Odysseas Elytis

Odysseas Elytis

Greek poet, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1979
Date of Birth: 21.11.1911
Country: Greece

Biography of Odysseas Elytis

Odysseas Elytis was a Greek poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979. He was born into a wealthy landowning family on the legendary island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. His father decided to make his own way in life and founded a successful soap manufacturing business on the island of Crete. When Elytis was six years old, his family moved to Athens, where he completed his primary and secondary education. From 1930 to 1935, the future poet studied law at the University of Athens but never defended his diploma. At the age of 20, Elytis became interested in poetry, reading the works of the French poet Paul Éluard and becoming fascinated with the emerging surrealism movement. He attended lectures by the surrealist Andreas Embirikos and eventually started writing his own poems, adopting the pseudonym Elytis, which combined various Greek words related to Greece, hope, freedom, and beauty. During this time, he became friends with Embirikos and joined a group of writers associated with "Ta nea grammata" ("New Literature"), a journal that published works by poets such as George Seferis and aimed to form a new generation of Greek literature. These writers opposed the artificial archaic language known as katharevousa and preferred the liveliness of demotic language. Elytis' first poems were published in "Ta nea grammata" in 1935. His poetry was well received from the start, as he managed to combine surrealist techniques with the specific Greek mentality. Elytis described himself as not being an orthodox surrealist but rather using surrealism as a school for poetry, which aimed at spiritual health and opposed the rationalistic trends of the time. While being a Greek, he was not a "national rag," but he acknowledged the enriching nature of national characteristics that could contribute to the global spirit. As a Greek poet, he continued the literary tradition that had existed for twenty-five centuries. In his early works, Elytis deviated from the despair and sorrow typical of poets like Seferis and T.S. Eliot. He drew inspiration and optimism from his childhood memories. His poems in "Orientations" (1939) were saturated with images of light, sea, and shining sun. "Sun the First" (1943), where the poet also celebrated the sensual world of radiance and youth, brought Elytis fame as an outstanding lyrical poet of his time, a poet of joy and spiritual health. It was a "poetic world in which the purest forms of Hellenism came to life," as translated by Kimon Friar, a translator of his poetry. Elytis' poetry was deeply rooted in the ancient tradition that aimed to portray an ideal world.

In 1940, Mussolini's troops invaded Greece. Despite the overwhelming enemy superiority, the Greeks responded to the fascist aggression with all the passion of their national character. Through his experience in the military (Elytis served as a second lieutenant from 1940 to 1941), he reaffirmed that "the highest poetry is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It represents a third state of mind where opposites seem to cease to exist." This perception resulted in his poem "Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant in the Albanian Campaign" (1943). In this long poem, written in the form of a symphony, Elytis used surrealist associations to "penetrate the national spirit and thus speak not only to himself but also to his people," as noted by Kimon Friar. For the Greek youth during wartime, this work became a kind of poetic talisman. After Greece's liberation, Elytis worked at the National Radio Broadcasting Institute in Athens from 1945 to 1946. He then wrote articles and reviews on literary topics for the newspaper "Kathimerini" ("Daily Paper"). In 1948, the poet moved to Paris, where he studied literature at the Sorbonne for four years. During his time in Paris, Elytis became interested in visual art and art history. He contributed articles to the magazine "Verve" and met many contemporary artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, and Giorgio de Chirico.

Upon his return to Greece in 1953, Elytis resumed working at the National Radio Broadcasting Institute and actively participated in cultural events. His next literary work, "Axion Esti" (1948-1959), was a spiritual autobiography in verse and prose, resembling the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church and written in demotic language, while incorporating the richness of the Greek linguistic tradition. His following book, a collection of poems titled "Six plus One for the Sky," was published in 1960. In 1961, Elytis visited the United States for four months as a guest of the State Department, and in 1962, he visited the Soviet Union. From 1965 to 1968, Elytis served on the administrative board of the Greek National Theatre, and the following two years he spent in voluntary exile in France as a protest against the military coup that overthrew the Greek government and established a military dictatorship in 1967. During this period, he wrote "The Sovereign Sun" (1971) and "The Tree of Light and the Fourteenth Beauty" (1971).

For many years, Elytis worked on a long poem titled "Maria Nefeli," which alternates monologues of a young woman representing the radical, liberated generation. The poem was published in 1978. Unlike his other works, "Maria Nefeli" captured real-life experiences. After writing "Axion Esti," Elytis met a young woman, and he suddenly felt the urge to write something completely different. Although some of Elytis' admirers were puzzled by the poem's unusual direction, it gained widespread popularity, especially among the generation whose perspective is represented by Maria. Critic B. Reyzis praised "Maria Nefeli" for its "poetic richness and relevance... In this original, dynamic, and impressive poetic collage, the suffering and tragicomic aspects, hope and mediocrity of our aggressive and incongruous decade are dramatized." Elytis was awarded the Nobel Prize "for his poetry, which, against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clarity the struggle of modern man for freedom and independence." The poet considered the award not only an honor for himself but also for Greece with its centuries-old history as the oldest in Europe.

The critic and translator Edmund Keeley noted Elytis' artistic growth and his consistent interests: "Although his interests remained basically the same as they were at the beginning of his career... he seeks new forms of expression for his eternal themes." English poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell wrote about Elytis: "He has a romantic and lyrical mind, inclined towards sensual metaphysics... His poetry is an incantation, calling to life the immortal Greek world that has always been felt in the European consciousness." Elytis was not only a writer but also an artist. He lived as a confirmed bachelor in Athens. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Elytis received the National Poetry Prize of Greece in 1960 (the first recipient of such an award) and the Order of the Phoenix in 1965.