Elytis, Odysseas

1. Introduction

Odysseas Elytis (Alepoudelis) is one of the most important Modern Greek poets. He studied Law in Athens and Literature in Sorbonne. His poetry contributed to the creation of the idea of being Greek as we now think of it. This idea substituted for direct references to Classical Antiquity. Some of his poems have been set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, while many of them have approached broader social classes, setting aside cultural and social boundaries in a very peculiar way.

2. The Alepoudelis family

Odysseas Alepoudelis was the fifth child of Panagiotis and Maria Alepoudelis. His parents were from Lesbos, though Odysseas himself was born on November 2nd 1911 in Heraklion, Crete. His father had settled there since 1895, establishing a soap-making factory and a seed-oil factory with his brother Thoedoros. Two years later, he got married to Maria Vrana.

In 1914, Panagiotis Alepoudelis transferred his business at Piraeus, and his family was relocated at the center of Athens. In the house of 98b Solonos St., Odysseas Alepoudelis spent his adolescence and tried writing poetry for the first time.

The family’s social background, within which young Odysseas matured mentally, belonged to the supporters of major politician Venizelos. In 1915, after Venizelos resigned as prime minister, he stayed at a farm of the family on Lesbos (Aklidiou farm); he would do that again within the following years. Besides, at the same farm had lived admiral Koundouriotis and general Daglis. The family’s close relations with Venizelos’ supporters resulted to the arrest of Panagiotis Alepoudelis and the expulsion of the entire family after Venizelos’ fall in 1920.

3. Elytis’ youth

Odysseas used to spend the summertime with his family on the Aegean islands (mostly Lesbos and Spetses). There, he came in touch with the Greek marine tradition and the influence of the sea on shaping the Greek civilization.

He was lucky enough to be taught at school by some of the most significant personages of Greek intellect of that time: I. Th. Kakridis, Y. Apostolakis, I. Sarris, I. Argyropoulos and E. Pantelakis. Inspired and encouraged by his teachers he started writing for the magazine I Diaplasis ton Pedon (“The Moulding of Children”) under various pseudonyms. He also set up a small, handwritten magazine called Ixos. He used to hang out at the bookshop of Kontes on Ippokratous St. and gradually began to turn almost exclusively to literature.

In the late 1920s he completed his formal training and at the same time he made his first encounter with the European literature and the work of Paul Éluard. He also wrote his first poems –after Kavafis’s style–and kept publishing under various pseudonyms at several magazine of that time. Attending the Law School of Athens marked his temporary break from poetry and his encounter with Marxism. That is when he translated Trotsky from French for the students’ newspaper. As an active student of his time, he joined the students’ group that took part in the “Saturday Symposia”. These symposia were all organized by the “Idealistic Philosophical Group” formed by Tsatsos, Kanelopoulos, Theodorakopoulos and Sykoutris, all of whom were university teachers back then.

4. Elytis’s influences

Elytis began writing poems clearly influenced by Kavafis’s poetry. It is quite clear, especially regarding technique. He wrote mostly cosmopolitan poems and others praising the flesh. He was influenced by magazine Protoporia (“Avant-garde”) published by Fotos Yiofyllis. Reading surrealistic works gradually marked a change in his poetry. Within a few years, he had already solidified his personal way of expressing himself. In 1934, he wrote the “First Poems” and destroyed all of his previous ones. At the same time, he was closely connected with Yiorgos Sarantaris, who published Elytis’s manuscripts the following year in the Ta Nea Grammata (“The New Letters”) magazine. We should also mention the definitive influence Andreas Embirikos had on Elytis’s poetry –both though their friendship and his work– since it stimulated him to take up automatic writing and contributed to the solidification of his own style.

5. The ‘30s and the first poems

By the mid-1930s Elytis had already found a style of his own. It was the time when he read Periklis Yiannopoulos and Ion Dragoumis, as well as the first writers of the 1930s generation. His contact with Yiorgos Sarantaris and Andreas Embirikos turned out to be decisive for young Elytis, since it helped him publish his first poems and also clarify his personal style. In fact, the poems published in 1934 by Sarantartis already had the form they had in the Orientations edition. In 1935, his first poem collection was published in Nea Grammata under the pseudonym Odysseas Elytis.

6. The first publication of Orientations and Elytis’s establishment

Elytis’s establishment came three years later, when Mitsos Papanikolaou wrote an article called “Odysseas Elytis the poet” in the Neoellinika Grammata (“New Greek Letters” ) magazine. Orientations was published in 1939; it was actually the first collection of his poems published until then. Some of his poems were translated the following year into French for the first time.

During World War II, when Elytis had become a second lieutenant, he wrote Sun The First, a draft of A Heroic And Funeral Chant For The Lieutenant Lost In Albania and T.T.T. 1935.

7. The times of recognition

The following years were very fertile regarding his writing. He worked for newspaper Kathimerini (“Daily”) from 1946 to 1948, while he spent the next four years in Paris, where he had the chance to converse with major representatives of literature and art in general: e.g. Κ. Axelos, Μ. Lyberakis, P Éluard, A. Breton, J. Miro, T.S. Eliot, .P Picasso, E. Tériade, A. Camus, J.-P. Sartre. In 1950, he started making a draft for Worthy It Is, which he finished in 1959 and was awarded the First State Poetry Prize in 1961. In the following years, he continued writing and was recognized at the same time both in Greece and worldwide. His works were republished, commented on and translated. In 1975, he was awarded the Doctor Honoris Causa in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Thessaloniki. In 1979 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1982, he received the Golden Medal of Honor of the Municipality of Athens. In 1987, he was awarded the Doctor Honoris Causa in the Universities of Rome and Athens, and in 1989 he received the French medal of the Grand Officier of the Legion of Honor. He died in March 1996 in Athens.

8. The "Axion Esti"

Axion Esti
,Elytis’s most celebrated work, has been partly set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, and is the first poem he ever wrote having in mind that it would be set to music.It is dedicated to the search and diachronic constitution of the essence of being Greek, whose key feature is resisting, it has become a kind of national anthem. It is divided into three parts: “Genesis”, “The Passion” and “ Gloria”, clearly demonstrating Elytis’s references to the religious tradition. Each part has parallel references to the poet’s personal story and the Greek history up to the mid-20th century. The poem’s connotations and the circumstance of the subsequent seven-year dictatorship made this work a symbol demonstrating the Greek people’s perception regarding their common memory and history, as well as their fights for freedom.