THAT The Nobel Prize for Literature creates a specialized, sometimes ephemeral, industry for translators and publishers is a fact of modern literary history. It is also true that a good deal of poetry of the 1979 recipient of the prize, the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, while not popular in this country at that time, was fairly widely translated and available to those who make it their business to know the international literary scene. The publication of an English-language version of his Maria Nephele, therefore, can be as easily regarded as part of a continuity of interest as it can an inevitability in the wake of his award by the Swedish Academy.
Published in Athens in 1978 and started 18 years before, Maria Nephele represents an important advance in Elytis' development as a poet both in its form and its subject matter. The growth that results from the setting and meeting of new challenges has become as prominent a trait of the poet's career as some of the personae, landscapes and modes that typify the body of his work. Elaborately structured like his The Axion Esti (1959), which figured so importantly in the Nobel citation, Maria Nephele relies more on colloquial language and makes greater use of the urban situation than any previous Elytis work.
The poem is divided into three main parts, each comprised of seven pairs of poems in which the personae of Maria Nephele (Maria Cloud) and an Antiphonist (the poet) "say" and "respond" to each other's convictions on subjects ranging from philosophy, poetry and love to recent political events. Each of these 42 poems is concluded with an italicized epigrammatic statement which hangs from it like a distillated drop of insight. For example, at the end of a poem entitled "The Waterdrop" (a recurring motif in Elytis' work) comes the line, "In the village of my language Grief is called the Radiant Lady." In addition, there are a prologue, two interludic songs, and an epilogue. The parts of this whole are closely, often serially, interrelated and unified through various thematic correspondences and are animated by a large number of literary and mythological references and allusions. All of this has been ably explicated and annotated by translator Athan Anagnostopoulos in the introduction and notes to his strictly literal version of the poem.
But the true dynamic of the poem lies neither in its structure nor in its allusiveness. It is, rather, Elytis' ability to compact and unite the work's elements into a single, comprehensive myth that makes its experience significant. In an interview published in Books Abroad in 1975, Elytis explained his interest in finding the sources of his neo-Hellenic world by keeping "the mechanism of myth-making" rather than the traditional mythical figures. This mechanism, mastered and exploited so effectively and lyrically in his previous work, in fact nourished Maria Nephele in a new way. Maria Nephele, the complex feminine mediator between the contemporary world and the poet, has her roots in Marina, the enigmatic girl of the Aegean with "the taste of tempest" on her lips in a poem Elytis published in 1939. As she says in the closing lines of her dialogue with the poet-Antiphonist in the prologue, which is titled "The Presence,"
And from the many tempests I returned
among the people self-exiled! So now she comes in the form of a young radical speaking for the world-view of a new, alienated generation to lead him into a new awareness out of which he forges a tribute to their mutual endurance. The mythic model that comes to mind is that of the epic journey to the other world, especially Dante's Comedy, when one considers Elytis' revelation that he met a young woman in real life that provided him with the basis for the mythical figure of the poem. A kind of Beatrice, she confronts and tests the poet's commitments and leads him through previously uncharted territory, forcing the poet to show the other side of himself. This territory, represented by the usually clashing world-visions of the two personae, also forces the reader to show other sides of himself through an ingenious strategy of poetic thinking: To read this antiphonal work is to become involved in the dialectic of the encounter, and the reader's interpretations must synthesize the oppositions of the two voices.
This special demand of the reader is furthered rather than moderated by the poet's affirmative, broadly resolving epilogue, called "The Eternal Wager":
That one day you shall bite into the new lemon and release huge quantities of sun from inside it.
That all the currents of the seas suddenly illumined will reveal you raising the storm to the moral level.
That even in your death you shall be again like water in the sun that turns cold by instinct.
That you shall be catechized by the birds and a foliage of words will clothe you in Greek so you shall seem invincible.
That a waterdrop will culminate imperceptibly on your eyelashes beyond pain and after many tears.
That all the world's heartlessness will turn to stone so you can sit regally with an obedient bird in your palm.
That alone at last you shall be united slowly with the grandeur of sunrise and sunset.
Maria Nephele has enjoyed an extraordinary popularity in Greece, going into a second edition nine months before the Nobel award was announced. It is still one more confirmation of Elytis' having earned his status as a chief poet of his language and people, as a world poet whose life's work makes an eloquent case for human dignity. Another kind of confirmation came with his characteristically unobtrusive refusal of another prize of over $30,000 in 1973. It was the "Great National Award for Literature," instituted and proffered by the dictatorship then ruling his country.