“DRINKING THE SUN OF CORINTH…”
Drinking the sun of Corinth
Reading the marble ruins
Striding across vineyards and seas
Sighting along the harpoon
A votive fish that slips away
I found the leaves that the sun’s psalm memorizes
The living land that passion joys in opening.
I drink water, cut fruit,
Thrust my hand into the wind’s foliage
The lemon trees water the summer pollen
The green birds tear my dreams
I leave with a glance
A wide glance in which the world is recreated
Beautiful from the beginning to the dimensions of the heart!
THE SLEEP OF THE BRAVE
They will smell of incense, and their faces are burnt by their crossing through the Great Dark Places.
There where they were suddenly flung by the Immovable
Face-down, on ground whose smallest anemone would suffice to turn the air of Hades bitter
(One arm outstretched, as though straining to be grasped by the future, the other arm under the desolate head, turned on its side,
As though to see for the last time, in the eyes of a disembowelled horse, the heap of smoking ruins)—
There time released them. One wing, the redder of the two, covered the world, while the other, delicate, already moved through space,
No wrinkle or pang of conscience, but at a great depth
The old immemorial blood that began painfully to etch, in the sky’s blackness,
A new sun, not yet ripe,
That couldn’t manage to dislodge the hoarfrost of lambs from live clover, but, before even casting a ray, could divine the oracles of Erebus…
And from the beginning, Valleys, Mountains, Trees, Rivers,
A creation made of vindicated feelings now shone, identical and reversed, there for them to cross now, with the Executioner inside them put to death,
Villagers of the limitless blue:
Neither twelve o’clock striking in the depths nor the voice of the pole falling from the heights retracted their footsteps.
They read the world greedily with eyes now open forever, there where they were suddenly flung by the Immovable,
Face-down, and where the voltures fell upon them violently to enjoy the clay of their guts and their blood.
“BURNISHED DAY,CONCH OF THE VOICE…”
Burnished day, conch of the voice that fashioned me
Naked, to step through my perpetual Sundays
Between the shores’ cries of welcome,
Let your wind, known for the first time, blow freely
Unfold a lawn of tenderness
Where the sun can roll his head
Can enflame the poppies with his kiss
Poppies nourished by men so fine
That the sole mark on their bare chests
Is the blood of defiance that annuls sorrow
And attains the remembrance of liberty.
I spoke of love, of the rose’s health, of the ray
That by itself goes straight to the heart,
Of Greece that steps so surely on the sea
Greece that carries me always
Among naked snow-crowned mountains.
I give my hand to justice
Diaphanous fountain, sublimest spring,
My sky is deep and changeless
All I love is incessantly reborn
All I love is always at its beginning.
“I LIVED THE BELOVED NAME…”
I lived the beloved name
In the shade of the aged olive tree
In the roaring of the lifelong sea
Those who stoned me live no longer
With their stones I built a fountain
To its brink green girls come
Their lips descend from the dawn
Their hair unwinds far into the future
Swallows come, infants of the wind
They drink, they fly, so that life goes on
The threat of the dream becomes a dream
Pain rounds the good cape
No voice is lost in the breast of the sky
O deathless sea, tell what you are whispering
I reach your morning mouth early
On the peak where your love appears
I see the will of the night spilling stars
The will of the day nipping the earth’s shoots
I saw a thousand wild lilies on the meadows of life
A thousand children in the true wind
Beautiful strong children who breathe out kindness
And know how to gaze at the deep horizons
When music raises the islands
I carved the beloved name
In the shade of the aged olive tree
In the roaring of the lifelong sea.
HOLY SATURDAY, 25
ENTERING MY SLEEPLESSNESS last night
just briefly, for a moment, the little goddess
with the mauve ribbon smiled at me
from a lad she’s always passed me secrets
Then she vanished floating off to the right
going to empty the bin with my waste
– the soul’s cigarette-ends and poem-ends –
there where haughty and full of past youth
the sea simmers.
(Greece, 1911 – 1996),
winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Heraklion, Crete, in 1911 and died in Athens in 1996. A major poet in the Greek language, Elytis is also one of the most outstanding international figures of 20th-century poetry. In his work, modernist European poetics and Greek literary tradition are fused in a highly original lyrical voice.
