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This is a another heartfelt yet rigorous and intelligent essay submitted by Micahela Leary for the course I teach to 3rd year undergraduate Classics students at the University of Reading where I have been teaching for the last thirteen years. My course bears the title 'My Mother's sin and other stories' aiming at introducing some major authors and works as well as trends in Modern Greek Poetry and Fiction from the late 19th century to the late 20th century in connection with both the history, sociocultural context and wider literary developments of their period and illustrating attitudes to the ancient past in the work of some selected poets and novelists. All texts are taught from English translations. My students take this course as optional and for the majority a whole new world of hidden Modern Greek treasures is unveiled. Many have called the experience of my course as 'a breath of fresh air' which i consider an ultimate credit...

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Examine the role of self-deception in the historical poems of Cavafy

This is a heartfelt yet rigorous and intelligent essay submitted by Sophie Prewett for the course I teach to 3rd year undergraduate Classics students at the University of Reading where I have been teaching for the last thirteen years. My course bears the title 'My Mother's sin and other stories' aiming at introducing some major authors and works as well as trends in Modern Greek Poetry and Fiction from the late 19th century to the late 20th century in connection with both the history, sociocultural context and wider literary developments of their period and illustrating attitudes to the ancient past in the work of some selected poets and novelists. All texts are taught from English translations. My students take this course as optional and for the majority a whole new world of hidden Modern Greek treasures is unveiled. Many have called the experience of my course as 'a breath of fresh air' which i consider an ultimate credit...

Examine the role of self-deception in the historical poems of Cavafy

BIRZEIT UNIVERSITY - Παλαιστίνη

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Poetics and Histories: To What Extent Did C. P. Cavafy Alter Historical Narratives, and for What Artistic Purposes?

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Greek/Classics Department Award Ceremony: Theodora Kamaroudi

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ΓΙΑΝΝΗΣ ΖΗΚΟΥΔΗΣ: Άξιον Εστί

'Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece' redefined in Elytis

tzanidaki writes, "Dr Dimitra Tzanidaki-Kreps
Department of Classics
University of Reading
Dissertation supervisor

This is an admirable prize-winning dissertation by Gemma Lock, a 3rd year Classcis student of mine; a passionately and fluently argued exploration of the ways in which the Western perception of Greece was redefined in the poetry of Elytis. The external examiner's comments: "Outstanding. Clearly of postgraduate – and near publishable – quality. [The dissertation supervisors should also be considered for a prize!]"

"

29 Μαΐου 2009

The ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’ redefined in the poetry of Elytis

By

GEMMA LOCK

Introduction

“I and my generation…have attempted to find the true face of Greece. This was necessary because the true face of Greece has been presented as Europeans saw Greece…The Western world always conceives Greece in the image of the Renaissance.”

These are the words of the Modern Greek poet Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979. Keeley comments that, “When most English speaking readers hear the phrase “the Greek tradition,” the image that immediately comes to mind is that of classical Greece.” This is because of a vast trend during the Renaissance era to idealize ancient Greece and its culture and values. Western Europeans maintained this ideology, Durrell describing Greece as “eternal”, an ideology “which has haunted and continues to haunt the European consciousness with its hints of a perfection that remains always a possibility.” The Western perception of Greece, however, was preserved as that of ancient Greece, regardless of years of foreign invasion, the days, and indeed the ways of ancient Greece long since past. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, it entered into a four-hundred year period of Turkish domination, up until the Greek revolt in 1821, and finally the birth of the independent Greek kingdom in 1833:
“While much of Western Europe was experiencing major socio-political transformations such as the Renaissance, Reformation, and the French Revolution, Greek culture was lying somewhat dormant within the declining Ottoman Empire.”
My aim is to analyse and explore how Elytis sought to redefine the Western model by creating a synthesis of rich and visceral aspects of the Aegean landscape and culture, ideological elements of youth, warmth, and beauty, and all elements of the country’s traditions and complex history. His Hellenism was described by Calotychos as distinctly Eastern, Byzantine, and Surrealist, his use of surrealism becoming particularly significant in light of his redefinition of the Renaissance-based classical perception, when we come to comprehend the intricacies of his surrealist ideology.

An important issue to resolve immediately is my use of terms like ‘Western’, ‘the West’, and ‘Western European’, particularly in light of my use of them as terms of contrast to ‘Greece’ and ‘Greek’. Present-day Modern Greece is considered to be part of Western Europe, and so it might seem strange to set Greece apart in this manner. I do so, not only because I often refer to a Greece only recently freed from Ottoman enslavement, whose position in Europe was at that time unclear, but primarily because it is the way that Elytis views his country:
“You always look somewhat puzzled, I notice, whenever I contrast Greeks with Westerners or Europeans. This is not a mistake on my part. We Greeks belong politically, of course, to the Occident. We are part of Europe, part of the Western world, but at the same time Greece was never only that. There was always the oriental side which occupied an important place in Greek spirit. Throughout antiquity oriental values were assimilated. There exists an oriental side in the Greek which should not be neglected. It is for this reason that I make the distinction.”
As Elytis refers to Greece, in his prose pieces, as a separate entity to, and often affected by, the West, as does much of the scholarship surrounding this subject, I shall adopt similar methods throughout.

Despite the difficulties in translating the subtleties and complexities of Elytis’ language (inevitably some of his meaning will be lost in translation) I understand the English translations of his poetry to be well considered representations. Elytis masterfully combines all elements of what he intuits to be Greek in his poetry, and eloquently expresses his theories in prose form, found in a collection of his prose works, Open Papers (written 1974, translated 1995) and an interview he gave to Ivar Ivask reproduced in the excellent book, Analogies of Light. Elytis describes his poetry as being separated into three periods; nature and metamorphoses dominate the first, a greater “historic and moral awareness yet without the loss of vision of the world which marks my first period” in the second, and a developed form of expression and ‘solar metaphysics’ (“Since the sun has always had a central place in my poetry, I called it solar metaphysics”) typifies the third. The spiritual and poetic growth of Elytis’ works over his long artistic lifespan is characteristic of a poet believing in the location of truth in rebirth. In order to show a fair representation of his poetry, I chose a book from each of these periods; Orientations (1939), The Axion Esti (1959), and The Light-Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty (1971). Being fortunate enough to have his entire collected works translated into English, I studied all seventeen books and discovered I could use most of them to my advantage. I selected these books because of their distribution throughout his oeuvre, and for their representation of my argument. Had I enough words, I had planned to also include Maria Nephele at the very least.

