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REFLECTIONS ON ODYSSEUS ELYTIS

Philip Ramp 

This past March Odysseus Elytis died in his 85th year. His death was front page news in Greece, a country that has traditionally honoured its poets. And he was worthy of this honour, as he was Greece's greatest lyric poet of this century. The joy and radiance that marked his work were unique and his gift remained with him to the end. As I live in Greece and am a translator I feel it is a good time to re-examine some of his better known works and I have been struck again by how little, ultimately, of the complexity and wealth of his images and associations come through in English translation. More sadly I reflect that these images and associations no longer have the same power in Greek they once had, for the world they extol, the world where Greek antiquity and Byzantium meet in the figure of the Hellenic hero, is rapidly ceasing to exist, even as an idea. Greece is being transformed more than at any time in the past four millennia. 

The change has been rapid. At the time Elytis began writing it must have seemed to him that Greece was at last ready for its Renaissance, not like the one western Europe experienced four centuries earlier, but instead a reaffirmation of Greece's mission in the world which had been interrupted by the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Elytis dedicated himself to furthering that mission from the outset of his career in 1929, when, at the age of 18, he came under the influence of the leading Greek surrealist, Andreas Embeiricos. Elytis was superbly qualified to examine the "rages and madnesses of [his] country" and find the "elusive signs of Paradise" they contained [1]. His family was originally from Lesbos but settled in Crete where it prospered and where Elytis was born; they soon moved to Athens, however, where he was raised and where he lived for practically his entire life. He was well aware of his close ties to these three wellsprings of Hellenism in the Aegean, and his poetry dwells on these themes almost obsessively. Even his name was of special significance to him: Odysseus with its obvious Homeric connotations and Elytis which was his own invention, a complex amalgam of, among other things, the Greek words for Greece, freedom and hope, and the illustrious name Eleni or Helen of Troy. 

Elytis did not want just to renew Greek tradition but to find a new way that would signal a clear break with the decadent attitude which was so fashionable in Greek poetry at the time. This fashion offended him because with its emphasis on death and despair it was the antithesis of all that Greece stood for, being but a faint echo of western cultural concerns and western prosody. Because whatever else Greek poetry might contain there had to be light and sun; Greek light and Greek sun. The tyranny of western models had to be rejected. Elytis maintained that the Greek poet had to look at Greece itself, to seize each moment as if it were a gift from God, because in Greece the divine was never far away, and even the energy of light seemed to be greater here than elsewhere. People who come to Greece commonly experience that feeling; the Greek not only experiences it, he knows it is true. 

With his quest for "Greekness" it seems odd that Elytis would align himself with the surrealists, that most western of artistic movements. The alignment proved to be more apparent than real. Though he was very close to its leading exponents in Greece, Andreas Embeiricos and Nikos Engonopoulos, he never adopted or employed any of the more extreme aspects of the movement (and thereby, as it turned out, avoided the ridicule the surrealists suffered in Greece). Surrealism offered him a method whereby he could plumb the hidden sources within himself, to reach the fantasies and dreams of the Greek race, which he felt to be of magical proportions. But he rejected automatic writing and he felt spontaneity had little place in poetic form. Greek art has been marked by strict, if malleable, form since its inception and Elytis was determined to carry on that tradition. Furthermore, he was well aware this strict form was needed to contain the exuberance and the incandescence of the images he was unlocking from his unconscious, the images of health and joy and vitality that the Aegean Greeks have always celebrated. Releasing the light of the Greek mind and setting it against the various wastelands of the modern world that were then threatening to engulf Greece as well, was not only a daunting artistic task but an equally daunting ethical one. The urgency of the need of the Greek artist to return to these Aegean roots is evident to anyone who reads Elytis, even in translation. The moment had to be seized and transformed. This attitude goes back to the ancient Greeks who while always trying to express the ideal wanted it to be an ideal that emerged from the actual. It was not ordinary reality they were after but the Real. 

Even though Elytis venerated ancient Greece, its myths and symbols were not the driving forces of his work. He was more concerned with the absolute and blazing light of Byzantium and the Aegean: a light so intense it destroys perspective, as is obvious from Byzantine icons and mosaics (as the modern traveller can see today, for the light often obliterates both the near and the far leaving one with, for lack of a better word, the infinite). This luminous space that Elytis was to examine for 60 years was neither a country nor even a place as such. It was a divine moment, a revelation, an epiphany, something which he referred to at various times as the "precise moment" or an "exactitude". In any case, this was the Greece he was to reveal, the Greece that still lived on in the reality of the Greek Orthodox Church. 

