Odysseas Elytis (real name: Odysseas Alepoudelis) (Heraklion, Crete, 2 November 1911 – Athens, 18 March 1996) was one of the most important Greek poets, a member of the literary generation of the 1930s. He was awarded the State Poetry Prize in 1960 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979, the second and to date the last Greek to receive the Nobel Prize. His best-known poetic works are Axion Esti, Sun the First and Orientations. He formed a personal poetic idiom and is considered one of the innovators of Greek poetry. Many of his poems have been set to music, while his collections have been translated into many foreign languages to date. His work also includes translations of poetic and theatrical works. He has been a member of the International Association of Art Critics and the European Society of Critics, a delegate to the Rencontres Internationales in Geneva and the Incontro Romano della Cultura in Rome.
Odysseas Elytis was born on 2 November 1911 in Heraklion, Crete. He was the last of the six children of Panagiotis Alepoudelis and Maria Vrana. His father came from the settlement of Kalamiaris in Panagiuda on Lesvos and had settled in the city of Heraklion since 1895, when he and his brother founded a soap and nuclear soap factory. The earliest name of the Alepoudelis family was Lemonos, and was later transformed into Alepos. His mother came from Pappados in Lesvos.
In 1914 his father moved his factories to Piraeus and the family settled in Athens. Odysseas Elytis enrolled in 1917 at the private school of D. N. Makris, where he studied for seven years, having among his teachers I.M. Panagiotopoulos and Ioannis Th. He spent the first summers of his life in Crete, Lesvos and Spetses. In November 1920, after the fall of Eleftherios Venizelos, his family faced persecution because of their adherence to Venizelist ideas. Venizelos himself had close relations with the family and had often stayed at their home on the Akleidi estate. The culmination of the persecution his family experienced was the arrest of his father. In 1923 he travelled with his family to Europe, visiting Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Yugoslavia. In Lausanne, the poet had the opportunity to meet the exiled, after his fall, Eleftherios Venizelos.
In the autumn of 1924 he enrolled at the 3rd High School for Boys in Athens and collaborated in the magazine Diaplasis of the Children, using various pseudonyms. As he admits, he first became acquainted with modern Greek literature, this saturated with universal works of the spirit, who spent all his money buying books and magazines. In addition to his preoccupation with literature, he was actively engaged in mountaineering excursions in the mountains of Attica and, reacting to his mood for reading, he turned to sports. Even the books he bought had to have something to do with Greek nature. In 1925 his father died. In the spring of 1927, an overwork and adenopathy forced him to abandon his sporting tendencies, confining him to bed for about three months. Slight symptoms of neurasthenia followed, and around the same time he turned definitively to literature, which coincided with the appearance of several new literary magazines, such as Nea Estia and Hellenic Letters.
In the summer of 1928 he received his high school diploma with a grade of 7311. After pressure from his parents, he decided to study chemistry, starting special tutorials for the following year”s entrance exams. During the same period he came into contact with the work of Constantine Cavafy and Andreas Kalvos, renewing his acquaintance with the charming ancient lyrical poetry. At the same time, he discovered the work of Paul Héliard and the French surrealists, who had a major influence on his ideas about literature, and ”forced him to notice and ruthlessly admit the possibilities that lyric poetry presented, in the essence of its free exercise,”.
Under the influence of his literary turn, he gave up his intention to study chemistry and in 1930 he enrolled at the Athens School of Law. When the “Ideocratic Philosophical Group” was founded at the University in 1933, with the participation of Konstantinos Tsatsos, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, Ioannis Theodorakopoulos and Ioannis Sykutris, Elytis was one of the student representatives, participating in the “Saturday Symposia” that were organized. At the same time, he studied the contemporary Greek poetry of Caesar Emmanuel (the Paraphonic Flute), Theodoros Dorros” collection Stou Glitomou to Hazi, George Seferis” Strophe (1931) and Nikitas Rados” Poems (1933). He enthusiastically continued his wanderings in Greece, which he describes himself: “Pioneers true, days and days we went on, starving and unshaven, caught by the body of a dying Chevy, going up and down sand dunes, crossing lagoons, in clouds of dust or under merciless downpours, we rode over and over all the obstacles and ate up the kilometres with a voracity that only our twenty years and our love for this little land we were discovering could justify. “
During the same period he was more closely associated with George Sarantaris (1908-1941), who encouraged him in his poetic efforts, when Elytis was still wavering about whether he should publish his works, while he also brought him into contact with the circle of the New Letters (1935-1940, 1944). This magazine, with Andreas Karantonis as director and contributors of old and new notable Greek writers (such as George Seferis, Georgios Theotokas, Angelos Terzakis, Kosmas Politis, Angelos Sikelianos, etc.), was the first to publish the first edition of the magazine in the early 1980s and the first to publish the first edition of the magazine in the early 1980s. etc.) brought contemporary Western artistic trends to Greece and introduced to the reading public mainly the younger poets, by translating their representative works or with informative articles on their poetry. It became the intellectual organ of the generation of the 1930s, hosting in its columns all the modernist elements, judging favourably and promoting the creations of young Greek poets.
