Odysseus Elytis
Odysseus Elytis; drawing by David Levine

When the Swedish Academy announced its choice for the Nobel Prize in literature last year, the general reaction was one of bewilderment. Who on earth, people asked; was Odysseus Elytis? Some students of the international literary scene (“irritated,” as a friend wrote me, “at the selection of a man who hadn’t been published by Penguin”) hinted that the Academy’s recent habit of honoring elderly obscure poets such as Vicente Aleixandre or Harry Martinson was rapidly becoming an affectation. This is unfair to Elytis, a poet of large achievement; but it does pinpoint, with some force, the problems involved in getting Greek poetry across to a Western audience. An unfamiliar alphabet and language are only the first hurdles to be overcome. Behind them lie an attitude to life and a cultural tradition that are at odds with the AngloAmerican literary scene.

Poetry in Greece remains a natural part of popular life in a way that has long ceased to be true in the West.1 The editors of Twenty Contemporary Greek Poets claim that, on average, Greece sees two new volumes of poetry published daily, and from my own experience I would think their estimate no exaggeration. A spate of literary periodicals, some shorter-lived than others and with names like Tram and Parallax, provides a regular forum for young writers. What is more, they sell. One of the best-known and most popular recent Greek songs was a setting of a short lyric by George Seféris—another Nobel Prize winner, Greece’s second in only thirteen years.

Nor is this efflorescence exclusively urban or intellectual. Today, despite the destructive inroads made on local culture and dialects by the transistor radio and, latterly, television (still, luckily, hard to beam to some of the more remote islands and mountain fastnesses), Greece preserves, to a surprising degree, her tradition of oral poetry.2 In Crete, peasants continue to learn by heart long sections (sometimes all) of the 10,000-odd lines of Kornaros’s seventeenth-century epic, the Erotókritos, and couplets from it are printed on the back of the tear-off sheets of the little religious calendars that hang in almost every Greek home. Memory is reinforced by spontaneous composition: this is especially true of the ritual lament for the dead, the moirológhi, which has its roots deep in antiquity,3 and still flourishes in certain rural areas, above all the Deep Mani of the southern Peloponnese, where Patrick Leigh Fermor recorded a moirológhi composed for an English airman shot down at Limeni during World War II.4

Greek poetry stands in a curious and ambivalent relationship to the literary traditions of the West: at once their ancient fountainhead and, more recently, an odd tributary that, ever since the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830), has been moving uneasily back toward the main cultural tradition. On the one hand, Greek poetry offers the virtually unique phenomenon of a language and a poetic tradition that have evolved, unbroken, over three millennia. (To grasp this one need only leaf through a comprehensive anthology such as the bilingual Penguin Book of Greek Verse,5 which starts with the Iliad and ends with the early surrealist verse of Odysseus Elytis.) On the other, the impact, first of Byzantium, and then of the long Turkish occupation, effectively cut Greece off from the Renaissance, with all the impoverishment of language, parochialism, and subjugation that that implies. What other Western country, as Kimon Friar rightly asks, 6 has retained so clear an identity and integrity under such crushing odds?

This isolation brought, nevertheless, certain unpredictable advantages. It threw the Greeks back on their own idiosyncratic resources, sharpened imagination, bred suspicion of fashionable trends. Elytis, himself an accomplished painter and art critic as well as a poet, was one of the first to point out how, in the visual arts, Greece, unconscious of experiments in chiaroscuro and perspective, “still clung to the flat ideography of Byzantine icons and mosaics, which in their clear linear shapes and colors…were flattened out as though in a blazing and absolute light.”7 Those bright flat colors, that scouring sun, those mosaic fragments recur again and again in Greek poetry no less than in Greek art. Obsessions with freedom and death, both heightened by alien domination and incessant wars; the complex liturgical forms of the Eastern Orthodox Church: the vigorous oral tradition of folksong, epic, and ballad—these form the core of the modern Greek poetic tradition, on to which such latterday influences as Marxism or French surrealism have merely been grafted.