I have noticed (as do Gaffke and Sheets ) a general lack of criticism and study of Elytis’ poetry written in (or indeed translated to) the English language through the course of my research, which is perhaps correlative to the initially ambivalent reception it courted in English speaking countries. Nevertheless, I make considerable use of the works of Keeley and Sherrard, who both wrote chapters specific to Elytis and Greek identity and tradition, and some use of the criticism of Friar and one of the translators of my primary source, Carson. Beaton has a useful work on the history of Modern Greek literature and its role as an integral part of Greek culture, communicating a response to historical change. Zakythinos illustrates the diversity of the historical and sociological elements of Greece; a cultural ‘polyphony’. More generally I use the histories of Modern Greece by Kourvetaris and Dobratz, Koliopoulos and Veremis, Calotychos, Gallant and Woodhouse as reference, among other secondary sources listed in my bibliography.

I shall begin with a discussion of the ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’, detailing its meaning, history, and the consequences it held for the development of the newly independent Greek nation state and its literature. The chapter will be based largely on the available historical and literary historical scholarship, interspersed with evidence from Elytis’ prose. The second chapter will be a study of Elytis’ use of surrealism, a continuation of the previous chapter in terms of following Elytis’ poetic response to both the ‘Renaissance-based classical perception’, and Western acculturalisation. The exploration of Elytis’ surrealist theory in its attempt to recover the ‘true face of Greece’ will again be supported by the available scholarship, with rather more emphasis on Elytis’ prose works, and some examples of his poetry. My final chapter will be an analysis of the different methods, developed in the first two chapters, utilised by Elytis in his redefinition of the Western perception, drawing evidence from the aforementioned books of Elytis’ poetry, before a brief conclusion. Each chapter will begin with an introduction, outlining the content and setting out the argument, and end with a conclusion, arranged thus with the intention of maintaining a sense of purpose in each section, and a greater probability of a full understanding by the final conclusion, which subsequently need only be a brief summation. My choice to withhold most of the poetry till the last chapter arose out of practicality; the first chapter required more scholarly substantiation than literary, and the second chapter more from Elytis’ prose. This choice was, perhaps, far from ideal, as it is to the detriment of a sense of balance within the essay, particularly because the word limitation has caused my poetry analysis (of which I dedicated a great deal of study) to be drastically curtailed. Despite this, I hope to prove that Elytis used his poetry (and Surrealism) to redefine the Western ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’, recover Greece’s ‘true face’ and spiritual identity using a synthesis of its archaic, Byzantine, and Folk Linguistic and Cultural elements.

Chapter One

The ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’

Elytis speaks of the influence of the Western world on his country’s identity in Analogies of Light, claiming that “the true face of Greece was presented as Europeans saw Greece…The Western world always conceives Greece in the image of the Renaissance.” It is this belief in the misplacement of Greece’s ‘true face’ that prompted Elytis to create poetry which evokes a more authentic identity, and to redefine the European perception. Naturally, the ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’ of my title is a key concept which demands both clarification and exploration. Essentially, it is the perception of Greece and its culture and identity as understood by Western scholars educated on a Renaissance-based classical ideology. The principal purpose of this chapter is to detail its meaning and the history behind it, with some discussion of the consequences it had for Greece and subsequently, Elytis. Throughout, I aim to illustrate that the West had a cultural preconception of Greece pertaining solely to its Ancient past, and its influential presence during the development of the young Greek nation, prompting the remedial nature (remedial with regards to both the spirit and identity) of Elytis’ poetry.

It seems fitting, when detailing the fundamental elements attributed to the ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’, to begin with its ancient origins, and describe the classical foundation upon which the European ideology was based. Kourvetaris and Dobratz, in their informative work on the differences between the Greece that ‘was’ and the Greece that ‘is’, tells of the Golden Age of Athens (461-31 BC) during which the greatest intellectual and cultural advancements of the ancient world were being made:
“They set the norms and provided the inspiration for the Western world in a wide variety of areas including political democracy, mythology, philosophy, ethics, literature, mathematics, and other arts and sciences. The Greeks touched virtually every aspect of human endeavour. The accomplishments of this age were so great this it would be difficult for them ever to be surpassed.”
It is due to the incredible achievements of this era that Renaissance Humanists zealously pursued the study of the literature, philosophy, rhetoric and history of classical antiquity, and implemented both similar study, and the ideology that emerged from it, within the education system. It was through classical thought and literature that they were able to develop the idea of humanitas (the movement’s intellectual basis meaning the development, to its fullest extent, of virtue in all forms) and adopt the particular classical ideals of fortitude, honour, intellectual and cultural vivacity, and eloquence as their own. In this way, the ancient Greek model was assimilated into Western ideology.

During the continued development of the Renaissance, the identity that the West had fashioned for Greece began to intertwine with that of the Greeks themselves, to notable impact. It is clear that the Western Renaissance perception of the Greeks was based on the Greeks of antiquity (as discussed above). Koliopoulos and Veremis describe how, after having been conquered by the Romans, the Hellenic civilisation was reduced to mere references in manuscripts and architectural ruins. During the European Renaissance, however, it saw its revival in the admiration and study of its literary heritage, and consequently selected traditions were cultivated and reworked in accordance with Western ideological requirements. Furthermore, “Renaissance Europe had appropriated the Classical age as its own legacy, seeing in fifth century Athens the primordial roots of its own civilization.” It is here that the development of the European Renaissance began to have an impact on Greece; the resulting trend of Classicism renewed interest in the land of the ancient Hellenes, while “Romanticism also contributed by assimilating its modern inhabitants with the revered ancient heroes and sages.” Here the Western world appears to be moulding their cultural preconception of Greece, and assigning it to the Greek people themselves. The spread of Renaissance humanism and its classical ideals through European intellectuals and the education system ensured that this perception of Greece and its people was fostered within future generations, and the response can be observed in three areas; firstly that of the West, secondly that of the Greeks, and finally that of Elytis.