Not that Elytis was a religious poet per se but the Greek Orthodox Church contains the still living forms and symbols of Greek culture and these go far beyond religion. He borrowed some of these spiritual forms, adapted them to his needs and used them to mould his world. The beauty he produced and examined was not the beauty born of dream but the beauty that emerges from a struggle with evil. This sun can burn and kill as well as illuminate. And the dark silence can be even greater than the light. But though aware of them, Elytis was never attracted by the darker aspects of the world. That is obvious by looking at the images he returned to again and again: the Aegean sea, young men and women, or boys and girls, often naked, poppies, pebbles, vineyards, butterflies, branches, olive trees, almond trees, pomegranate trees, ancient ruins, medieval ruins, modern ruins, fish, algae, conches, light, light, light, sun, sun, sun, fire, fire, fire! Through the millennia of its existence the Greek language has evolved mechanisms for responding to the lyrical excess of light which in translation can seem strained, even hysterical at times. But it is simply a crescendo. Greek revelations lead to the summits. 

In a sense identity is at the centre of all Elytis' poetry. Though it is not uncommon in Greek poetry, Elytis is concerned with identity to an uncommon degree. But unlike in England or America, say, this is not individual identity but national (or perhaps ethnic) identity. Greeks have a great sense of themselves as individuals but not of what Greece itself is This goes all the way back to antiquity of course where there were many city-states but no Greece as such, the main sense of cohesion coming through the Greek language. This situation was further exacerbated by the Fall of Constantinople and the stream of conquerors who were to rule Greece for various periods after that right into the 20th century. (For example, Thessaloniki only became part of Greece in 1912, a year after Elytis was born. The Dodecanese had to wait until 1947. Modern Greece, as a country, is very young!). Through its language and the unifying force of the Greek Orthodox Church the Greek people were able to keep their culture fairly intact through all these centuries of subjugation, but there was nothing they could do about the things they were kept from experiencing: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. All the events that made such a definitive mark on western culture passed Greece by almost completely. A number of Greek poets recognized this problem but most of them chose to deal with it by following western models; George Seferis, for instance, the other Greek Nobel laureate, was deeply influenced by T.S. Eliot, among others. These poets saw their light through a western filter and their Byzantium was darkened by intrigue and incense. Elytis insisted on a "Greek" way. rejecting the murk and decay of the modern world and proclaiming the moment of the "mad" pomegranate tree his most enduring symbol. 'Tell me then is it the mad pomegranate tree/who unfolds her wings on the breasts of all things. on the breasts of our profoundest dreams?" [2]. And of course it is, here in the Aegean where you drink the sun and read the ruins and stride the sea, where you find your "deathless moment" and are found by the sky "in the midst of your naked vigour". 

In his early work Elytis returned to these themes and symbols again and again, almost obsessively, and though they were handled with increasing skill there was nonetheless a danger of stasis, of surfeit. Then the Second World War came along. It is not that the barefoot children, the fishermen, the cicadas, vineyards and pomegranate trees then disappeared from his poetry overnight. No, they are still there in abundance and the sun is still the focus of life and continues to rule mankind's fate. But the incandescent emotion, so reminiscent at times of Shelley, cools. Elytis went to the Albanian front and fought there and the death and the darkness he witnessed entered his poetry. It was as if for the first time he became truly aware of the antitheses which are such an essential part of Greek life: the rebellions and the tyrannies, cool reason and hot passion, the love of country and the constant leaving of it, the Hell of slaughter and famine and epidemic and the Paradise of light and beneficence. Greece is truly a "crazy boat" as Elytis was to call it later on. It's a hair-raising experience to keep it afloat but an exhilarating ride when all is said and done. 

In any case, from his experience at the front Elytis wrote one of his finest poems, Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign [3] which marks a great advance in both style and conception. The sky may still be heraldic but now "vultures share its bread crumbs". The sun shines but it does not brighten the gardens of delight. Rather it glares down on the "unholy bread", mercilessly outlines the frozen hand, the body burning with fever. In this land "fate is not anyone's widow! and women were made to weep and men to fight." In anguish the poet asks: "Sun, were you not the eternal one?! Bird, were you not that moment of unresting joy?! Brightness, were you not the untearing cloud?" The poet treks through a dark and dying land for most of this long poem and only at the very end is there a feeling that life will begin again because, finally, life and death are not adversaries but coequals in the creative process: the brightest sun has the deepest shadow. The hero of the poem dies but the Hellenic Hero is reborn, the personification of the eternal renewal of Greece itself and 'The dew of heavenly beauty sparkles in her hair". For, "Lads! There is no earth more beautiful/the truest moment of the world is ringing out!" the moment when the "Bells of crystal are pealing in the distance! Tomorrow, tomorrow. tomorrow: the Easter of God!" 

