On 18 October 1979, one of Greece’s major poets, Odysseus Elytis, was awarded with the Noble Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy declared in its presentation that Elytis’ poetry “depicts with sensual strength and intellectual clearsightedness, modern man’s struggle for freedom and creativeness…[In] its combination of fresh, sensuous flexibility and strictly disciplined implacability in the face of all compulsion, Elytis’ poetry gives shape to its distinctiveness, which is not only very personal but also represents the traditions of the Greek people“.

Elytis was perhaps the first modern great poet who embraced surrealism as a poetic inspiration. He felt that surrealism heralded a return to magical sources which rationalism had calcified; it represented a plunge into the wellsprings of fantasy and dream, a free-flowing clustering of images creating its own shapes.  The broad perspective of an open mind and a vital, concrete bond with the archetypal gestures of life, magical surrealism and unbroken Hellenic substance merge in poetry to form painfully illuminating images of Mediterranean existence.


A long time has passed since the last rain was heard
Above the ants and lizards
Now the sun burns endlessly
The fruit paints its mouth
The pores in the earth open slowly
And beside the water that drips in syllables
A huge plant gaze into the eye of the sun.
Who is he that lies on the shores beyond
Stretched on his back, smoking silver-burnt olive leaves?
Cicadas grow warm in his ears
Ants are at work on his chest
Lizards slide in the grass of his armpits
And over the seaweed of his feet a wave rolls lightly
Sent by the little siren that sang:
O body o summer, naked, burnt
Eaten away by oil and salt
Body of rock and shudder of the heart
Great ruffling wind in the osier hair
Beneath of basil above the curly pubic mound
Full of stars and pine needles
Body, deep vessel of the day!
Soft rains come, violent hail
The land passes lashed in the claws of snow-storm
Which darkens in the depths with furious waves
The hills plunge into the dense udders of the clouds
And yet behind all this you laugh carefree
And find your deathless moment again
And the sun finds you again in the sandy shores
As the sky finds you again in your naked health.

[Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard]

Transcendent, mystical, slangy, laconic, rhetorical, Odysseus Elytis is first of all a poet whose unique strength is the celebration of a landscape that is his protean theme, his finest invention. This terrain is both his beloved Greece and the human body, a vision rooted in the past and passionately imagined in a kind of floating, timeless present. “Body of Summer” is a free-verse poem of four stanzas. The poem can be divided in half: The first two stanzas describe a landscape in the voice of a third-person narrator; the last two stanzas address the personified landscape directly in the song of the “little siren.”

Through surreal, Elytis infused spirit into the material world. Through personification he molded the abstract into concrete forms. The animate inanimate is found in fruit which paint their mouths in summer heat and transform into earth’s swelling pores. Summer itself is a boy stretched out on the shore while “Cicadas grow warm in his ears/ Ants are at work on his chest/ Lizards slide in the grass of his armpits/ And over the seaweed of his feet a wave rolls lightly”. Infused with light and idyllic joy, these are images of hope, joy, and sensuality, bathed in the light that has become the trademark of a poetry free of the sentimentality.


Read also: POEM OF THE MONTH: A Tribute to Odysseus Elytis and his Chef d’ Oeuvre ‘The Axion Esti’