Sailing the Aegean with Odysseas Elytis

Of the Aegean

The poem below – published in 1939 – marks the beginning of a long poetic career. Given that this was the beginning, does it come as a surprise that the poet won the Nobel-Prize in literature?

Of the Aegean

The archipelago
And the prow of its foams
And the gull of its dreams
On its highest mast the sailor waves
A song

Its song
And the horizons of its voyage
And the echo of its nostalgia
On her wettest rock the betrothed awaits
A ship

Its ship
And the nonchalance of its summer winds
And the jib of its hope
On its highest undulation an island cradles
The coming

Odysseas Elytis
(transl. Jeffrey Carson)

Του Αιγαίου

Ο έρωτας
Το αρχιπέλαγος
Κι η πρώρα των αφρών του
Κι οι γλάροι των ονείρων του
Στο πιο ψηλό κατάρτι του ο ναύτης ανεμίζει
Ένα τραγούδι

Ο έρωτας
Το τραγούδι του
Κι οι ορίζοντες του ταξιδιού του
Κι η ηχώ της νοσταλγίας του
Στον πιο βρεμένο βράχο της η αρραβωνιαστικιά προσμένει
Ένα καράβι

Ο έρωτας
Το καράβι του
Κι η αμεριμνησία των μελτεμιών του
Κι ο φλόκος της ελπίδας του
Στον πιο ελαφρό κυματισμό του ένα νησί λικνίζει
Τον ερχομό

Οδυσσέας Ελύτης

If you know the poem, then you realised that the lines above merely constitute the first part – the rest will follow below (unfortunately I couldn’t find the Greek original of the other two parts.)

But personally I like to pause at the end of the first part. Literature – art – is always a very personal experience and of all forms of literature poetry is perhaps the most personal: I like my poems short, vivid in their imagery and suggestive, rather than prescriptive, in their meaning – leaving space for the imagination. To me parts II and III merely develop a theme that has already been perfectly formed and therefore cannot possibly be improved upon. What do you think?


The playing waters
In shady passages
Speak the dawn with their kisses
Which begins

And the wild doves vibrate
A sound in their cave
Blue waking in the fount
Of day

The northwester gives the sail
To the sea
Caresses of hair
To the carefreeness of its dream

Wave in the light
Again gives birth to the eyes
Where Life sails toward


Sea surf kiss on its caressed sand—Eros
The gull gives the horizon
Its blue liberty
Waves go come
Foaming answering in the ears of shells

Who took the blond sunburnt girl?
The sea breeze with its transparent blowing
Tilts the sail of dream
Far out
Eros murmurs its promise—Sea surf.

Poetry in Translation – A Game of Chinese Whispers

Considering Elytis won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1979, he seems to be very little known. (Or maybe I’m just moving in the wrong circles.)

Perhaps it’s because we have to read him in translation; poets always seem to have a harder time to become internationally famous than writers. In his Nobel Lecture, Elytis said:

…you know us through the 20 or 30 per cent that remains of a work after translation.

Poetry is as much about sound and rhythm as about meaning; it’s impossible to render a poem perfectly in translation. Not only that, but there is always going to be a translator between you and the poet. Instead of engaging directly with the poet via his poem, you’re participating in a game of Chinese whispers. Carson’s translation reads very well to me (although personally I wouldn’t have substituted Eros for love in the first line of each verse). In this case I’m lucky that I can, just about, read sufficient Greek to be able to appreciate some of the cadence of Elytis’s original lines; I wish I could read more.

Sailing the Aegean with Odysseas Elytis

Elytis is a ‘very Greek’ poet, if you can say such a thing. Jeffrey Carson, the translator responsible for the collected poems of Elytis – the first such collection, predating even a Greek one – wrote in his introduction that,

… it is the Aegean world that provides Elytis with his images.

He was writing about part I of Of the Aegean but it’s a fair description of Elytis’s poetry in general. Elytis has a clearly recognisable style, with very vivid images of Greece that arrest you. It’s the kind of poetry that you can turn to when you’re feeling sad; with its affirmation of life, love, its images of the sea and the sun, its evocations of more than three thousand years of history. It’s difficult not to like Elytis’s poetry if you love Greece.

Still talking about part I of Of the Aegean, Carson went on to say:

This maiden strophe closes with an image of a sea-voyaging sailor singing to the wind and waves: it is Elytis proclaiming his life’s course, a course he was still proclaiming in the last book he brought out, written in his eighties.

I like the idea of life as a sea voyage – especially through the Greek archipelago – and the notion that Elytis spent a lifetime turning this into poetry sounds good to me. I need to read more of his poetry – I’d love to lay my hands on a bilingual version of his collected poems and sail the Aegean alongside him.

You might also like:
⇒ Elytis's Nobel LectureDel Egeo y otros poemas de Elytis en español on
⇒ Aegean Melancholy - another poem by Elytis
⇒ Lorca's Influence on Elytis"Lone Is the Swallow" by Odysseas Elytis, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis (Ena to helidoni, excerpt from the poem Axion Esti)

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