Another problem unique to Greece—at least in so exacerbated a form—has been the emergence of two competing literary languages, the demotic tongue, spoken on every street, and the so-called katharévousa, or “purist” speech. The latter, a largely artificial construction based on ancient Attic, was developed shortly before the Greek War of Independence, at the insistence of those philhellenes, both Greek and foreign, who dreamed of restoring Greece’s classical heritage, and found the common spoken tongue, with its slang, borrowed words, and lack of abstract terms, singularly inadequate for this purpose. Inevitably, having two languages not only created confusion in Greek education and literature, but also very soon acquired political connotations: advocates of katharévousa tended to be conservatives of the right, demoticists to be populists, liberals, ethnic idealists. Demotic was first recognized by Venizelos’s Ministry of Education in 1917, and has been in and out ever since, depending on the political views of those in power. George Papandhréou had school texts put in demotic Greek; the Colonels switched them back to katharévousa.


The best compromise, known as kathomilouméni, or “daily speech,” is a flexible blend of the two employed by some daily papers, based on demotic, but freely introducing abstractions and coining neologisms from the ancient tongue. It has, typically, attracted nothing but scornful criticism from purists in either camp. Ultimately, every serious Greek writer is, in effect, forced to invent his own language.8 Kalvos experimented with katharévousa, and so, surprisingly, did Cavafy, revealing “cunningly placed bits of whalebone in the more sinuous demotic.”9

But this linguistic ambivalence was also a sign of a far deeper fission, and conflict, in the body of Greek society.10 For over a millennium, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West by Theodosius (AD 395), Byzantium, renamed Constantinople in honor of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had preserved the Roman tradition in the shape of a proud, indeed unique, Christian theocracy. After the Great Schism of 1054 over the nature of the Holy Ghost, Eastern Orthodoxy’s links with the West were severed. The Byzantines did not think of themselves as Hellenes: to them “Hellene” was rather an opprobrious synonym for “pagan.” In their own eyes they were, rather, Romans (Romaioi). Ethnically, the mainland Greeks, whom they called “Helladics,” were no more than the occupants of an unimportant province of the Byzantine Empire. Apart from a brief Hellenizing movement in the early fifteenth century, shortly before the fall of Constantinople (1453), the notion of recovering, let alone emulating, the glories of ancient Greece gained no real ground until after the French and American revolutions, about 1800. Its chief proponents were Greek intellectuals educated, and for the most part resident, abroad, encouraged by romantic foreign philhellenes such as Shelley and Byron.

The idea of “Hellenism” was thus anathema, not only to the Orthodox Church but also to those countless simple, devout Greeks for whom patriotism meant the latterday revival of Byzantium: their talisman was not the Parthenon, but the great Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. (Even today travel agencies in Athens offer packaged Easter tours “to the City”: no need to name it, for a Greek only one city is worth consideration.) Their contempt for the ancient past was reinforced by ignorance. When one klephtic (guerrilla) leader heard himself compared to Achilles, he snapped: “Who is this Achilles? Did the musket of Achilles kill many?”11 Was the long, proud tradition of survival under the Turks, with its religious separatism, its klephtic ballads, its fighting priests, even its Karaghiozi shadow-theater, to be jettisoned in favor of some pagan dream foisted on the Romaioi by god less foreigners, who—brought up on Gibbon—dismissed Christian Byzantium as a barbarous, obscurantist medieval aberration?

Yet despite all this the notion of Hellenism took root. No one could deny that it played a vital role in winning the War of Independence, or that (with Constantinople still in Turkish hands) it offered a focal point, in Athens, for the nationalist aspirations of the new state. However much populist heroes of the anti-Turkish resistance like Kolokotronis and Makriyannis might grumble, Hellenism was from now on a permanent factor in Greek life. To encompass the tensions between Hellenism and Romaiosyne has ever since been an overriding concern of all Greek writers, a problem as difficult to ignore as to resolve.

The work of Elytis demonstrates that the closest links between modern and ancient Greece have little to do with intellectual theory or refurbished myth. The true perennial factor is Greece itself:12 that mountainous, harsh, limestone peninsula, with its scatter of islands, its violent storms, its whitewashed chapels, its poverty, its superstitions. In their isolation,13 the Greeks have preserved, below the threshold of public history, a peasant culture of extraordinary tenacity and complexity that reaches back into the remote pre-Christian past. Countless modern superstitions, legends, and beliefs have survived intact.14 A modern Boeotian farmer working the land around Mt. Helicon could feel a sense of kinship with his Hesiodic ancestor of the Works and Days (c. 700 BC), and indeed still shares many of his legends and agricultural observances. 15 The liturgical fabric of the Orthodox Church is seamed with a rich assortment of pagan symbols and ritual. That intricate modern taverna dance the zeïbékiko is directly descended from the classical Pyrrhic dance, while Lydian and Dorian modes still survive in the music that accompanies it.