Elytis was never to forget these experiences. His quest for Greece would continue but this new perspective would now be at its center. For a number of years after the war he produced little poetry, seemingly unable to find a way to express these new. more complex positions to his satisfaction. When he did find it, he produced his greatest work and one of the major works of this century: Axion Esti. The title literally means "Worthy It Is" but as the phrase forms a major part of the divine liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church a literal translation is of little use.

The poem is divided into three parts, each of incredible complexity and each one completely different from the others [4]. One of the focal points of the poem is the phrase 'This/small, this great world!" which is frequently repeated in a variety of contexts with the cumulative effect of showing how the end is in the beginning and the beginning is renewed by the end where death is as much a miracle as life and the entry into death is but the entry into an "eternal moment". So the "everyday" images, as it were, in this poem vibrate, ripple sensuously with the energy of distant realms. The complexity of his forms helps Elytis draw antitheses together into one large unity without any apparent strain. But this was not his major point. His aim was to show that no matter what we experience it calls for total praise, it calls for our complete involvement. He does not deny the world is evil and oppressive but it is worth living through. And the emphasis here must be placed on through for in the end "it is the hand of Death/that bestows Life! and sleep does not exist." This is the price that all of us must pay but Elytis repeatedly stresses it: "WORTHY is the price paid". All of his old images and themes can be found here, and in abundance, but now the conclusion the poem builds slowly and inexorably toward, like a Mass, is more exalted than any one image for what is worthy is NOW and what is NOW is FOREVER (or AYE [5] in the Friar translation). "NOW to the wild beast in the myrtle Now to the call of May/AYE to consciousness filled and Aye to the full moon's ray.. . Now to the blending of peoples and the Number Black/Aye to the statue of Justice and the Mighty Eye that's staring back/Now to the humbling of the gods Now to the ashes of mankind/Now now to Nothingness and Aye to the small world, to the Great!" 

Elytis was never to reach the heights of Axion Esti again, but nonetheless The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty [61 contains some of his finest lines. On one level the book marks a return to an earlier world. to his poems of light and hope, but here he is led to the realization that "I finally did feel and let them call me mad that our Paradise is out of nothing born" [7]. The poet is thoroughly committed to the revelatory power of poetry, attributing what are essentially magical properties to it, the power to transubstantiate evil into good and to thereby create a new and higher morality which is revealed in the old divine moments, the 'exactitudes" I mentioned earlier. The "message", as it were, can only be read intuitively and the answer, if indeed this can be called an answer, will be forgotten though the "glow of reception' will remain, assuring the person that he has been granted a sign and in that sign he will endure and perhaps prevail, though not conquer. The paradox is that words dim the truth of the vision but in the Word is the vision. Though these are poems of mystic affirmation there is also an equally strong flavour of sadness and resignation as when the poet complains: "Oh where are you now my luckless light tree where are you my light tree I babbled to myself and ran away now I need you now when my very name is gone Now when no one mourns the nightingale and all pen poems." However, these things must be endured to strengthen us to carry on our "struggle with the Not and the Impossible of this world". And it will be enough if the "light tree" of his youth, of Greece itself can continue to blaze "a little while longer before it becomes dark forever". 

His last poems written in his 80s are elegies on death, his personal death in many cases, "I now live for the time when I will not be" as he was to say though he was also to say that death was but the "unused" part of life. 

Even if we can only appreciate a small part of his message his loss is still a loss to us all. His future, even in Greece. is unsure because where all the centuries of conquerors failed the EEC seems to be succeeding and not with war and destruction but security and prosperity; the Greek has left his village on the shores of the Aegean and gone to the global village at the edge of an artificial lake under a climatized dome. Whether the mad pomegranate tree will continue to toss in the wind and "scatter its fruit-laden laughter" filling "name to the brim with bird song" is a matter of some doubt. But Elytis would probably have replied that the "crazy boat" of Greece has survived "a thousand captains" and will survive a thousand more if it has to, and though it will never reach a safe haven there will always be someone high up on the mast peering into the blue Aegean distance and "shouting out the new born hope now dawning." 

NOTES 

All translations used in the text are my own and were done specifically for this article. 

1. 'The Girl the North Wind Brought", The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty, Ikaros Publishing, Athens 1971

2. 'The Mad Pomegranate Tree", Orientations, Pirsos Publishing, Athens 1939. 

3. Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, Ikaros Publishing, Athens 1962 

4. I refer the reader interested in learning more about this structure and its complexity to the book by Kimon Friar, The Sovereign Sun, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1974. Though a significant amount of this subtlety and complexity is lost in translation, Friar does an admirable job of explaining it to the reader.

5. I have chosen to retain Friar's AYE in my translation because though it may cause some initial confusion, its resounding note of affirmation is very much in accord with the original. 

6.Op.cit; note 1. 

7.The breaks in the line are in the original.