The company at New Letters
As Elytis acknowledges, 1935 was a special year in his intellectual career. In January, the magazine Nea Grahmata was published. In February he met Andreas Embiricos, who characteristically described him: “The great endurance athlete of the imagination, with the whole world as his field and Eros as his stride. His work, each new work, animated by a little rainbow, is a promise to humanity, a gift which, if they do not yet hold it in their hands, is entirely of their own unworthiness.” In the same month, Embiricos gave a lecture on “Surrealism, a new poetic school”, which was the first official presentation of Surrealism to the Greek public. The two poets were linked by a close friendship that lasted for over 25 years. In March of the same year, in addition to Seferis” novel, the poetry collection Ypsikaminos by Embiricos, with poetry of orthodox surrealism, was published. Elytis, ten years younger, saw a door open wide before him to a new poetic reality, where he could use his own resources to found his poetic edifice. At Easter the two friends visited Lesvos, where, with the support of the Mytilene painters Orestis Kanellis and Takis Eleftheriadis, they came into contact with the art of the popular painter Theophilos, who had died a year before.
During a gathering of the New Letters circle at the house of the poet Georgios K. Katsimbalis, those present kept some of Elytis” manuscripts, under the pretext of studying them better, and secretly typeset them under the pseudonym “Odysseas Vranas”, with the aim of publishing them, presenting them later to Elytis himself. He initially requested their withdrawal by writing a special letter to Katsimbalis, but was eventually persuaded to publish them by accepting the pseudonym “Ulysses Elytis”.
The publication of his first poems in Nea Grahmata took place in November 1935, in the 11th issue of the magazine. Elytis also published translations of Elyar”s poems, and in his preface he presents their author as the poet who “what he writes reaches our hearts immediately, strikes us in the chest like a wave of another life, drawn from the sum of our most magical dreams”.
In 1936, at the “First International Surrealist Exhibition of Athens”, Elytis presented paintings using the collage technique. That year, the group of young writers was more solid and larger. Elytis also met the poet Nikos Gatsos, who a few years later printed the surrealist Amorgos. In 1937 he served his military service at the Reserve Officers” School in Corfu, corresponding with Nikos Gatsos and George Seferis, who were in Korytsa. Shortly after his dismissal, the following year, Mitsos Papanikolaou published the article “The poet Odysseas Elytis” in Nea Grahmata, which helped to establish his reputation.
In 1939 he abandoned his legal studies for good and, after several publications of his poems in magazines, his first collection of poems was printed under the title Prosaνατοalismoi. The following year, his poems were translated into a foreign language for the first time when Samuel Baud Bovy published an article on Greek poetry in the Swiss magazine Formes et Couleurs.
On the Albanian front
At the beginning of the war in 1940, Elytis was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the General Headquarters of the First Army Corps. On 13 December 1940 he was transferred to the fire zone and on 26 February of the following year he was transferred with a severe case of abdominal typhus to the Ioannina Hospital. During the Occupation he was one of the founding members of the ”Palamas Circle”, established on 30 May 1943. There, in the spring of 1942, he presented his essay ”The true physiognomy and lyrical daring of A. Kalvos”.
In November 1943 the collection The Sun the First was published, together with Variations on a ray, in 6,000 numbered copies, a hymn by Elytis to the joy of life and the beauty of nature. In the New Letters, which began to be republished in 1944, he published his essay “The Girls”, while in 1945 he began his collaboration with the magazine Tetradio, translating poems by Federico García Lorca and presenting in its first publication his poetic work Song of Heroism and Mourning for the Lost Lieutenant of Albania. He seems to have written this work in 1941 or 1943 and, according to one view, he composed it to honour his fellow soldiers in Albania, while according to another, he wrote it for his friend the poet George Sarantaris, who also fought in Albania and died after being taken seriously ill to Athens.