Metternich once remarked, scornfully, that it was impossible to define what the word “Greek” meant, whether ethnically, politically, or geographically.16 In the climate engendered by the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) this attitude was understandable, but it provided an agonizing legacy for the Greeks themselves, of which their imposed Bavarian monarchy was only the most obvious symptom. Inevitably, much of their new literary theory was imported, for the most part from France.17 The educated Phanariot Greeks from Constantinople, who after 1830 flocked to the new capital in Athens, were French-speaking cosmopolitans, accustomed to high office, often in key diplomatic posts; not surprisingly, they had romantic visions of a rejuvenated classical Greece, in the style of Hugo or Byron. They also wrote in katharévousa—“the ugly purist screech,” as a distinguished (but far from impartial) contemporary critic describes it.18

Equally foreign in its antecedents was the remarkable school of poetry that developed in the Ionian islands, Zakynthos in particular, off the west coast of Greece. Since these islands had never come under Turkish domination, their links with Western Europe, in particular with England and Italy, were strong. It is one more paradox in the odd story of modern Greek poetry that the two main representatives of the Ionian School, Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) and Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869), both began their poetic careers writing in Italian, and in fact never acquired perfect fluency in Greek. Both, further, wrote passionately patriotic poetry (the first few verses of Solomos’s Ode to Liberty were adopted as the Greek national anthem) while for the most part living abroad. It is doubtful whether Solomos ever set foot on the Greek mainland at all. Kalvos’s brief and disastrous encounter with the ugly internecine factionalism of the Greek resistance movement at Náfplion not only sent him scuttling back posthaste to Corfu and thence to England, but seems to have fatally damaged his poetic impulse.19 Yet it is in Solomos and Kalvos that we first catch that characteristic sensuous celebration of the light and landscape that has haunted Greek poets ever since, and that reaches its apotheosis in the work of Elytis.

Born in 1911, on Crete, of Mytileniot descent, Odysseus Alepoudhelis took the pen name “Elytis,” compounding it from the Greek words “Ellas” (Greece), “Eleni” (Helen), “elpidha” (hope), and “eleftheria” (freedom). Hope proved the dominant element in this conflation. Although Elytis became a mature writer during the Thirties, he stayed apart from the fashionable Angst and pessimism of the time—in sharp contrast to many of his contemporaries who affected poésie maudite in the manner of Baudelaire, above all Kostas Karyotákis, with whose highly public suicide in 1928 “despair, loneliness and anxiety erupted into Greek poetry.”20 Elytis saw that the Smyrna disaster of 1922 effectively killed the “Great Idea” of a revived Byzantine Empire centered on Constantinople, but his work, from his first collection, Orientations (1939), to the magnificently orchestrated personal and ethnic testament, The Axion Esti (“Praised Be” or “Worthy it is,” a phrase from the Liturgy), published twenty years later, has a kind of passionate optimism about the possibilities of his small Aegean world.

Yet he has never been a mere romantic sentimentalist: his “Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign” (1943) would alone suffice to disprove that. It is true that one of his most lyrical collections, Sun the First, was actually published during the German-Italian occupation of Greece (the “Heroic and Elegiac Song,” for obvious reasons, had to wait until 1945). Asked why, in a time of darkness and loss, he wrote poems of exaltation, he replied that “it was not the events of the age that interested him as poetry but the emotions with which these events were confronted and transfigured.”21 His hope springs from inner spiritual certainty.

The beauty and lyricism of Elytis’s work, so imbued with the Greek genius loci, at once bring it within reach of the sympathetic European or American reader—especially those who have experienced a Greek summer.

In these whitewashed courtyards where the South Wind blows
Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me is it the mad pomegranate tree
That frisks in the light scattering her fruit-laden laughter
With a wind’s caprice and murmur- ing, tell me is it the mad pomegranate tree
That quivers with newborn foliage at early dawn
Unfolding all her colors on high with a triumphant tremor?22

There’s a touch of Dylan Thomas in such lines of Elytis, and more than a touch of French surrealism (in his case by way of Paul Eluard), something which, after André Breton’s famous Manifesto of 1924, took root and flourished with peculiar vigor in Greek soil.

