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11 January 2008



I can't understand the poems, obviously, but would I want to? I liked the first four lines or so of his "concise statement", having thought that his light bit was ridiculous, but the arrogance of the man. Does he really believe that Greeks have a better understanding of light? Is it because they live in a sunny climate? Where does that leave the rest of the Mediterranean? What about Greeks who spend half the year up to their knees in snow? What about Scandinavians who have no night for part of the year - do they understand what light means, and then forget in winter? By all means let him tell us that he finds light more interesting than dark, but to extend it to a whole nation, and exclude all other nations?

Anyway, before I get accused of not knowing what I'm talking about, I'd better find a few of his poems in English ... though the mystery of light may be lost in translation ...


A brilliant post, Stavros. Congratulations. Elytis is a genius. I was almost in tears reading his words, which are so full of life and joy and love of Hellas, it's culture, history and landscape. I'm made up for the rest of the day. We are very lucky with our poets. When I lived in Athens, I used to go along with a Cretan poet friend of mine and stand outside the apartment block in Kolonaki where Elytis lived – the great man was still alive at the time – and look up at his window.



Here's what Sir Maurice Bowra, an eminent British scholar who spent most of his life studying Greece had to say about the Greek light:

"“What matters above all is the quality of light. Not only in the cloudless days of summer but even in winter the light is unlike that of any other European country, brighter, clearer and stronger . . . The beauty of the Greek landscape depends primarily on the light and this had a powerful influence on the Greek vision of the world.”

Aren't we lucky that Greeks share this special gift with those of us who are deprived, I include myself here since it is raining and foggy as I write this and the sun has been conspicuously absent for days.

I apologize for not being able to find a good English translation of the poems in the post. Elytis does not translate well into English although there are probably some decent translations out there I am not aware of.


My brother-in-law gave me a Dalaras & Theodorakis 2 CD recording of a concert where they highlighted the work of Elytis and Ritsos (my next post). Selections will soon appear on Radio Axion Esti.

The reading in the post was from that collection. It really moved me in a way I can't explain. I could smell the mud. I only wish I could find an English version. Very powerful.


Mr Alepoudelis (Elytis's real name) was entirely immersed in a mythological world replete with strong romantic elements which, he believed in his heart, formed the essence of Hellenism. His language is a work of art, especially when you read it now that Greek has been collapsed by the onslaught of the neo-barbarians in the last 30 years; his poetry is powerful and gentle at the same time ... As for Greeks understanding "light" better than other peoples, I guess we should allow Odysseas a bit of hyperbole, coupled with tribal pride, as he was 110 percent Hellenas with an unshakable faith in character traits he thought at the core of Greek existence, but which, alas, existed only in his unbounded imagination.

On a more practical level, I am far from a romantic or poetic type but I will have to agree (peripherally) with Mr Alepoudelis on the special translucence of Aegean light in clear weather. Unfortunately, the rapidly changing climate in Greece which has turned summers into fierce desert cauldrons has also affected this light -- it is now not as soft "clear blue" as in the summers Odysseas spent on Aegean islands, but rather inclined toward furnace white, a hue I experienced thoroughly during my customary annual Aegean sojourn in July and August 2007.


I'm glad that you are all touched by Elytis's poems. I wish I knew enough Greek to read them, but you have no need to apologise, Stavros - I will try reading them in translation, though the collected works is too expensive for me and I guess that it is the sounds of the words as much as their meaning that conveys the emotion of the poems. Poetry, like music, is almost entirely subjective.

I've read around more and can see how tied up the idea of light is for him with Greece and Hellenism, but also how he developed a more melancholic tone later on. I've spent long enough in the Mani, far away from the pollution of large cities, to know what he means about Greek light too and we tried, and failed, to recapture some of the colours produced by the light at home. Because the light was not the same, the colours never could be. Whether it is the best light in the world is something that we could argue about, but I'm sure we all have better things to do ...

None of the biographies I've found ever mention him being connected intimately with any other person. Did he live his life completely alone?


Elytis lived for many years with poetess Ioulita Eliopoulou. It was commonly believed that the two were married. They never were. When Elytis died, Ioulita became the editor of his works in collaboration with the Master's publisher, Ikaros of Athens. Those who can read Greek may wish to read an interview with Eliopoulou at this URL:


On the subject of light, from personal experience I have to say that coming from Greece and having lived almost half of my life in Britain, I miss it. I miss the brightness and the instant good mood it can provide. My children, having been born in Scotland but visiting Greece two to three times a year always comment on the brightness of the sun and the way it lights the day there.
I don’t know whether Greeks understand light better but I certainly appreciate it when I have it. I am writing this comment today that here in England that the sun came out only for a few moments in an otherwise gloomy and very wet day and I miss the light even more. When I was in Scotland, even 10 minutes of light (sun) was enough to keep me going. I certainly have a great need for light in my life.
I love Elytis’ poems and I enjoyed listening to Fragoulis’s interpretation, thank you Stavro.


Personal trivia and Scotland: Once, while attending a writing course at a Scottish university, I actually counted on the calendar 61 / 61 continuous days of rain of varying intensity. On the 62nd day I boarded a plane and flew to Crete!


Theophile, it wasn't that bad for me, I lasted nine years in Edinburgh! They say that if you don't like the weather in Edinburgh wait 10min. and it will change, nothing about 62 days!
I know though that my husband would agree with you, he couldn't wait to leave Scotland.



