This summer it’ll be five years ago that I visited Santorini for what then I thought was the first but now suspect was also the only time. I didn’t know the poetry of Odysseas Elytis then even though he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979 and I did – twice! – graduated in literature. Admittedly, neither of those degrees was in Greek literature but you don’t study literature, in any language, in a vacuum, and my ignorance of a Nobel Prize winning poet seems preposterous in retrospect.
It’s impossible to sum up a great poet in half a paragraph, and I’m not going to try to. Of all the qualities that make Elytis worth reading, I’ll mention only one today: the power of his visual imagery. Of Greece. He had a way of capturing the brilliant brutality of the sun on the harsh rocks, the glaring whiteness of the houses clinging to the barren hillsides… the azure of the sea, the gentleness of sunset and the screeching of cicadas in the trees at night.
Ode to Santorini is a fine example of this visual power. Santorini is a place no photo can do justice to – but Odysseas Elytis’s poetry can.
So if I can’t return to Santorini in the flesh, I can still return there in spirit. Join me.
Ode to Santorini
by Odysseas Elytis
You emerged from a thunderpeal’s entrails
Shuddering amid repentant clouds
Bitter stone, proved, proud
You sought the sun for the first-martyred witness
To confront perilous splendor together
To head out to sea with a cross-bearing echo
You lifted up your stone breast
Speckled with the southwind’s inspiration,
For pain to inscribe its very heart there
For hope to inscribe its very heart there
With fire with lava with smoke
With words that convert the infinite
You gave birth to the voice of day
You set up the bells on high
In the green and rose stretches of aether
Bells run by the exalted mind
Glorifying the birds in mid-August light
Beside waveroar, beside anguish of seafoam
Through the eucharism of sleep
When night roamed the deserts of stars
Searching for the testimony of dawn,
You felt the joy of birth
You leapt first into the world
Born to the purple, sea-risen
You sent to the far horizons
The blessings that grew in the sea’s night-vigils
To caress the hair of dawn’s fifth hour.
Queen of Aegean pulses and wings
With the words to convert the infinite
With fire with lava with smoke
You found the great lines of your destiny
Now before you justice opens out
Black mountains float in the glow
Desires prepare their craters
In the heart’s tormented land,
And from hope’s struggle a new earth prepares itself
To step there with eagles and banners
One morning filled with iridescence
The race that vivifies dreams
The race that sings in the sun’s embrace.
O kore of exceeding anima
Open the splendid gates of man
That the landscape be fragrant with health
That feeling with open wings aflutter
Sprout with a housand colours
And freedom blow from everywhere
Amid the wind’s preachings flash out
The new and perpetual beauty
When the sun of the third hour rises
All glaucous to play the pipe organ of Creation.
Image credits: All photos public domain via Pixabay.com