What I find really remarkable about French surrealism in Greece is the diversity of poets whom it influenced, from an out-and-out romantic like Nikos Gatsos to the dedicated communist Yannis Ritsos. Gatsos (b. 1911) wrote his extraordinary poem Amorghos (the name of a Greek island, which Gatsos had never visited, nothing to do with his poem, and chosen as its title merely for euphony) in a single night, surfing on a wave of imagery that never quite slips out of control:

Only if birds should ripple amid the masts of the lemon trees
With the firm white flurry of lively footsteps
Will the winds come, the bodies of swans that remained immaculate, unmoving and tender
Amid the streamrollers of shops and the cyclones of vegetable gardens
When the eyes of women turned to coal and the hearts of the chestnut hawkers were broken
When the harvest was done and the hopes of crickets began…
[translated by K. Friar]

In the hands of Ritsos (b. 1909) surrealism becomes an effective political weapon. After describing a nocturnal interrogation, with its floodlights, cigarette butts, and forced confessions, he picks up a surprising scene through the window:

Close by, in the big well-swept sportsground, with its wire net- ting,
They saw the three diplomats, in tophats and starched shirts,
Collecting eggs from the floodlit chickenhouse. The hens,
Up and awake (white, for the most part) weren’t clucking,
Just peering carefully at their glint- ing cufflinks, well aware,
Like expert pawnbrokers, that these weren’t genuine diamonds.
[translated by P. Green]

There is something about the sharp Greek contrasts of light and shade, the unpredictable paradoxes of the Greek mind, that makes surrealism seem a natural mode of expression: one with which both Aeschylus and Pindar were already, each in his own way, familiar.

The poem by Elytis quoted above goes on to rhapsodize about naked sunburned girls in the meadows. This motif, a recurrent feature of Greek poetry ever since the days of Kalvos and Solomos, stands out as pure Hellenizing fantasy, since the contrast with actual social mores, despite modernizing trends in the last two decades, remains absolute. Greek women (as the number of secretaries’ parasols in Athens eloquently testifies) hate getting sunburned, and blush at the very thought of public nakedness. Such literary conceits are more likely to score with visiting foreigners than with the Orthodox Church, still the most all-pervasive spiritual and moral force in Greece, and not noted (to put it mildly) for egalitarianism or permissiveness toward women. So a classic tension develops in Elytis’s work, not only between the demotic and the Hellenizing traditions, but also between the sensuousness and the equally passionate spiritual instinct that hold the Greek psyche in an uneasy balance.

This tension is most clearly expressed in The Axion Esti, the work above all on which Elytis’s reputation rests, and which almost certainly won him the Nobel Prize. One measure of its achievement is the degree to which Elytis succeeds in reconciling fire and rose, the world of the senses and the world of the spirit. Just as he did in an earlier poem, “The Autopsy” (1957)—where “it was found that the gold of the olive root had dripped into the leaves of his heart”—Elytis here merges and symbolically identifies his own being and history with that of Greece. He wants his childhood to become that of all poets, of Greece, of the Creation. The sufferings he observed as an adult, from the Albanian campaign of 1940 to the terrible civil war of 1946-1949, he wants to make universal in a formal liturgical setting. The poem closes with a doxology of praise that seeks to transfigure and sanctify the simple, eternal features of Aegean life that recur in Elytis’s verse.

The tripartite structure of The Axion Esti—“Genesis,” “Passion,” “Gloria”—not only echoes in its symbolism the Orthodox Liturgy, but even suggests the architecture of a Christian basilica. 23 Linguistically, Elytis’s supple Greek exploits an equally wide, and symbolically apt, range of usage, from the formal vocabulary of the Septuagint or ecclesiastical hymnology to demotic folk ballads, from Cretan epic (the Erotókritos) to the simple vernacular prose of General Makriyannis (1797-1864), the homespun autodidact hero of the War of Independence, whose Memoirs, now a kind of demoticists’ bible, have provided stylistic inspiration for several generations of Greek writers.24 Elytis echoes Makriyannis not only in passages describing the drizzle and sweat and lice-ridden exhaustion of the Albanian campaign, but also, with horrific effect (and, again, a touch of surrealism) as a postlude to a wartime execution:

And the boys were very frightened; and the men, with leaden faces, straw hair, and black boots, turned waxen. Because the shacks all around shook as in an earthquake, and in many places the tarpaper fell off the walls, and far off, behind the sun, women appeared weeping, kneeling down in a vacant lot full of nettles and black clotted blood. While the great clock of angels chimed exactly twelve.

It is impossible to convey, except through extended quotation, the complexity and power of this great poem, at once so universal and so quintessentially Greek.