The Western response to the development of the Renaissance-based classical perception was primarily one of wide-spread encouragement, leading to the rise of neo-Classicism and Philhellenism. With many European intellectuals being brought up with a Renaissance Humanist education, there was an inclination to idealise and identify Greece’s heritage, customs and ‘traditions of the people’ with a classical civilisation that had finished nearly two thousand years before , even to the point of viewing “modern Greece as a direct descendant from the Golden Age” . So too was the Western Renaissance-based classical perception of the Greek people; Sherrard describes how Western scholars dictated the identity of a Greek person as an amalgamation of prescribed qualities from their classical ideology:
“…the Ancient Greek was a rationalist and a humanist, full of civic virtue, devoted to the fine arts, sceptical of all religious beliefs and practices that smacked of the supernatural, the mystical or the irrational, and a master of rhetoric and public speaking; and these were the characteristics the modern Greek was supposed to exhibit now that he had been delivered from the Turkish straitjacket that prevented him from expressing his natural, ancient Greek self.”
Such was the import placed on the classical era that, in the eyes of the West, modern Greece had been eclipsed by Ancient Greece. Freed from one ‘straightjacket’ and pushed into another, the ideology exaggerates the influence of the Ancient past and understates its other influences (such as Byzantine, Balkan, Mediterranean and Oriental).

This ideology reached the Greek nation not only through the work of Western scholars, but also through the rise of Philhellenism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Philhellenism was an intellectual fashion (particularly in Britain) devoted to Greek culture based on a classical education, and formed the next stage of Western response to the Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece. Many Western Philhellenes (such as Samuel Howe, Daniel Webster and Lord Byron) were inspired by their ideological perception of the Greeks to visit the country, and assist them in achieving freedom from Ottoman domination during the Greek Revolution in the 1820s. Lord Byron’s arrival held practical and symbolic importance, and helped transform the Philhellenic movement into “the great romantic crusade of the early 19th century”. Charged with Romanticism and Neo-classicism, young Westerners had found a ‘noble cause’ in the Greek War of Independence. Funds were collected and young men throughout the West volunteered to fight, and through the moral support of the Philhellenes it became impossible for Western Europe to allow the Greeks to be crushed. Upon arrival however, most “were taken aback by the appearance and culture of the Greek freedom fighters”, and although many remained to help and rallied foreign support by appealing to the country’s reputation of being the birthplace of democracy, their expectations were disappointed as “before arriving in Greece, many of the philhellenes believed the Greeks of the 1800s would be similar to those of Classical Greece and the Golden Age of Athens.” Disappointment and false expectation was characteristic of Philhellenism, and of those Western travellers and English aristocrats who came to visit modern Greece with heads full of their classical education.

The final element of Western response was the rejection of the modern Greeks as direct descendants of the ancient Greeks; an alternative response employed by the German scholar, Fallmerayer, in his book, Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea während des Mittelalters, published in 1830. It was a study defaming the ancient ancestry of the modern Greeks, claiming that they are descended instead from Slavs, and so the legacy of classical antiquity only legitimately belongs to the west. The Greeks responded by mounting investigations into the legitimacy of their racial heritage; Paparrigopoulos completed a five volume history of Greece in 1860 providing continuity throughout the entirety of Greek history, uniting both Eastern and Western aspects and creating a synthesis for national identity. The Western response illustrates that its perception of Greece was based solely on its ancient past, and that it significantly impacted the developing sense of identity of the newly independent nation-state.

The Greek response to the development of the Renaissance-based classical perception can be observed in three stages; primarily, many Greek scholars chose to embrace it, which in turn lead to the attempt to ‘regenerate’ Hellas within the modern nation, and finally lead to the exploration of the neglected elements of the nation’s complex history. Despite the sense gained from some modern Greek writers, during the period of Ottoman rule “most educated Greeks viewed their country in the same way as West Europeans with classical training.” Unfortunately, this statement rules out the inclusion of the working, uneducated Greek, a significant portion of the population, however there is continuity in the history of scholarly practice from the Byzantine period which supports the notion so far as the majority of the educated is concerned. During the decline of Byzantium there was a surge of intellectual activity focussed on the translation and restoration of ancient literary texts amongst Byzantine scholars, viewed as the Byzantine Renaissance, a gentler, subtler movement in comparison to its grander European counterpart:
“With their political power crumbling around them the Byzantines clung to their great cultural asset. In a world where ancient Greek learning was increasingly admired they could claim that they were Greeks, the heirs in unbroken succession to the poets and philosophers, the historians and scientists of ancient Hellas; and the claim carried them proudly on.”
It is not only the scholars’ willingness to embrace their association with the ancient Greeks that illustrates continuity, but also the fact that at the fall of Byzantium, most of these scholars sought sanctuary in Europe, and brought with them an influx of freshly translated classical literature which fuelled the emerging Western classicism. To complete the circle of exchange, Dobratz describes the Greeks’ rediscovery of their classical heritage as a product of the growth of a Western neo-Hellenic Enlightenment during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spread to Greece by the sharing of books and ideas from the West amongst the intellectual elite. This resulted in a desire to emphasize an affinity with the classical ideal, and for freedom from Ottoman enslavement. A subsequent materialisation was the attempt of a ‘regenerated’ Hellas.

The ‘regeneration’ of Hellas in the land previously occupied by ancient Hellenes was suggested to the Greeks, after winning their independence from Ottoman domination, by Western Philhellenes. It involved the Hellenisation of place-names, alteration of maps and history textbooks, and the highlighting of Hellenic elements of language, history (the classics), geography and ancient archaeological sites. In this way, the Renaissance-based classical perception had a significant impact on the newly independent Greece; Koliopoulos and Veremis affirm that “the initial Hellas of the fledgling modern Greek nation-state was Europe’s vision of it” . They later describe the reaction of “a disappointed Western observer” to the ‘regeneration’ of Hellas:
“[He] discussed the liberal vision of a ‘regenerated’ Hellas as ‘one of the extravagances of Western Philhellenism’. He added that the attraction of the West to Greece at that time was a ‘curse which the West has set upon Greece’ …Defenders of Greece’s Eastern roots would readily agree with this interpretation of the Western impact on modern Greece…”
To completely align the new nation-state with the European notion of Hellenism was to deny its eastern characteristics, which traced back to the Byzantine Empire, a cause for concern among some Greek writers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries who desired a more inclusive identity involving both Eastern and Western influences. It is here that the last phase of Greek response can be found.