The war of 1940 gave him the inspiration for other works, such as Kalosini in Lycopores, Albaniada and Varvaria, which was lost for good. In the period 1945-1946 he was appointed for a short time Program Director at the National Radio Foundation, on the recommendation of Seferis, who was director of the political office of the Viceroy Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens. He also collaborated with the Angloelliniko Episkivirosis, where he published a number of essays, Eleftheria and Kathimerini, where he maintained a column of art criticism until 1948.
In 1948 he travelled to Switzerland, then settled in Paris, where he attended philosophy courses at the Sorbonne. Describing his impressions of his stay in France, he commented on his feelings and thoughts: “A trip that would bring me closer to the sources of modern art, I mused. Without counting that it would also bring me very close to my old loves, to the centres where the first Surrealists had been active, to the cafés where the Manifestos had been discussed, to the Rue de l”Odeon and the Place Blanche, to Montparnasse and St. Germain des Prés. In Paris he was a founding member of the Association Internationale des Critiques d”Art, and also had the opportunity to meet André Breton, Paul Héliard, Albert Camus, Tristan Jarrah, Pierre Jean-Juve, Joan Miró and others.
With the help of the Greek-Greek art critic Stratis Eleftheriadis (E. Teriade), who had first noticed the value of the work of his compatriot Theophilos, he met the great painters Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso, on whose work he later wrote articles and dedicated to his art the poem “Ode to Picasso”. In the summer of 1950 he travelled to Spain and during his stay in London, from late 1950 to May 1951, he worked with the BBC, making four radio talks. Shortly before that he had begun composing Axion Esti.
Return to Greece
After his return to Greece in 1952, he became a member of the “Group of Twelve”, which awarded literary prizes every year, from which he resigned in March 1953, but was reinstated two years later. In 1953 he again took over the Programme Directorate of the E.I.R. for a year, appointed by the Papagos government, a post from which he resigned the following year. At the end of the year he became a member of the European Society for Culture in Venice and a member of the Board of Directors of the Karolos Kun Art Theatre.
In 1958, after a fifteen-year period of poetic silence, extracts from Axion Esti were published in the Review of Art. The work was published in March 1960 by Icarus, although it was reportedly printed in December 1959. A few months later he won the First State Poetry Prize for To Axion Esti. Six and One Regrets for Heaven (Icarus Publications) was also published in the same period, and a selection of his poems entitled Korper des Sommers was published in Germany. However, 1960 marked Ulysses Elytis with a heavy double mourning, as he lost his mother and his brother Constantine.
In 1961, at the invitation of the government, he visited the United States from late March to early June. The following year, after a trip to Rome, he visited the Soviet Union, invited along with Andreas Empeirikos and George Theotokas. Their itinerary included Odessa, Moscow, where he gave an interview, and Leningrad.
In 1964, Mikis Theodorakis began recording the setting of Axion Esti, while Elytis” collaboration with the composer had already begun in 1961. Theodorakis”s oratorio was included in the Athens Festival and was originally to be performed at the Herodesion. However, the Ministry of the Presidency of the Government refused to grant it, and as a result, Elytis and Theodorakis withdrew the work, which was finally performed on 19 October at the Rex cinema theatre.
In 1965 he was awarded by King Constantine the Order of the Order of the Phoenix and in the following year he completed the collection of essays that would form the Open Papers. At the same time he made trips to Sofia, as a guest of the Bulgarian Writers” Union, and to Egypt. After the coup d”état of 21 April 1967, he abstained from public life, working mainly on painting and collage techniques, and refused an offer to recite his poems in Paris because of the dictatorship. On 3 May 1969 he left Greece and settled in Paris, where he began writing the collection Fotodentro.
A few months later he visited Cyprus for a while, while in 1971 he returned to Greece and the following year he refused to accept the Grand Prize for Literature established by the dictatorship. After the fall of the dictatorship, he was appointed chairman of the Board of Directors of the HIRT and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Theatre for the second time (1974-1977). In the years that followed he continued his multifaceted intellectual work. In 1978 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Philosophy of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Nobel Prize for Literature
In 1979 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy announced the award of the prize on 18 October “for his poetry, which, against the backdrop of Greek tradition, brings to life with sensual power and spiritual clarity of vision the struggle of modern man for freedom and creativity”, according to the decision.
