Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Byzantine Elements in Odysseus Elytis's Poetry by Andriette M. Stathi-Schoorel (1996)

It has been said frequently that Elytis is a “Byzantine” poet, partly maybe to contrast him with the “classical” Giorgos Seferis. This dictum has seldom been explored further however. In this paper I want to investigate whether Elytis really writes in a tradition that can be called Byzantine. What literary relevance may the term Byzantine have in modern poetry? It usually has a negative meaning: pusillanimous, servile, hairsplitting, faultfinding, sycophantic. We must take the literal meaning then, pertaining to Byzantium, partaking of the same ideas and conceptions the Byzantines used; the important role religion played in Byzantine society must certainly be taken into consideration.

The Greek Surrealists made a good Byzantine show in the thirties, adopting an archaic form of the language, the katharevousa, the formal language. This was an unusual step to take, for at least in literature the dhimotiki had triumphed in Greece. In Byzantium from the 4th century onwards the gap between the formal and colloquial language was becoming ever so much wider. We could state that Andreas Embirikos who has brought Surrealism to Greece has played the role of the early Byzantine Christian defenders of the (in this case surrealist) faith. Apologetic works addressed to the pagan elite – which in the thirties of the 20th century stands for the Athenian literary community – were in both cases written in a particular sophisticated form of Atticism / katharevousa.

Seen in this light Elytis takes up the role of the Byzantine hmnographers and writes his poems in the then current language, but at the same time his style reveals a slightly purified form of the dhimotici. Elytis has always been of the opinion that the Greek language insists on a noble attitude to the phenomenon of life and that he may not vilify life. This is very much in the tradition of the hymnographers of course, but it reflects also Elytis’s own reverent attitude to life and language.

Especially in To Axion Esti Elytis goes back to the work of the Byzantine melodists and hymnogaphers. * In that great poem he uses freely the symbols, the metaphors, the images and the same hallowed form of language that Romanos the Melodist, John Damascinos, Kosmas the Melodist, Andreas the Cretan employed. As a Greek he has the right to do this as these hymns and “kontakia” are still so much part of the living tradition in Greece; one can hear the hymns being chanted during the liturgy in church. The hymns are not only Elytis’ heritage but the common heritage of the Greek-orthodox people. Besides he does not use Christian images in the same way as his Byzantine predecessors, in order to praise the Holy Virgin, Christ or the Saints. The images are rendered in a highly original form in order to praise Elytis’s own world, the modern Greek and Mediterranean world, the beauty of girls, of the sea, of the mountains, flowers, birds, in fact all things great and small. Elytis has tried to harmonize, as he says himself, the world of the senses with the idea of sanctification: the senses are elevated in his poetry to a level that is sacred. The other surrealist poets did certainly not nourish these lofty ideas. Andreas Embirikos, like Michael Psellus in the 11th century, parodies the litany of the Greek Orthodox Church in the prose poem “PRESENCE OF ANGELS WITHIN A STEAM ENGINE” (…) for the rebirth of happiness for the fulfillment of last things for peace for the obscuration for the illumination of truth, for the prevalence of the roses and the magnificent spider in the year of joy (…).

Curiously enough Elytis himself has been accused of blasphemy because of his extensive use of Christian themes that he did not apply to the hallowed things of the church. ** Obviously his accusers did not perceive that Elytis tried to create a modern but equally sacred poetic world. The Byzantine melodists borrowed after all certain themes from pagan antiquity and in the same way Elytis applies themes and rhythmic schemes from the Byzantines.

Searching for authentic Byzantine literary devices in Elytis’s poetry we are led straight to Dignum Est, to To Axion Esti, though Byzantine themes and a Byzantine aesthetical approach to images can be detected in his early poetry as well.

The very title To Axion Esti is derived frm an encomium, a funeral hymn chanted on Good Friday: Worthy it is to glorify Thee, the Giver of Life, Thou who didst extend Thy hand upon the Cross, and shatter the power of the enemy. Worthy it is to magnify Thee, the Creator of all; for by Thy sufferings we are freed from suffering and delivered from corruption." (Translated by Kimon Friar)

The poem follows exactly the trinitarian symbolic and ritual character of the Orthodox liturgy: the doxology for the birth of the Son of God; the Lament of the Passion of the Lamb of God who redeemed the world of original sin; and the Gloria. To Axion Esti is a hymn on the ultimate victory of Life over Death, the central mystery of the liturgy of the Christian Church.