Up until the 1870s, the Greek people’s genuine native traditions not relating to antiquity were largely being ignored; the assumption of Western prescribed classical values as the native tradition was preferred. Greek scholars started to realise the important place the traditional, indigenous way of life held in the cultural identity of the Greek people. Folkloric study grew in popularity, resulting in the exploration of language, religion, customs, myths, traditions, folktales and superstitions within the local communities, in search of a fuller picture of past, present and ethnic Greece. Koliopoulos and Veremis purport that although the identification of “modern Greeks as descendants of the ancient Hellenes was unavoidable” due to the presence of the language and the physical remains, making “identification irresistible” , the responsibility for making this identification key to the national identity does not lie merely with the Western Europeans, but also with the developing Greek nation itself; there were other elements of its history that it could have assimilated, like that of Orthodoxy, Byzantium and the Ottoman empire. Despite this acknowledgment, they maintain that it was significantly influenced by the implicit suggestion of Enlightened Europe:
“Had it not been for Europe’s espousal of ancient Hellas as one of the high-points of human civilisation and as one of its own three cherished antecedent heritages… it is not certain that the indigenous Greek élites of the time would have adopted it as their own.”
It was not until later that the Greeks were able to construct a version of Hellas that was truly their own, not that of European conception, that combined a more authentic representation of their history and culture. Elytis was an advocator of this particular kind of representation.

Elytis’ response was to construct a representation of Greece that inspired an authentic image of the modern Greeks and their country; a synthesis of its archaic, Byzantine, and Folk Linguistic and Cultural elements, and infusing his poetry with rich Aegean imagery. In this way, he could help heal the fissures in his fellow countrymen’s sense of identity and fix Greece with an identity that allows for the true Greek sensibility, and incorporates the entirety of its history. This can be observed to a degree in The Axion Esti, in which “Elytis strives for liberation from suffering and pain through a meditation on the sea and landscape of the Aegean.” Although he recognises that others in his generation have shared his attempt to “find the true face of Greece” , he believes that some of his contemporaries have shown too great a dependency on the ancients. Hilty purports that although ancient Greek history is found in his poetry occasionally, he avoids naming Greek gods, heroes and myths throughout the entirety of his oeuvre:
“I have never employed ancient myths in the usual manner. No doubt it is advantageous for a Greek poet to employ ancient myths, because he thus becomes more accessible to foreign readers.”
Instead he draws on the Greek people, their landscape, and their foreign conquerors, from throughout Greece’s rich history, and summons up "resources from the Greek past with which imaginatively to confront the realities of the present…The principal traditional ‘resources’…in addition to the Orthodox, Byzantine tradition, are the forces of nature, as visible in the Greek landscape, and folk tradition…” There are interludes of prosaic texts, called ‘Readings’, interspersed methodically through The Axion Esti, which evoke the experience of war, summoning up the period of Greek history involving the Albanian Campaign:
“It was as if, you might think, we were a motley crowd with all generations and years mixed together, some from present times, and some from times long past, whitened with an abundance of beard. Unsmiling chieftains with turbans, and gigantic priests, sergeants from the wars of 1897 and 1912, axemen swinging their axes over their shoulders, Byzantine borderguards, and shield-bearers with the blood of Bulgarians and Turks still on them.” (Elytis, First Reading 140-1.33-8)
Not only the Albanian Front but various evocations of Greek history and even religious tradition are made here. The Aegean landscape is vividly portrayed through the metaphor of summer as a naked young man in Body of Summer:
“Cicadas warm themselves in his ears
Ants are working on his chest
Lizard’s slide through his armpits’ grass
And through the seaweed of his feet a wave falls softly
Sent by the little siren who sang:

O naked body of summer burnt
Eaten away by oil and salt
Body of rock and shiver of the heart
Great windsweep of the chaste tree’s hair
Basil’s breath above the curly pubis
Filled with little stars and pine needles
Body deep vessel of day!” (Elytis, Body of Summer 76.8-21)
Even with a great storm at the end of the poem, the youth is carefree, knowing that as the timeless landscape of Greece he will endure for eternity.

After winning its independence, the newly formed Greek nation naturally underwent a struggle to find its true identity. Because of the impact that the Western classical tradition had on Greece, it is important to take into account the extent of the Greek preoccupation with identity, and also its effect on Elytis’ work. Firstly, Sherrard insists that one understands the importance of ‘Greekness’ to a Greek, important in a way inapplicable to an Englishman, for the English are at liberty to take their ‘Englishness’ for granted; they have had a thousand years free from invasion in which to form an identity, culture and history that is uniquely their own. The Greeks had not had this luxury having spent half a century under the influence of foreign domination, with no historical or geographical identity unmistakeably belonging to them. Even after their liberation from the Turks, the Greeks found themselves required to adapt their thoughts and actions to fit a Western ideology, with philosophical, social, political and cultural ideals and values alien to their native traditions. A number of Greeks (Sherrard mentions the examples of Makriyannis, Papadiamantis, Palamas and Sikelianos) began to react to this process of Western acculturisation by attempting to emphasise the nation’s alternative roots, rejecting the assimilation of Greece into a Western model.

Kourvetaris describes the post-independence search for identity as fuelling a struggle between East and West: those adhering to the Byzantine Eastern tradition emphasizing family, community, and the Orthodox religion, whilst those taking Western influence called themselves ‘Hellenizers’, advocating Western institutions such as secular Humanism, bureaucracy and rationalism, and attempting to revive the ancient Greek traditions and prototypes. Later in the same book, he suggests that in addition to this “major duality” within Greek identity there is “the geographical environment with its natural setting of the sea, sun, valleys, islands, and rough terrain molding the Greek identity and character.” Elytis certainly engages use of the latter; he describes the feeling of observing the view from the deck of a ship sailing by the islands of the Aegean as that of “a landlord surveying his ancestral estate which he is about to inherit.” The Greek landscape is his to draw from, it belongs to the Greeks.

