Odyseeus Elytis is considered to be one of the most important modern poets of Greece. Descendant of the old Alepoudelis family of Lesbos, Elytis (his adopted allonym) was born on 2 November 1911 in Heraklion on the island of Crete, Greece. Some time later his family settled permanently in Athens where the poet finished his secondary school studies and later visited the Law School of the Athens University. His first appearance as a poet in 1935 through the magazine Nea Grammata (New Letters) was saluted as an important event and the new style he introduced - though giving rise to a great many reactions - succeeded in prevailing and effectively contributing to the poetical reform commencing in the Second World War's eve and going on up to our days.
In 1937 Elytis visited the Reserve Officer's Cadet School in Corfu. Upon the outbreak of the war he served in the rank of Second Lieutenant, first at the Headquarters of the 1st Army Corps and then at the 24th Regiment, on the advanced fire line. During the German occupation and later, after Greece was liberated, he has been unabatedly active, publishing successive collections of poetry and writing essays concerning contemporary poetry and art problems.
Elytis has twice been Programme Director of the Greek National Radio Foundation (1945-1946 and 1953-1954), Member of the National Theatre's Administrative Council, President of the Administrative Council of the Greek Radio and Television Service as well as Member of the Consultative Committee of the Greek National Tourist's Organisation on the Athens Festival. In 1960 he was awarded the First State Poetry Prize, in 1965 the Order of the Phoenix Brigade, and in 1975 he was proclaimed Doctor Honoris Causa of the Philosophical School of the Thessaloniki University and Honorary Citizen of the Town of Mytilene.
During the years 1948-1952 and 1969-1972 Elytis settled in Paris. There, he listened to philology and literature lessons in the Sorbonne and got acquainted with the pioneers of the world's avant-garde (Breton, Chagall, Giacometti, Matisse, Picasso, Reverdy, Tzara, and Ungaretti). Starting from Paris he travelled and visited subsequently Switzerland, England, Italy and Spain. In 1948 he was the representative of Greece at the International Meetings of Geneva, in 1949 at the Founding Congress of the International Art Critics Union in Paris and in 1962 at the Incontro Romano della Cultura in Rome.
In 1961, upon an invitation of the State Department, he travelled through the USA; and - upon similar invitations - through the Soviet Union in 1963 and Bulgaria in 1965.
Elytis' poetry has marked, through an active presence of over forty years, a broad spectrum. Unlike others, he did not turn back to ancient Greece or Byzantium but devoted himself exclusively to today's Hellenism, of which he attempted - in a certain way based on psychical and sentimental aspects - to build up the mythology and the institutions. His main endeavour has been to rid his people's conscience from remorses unjustifiable, to complement natural elements through ethical powers, to achieve the highest possible transparency in expression, and to finally succeed in approaching the mystery of light, "the metaphysic of the sun" - according to his own definition. A parallel way concerning technique resulted in introducing the "inner architecture", which is clearly perceptible in a great many works of his; mainly in the Axion Esti (It Is Worthy). This work - thanks to its setting to music by Mikis Theodorakis - was to be widely spread among all Greeks and grew to be a kind of the people's new gospel. Axion Esti gave Elytis The Nobel Price in Literature "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". Elytis' theoretical ideas have been expressed in a series of essays under the title Offering: My Cards To Sight.
Alongside his own writing Elytis applied himself to translating poetry and theatre as well as creating a series of collage pictures. Translations of his poetry have been published as autonomous books, in anthologies or in periodicals in eleven languages.
Elytis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature at the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm on 8 December 1979 "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".
Odysseus Elytis died on 18 March 1996 at home in Athens.
[Megakles Rogakos 02/2005]
ZOGRAFOS, LILI Elytis: The Sun Drinker 1972
LIGNADIS, TASOS Elytis' Axion Esti 1972
VITTI, MARIO Odysseus Elytis: Literature 1935-1971 1977 Icaros, Athens
IVASK, I. (ED) Odysseus Elytis: Anthologies of Light 1981
KEELEY, EDMUND Elytis and the Greek Tradition 1983
SHERRARD, PH. Odysseus Elytis and the Discovery of Greece 1983 Journal of Modern Greek Studies
DECAVALLES, A. Maria Nefeli and the Changeful Sameness of Elytis' Variations on a Theme 1982
MALKOFF, K. Eliot and Elytis: Poet of Time, Poet of Space 1984 Comparative Literature
DECAVALLES, A. Odysseus Elytis in the 1980s 1988 World Literature Today