Nobel Prize-winning poet Odysseas Elytis is regarded as one of Greece’s major poets and a major exponent of romantic modernism in Greece and worldwide.
In 1979, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and most of his works have been translated into many languages.
According to the official announcement of the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Elytis “for his poetry, which, against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clear-sightedness modern man’s struggle for freedom and creativeness.”
“[In] its combination of fresh, sensuous flexibility, and strictly disciplined implacability in the face of all compulsion, Elytis’ poetry gives shape to its distinctiveness, which is not only very personal but also represents the traditions of the Greek people,” the Swedish Academy maintained.
His words, upon acceptance of the Nobel Prize, gave evidence of this deep regard for his people and country:
“I would like to believe that with this year’s decision, the Swedish Academy wants to honor in me Greek poetry in its entirety,” Elytis said.
“I would like to think it also wants to draw the attention of the world to a tradition that has gone on since the time of Homer,” he added, “in the embrace of Western civilization.”
Odysseus Elytis changed his name to reflect what he most treasured
Elytis was born Odysseus Alepoudelis in the city of Heraklion on the island of Crete on November 2, 1911.
To avoid any association with his wealthy family of soap manufacturers, he later changed his surname to better reflect his values.
Frank J. Prial of the New York Times explained that the poet’s pseudonym was actually “a composite made up of elements of Ellas, the Greek word for Greece; elpidha, the word for hope; eleftheria, the word for freedom; and Eleni, the name of a figure that in Greek mythology personifies beauty and sensuality.”
Elytis’s poetry collections include What I Love: Selected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, translated by Olga Broumas (1978), Maria Nefeli: Skiniko piima (1978, translated as Maria the Cloud: Dramatic Poem, 1981), and To axion esti (1959, translated as Worthy It Is, 1974).
Fighting in WWII was an inspiration for one of his most poignant works
With the advent of World War II, Elytis interrupted his literary activities to fight with the First Army Corps in Albania against the Italian aggressors.
His impressions of this brutal period of his life were later recorded in the long poem “A Heroic and Elegiac Song of the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign.”
Regarded as one of the most touchingly human and poignant works inspired by the war, the poem has since become one of the writer’s best-loved works.
Now the dream in the blood throbs more swiftly
The truest moment of the world rings out:
Greeks show the way in the darkness:
For you the eyes of the sun shall fill with tears of joy.
Rainbow-beaten shores fall into the water
Ships with open-sails voyage on the meadows
The most innocent girls
Run naked in men’s eyes
And modesty shouts from behind the hedge
Boys! There is no other earth more beautiful
The truest moment of the world rings out!
With a morning stride on the growing grass
He is continually ascending;
Around him those passions glow that once
Were lost in the solitude of sin;
Passions flame up, the neighbours of his heart;
Birds greet him, they seem to him his companions
‘Birds, my dear birds, this is where death ends!’
‘Comrades, my dear comrades, this is where life begins!’
The dew of heavenly beauty glistens in his hair.
Bells of crystal are ringing far away
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow: the Easter of God!
From 1969 to 1972, under the Greek military junta of 1967 to 1974, Elytis exiled himself to Paris after he was offered money from the junta which he refused by avoiding it and leaving the country.
Elytis’ To axion esti (1959, translated as Worthy It Is, 1974) came after a period of more than ten years of silence. As in his other writings, Elytis depicted Greek reality through an intensely personal tone.
Odysseas Elytis’s work through his words
Odysseas Elytis had been completing plans to travel overseas when he died of a heart attack in Athens on March 18, 1996 at the age of eighty-four.
In an interview with Ivar Ivask for Books Abroad, Elytis summarized his life’s work:
I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams.
I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality. It is for this reason that I believe, to the point of idealism, that I am moving in a direction which has never been attempted until now.
In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraint and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood.
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