Despite the existence of this division, not all Greeks wished to choose one of these identities with which to align themselves; Elytis sought to combine them to create a truer identity for Greece:
“…some of the best poets and critics in Modern Greece feel at least as much kinship with their medieval Byzantine heritage and the Christian tradition in literature as they do with its pagan antecedents or the subsequent incursion of Renaissance influences from the West. Elytis is clearly among these.”
It is in this struggle of opposites that Greece finds another identity, one that observes such contradictions as “‘the spirit of democracy along with stubborn conservatism’”, and “‘scepticism and criticism’…paired with ‘religious credulity and superstition’”. Within its complex contradictions the national character takes form (exemplified by Elytis’ employment of the Surrealist genre) with its paradoxical elements of ancient and modern, east and west, and “Dionysian – wild, uninhibited, frenzied” with “Apollonian – rational, ordered, disciplined, moderate.” Incorporating all facets of Greek identity (albeit to varying degrees) demonstrates Elytis’ desire to embody the ‘true face of Greece’ within his poetry. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that he was a prominent advocate for nationalism. He states in Analogies of Light that he is no fanatical nationalist; rather that “Greece represents for me certain values and elements which can enrich universal spirits everywhere. Being Greek, I try to present precisely these values on a universal level. It is not a nationalist bent which animates me to do this.” His ‘Greekness’ is less about a superficial ideology and more about a personal recognition of a true identity, of which the positive benefits can be reaped and shared with a universal audience. Neither is he a nature poet; surprised to be labelled as a nature worshipper, or a patriot, the suggestion that his poetry is merely a study of the natural world or merely political literature, is to deny the depth of his work and its aspirations to heal the fissures in the Greek sense of identity, and to provide the means with which the Greek people, and indeed anyone else who is interested, can realise the ‘true face’ of a country which he described, in his youth, as “a dazzle”.

Hand in hand with the ‘national identity question’ goes the ‘language question’ , which too is bound up with Greek identity. The ‘language question’ was essentially the issue of establishing an official written language after Greece won its independence, the form, style, and origin of which remained contentious until its legal resolution in 1976 (the issue being current throughout Elytis’ poetic development). In continuity with the Renaissance-based classical ideology, Western Europeans regarded true Greek as ancient Attic Greek, and the spoken language as ‘Romaic’, with no literary value. Consequently, there arose a polarizing dispute between those wishing to reintroduce ancient Attic Greek (‘atticisers’), the spoken language accentuating the void between modern and ancient Greeks, and those devoted to the spoken linguistic form (‘demoticists’), the ‘language of the people’. The Greek intellectual, Korais, claimed the middle ground between the extremes, advocating the purification of the spoken tongue, creating a new language for liberated Greece, emphasising its Hellenic heritage. Common to all however, is the concept of the Greek language as a vehicle for national unity and expression of identity. Beaton suggests that the language of The Axion Esti “is not, in the words of T. S. Eliot echoed by Seferis, ‘the words of one man only’, but the one that gives voice to “the historical depth of the Greek-language tradition that makes possible the audacious bid for power and authority by poetic language in this poem.” In keeping with the remedial nature of his poetry, and his desire to unite all elements of influence in Greek history, The Axion Esti demonstrates the weight of language on the Greek consciousness. In the second psalm of The Passion in The Axion Esti (whose unprinted title is “The Poet and His language”), he brings attention to his language and its Homeric connections:
“I was given the Greek language;
a poor house on Homer’s beaches.” (Elytis, Psalm II 138.1-2)
Not only does he makes language connections in historical relation to Homer, but also to “Christian hymnography, to folk songs celebrating Greek independence from the Turks, and to the ‘national poet’ Solomos.” Thus, the Greek language serves as another expression of the country’s various identities, and another way of redefining the ‘Renaissance based classical perception of Greece’ by uniting the various linguistic tropes from throughout its history.

In conclusion, the ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’, created by Western Europeans, had a significant effect on the identity of the Greek people, particularly after it was allowed to come into its own after independence was gained from the Turks. An indication of influence of the Renaissance-based ideology is a story involving one of Elytis’ contemporaries, Seferis. Edouard Herriot, a former French Prime Minister, educated with the humanist-classical Western European tradition, was being given a tour of Olympia by Seferis, and when he tried to interest him in the Christian Basilica, Herriot cut him short by claiming to be uninterested in anything past the third century BC. A typical reaction of many Western intellectuals, it summarises the nature of their interest in Greece as solely that of the classical era, and of their desire to acknowledge the Greeks in terms of their ancient ancestors. Western influence on the newly-formed state was quite strong, and it is possible that some Greeks might have felt a sense of indebtedness to Western Europe as the Philhellenic movement played a considerable role in taking Greece from the Ottomans (primarily the British government had been uncooperative, but the support of various Philhellenic political figures and the wider British population forced them out of passivity ). Elytis’ response to the Western ideology was to attempt to re-create a more authentic identity for Greece, an assimilation of all of its various influences throughout its complex history, from ancient, to Byzantine, to Turkish, and even to Oriental.

Chapter Two

Elytis’ Surrealism

In light of Elytis’ response to the Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece (his mission to reveal the ‘true face of Greece’), to understand the methods by which he sets about achieving this mission it is now necessary to examine his poetic method of choice: surrealism. When he collected his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979, his Presentation Speech was made by Doctor Karl Ragnar Gierow, who spoke of bunches of wild hyacinths handpicked from a mountain by Athens, given by Seferis in 1963 when he received the same award. Gierow acknowledges a superficial resonance with regard to Elytis’ early poetry, appropriately quoting from The Concert of Hyacinths, but more importantly highlights a deeper symbolism, relating to Elytis’ Surrealism:
“If Odysseus Elytis…had wished to use that flower as one of the analogies between environment and perception that are an essential part of his cultural outlook, he could have said that our potplants are a west-European rationalization of something which in his country grows wild, thereby acquiring its everlasting beauty. To this beauty he has devoted most of what he has written, and a recurrent theme is the prevalent west-European misconception of all that goes to make up the distinctive world of ideas whose legitimate heir he is…He has arrived at his critical view of our all too rationalistic picture of Greece, which he traces back to the Renaissance's ideal of antiquity… [and found that] which gave Elytis the impulse that all at once set free his own writing: surrealism”.
It is this reaction to the literary influence of the West, and these ‘analogies’ that Gierow refers to, that I intend to explore in this chapter. I shall begin by examining Elytis’ use of surrealism, his own version of the surrealist mode rendered to serve his unique style and poetic goals. I shall then continue into an analysis of his use of surrealism as a reaction to the literary and cultural Western ‘acculturalisation’ (the prescription of a prefabricated literary tradition and culture), Western rationalist tradition, and the Greek identity crisis. Finally I shall delve deeper into the intentions behind Elytis’ surrealist theory, to reveal the spiritually remedial nature of his poetry, where emphasis is placed on the spiritual reality of things rather than their sensual reality, and the past is a tool used to illuminate the eternal present, an inner spiritual world. Throughout the chapter I aim to assert the idea that Elytis’ use of surrealism is an important method in the redefinition of the ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’ fostered by West Europeans, striving to recapture the ‘true face of Greece’.

