Obituary: Odysseus Elytis
Tuesday 19 March 1996
Elytis will probably always be remembered as a poet of the Greek summer and of the Aegean sea. His first poems date from 1929, and his almost annual visits as a young man to the Greek islands. In the 1930s Elytis quickly established himself as one of the leading voices of a generation that included his fellow Nobel laureate George Seferis, and the prolific and politically committed Yannis Ritsos.
His poems of that decade celebrated, under the gathering shadows of war to come, the vitality and vibrancy of an Aegean landscape and the unharnessed energies of man at its heart. The poems of Orientations, his first and longest collection, published in 1940, combine a paganistic worship of nature with the free association and ebullient licence of the Sur- realist movement, which he had himself helped to trans-plant to Greece (although characteristically he avoided defining himself or his work as Surrealist).
This exultation carried the 30-year-old Elytis even into the Second World War, and the horrors of the Axis occupation of Athens, where under conditions of censorship he continued his praise of natural forces, undeterred, in his second volume, Sun the First (1943). But by the time Nazi troops had arrived to take over his country, Elytis had already had his baptism of fire. Serving in the front line on the Albanian front, in the winter of 1940-41, when the Greeks, in appalling conditions, succeeded in beating back Mussolini's invading troops, Elytis had already come close to death, and he gave form to the experience in the sombre but ultimately triumphant "Heroic and Elegaic Song of the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania".
In this long poem, published in 1945, and in its successor, The Axion Esti, published 14 years later and still reckoned to be his masterpiece, Elytis comes fully to grips with the confrontation of good and evil in the world. Life and the creative urges that bind man to Nature are celebrated in these later poems, but now they have to fight against the dark, against the inhuman, incomprehensible power of "iron and fire". But, even here, the poetic instinct survives, bloodied but triumphant, through the unshakeable bond that ties man to his landscape and binds both with a stern morality which is the order of the cosmos.
After a decade of relative silence in the 1960s (prolonged by the arrival of military dictatorship in his country, and Elytis's principled refusal, along with many other established writers, to publish under those conditions), Elytis in the 1970s went on to perfect what has been termed an "interior lyricism", an almost pure lyrical statement in which words no longer refer to the world but instead create it. This is most finely exemplified in the collections The Light-Tree and The Monogram (both first published, outside Greece, in 1971). At the same time, during the Seventies, Elytis returned to the form of the long, complex poem that he had perfected with The Axion Esti. Neither Maria Nefeli (1978) nor The Little Sailor (1984, but written earlier) achieves quite the mastery of large-scale architecture combined with the stinging force of minute detail that characterise the earlier work, but both have earned their admirers.
At an age when retirement is the norm in most professions, Elytis continued to write and publish prolifically through the 1980s. Among his last work The Oxopetra Elegies (1991) stands out: a sustained meditation on death which proclaims, with mellow warmth, the superior power of poetry, and extends the range of Elytis' writing well beyond its Aegean homeland, to embrace and breathe new life into the legacy of the German Romantics, especially Holderlin and Novalis.
As well as being a poet, Elytis is the author of two large books of essays. Curiously, the bird that takes wing with such lyrical power in verse, turns out to be ungainly in the more sober medium of prose. Arresting in their insights and often moving in their declamation, Elytis' essays on the whole complement rather than illuminate his poems, and are often harder to read. He was prolific as a translator of verse (mainly French, but he is also credited with introducing Lorca into Greece), and from his Surrealist friends he learnt and never lost the art of photo- collage, whose method has a certain affinity with the bold juxtapositions of his poems.
Elytis became almost a national institution in his native country, to the extent that radio and television programmes were interrupted yesterday with the announcement of his death. This may reflect the greater seriousness with which poetry is still taken in Greece than it is here.
But this popularity has another cause, too. Since the late 1950s, poems of his have been set to music by popular composers such as Mikis Theodorakis, and some were even specially written as songs. In this way, a poet whose work at first sight seems highly individual, dense, and complex, has for many years appealed straight to the heart of people who may not often have sat down with a book in their hands. The passing of Elytis is a testament to that disappearing "oral culture" that was still strong in the Greece of his generation.
Elytis' international reputation goes back well beyond 1979, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This has been most marked in France, where a major exhibition in his honour was held at the Pompidou Centre during the 1980s. Elytis' unembarrassed exuberance seems to transfer well into French, while Anglo-Saxon readers (and translators) tend to prefer a greater reticence. However, The Axion Esti has been translated into English in full, by Edmund Keeley and the late George Savidis (1974, reissued by Anvil Press, 1980). Selections from Elytis' poetry up to the early 1970s can be found in The Sovereign Sun, translated by Kimon Friar (Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle, originally published in the US, 1974) and the Selected Poems, by various hands, published by Anvil in 1981. The Oxopetra Elegies, translated by David Connolly, is due to appear very soon.
Ever since he decided, in 1936, to abandon his studies at the Athens Law School (the training-ground of so many 20th-century men of letters), Elytis' life was dedicated to poetry. He was reticent in public about such matters as political affiliation; he held administrative posts in organisations such as Greek National Radio, and the National Theatre, but not for long. An account of his life, apart from his work, might well take the form of a list of his travels, both in Greece and in Europe, especially France. His family background (his father owned a prosperous soap factory; one reason, it is supposed, for the decision of the young Odysseus Alepoudelis to write under a pseudonym) gave him the opportunity for this, and so he was not obliged, like Seferis, to follow a career in parallel with his life as a poet.
But Odysseus Elitis was no poet of the ivory tower. Poetry, for him, was not an evasion of the deeper responsibilities of life; for the poet, he believed, poetry is the deepest responsibility of life. His definition of death, from an essay of 1976, both shows this, and acquires particular poignancy at the end of a writing career of almost three score years and ten:
Death is where words no longer have the power to generate, right from the start, the things that they name.
Odysseus Alepoudelis (Odysseus Elytis), poet: born Heraklion, Crete 2 November 1911; Nobel Prize for Literature 1979; died Athens 18 March 1996.
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