   Take away my sea with its white north winds,
the wide window full of lemon trees, the many bird songs, and the one girl
whose joy when I merely touched her was enough for me, take them away; I have sung!
Take away my dreams, how can you read them? Take away my thoughts, where will you utter them?
I am clean from end to end. Kissing, I enjoyed the virgin body.
Blowing, I colored the fleece of the sea. All my ideas I turned into islands.
I squeezed lemon on my conscience.

The poet’s early years blend into the dawn of the world; the Greek islands, irradiated with sunlight, become a primal Eden; while the final Gloria—that exultant paean to earth and sky, winds, mountains, love, all moments of bright perception: “nine in the morning like fragrant bergamot,” “the wooden table, / the blond wine with the sun’s stain / the water doodling across the ceiling,” “conscience radiant like a summer”—recalls, in its innocence and intensity, nothing so much as Christopher Smart’s A Song to David.

The only modern work I know with which it is remotely comparable, in spiritual force, complex verbal beauty, length, structure, and doxological allusiveness, is David Jones’s The Anathemata, and The Axion Esti seems to me the better poem. Not only is the feeling deeper, the structure more intricate, the imagery more intense; it also possesses a natural depth of perspective that the Anathemata cannot match, since beyond Orthodox Byzantium lies the whole rich Hellenic tradition reaching back to Homer, whereas the Catholic “Matter of Britain” rests on a Roman military occupation, woad-covered warrior tribesmen, and Druidic sacrifices at Stonehenge.

When Elytis made his acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony he said: “I would like to believe that the Swedish Academy wants to honor in me the entire canon of Greek poetry.” Whether or not we agree with Constantine Trypanis’s claim25 that “in the last hundred years much greater and more original poetry has been written than in the fourteen centuries which preceded them,” no one can deny the amazing richness and diversity of Greek poets in this century: Sikelianos,26 Caváfy, Seféris,27 Kazantzakis, Yannis Ritsos,28 and Elytis alone would constitute a quite exceptional list for so small a country. Of these, it is perhaps Anghelos Sikelianos (1884-1951) who best exemplifies the near-schizophrenic dilemma of the Greek intellectual committed to neo-Hellenism. Like Eliot, he saw the modern world as a wasteland, in his case to be redeemed by a reversion to the supposed values of the pre-Socratic thinkers, and, beyond them, to that universal feminine principle he saw at the heart of Aegean civilization. Yet his attempt to by-pass two millennia of Christian belief was doomed to inevitable failure, and there was a sadly appropriate irony in the fact that his Delphic festival of the arts had to be financed by his rich American wife. What would a modern Spartan peasant see in his passionate “Hymn to Artemis Orthia”? Plain blasphemy, I suspect; the syncretism he aimed at (“sweet child, our Dionysus and our Christ”) never really took, and only Elytis has ever come near achieving it.

Anyone who dips into Kimon Friar’s huge anthology, Modern Greek Poetry, will soon realize that the poets I have discussed form only a small fraction—if, arguably, the most distinguished—of those whose work has left its mark on modern literature: while the gifted young writers represented in Twenty Contemporary Greek Poets show very clearly that the Greek tradition has great vitality, and, incidentally, that under Valaoritis’s influence French surrealism is still flourishing in Athens: Vassilis Steriadis can write:

   Dear Tassos
my dying and coming is out of question
Katia won’t let me
But Katia is full of holes and a bit mad
as she falls from the clouds
into a box of sugared almonds

If these young poets use traditional myths, it tends to be with a conscious off-handedness. When Yorghos Chronas’s mermaid asks a sailor, in a storm at sea, if Alexander the Great still lives, and gets the ritual answer (to avert shipwreck) “He lives!” the poet comments:

Maybe he lived, maybe he didn’t, how did he know?
he was just a sailor by himself at sea…

For Yannis Yfantis the Achaean siege of Troy resembles spermatozoa assaulting an ovum, till “like a penis that old horse entered her.” The scars of occupation and civil war recur grimly among the pop-culture American icons (TV, refrigerators, Marilyn Monroe). Greece has suffered more than most countries in the course of her history, and put her bitter experiences to better poetic use. Elytis himself should have the last word:

   The noon bell chimes
and slowly on the scorching stones letters are carved: NOW and FOREVER and PRAISED BE.
Forever forever and now and now the birds sing PRAISED BE the price paid.

This Issue

June 26, 1980