The Surrealist movement, a 20th Century evolution of Dadaism, with its centre in 1920s Paris, came to the attention to Elytis, having grown up through the movement’s development and having read the works of Surrealists such as poet Paul Eluard, whose name can potentially be found within the pseudonym, Elytis , such was his affinity with the poet. Elytis “considered surrealism to be the last available oxygen in a dying world, dying, at least, in Europe”, and as such, deemed it the best medium through which to freely express his poetic sentiments. As always with Elytis, ever unorthodox and opposed to the ‘facile’, he never fully embraced the Surrealist Manifesto, claiming in an interview with Ivar Ivask that “many facets of surrealism I cannot accept, such as its paradoxical side, its championing of automatic writing…obviously I was never an orthodox surrealist.” Instead he creates his own brand of surrealism, moving away from some of what is generally understood by the Surrealist movement. His is a very Greek surrealism, with Greece playing “more or less the role that Paris, its streets and its daily life played for French Surrealists”, but instead with a “multidimensional Greek reality – poetic, sensual, intoxicating, legendary, commonplace, made of flowers, perfumes, place-names, insects, angels and sunshine – [that] foists itself, in the twisting of each poem”. He is not a distant urban poet, sitting in a smoky café in Paris, imagining his magical world. Greece itself provides the elements for surrealism, and Elytis and his fellow Greeks live among it and are part of it: the beauty, and sun light, the seascapes, the quirks and the memories, all are naturally occurring surrealism, of which Greece is abounding:
“I adapted it in a Greek way…Greek surrealists did not simply copy the French, but rather adapted surrealism to Greek reality…a method of apprehending the world through the senses. The ancient Greeks, of course, did the same, except that they did not have the notion of sanctity which only appeared with the arrival of Christianity. I have tried to harmonize these two terms”.
He succeeds in uniting the two elements of Greek past, encouraging an acknowledgment of the Orthodox Christian tradition, a step toward the redefinition of the Renaissance-based perception of Greece, whilst emphasising a sensual method which deserves closer attention.

A defining feature of Elytis’ surrealism is the evocation the natural elements of the Greek, often more specifically the Aegean, landscape. Another way of bringing an essential facet of Greece into his synthesis of all components of Greek life in order to reveal a more authentic Greek identity, it is also a fundamental aspect of Surrealism, the senses playing an intricate role (as we shall observe) in his poetic purpose. Keeley gives an excellent assessment:
“…the habitation, what appeared most often as the object of his ecstasy, was the particular landscape projected by his native land –and I have in mind a landscape that includes characteristic figures as well as a poetic rendering of those vistas familiar to every tourist who has ever fallen in love even briefly with what the light does to the mountains and the ruins and the waters of almost any place far enough from Athens to be still habitable…the surrealist evocation focuses so consistently on the sea and the sun as to suggest a kind of pagan mysticism, a pantheism, a worship of the gods of water and light. But what I want to emphasize here is that however freewheeling the images may appear to be, however fanciful the poet’s juxtapositions, however cunning the sudden metamorphoses he offers – a girl becoming an orange, another’s morning mood becoming a mad pomegranate tree, summer becoming a naked ephebe – his surrealism is always rooted in a literal native landscape that is identifiable within the poem.”
The emphasis on the Greek sunlight, and its interaction with the landscape, the coastal communities, olive, lemon, hyacinth, and little green islands, all richly depicted against a vivid backdrop of ancient architectural ruins and sea and sky; all feature as Elytis’ poetic components. The natural imagery serves to promote a revelatory sense of eternal youth, and Beaton describes his “effervescent language and unrestrained flow of images” which through the “pervasive interpenetration of body, soul, and the landscape of the Aegean islands” creates the “illusion of intense experience spontaneously finding expression.” Using the Greek landscape thus, illustrates the Greek nature of his surrealism, and when viewed in this way is a basic, but necessary, poetic tool; more interesting, and perhaps more important, is the spiritual connotations this aspect of his poetry entails, which will be discussed in due course.

Keeley comments on the nature of his Surrealism, and on the oversimplified, popular view of him as “Poet of the Aegean Islands, its maidens, its sun and sea, its liberating light, poet of youth and optimism, fancy, lightheaded surrealist excess.” He recognises the inadequacy of this statement, which is only partly true, and refers mainly to his earliest work. Similarly, his earlier works inspired another cliché with which Elytis has been identified; to regard him as just another French surrealist spelt with a sigma. Keeley fights this axiom with the argument that his early surrealism had a “highly personal tone and a specific local habitation, neither of which had much to do with French sources.” A largely Western view, this attitude probably stems from the fact that Elytis’ inherently Greek landscape, and literary heritage inspired surrealist expression, evoked a Greece that Western readers, educated on the classical perception and European literary tradition, may not fully grasp. This is a product of a literary and cultural Western acculturalisation; the Western attempt to prescribe a particular culture and literary tradition on a country with its own rich traditions. Elytis’ surrealism can be seen as a reaction against this move, and a way in which to recapture the ‘true face of Greece’.

