In 1940 Elytis was called up as a second lieutenant and served on the Albanian front, where the Greek army checked the Italian invasion. His experience of war marks a departure from the sunny atmosphere of his early youth and poetry, colouring his long poem Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania (1943). The figurative language still retains the wealth and boldness, the unexpected metaphors and startling images of his previous works, but the tone is sorrowful, albeit proud, and the context wider: the poet identifies himself with the lost lieutenant and the lamenting voice is the voice of his suffering nation.
The attempt of Elytis to identify himself with his nation and speak for himself and also for his country reaches its peak with Axion Esti (1959), his central and most ambitious work. This is a poetical Bildungsroman, a three-part composition of intricate formal structure, aiming to present modern Greek consiousness through the development of a first-person narrator who is simultaneously the poet himself and the voice of his country. It is at once an interpretation of the world as it is and the valiant proclamation of a belief in what it might be. Its three parts are named characteristically "The Genesis", "The Passions" and "The Gloria", and it culminates in a glorification of all ephemeral things, of what is Axion- that is, Worthy - in "this small, this Great World". Elytis´poetical theory as regards "the view of things" is fully realized in this work. As he said in his address to the Swedish Academy on receiving the Nobel Prize, "apart from the physical side of objects and the ability to percieve them in their every detail, there is also the metaphorical ability to grasp their essence and bring them to such clarity that their metaphysical significance will also be revealed". In Axion Esti, a major poem by any standards, these ideas are materialized poetically.
Elytis´later work consist of ten collections of poems and a substantial number of essays. Outstanding among them are The Monogram (1972), an achievement in the European love poem tradition, and The Oxopetra Elegies (1991), which include some of the most difficult but profound poems written in our times. It is significant that in these mature works the tone is no longer jubilant. Melancholy, reflection and solemnity gradually prevail, although the poet´s faith in the power of imagination and the truth of poetry (a belief that brings him close to the Romantics) is still unshakeable.
In all his poetry Elytis has consistently emphasized man´s primary innocence, dismissing guilt and fate, and professing the redeeming quality of light, the "Judicious Sun". He criticized the vulgarity of contemporary society and culture; showed the possibility of a different relation with the things of this world; corrected our reading of nature and our concept of love; reformulated the fundamental, minimal essentials of life, insisting that History can be written anew, reaffirming Shelley´s famous dictum that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
In the art of poetry he restored the high romantic expression in a modern and most convincing way, gave fresh vigour to metaphor, image and alliteration, and created his own original forms of versification. Above all, he brought to Greek poetry a clarity and sharpness which it had not known since Solomos.
An ardent apologist of the poet´s vocation, Elytis never ceased from exploring poetry´s role in these materialistic times and it is perhaps apt to conclude this appreciation by quoting a concise statement he once made concerning the aims of his poetry:
"I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my consience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses into greater harmony with my dreams. I am referring to a contemporary kind of magic which leads to the discovery of our true reality¡ In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraints and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood."
The collected poems of Odysseus Elytis Trans. Jeffrey Carson.Baltimore,John Hopkins University Press. 1997
What I love Trans. Olga Broumas. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press. 1986.
Selected poems Trans. Edmund Keeley. London, Anvil, 1981.
The sovereig sun Trans. Kimon Friar. Newcastle, Bloodaxe Books, 1990.
Journal of an unseen april Trans. David Connoly. Athens, Ypsilon books, 1998.
Carte blanche - Selected writings Trans. David Connoly. Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999.
Maria Nephele Trans. Athan Anagnostopoulos. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.
The oxopetra Elegies Trans.David Connolly. Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.
Lof zij Trans. Hero Hokwerda. Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 1991.
The Axion esti Trans. Edmund Keeley. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974.