Elytis became acquainted with French surrealist poetry in the ´30s and was captivated by surrealism´s affirmation of feeling and the subconscious self, its rejection of traditional forms and rigid modes of poetical expression. An advocate of free verse, he discarded established verse forms and conventions considering them to be “vessels for the containment of the most heterogenous material”. He believed that poetical content determines an inventible form and he was dismissive of rhyme which he described as “lulling” and “superficial delight”. But he did not adopt surrealism´s free associations and automatic writing as proclaimed by Andre Breton. His is a mild and controlled surrealism, the syntax in his poems is not violated and, thanks to his talent, the juxtaposition of images is coherent and pleasurable. These qualities are manifest in his first collections of poetry (Orientations, 1939, and Sun the First,1943) which are joyous and radiant, celebrating the Greek landscape as an ideal world of sensual enjoyment and moral purity. The blue seas and the azure skies, the explosive light, the Aegean islands with their white cottages and bare rocks, the olive trees and the crickets, ancient amphorae and ruins, summer high noon and the etesian winds define the scene where life is liberated and triumphant, mystical and deeply meaningful. This free functioning of the human self against all restraints imposed by moral, social and aesthetic conventions, the creation of “a countryside of the open heart” is the young poet Elytis´debt to surrealism. But, as he put it, he did not serve surrealism, he asked surrealism to serve him.
In 1940 Elytis was called up as a second lieutenant and served on the Albanian front, where the Greek army checked the Italian invasion. His experience of war marks a departure from the sunny atmosphere of his early youth and poetry, colouring his long poem Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania (1943). The figurative language still retains the wealth and boldness, the unexpected metaphors and startling images of his previous works, but the tone is sorrowful, albeit proud, and the context wider: the poet identifies himself with the lost lieutenant and the lamenting voice is the voice of his suffering nation.
The attempt of Elytis to identify himself with his nation and speak for himself and also for his country reaches its peak with Axion Esti (1959), his central and most ambitious work. This is a poetical Bildungsroman, a three-part composition of intricate formal structure, aiming to present modern Greek consiousness through the development of a first-person narrator who is simultaneously the poet himself and the voice of his country. It is at once an interpretation of the world as it is and the valiant proclamation of a belief in what it might be. Its three parts are named characteristically “The Genesis”, “The Passions” and “The Gloria”, and it culminates in a glorification of all ephemeral things, of what is Axion- that is, Worthy – in “this small, this Great World”. Elytis´poetical theory as regards “the view of things” is fully realized in this work. As he said in his address to the Swedish Academy on receiving the Nobel Prize, “apart from the physical side of objects and the ability to percieve them in their every detail, there is also the metaphorical ability to grasp their essence and bring them to such clarity that their metaphysical significance will also be revealed”. In Axion Esti, a major poem by any standards, these ideas are materialized poetically.
Elytis´later work consist of ten collections of poems and a substantial number of essays. Outstanding among them are The Monogram (1972), an achievement in the European love poem tradition, and The Oxopetra Elegies (1991), which include some of the most difficult but profound poems written in our times. It is significant that in these mature works the tone is no longer jubilant. Melancholy, reflection and solemnity gradually prevail, although the poet´s faith in the power of imagination and the truth of poetry (a belief that brings him close to the Romantics) is still unshakeable.
In all his poetry Elytis has consistently emphasized man´s primary innocence, dismissing guilt and fate, and professing the redeeming quality of light, the “Judicious Sun”. He criticized the vulgarity of contemporary society and culture; showed the possibility of a different relation with the things of this world; corrected our reading of nature and our concept of love; reformulated the fundamental, minimal essentials of life, insisting that History can be written anew, reaffirming Shelley´s famous dictum that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
In the art of poetry he restored the high romantic expression in a modern and most convincing way, gave fresh vigour to metaphor, image and alliteration, and created his own original forms of versification. Above all, he brought to Greek poetry a clarity and sharpness which it had not known since Solomos.
An ardent apologist of the poet´s vocation, Elytis never ceased from exploring poetry´s role in these materialistic times and it is perhaps apt to conclude this appreciation by quoting a concise statement he once made concerning the aims of his poetry:
“I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my consience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses into greater harmony with my dreams. I am referring to a contemporary kind of magic which leads to the discovery of our true reality¡ In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraints and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood.”