Western acculturalisation can also be seen to have introduced a spiritual decline to the newly-formed nation state; Western customs “undermined traditional Greek values such as honesty, compassion and hospitality, and destroyed the sense of community created by the Orthodox form of worship.” Sherrard begins his article, ‘The Discovery of Greece’, by critiquing the modern attitudes and reactions towards a religious or spiritual search for identity and meaning. He explains that identity is something that is dictated to us through our social and religious traditions, the authority of which compels us to adhere to norms established by those particular traditions. The problem that arises for Greece is that, while it may not be estranged from its traditions, those that it has have been subject to outside influences, and may even be the traditions of another culture, particularly in relation to the influence of the West on the country post independence. In the West, however, the authority of the Christian tradition has diminished, and the anthropological theories like that of Darwin, Marx, and Freud, have emerged to fill the void:
“The result is that man – modern man – now finds that this ancestral universe, his spiritual cosmos, has been shattered into a thousand fragments and that he is left helpless and disorientated…With no clear image of what or who he is, he is pulled this way and that by these conflicting theories…generally induced to throw in his lot with whatever theory happens to be in fashion among the social group to which he belongs…”
This ‘corruption’ of the spiritual health of the West is something that Elytis attempts to combat (in terms of Western influence on Greece), or rather, heal (in those already suc*****bed), with his poetry. Elytis’ response is to turn to Surrealism. Sherrard later describes the only alternative as to turn inwards, and to look within for the lost ‘spiritual cosmos’ that requires revitalisation; this should be the primary task of all poets.

In a natural progression, surrealism can also be seen to be a reaction to the trends of realism and over-rationalisation in Western tradition. With an emphasis on rationality as the only means of understanding the cosmos, rationalism too has a hand in the ‘corruption’ or ‘dulling’ of the soul. Sherrard purports that during the early years of Elytis’ poetic development the West was undergoing a period of acknowledgement of its philosophical and spiritual decline, and of the “insufficiency of the values that had increasingly dominated since the time of the Renaissance; in which its own thinkers and poets were beginning to challenge the whole philosophical and aesthetic basis of the scientific rationalism or scientific humanism of which modern western civilisation, now visibly disintegrating, was the product.” A literary response to this degeneration was the Surrealist movement, and it is with some irony (but also appropriacy given Western acknowledgment of the issue, and the nature of surrealist juxtaposition) that Elytis should find most effective for destroying the millstone of Western rationalism, a movement of Western origin. It was, in his opinion, “the only school of poetry…which aimed at spiritual health and reacted against the rationalist currents which had filled most Western minds”. He viewed surrealism as a method for deposing the materialistic, rationalist mentality, where truth could be found solely in physical objects and empirical fact subject to logical and rational analysis, and where the soul and the imagination were old fashioned concepts, failing to be maintained by science. Surrealism is the complete antithesis of rationalism, and “affirmed faith, even total faith, in man’s spiritual powers”, with reality to be found amidst the imagination, and the “phenomena of nature” to emerge as “phenomena of the spirit”. The spiritual reality of things then, is what is most important, and the job of a poet is to “present things as they are when seen in the light of the spirit.” This allowed Elytis the freedom to stray from the external and literal, to express himself through his imagination and his spiritual perception of the world.

Elytis describes this spiritual perception as ‘limpidity’, where an infinite multidimensionality can be observed behind any given thing, allowing a transparency through which one can find the true, spiritual meaning of the object; a spiritual clarity, the opposite to a rational clarity as understood by Western Europeans, and something he views as essentially Greek. Elytis also refers in his prose to a “refrigerated truth”, like that of museum entries or scholarly texts, and a “living truth”, the here and now, consistently developing and emerging as we experience life:
“There, at the end of the pen, fish writhe like truths, excuse me, I mean truths writhe like fish and a good thing too, as I’d never want a frozen truth in the world. A frozen truth for Greece, for instance, is its history as the official Greeks interpret it. Another is its history according to the Europeans. Live truth, I believe, is also its history, as you discover it rising like Aphrodite from your personal experience, so that events or monuments of art simply annotate and illustrate it.”
Not only does he explicitly voice his opinion that the Western historical perception of Greece is inferior, but he also illustrates limpidity in his mingling of the “fish” and the “truths”, demonstrating that, because of their irrational juxtaposition, however unlikely it may seem to a rational mind, one can observe Elytis’ meaning in terms of a deeper equivalent (in this case, truth), and as a consequence have glimpsed inside its spiritual reality.

In an amalgamation of the previous reactants, surrealism is also a reaction to the identity confusion caused by the ‘Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece’ typical of Westerners, an image that Elytis considered a “major distorting influence within his own country, an attempt by intellectuals foreign and domestic to impose the Renaissance on territory that had in fact survived without it during the four hundred years of Turkish occupation and that revealed its true roots elsewhere.” As a consequence, the power of surrealism and its supernatural characteristic gave him the means to find the ‘true face of Greece’, by enabling the formation of “a kind of alphabet out of purely Greek elements with which to express ourselves” , and to redefine the Western perception by assimilating all Greek historical and cultural influences into this alphabet. Here, Elytis regards Greece as “a concrete sensation” , one more typical of eastern people however, reminding those in the West that Greece also adopted Oriental qualities during antiquity, that now take their place within the Greek spirit and so too within the surrealist alphabet. The Aegean landscape features heavily in this alphabet, less as a depiction of nature, but more as a signature , an element of ‘Greekness’ that can be used to a greater spiritual purpose: to transpose the limpidity existing in nature into poetry.

Once we understand the emphasis on objects’ spiritual reality over their sensual reality, and the concept of the spiritual world of the imagination, one can finally begin to understand the intricacies of a poet “preoccupied with finding the analogies between nature and language in the realm of imagination” , who believes that the true poet is not one who merely regurgitates words, images or the past, but one who can transform something of the imagination into something perceptible, a spiritual alchemist. True to his assertions of a true poet, his vision of the spiritual world is the reverse of that which we commonly accept of reality and literature (such as the natural beauty of Greece depicted in poetic language):
“It is as though each thing in the external world – each thing that we perceive through the senses- has its equivalent or analogue, as Elytis prefers to call it, in the inner world; and it is the sight or experience of things in the external world that awakens, or brings into consciousness, their corresponding images that are always present within us in a latent sense.”
In this inner world, ones perception of things becomes altered so that material and imaginative things are transmuted without becoming something else. Thus, in the same way as the ‘limpidity’ described previously, things that, when regarded rationally, appear unrelated, are linked together in terms of their spiritual equivalent; the constant circular metamorphosis of sensual to spiritual to sensual and so on, lifts sensual perception to the level of the spiritual (“the senses are elevated to a level that is sacred.” ). The key is perception. Elytis exemplifies this by suggesting that “a Paradise [is] composed of the exact same material as Hell. The only difference is our perception of the material’s arrangement.” Ordinarily seeing things Elytis’ way is obscured to us because of rational tradition. Our vision has degenerated; there is an absence of imagination and soul, hence why we find it difficult to adjust to Elytis’ way of thinking. “It is the absence of imagination that turns humans into invalids of reality”. An innocence is required, or a spiritual purification of vision. Elytis asks that we cleanse our souls and unlearn all that we have been taught to believe is reality by Western rational tradition, and see with eyes unclouded by the view of the world we take for granted (reminiscent of oriental philosophy, this is perhaps an indication of Elytis’ inclination towards the Eastern and oriental aspects of his country’s history and culture). This allows the mind to perceive the wonder of a world where everything is reborn, again and again, in every instant. For Elytis, Greece is not primarily a “geographical or historical entity”: it “transcends both place and time”.