The seven hymns of the Genesis, symbolizing the seven days of Creation - are morphologically elements of the kontakion are the dialogue form incorporated in the hymn and the complicated pattern of the melody and the varied structure of the strophes. Long and short verses succeed each other in a seemingly arbitary way. The poem has its own metrical pattern and melody and its last line is the refrain that is to be found in all strophes of the hymn. Most of these characteristics are applied by Elytis the Modern Melodist. The refrain in the first part of the poem: This small, this great world must be seen in the same way as the acclamations, based on the Psalms, that are chanted by the people in the church like Amen, Halleluja, Glory to God in the Highest etc., not so much as the refrain of the kontakion. The references to the poetry of the Byzantine melodists and hymnographers are innumerable, especially to that of Romanos the Melodist, Elytis's alter ego. Elytis identifies himself, or rather the poet, the creator in him with God the Creator and he assumes the attributes of God, his essence, expressed by way of the elements of Nature: wind, fire, flames, rain (a metaphor for the purifying strength of Christ.)

The Holy Virgin, the Panayia, has a special importance in the Byzantine kontakia and hymns and in Elytis's poetry. She is the Mother Far Away, My Everlasting Rose, she is a pure, untouched mountain; she is the Virgin Mary who hopes for white sails and small blue flags (from the poem: Half sunken boats). But for Elytis the Panayia is also the personification of all beautiful girls and the hails all girls in salutations that are echoing those of the Greek-Orthodox church during the Mass of the Akathistos Hymnos.

A few more examples from other poems will suffice to show the pervading influence of the Greek-Orthodox church in Elytis's poetry. In the "Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian campaign" the dead soldier ascends to heaven "alone and blazing with light" while Easter bells peal out in the young man's transfiguration. This is in stark contrast with the dead soldier in Rimbaud's poem Le dormeur du Val by which Elytis might have been inspired. Also Constantinos Paleologos is resurrected by Elytis in his poem.

After the shattering experiences of the war, the occupation by the Germans and the Civil war that followed, Elytis felt the need to give a firm base, a diachronic structure to his poem To Axion Esti, to convince the world and himself first of all that Greece still continued to exist. He says in Open Book: "I felt like an aristocrat who had - the only one who had - the privilege to call the sky 'ouranos' and the sea 'thalassa' just like Sappho, exactly like Romanos had been calling them for thousands of years."

Finding authentic Byzantine literary devices and themes will not suffice to declare Elytis a Byzantine poet. We must approach the subject by investigating whether there exists an appreciation of ideas and convictions in the poet's work that bear resemblance to prevailing ideas on art and poetry in the Byzantine period. According to Gervase Mathew in his book Byzantine Aesthetics "any approach to Byzantine Aesthetics should take four factors into account: the recurrent taste for classical reminiscence; an essential mathematical approach to beauty; an absorbed interest in optics which led to an emphasis not only to many experiments in perspective but to a concentration on light, and finally the (Platonic) belief in the existence of an invisible world of which the material is the shadow."

As far as the FIRST FACTOR is concerned, Elytis is deeply conscious of the continuity of the Greek language from classical times onwards. In the second psalm of To Axion Esti the poet acclaims that his only care is his language, not only "on Homer's shores" but also with the "sweet psalms with the very first Glory be to Thee!" It is mainly the diachronic element, the continuity in language and art Elytis is interested in. He does refer a few times to Sappho, Archilaos and Arignota, a girl mentioned in a poem by Sappho. But these poets all hail from his own island, Lesbos. As a matter of fact Elytis has always stressed the fact that he does not want to employ ancient myths as many other Greek poets do. He is searching for the sources of the new Hellenic word, keeping "the mechanism of myth making but not the figures of mythology." Actually I did not find as much classical reminiscence as I had expected to until I started to dig into Elytis's language itself. The Greek language is to the poet something unavoidable, like natural phenomena. Greek nature has created the myths, according to Elytis, together with the people who live there and who have given form and name to the natural phenomena that surrounded them. So it is through language that we must investigate his taste from classical reminiscence. In "Marina of the Rocks" the poet asks the girl:


Where has it gone, the familiar slope of childhood's September

Where on red earth you played, gazing below

On the deep thickets of other girls

On corners where your friends left armfuls of rosemary

(...) tr. Kimon Friar


Friar translated "kyamones" (bean-bushes) by "thickets." The word "kyamos" was associated in Antiquity with the sexual ripening of young girls, the swelling of the paps at puberty; "kyamizo" means to be nubile. Elytis plays a double game here by referring to bean-bushes, alluding not only to swelling paps but also to pubic hair; Marina's older friends possess these signs of sexual maturity but Marina does not. Elytis has a subtle linguistic taste indeed for classical reminiscence.


Factor 2: an essential mathematical approach to beauty

It is somehow difficult to analyse a mathematical approach to beauty in poetry but in several of his poems Elytis has achieved an impressive architectural unity. By way of a strict mathematical structure of his complicated poem To Axion Esti he has given the work the necessary tension and supporting power to buttress his esthetic, ethic and metaphorical ideas. Kimon Friar compares the poem to a Byzantine church where the central portal is larger than the flanking entrances.