Thanks for helping me out here. Let's hope that this summer will be less cauldron-like.


Glad you like Frangoulis. I was introduced to his substantial talent by a friend, AntingoneSis. Since then I have become a faithful fan.

Light, Greek or otherwise, is important to our well-being. Some people suffer from what is described in the medical literature as "Seasonal Affective Disorder" which is common in areas that suffer from a lack of sunlight during the winter months. I must admit there is a special quality, at least for me, to the Greek light. Maybe it is just homesickness.


Well, Scotland in comparison to Belgium is sheer Bermuda...! Ten days in Brussels were enough to drive me nuts. The sky was one unbroken canopy of lead gray. I mean GRAY! At least in Scotland we almost always had those dramatic rolling clouds ....


The 'March to the Front' excerpt is from Elytis' long poem Axion Esti, probably the greatest Greek work of art in the 20th century, and is around in a good translation by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis. Ena to Helidoni is from Axion Esti. I don't know if you knew all this already, or if this is what you meant by wanting to find an English translation?

I can't provide the whole translation of March to the Front – it's over two pages! – but it starts like this:

'At daylight on St John's, the day after Epiphany, we got our orders to move up to the front again, out there where you don't find weekdays or holidays. We were to take over the line the Artans had been holding till then, from Khimara to Tepeleni. The reason being they'd fighting since the first day, without a break, and only about half of them were left and they couldn't take it any longer.'


Below is a translation of Ena to Helidoni. Frangoulis performs the song well; but nothing's going to beat Bithigotsis' version.

Ena to Helidoni

Α SOLITARY SWALLOW and a costly spring,
For the sun to turn it takes a job of work,
It takes a thousand dead sweating at the wheels,
It takes the living also giving up their blood.

God my Master Builder, You built me into the mountains,
God my Master Builder, You enclosed me in the sea!

Magicians carried off the body of May,
They buried the body in a tomb of the sea,
They sealed it up in a deep well,
Its scent fills the darkness and all the Abyss.

God my Master Builder, You too among the Easter lilacs,
God my Master Builder, You felt the scent of Resurrection!


I've mutilated Elytis. The last line from 'March to the Front', should read: 'The reason being they'd been fighting since the first day, without a break, and only about half of them were left and they couldn't take it any longer.'

I feel bad about this, like a vandal. Correct it if you can, S.



You are doing fine. The translation of "A Solitary Swallow" is infinitely better than the one I found on the web. I was working on another project tonight but tomorrow I promise to make available Dalaras singing Theodarakis adaptations of Ritsios and Elytis.


Demo, thanks for the translations.

I can follow the Greek with the translation and I've bought a couple of books from Amazon, but it will take me a few weeks to catch up. I'll also have to remember to try to think like a Greek when I read them :).


Theophile, thanks for the name of his "companion". How little information there is about them together on the web - only a mention that she was at his funeral -seems strange.


Elytis is a gift from god. However, very difficult to translate. It is interesting how movements considered so Modern as symbolism and surrealism appeared to find their best expression in the Mediterenean in places such as Greece, Italy and Spain. Maybe there is something there.

I look forward to the Ritsos post. He is another genius who I have read for many years. I like his "kitchen table" Hellenism - a Hellenism of small things. A bit like Mandelstam.

Theophilos Xenos

Elytis was a very private person. He rarely spoke to reporters and was not into the "interview" business. His "companion," as you say, kept well in the background. After his death, she has emerged as a literary person in her own right. She's deeply respectful of his memory, something that scores strong points in my book, at least.


Thank you for the very good post. Always a delight!!



I appreciate you comments. They are always morale boosters.

Simon Baddeley

I like Axion Esti. I like the part where Elytis writes of a merciless struggle against the 'others' – ‘it cannot be they without you nor can it be you without them … and you must face them without fail … those who wear the black shirt’ and others who ‘speak the language of porcupines’, 'raw-eaters, water-brutes, bread-fearers, the leadenfaced and the neocondors.' The lead singer’s lines are repeated by him and the choir, the tune ratcheted up a key in a familiar heart churn even a musical idiot like me can grasp. I like these words of abuse in English so I can only guess how good they must be in Greek.



The readings in the album along with the music are electric. I think poetry always loses something in translation simply because some Greek words are impossible to translate and still retain their "Greek" meaning. Whose translation are you quoting from?

Sorry for the delay in my response.

Simon Baddeley

A translation by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis


Bithigotsis is splendid but nothing compares with Farantouri.

Michael Margaritis

The light is a metaphor...a metaphor for truth! justice! but i guess you cannot read between the lines nor understand what the poet so geniously is trying to say...avoid foreign poetry if you know nothing of that culture's history, values, symbolism, religious viewpoints, mythological richness and so forth. Especially when you don't know the language... THE POET IS NOT SPEAKING ABOUT ACTUAL SUNLIGHT!!



Thank you for giving this "non-Greek" the benefit of your superior understanding of Greek poetry. If light is a metaphor for truth and justice perhaps that would explain the recent darkness Greece finds itself in. BTW, blogs are like people's homes. When one enters someone's home it's always a good idea to use good manners. Did anyone every teach you any?

I think Elytis would have been gratified to know that Greeks were not the only one's reading his poetry.

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