An understanding of what Sherrard refers to as the ‘Eternal Now’ is to complete our appreciation of Elytis’ Surrealism. To discover the ‘true face of Greece’, one must transcend the oppositions that entrap us into a life of spiritual infirmity and enter into the “third state of the spirit where opposites cease to exist.” Elytis believes that one can reach this state through his poetry; “such poetry is like nature itself, which is neither good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly; it simply is.” And so one must pass beyond spatial dimensions, preconceived virtue, past and future, by “entering the eternal Now that is without duration…the home and beginning of all life and all becoming”. Sherrard exemplifies this concept perfectly using the last two lines of the third poem of Sun the First:
“All I love is born incessantly
All I love is at its beginning always.” (Elytis, Sun the First III 77.20-1)
Caught in the timeless spiritual plane between past and future, all the poet loves (in this case, perhaps referring to his Greece) is ceaselessly, continually recreated. In this moment one discovers truth, not just of a sensual object, or of Greece, but also of oneself. Elytis invites us to discover true Greece in order to illuminate something of the true dimensions of a human being, something of our true identity.” He uses a metaphor claiming the existence of the Golden Fleece, whereby each of us “is the golden fleece of our being.” In the same way that Jason journeyed to find the Golden Fleece, so too will we journey to find our true selves.

In conclusion, Elytis’ Surrealism is a prominent method used in his redefinition of the Renaissance-based classical perception of Greece, an attempt to recapture the ‘true face of Greece’ which has been obscured by a ‘desensitising’ of the soul perpetuated by Western rationalism. He takes physical, corporeal aspects of the Aegean landscape as building blocks for his poetry, for the purpose of illuminating their shifting inner properties, seeing their spiritual identity, and thus discovering ones own. He stresses the importance of an inner spiritual world, and that while beautifully and vividly evoking the physical world of Greece, he emphasises that it is “the imaginative or spiritual reality of things that matters, not their optical reality.” A departure from the concept of a classical perception suggesting that ultimately, in his vision of Greece, what is important is the spiritual, inner existence of the world, and that as such the past itself does not matter explicitly, it serves only as a fragment of a metaphorical tool by which to illuminate the eternal present, the inner spiritual world. At his own first realisation of his spiritual ideology, Elytis felt infinite freedom:
“A metaphoric summer awaited me, inalienable, eternal, with the creaking wood, the wild grass aroma, the figs of Archilochos, and Sappho’s moon…an endless procession of ancestors, fierce, tortured and proud, moved my every muscle. Oh yes, it’s no small thing to have the centuries on your side, I kept saying as I walked…This is what I await each year, one more wrinkle on my brow, one less on my soul: complete reversal, absolute transparence…”
Elytis wishes to share this freedom with the world, a Greek freedom discovered through essentially Greek means.

Chapter Three

Analysis

In light of the previous two chapters of exploration, the purpose of this section is to provide poetical evidence to illustrate Elytis’ reactions to Western influence and the methods by which he redefines the Renaissance-based classical perception, illuminating the ‘true face of Greece’. I aim to demonstrate examples of redefinition of the Western perception through the rediscovery of the Greek landscape, through presenting and recapturing Greece as a synthesis of its archaic, Byzantine, and Folk Linguistic and Cultural elements, and through his use of surrealism, which develops over his poetic lifespan.

Elytis uses physical, corporeal aspects of the Aegean landscape as building blocks for his poetry. These are combined with core values of innocence, light and hope, and a sense of a ‘living’ history whereby all elements and influences associated with Greece can be fused together to recover a distorted sense of identity. Kourvetaris seems to adopt a similar writing style to Elytis, linking the sensual aspects of the Greek land and culture to its identity:
“The visible monuments of a glorious Hellenic past along with the Byzantine and the modern coexist in Greece, making the Greek homeland as much a state of mind as a place on the map…The Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of life blend together within the individual and the culture. The sounds and smells of the open market-place, the emphasis on light, the sun, and sea are ever present, and all represent a continuity in time and a celebration of life and death…”
A sense of this synthesis can be found in The Odyssey (Elytis, The Odyssey 220-3), from the collection The Light-Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty. Its Homeric allusions obvious from the title, and relevant references to “The Lotus-Eaters”(14), and a helpfully forceful breeze (12-3), like that sent by Athena, on inspection there is actually more of a sense of Greece’s Eastern influences than its classical heritage. The sensual Greek components are there; “the purple wave” (12), “olive oil and wine” (22), “pleached boughs” (67) and “double leaves”, but so too are references to the East and the Byzantine; “the seven wise men of the world conversed” (41), seven great philosophers, various of whom are Greeks throughout the various stages of history, “rare essence of jasmine” (24), “pea*****” (72) and “Rose of Esfahan and famous Farizad” (12), heroines of the Eastern fiction A Thousand and One Nights.

Elytis unites past and present without the sense of alienation that occurs in some western attempts at both scholarly and poetic literature. In The Gloria (Elytis, The Gloria 181-190) in The Axion Esti, there are references to gods, heroes and Homer, and they are made to feel at home amidst the contemporary landscape. There doesn’t seem to be a need to question their presence because of Elytis’ skill in subtly linking them to natural elements of the landscape, and avoiding bookish references to literary sources.

© 2012 Κέντρο Ελληνικής Γλώσσας - Πύλη για την Ελληνική Γλώσσα