The odes in the Passion of To Axion Esti are composed to be set to music, as the hymnographers did. They consist of a number of stanzas that differs in each ode and are written in a highly elaborated version of syllabic versification. The 8th ode is composed to the well-known encomium Ai geneai pasai (All the generations) and can be chanted in the same way. As Mathew writes: The sound of a Byzantine hymn, the gestures in a liturgy (...) are made articulate in the Divine praise. All become articulate through becoming part of a rhythm. In the world of matter they have become echoes of harmonies in the world of mind. In this way Elytis's syllabic versified odes have become articulate through becoming part of a rhythm...

Elytis is preoccupied with harmonies as well as with the mystical meaning of numbers. Seven is a significant number, he tends to group poems and stanzas in sevens or multiples of seven. In the Passion of To Axion Esti six plays an important role too: there are 3x6 Psalms, 2x6 Odes and 1x6 Readings. Apparently six represented for the Byzantines the process of the Incarnation; multiplied by ten it became the symbol of Christ. The harmony of six according to the Byzantines consists in the perfect harmony of its components. We may say that Elytis composed his great poem while having in mind "a Neo-Pythagorean emphasis on number as the ultimate reality blended with a system of scriptural exegesis (Mathew)".


Factor Three: Concentration on Light

In the beginning the light, this first line of To Axion Esti seems to be Elytis's credo. It is at the same time a clear reference to the Gospel of John In the beginning the word, so the word is light, and so the Genesis: let there be light. By combining the Old Testament and John's Gospel Elytis declares that Light is the primary matter and the biological basis of life on earth (his own birth) and the beginning of creative life as a poet. It is a dynamic and sublime beginning of the poem.

Light is also in a metaphorical sense the power that overcomes darkness and obscurity and radiates human souls and brings immortality. The Sun is also God, who existed before the creation of the world, according to the Byzantine hymnographers.

The Sun, or Light plays the main role in Elytis's poetry as becomes apparent from the very titles of his poems: Sun the First, the Sovereign Sun, the Light Tree, Drinking the Corinthian Sun, Glittering Day, Conch of the Voice etc.

Elytis believes that chiaro scuro does not exist in the Greek language because it does not exist in Greek nature. According to the poet, Greek nature and language are intrinsically linked, both have clear outlines and know no half-light. Like Byzantine icons or mosaics!


Fourth Factor: Platonic belief in the existence of an invisible world of which the material is the shadow

Maybe this is the only factor where Elytis's ideas differ sightly from Byzantine conceptions. The contours are blurred here however. Elytis is a staunch Platonist as he confesses, in his poems he has created a very Platonic, ideal world. But which world is the shadow of which, because Elytis's ideal world is made out of ingredients of the real world? Elytis aims at a synthesis between the spiritual world and the world of the senses, especially in his later poems. Beauty of the body is to him equal to the beauty of the soul. He differs from Plato insofar as he does not acknowledge the separation of body and soul, intrinsic to Plato's philosophy.


Elytis's poetry has in my opinion often acquired "the elevation to a level that is sacred" precisely because he has gone back for his inspiration to the Byzantine melodists and hymnographers or, more generally to Byzantine/orthodox concepts. His insistence on the continuity of the Greek language has induced him to look for Byzantine models of metrical structure, themes, symbols and the various attributes of the Holy Virgin and Christ in order to praise his Mediterranean world and this has rendered to his work the sublimity and the diachronic element he has been searching for his whole life.


Athens 3.3.1996


  1. see: Die lebendige Tradition der Byzantinischer Liturgischen Dichtung in der Neugriechischen Lyrik am Beispiel des 'Axion Esti' von Odysseas Elytis. Evangelia Galani, 1988

  2. Georgios Themelis, I neoteri Poiisie mas, 1963

  3. A kontakion is a form of hymn-writing that probably has its roots in Syria. This form of composition knew its peak in the 6th and 7th century, afterwards its place was taken over by the canon. The proem (preamble) of the kontakion is followed by many strophes (18 or 24), these are called oikoi (houses). The second and following strophes keep to the metrical structure of the first strophe.

I have used Kimon Friar's sublime translation of "The Sovereign Sun" and "Modern Greek Poetry" and Keeley/Savidis's translation of "The Axion Esti". The other translations are by me. Much of my knowledge about the kontakia I drew from Romanos de Melode, Vier Byzantijnse hymnen en de Akathistoshymne tr. Aerts, Hokwerda, Schoonhoven Styx publications, 1990.


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