Sun and Light in Odysseas Elytis’ poetry
Odysseas Elytis was born in 1911 on the island of Crete and was a descendant of a family coming from Lesbos island. When his insular conscience met surrealism, the result was the birth of a poetry that tried to explain the mystery of light and to complement this natural element through ethical powers. He creates the new world of his own« in a new language that matches the sounds, the syllables and the breaths with large concepts, a subjugating language full of movement, music ». (Metsos Papanikolaou, Neoellinika Grammata, 72, 1938)
What is the poet’s mission according to Elytis ? In Open Papers, he writes : « We can say that the place of the sun in the ethical world plays the same role with its place in the nature of things. The poet is at the edge between the ethical and the real world. The part of the darkness that is neutralised in him thanks to his conscience, is measured in light which returns on him in order to make clearer his image, the image of man. If there is a humanist view for the art’s mission, it can only be conceived in the following way : as a invisible function similar to the mechanism which we call Justice. I don’t mean the justice of the courts, but that other kind which takes place slowly and painfully in the teaching of the big leaders of humanity, in the political fights for social liberation, in the highest poetic achievements. The drops of light of such a big effort falls lowly every now and then in the big night of the soul, like the drops of lemon in the polluted water. »
We can find the clearest expression of what the sun symbolizes in Elytis’ major long poem AxionEsti :
Μη παρακαλώ σας μη λησμονάτε τη χώρα μου »
Intelligible sun of Justice and you myrtle of glory
Please, I beg you, don’t forget my country
These lines sound like an echo coming from the Greek antiquity and more precisely from Plato, who writes in the Republic (VI 507b-509c) that just as the sun illumines, bestowing the ability to see and be seen by the eye with its light, so the idea of goodness illumines the intelligible with truth ; these same lines remind those who are familiar with it of the Greek Christian Orthodox poetic tradition which uses the expression « vehicle of the intelligible sun » in Akathistos Hymnos. It seems rather evident that the poetic work and world of Odysseas Elytis is an original and genuine product of a long cultural tradition anchored in the Greek geography and history, therefore it has a strong appeal for the imaginary and feelings of his people.
In the same poem we can also read :
« Ένα το χελιδόνι κι η Άνοιξη ακριβή
Για να γυρίσει o ήλιος θέλει δουλειά πολλή
Θέλει νεκροί χιλιάδες να ’ναι στους Τροχούς
Θέλει κι οι ζωντανοί να δίνουν το αίμα τους. »
There is only one swallow and Spring is precious
A lot of work is needed for bringing back the sun
Thousands of dead people are needed in the Wheels
And the living ones should offer their blood.
Here the sun of justice is that of the big fights of humanity that Elytis mentioned in his prose writings, the fights for the liberation like the one that the poet experienced while fighting with the Greek army against the Axis powers during World War II. The poet’s personal experience becomes universal in the clarity of his powerful verse. When, thanks to one of those happy coincidences in history, Mikis Theodorakis composed a monumental piece of music to accompany the lines of Axion Esti, Elytis’ poem became so popular that it was so on regarded as a sort of second national anthem ; an anthem that the Greeks learn ever since in their childhood and always remember and sing in times of hardship and fights for justice and freedom. In contemporary Athens, it is not rare to hear people sing « There is only one swallow » in big protests and meetings in the particularly difficult circumstances of economic, political and social crisis. Consequently, Odysseas Elytis became the interpreter of the particular bond that relates the Greek people to the light of their country and its mystery, its metaphysical dimension.
The natural and ethical dimensions of the sun are found also in Helios o Protos :
« Για να κυλήσει ο ήλιος το κεφάλι του
Τις παπαρούνες που θα δρέψουν οι περήφανοι άνθρωποι »
So that the sun can roll its head
And light with its lips the poppies
The poppies that the proud men will harvest
Death is the opposite of the sun and at the same time the necessary condition for returning to the state of metaphysical light. Lakonikon starts with the following lines :
« Ο καημός του θανάτου τόσο με πυρπόλησε που η λάμψη
μου επέστρεψε στον ήλιο.
Κείνος με πέμπει τώρα μέσα στην τέλεια σύνταξη της
The pain of death set so much fire on me that my glow
returned to the sun.
Who sends me now to the perfect arrangement of
the stone and the air.
It would be appropriate to quote in conclusion the columnist and writer Nikos Dimou who writes on Elytis’ poetry (Epopteia, 15, 1977): « Reading Odysseas Elytis is like looking at an Aegean wall at noon. It is dazzling, it makes us lower our eyes… When the dazzling is over, all that remains is happiness. A deep conscience. And a simple wisdom. Nothing that I did not know before, but which is conscious at present… Elytis is the transcendent of now and here. The metaphysical of the senses… In Elytis thinking becomes sensation. And we are saved… by the magic of the language. Because it is true, no one has ever become a closer ally of the word against death. »
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