colours, and its hints of the simple and the unsophisticated.

Odysseus Elytis was born in Heraklion, the capital of Crete, in 1912 but he studied law at Athens University, and in 1940, at the time of the Italian attack upon Greece, he served as a lieutenant in Albania. Already, however, he had begun as a poet: his first collections appearing respectively in 1939 and 1943. Although he was influenced by the Surrealists, he quickly developed his own unique style, dependent chiefly upon the pictorial images and inspirations of his native Aegean Basin.

He set out to express the inner meaning and mystery of those vivid Aegean landscapes. His long poem, Song of a Lieutenant Killed in Albania published in 1945, revealed lyrical intensity, patriotism, and aesthetic sensibility of a very high order. His poetry altered as the years passed, and it strengthened its bold affirmations of the Greek marriage of past and present, the natural and the sophisticated. It became at once essentially Greek and essentially humanistic: thus illustrating the continuity of the Modern Greek poetry, in the very potent terms of its universality and its applicability for the whole of Western humanity.

Specimens of the authentic humanism of the poetry of Odysseus Elytis are very numerous. The following are just two examples:


I brought my life this far To this spot which struggles Forever near the sea Youth upon the rocks, breast To breast against the wind Where is a man to go Who is nothing other than a man?


Drinking the sun of Corinth Reading the Marble ruins Striding across vineyards and seas Sighting along the harpoon A votive fish that slips away I found the leaves that the sun's psalm memorizes The living land that passion joys in opening. I drink water, cut fruit, Thrust my hand into the wind's foliage The lemon trees water the summer pollen The green birds tear my dreams I leave with a glance A wide glance in which the world is recreated Beautiful from the beginning to the dimensions of the heart!

Axion Esti, his greatest and most difficult work, is modelled upon a Byzantine liturgy. In it the poet's inner consciousness is projected, with the deepest feeling and spontaneity, into the history and the tradition of Greece. By any standards, this is a major poem: typical of the poetic insight of Elytis. Elytis can inspire and excite all readers of good poetry: non-Greeks as well as Greeks. He believes passionately in nature, and he believes passionately in man. The two become virtually inextricable in his mind and in his art. Nor is his Aegean background and ancestry at all a limitation: on the contrary, Elytis became a universal poet, because he so amply acknowledged and affirmed the underlying humanity of at any rate all the Western World. He thus ministered to the literary identity of Europe, as much as in the beginning Homer also did.

Elytis is, above all, a poet of sunshine, vitality, colour, and exuberance. It was endemic in his personality, his geographical setting, and spiritual awareness. …