Elytis attended the traditional ceremony of the award on 10 December 1979, receiving it from King Charles Gustavo and receiving worldwide publicity. The following year he deposited the gold medal and the diplomas of the prize at the Benaki Museum.
The award of the Nobel Prize was followed by honours both in Greece and abroad, including the award of a tribute at a special session of the Hellenic Parliament, and the award of an honorary doctorate from the University of Sorbonne, the establishment of a chair of modern Greek studies entitled ”Elytis Chair” at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and the award of the Benson Silver Medal by the Royal Philological Society of London.
He died on 18 March 1996 of a heart attack in Athens.
His relationship with politics
Elytis could not be described as a political poet. He rarely expressed certain political allegories through his poems. He usually refrained from politics, parties and ideologies. His poems mainly expressed his love for Hellenism and the Orthodox tradition.
According to an article by Dimitris Maronitis, Elytis, in his youth, had shown great interest in Revolutionary Marxism in the form of Trotskyism. In fact, this interest had manifested itself in the translation of some of Trotsky”s articles for a student magazine.
Later, given his bourgeois background, Elytis became slightly associated with the right-wing party.[citation pending] However, in the early years of the post-independence period, he refused the proposal of New Democracy to be included in the electoral list of its State deputies, as he remained faithful to the principle he had adopted, namely not to be actively involved in political practice. In 1977 he also refused to be promoted to the rank of Academician. , which he declared in a written letter that he supported. In 1995 Samaras proposed Elytis as President of the Republic, but again the poet refused.
After his death, in 2012, the then Prime Minister Antonis Samaras used some of Elytis” verses in a New Democracy election campaign spot and this caused a reaction, especially from his last companion, who stressed that Elytis” poetry should not be the subject of any political party, as Elytis belongs to all Greeks. Nevertheless, New Democracy did not withdraw it.
Elytis took strict care to keep his personal life out of the limelight. When he died, his only close living relatives were Evangelos Alepoudelis and his brother Theodore”s daughter Myrsini Alepoudelis-Leonidopoulou. His last companion in life was the poet Ioulita Iliopoulou, who was also the heir to the copyright of his work.
Odysseas Elytis was one of the last representatives of the literary generation of the 1930s, one of whose characteristics was the ideological dilemma between Greek tradition and European modernism. Elytis himself described his own position in this generation as strange, noting that ”On the one hand, I was the last of a generation that leaned on the sources of a Greekness, and on the other I was the first of another that accepted the revolutionary theories of a modern movement”. His work has been repeatedly associated with the surrealist movement, although Elytis differentiated himself early on from the ”orthodox” surrealism followed by his contemporaries, such as Andreas Embiricos, Nikos Engonopoulos or Nikolaos Kalas. He was influenced by surrealism and borrowed elements of it, which he nevertheless reformed according to his personal poetic vision, inextricably linked to the lyrical element and the Greek folk tradition. Influences from Surrealism are most easily discernible in his first two collections of poems, Prosaνατολισμοί (1940) and Helios the First (1943).
One of his top creations was the poem To Axion Esti (1959), a work with which Elytis claimed a place in national literature, offering at the same time a “collective mythology” and a “national work”. Literary critics emphasized its aesthetic value as well as its technical excellence. His language was praised for its classical precision of phrasing, while his rigorous structuring was described as a feat that ”nowhere allows the slightest rape of spontaneous expression to show”. The “national” character of Axion Esti was underlined, among others, by D.N. Maronitis and Georgios P. Savvidis, who in one of the first reviews of the poem found that Elytis deserved the epithet “national”, comparing his work with that of Dionysios Solomos, Costis Palamas and Angelos Sikelianos.
Elytis” later course was more introspective, returning to the sensualism of his early period and to what Elytis himself called the expression of a “metaphysics of light”: “Thus the light, which is the beginning and the end of every apocalyptic phenomenon, is stated by achieving an ever greater visibility, a final transparency within the poem that allows one to see simultaneously through matter and through the soul.” The stage poem Maria Nefeli (1978), in which he uses – for the first time in his poetry – the collage technique, can be described as idiosyncratic, but also one of Elytis” most important works.
Apart from his poetic work, Elytis left important essays, collected in the volumes Open Papers (1974) and In White (1992), as well as remarkable translations of European poets and playwrights.
Poetry collections and individual poems
Interviews – Leaflets
A significant number of Odysseus Elytis” poems have been set to music and sung by many artists. Some works are listed below: