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Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996) - also spelled Odysseas Elytes, original surname Alepoudhelis


Greek poet and winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature. Elytis's poems are written in rich language, full of images from history and myths. The lines are long and musical. Inspired by the 'sanctity of the perceiving senses' Elytis celebrated in his early poems the mystery of the Greek light, the sea, and the air. Later themes are grief, suffering, and search for a paradise.

----"I was given the Hellenic tongue
my house a humble one on the sandy shores of Homer.
----My only care my tongue on the sandy shores of Homer.
The sea-bream and perch
----windbeaten verbs
green currents with the cerulean
----all that I saw blazing in my entrails
sponges, medusae
----with the first words of the Sirens
pink shells with their first dark tremors.
(from Axion Esti, 1959)

Odysseus Elytis (Odysseas Alepoudhelis) was born in Irįklion, Crete, into a prosperous Cretan family. He was the sixth child of Maria and Panayiotis Alepoudellis. His parents and ancestors came from the island of Lesbos, home of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. From there the family business moved to Athens. Elytis's father died of pneumonia in 1925. Following a nervous breakdown Elytis spent two months in bed.

After attending the Makris Private School, he entered Athens University, where he studied law from 1930 to 1935 without taking a degree. Periodically he worked in the family's soap manufacturing business. Inspired by Freudian theory, French Surrealism and especially Paul Éluard, Elytis started to write verse. All his poems, which he had written during this period, he destroyed in 1934.

Elytis's first poems appeared in 1935 in magazine Ta Nea Grammata, which also published George Seferis's works-he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963. The poet Andreas Empeirikos, who had recently returned from France and was close to the French surrealistic circle, became Elytis's lifelong friend. Along with Empeirokos and the painter Stratis Eleftheriadis-Teriade he traveled to Lesbos, where he was involved in the discovery and promotion of the art of the folk painter Theophilos Hadjimichael (1897-1934). Orientations (1940), Elytis's first collection, combined themes of Eros and beauty with the timeless nature of the Aegean world: "Love / The archipelago / And the prow of its foam / And the seagull of its dream" (from 'Of the Aegean').

During WW II when Nazis occupied Greece, Elytis joined the resistance movement and served as a second lieutenant in Albania in 1940-41. After a long campaign, he contracted typhus. Asma iroiko ke penthimo ghia ton hameno anthipolochago tis Alvanias (1943, Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign) was published during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Elytis's joyful visions of youth and the sun-drenched Aegean nature had changed into acknowlegmenet of violence and sudden death. The hero of the poem is killed on the battlefield and miraculously resurrected throught his youth and heroism.

"As a young man he had seen gold glittering and gleaming on the shoulders of the great -And one night -he remembers -during a great storm the neck of the sea roared so it turned murky -but he would not submit it
The world's an oppressive place to live through -yet with a little pride it's worth it."
(from Death and Resurrection of Constandinos Paleologhos')

Like many other leftist intellectuals, Elytis was denied a passport during the  civil war between communists and royalistst.He wrote critics for the newspaper Kathimerini and worked for the National Broadcasting Institute in Athens in 1945-46 and again 1953-54.  When he was given permission to travel outside the country in 1948, he moved to Paris, where he studied literature at the Sorbonne. During this time he became acquainted with Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and other figures of the Parisian art scene.

In 1953 Elytis returned to Greece and took an active role in cultural affairs. He was a member of the Greek critical and prize-awarding Group of the Twelve, and served as president and governing-board member of Karolos Koun's Art Theater and of the Greek Ballet. His silence as a poet ended in 1959 with To Axion Esti, reminiscent of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, which celebrated the diversity of American landscapes and people. It is believed, that Elytis was proficient enough in English to read Whitman while in France.

The work took him 14 years to write; it was later set music by Mikis Theodorakis. Inspired by the Byzantine liturgy, Elytis combines the biblical story of the creation with modern Greek history. In this work the poet identifies himself in the first section, 'Genesis', with the sun and the entire Aegena world and his race. In the second, 'The Passion,' he passes through the barbaric war decade, comparing humankind's suffering with the suffering of Christ. Eventually, like Dante in Paradise, he sees the sun, love, and beauty. "If there is, I think, for each one of us a different, a personal Paradise," Elytis once said, "mine should irreparably be inhabited by trees of words that the wind dresses in silver, like poplars, by men who see the rights of which they have been deprived returning to them, and by birds that even in the midst of the truth of death insist on singing in Greek and on saying, eros, eros, eros!""

Between 1965 and 1968 Elytis served on the administrative board of the Greek National Theater, and then spent the next two years in Paris after the Greek military coup of 1967. The dictatorial government offered him the Grand Prize for Literature, but he refused the honour. In 1978 he published a long poetic work, Maria Nefeli, which was finished when he returned to Greece. Its alternating monologues are spoken by a girl, Maria Nephele and the Antiphonist, the poet himself.

Much of his life, Elytis spent in semiseclusion, focusing only on his art, but after the Nobel Prize followed a period of busy traveling. Elytis never married; during his last years his companion was the poet Ioulita Iliopoulou. Elytis died of a heart attack on March 18, 1996. His collected poems came out posthumously in 1997. Elytis was also a talented painter and produced illustrations of his lyrical world in gouaches and collages.

For further reading: Mediterranean Modernisms: The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis by Marinos Pourgouris (2011); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Odysseus Elytis: From the Golden to the Silver Poem by Adonis Decavalles (1994); Eliot and Elytis: Poet of Time, Poet of Space by Karl Malkoff (1984); Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light by I. Ivask (1981); Books Abroad, special Elytis issue (Autumn 1975); Modern Greek Poetry by E. Keeley (1973) - "Odysseus Elytis is first of all a poet whose unique strength is the celebration of a landscape that is his protean theme, his finest invention. This terrain is both his beloved Greece and the human body, a vision r ooted in the past and passionately imagined in a kind of floating, timeless present." (Rachel Hadas in The New York Times, February 7, 1982)

Selected works:

  • Prosanatolismoi, 1940
    - Orientations (selections in The Sovereign Sun: Selected Poems, translated by Simon Friar, 1974; Selected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, 1981)
  • Īlios o Prōtos, 1943 (Sun the First, together with Variations of a Sunbeam)
  • Asma Īrōiko kai Penthimo gia ton chameno Anthypolochago tīs Alvanias, 1943 (Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign)
  • To Axion Esti, 1959
    - The Axion Esti (translated by Edmund Keeley and George Savadis, 1974) 
    - Ylistetty olkoon (suom. Markku Pääskynen, 2010)
    - oratorio: composed by Mikis Theodorakis, 1960
  • Exī kai mia Typseis gia ton Oyrano, 1960
    - Six and One Remorses for the Sky and Other Poems (selections in Selected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, 1981; translated by Jeffrey Carson, 1981)
  • O Īlios o Īliatora, 1971
    - The Sovereign Sun: Selected Poems (translated by Simon Friar, 1974)
  • To monogramma, 1971
    - The Monogram (in What I Love, translated by Olga Boumas, 1986)
  • To Fotodendro ke i Dekati Tetarti Omorfia, 1971 (The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty)
  • Ta Rō tou Erōta, 1972
  • The Sovereign Sun: Selected Poems, 1974 (translated by Kimon Friar)
  • Ta Eterothalī, 1974
  • Anoichta Chartia, 1974
  • The Stepchildren, 1974
  • Ī Mageia tou Papadiamantī, 1974
  • Deuteri Grafī, 1976 (translator)
  • Sīmatologeion, 1977
  • Maria Nefelī, 1978
    - Maria Nephele: A Poem in Two Voices (translated by Athan Anagnostopoulos, 1981)
  • Selected Poems, 1981 (translated by Edmund Keeley et al.)
  • Odysseus Elytis: Analogies of Light, 1981 (edited by Ivar Ivask and Philip Sherrard)
  • Tria Poiīmata me sīmaia Eykairias, 1982
  • Sapfō, 1984 (translator)
  • Īmerologio enos Atheatou Apriliou, 1984
    - Diary of an Unseen April (translated by David Connolly, 1999)
  • Ī Apokalypsī tou Iōanni, 1985 (translator)
  • Six and One Remorses for the Sky: And Other Poems, 1985 (translated by Jeffrey Carson)
  • What I Love: Selected Poems, 1986 (translated by Olga Boumas)
  • O Mikros Nautilos, 1986
    - The Little Mariner (translated by Olga Broumas, 1988)
  • Krinagoras, 1987 (translator)
  • Ta Elegeia tīs Oxōpetras, 1991
    - The Oxopetra Elegies, 1996 (translated by David Connolly, 1996)
  • En Leukō, 1992
    - Carte Blance: Selected Writings (translated by David Connolly, 1999)
  • Open Papers, 1995 (translated by Olga Broumas & T. Begley)
  • O Kīpos me tis Aytapates, 1995
  • Dytika tis Lypis, 1995
  • S X 7 E, 1996
  • The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, 1997 (translated by Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris)
  • Ek tou Plīsion, 1998 (edited by Ioulita Iliopoulou)
  • Eros, Eros, Eros: Selected and Last Poems, 1998 (translated by Olga Broumas)
  • Carte Blanche: Selected Writings, 2000 (translated by David Connolly)
  • Aytoprosopografia se Logo Proforiko, 2000
  • Poiīsī, 2002

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