Odysseus Elytis’ “Aegean Melancholy”
Essay by Mercedes O'Leary


There are certain poems that enliven the soul. These are the poems that readers develop a personal relationship with, returning time and again to re-enter the mystery that first attracted the reader to the poem. For me, Odysseus Elytis’ “Aegean Melancholy” is such a poem. Lawrence Durrell writes of Elytis that he has “insisted that at the bottom poetry is not simply craft or skill but an act of divination” and “Aegean Melancholy” proves this statement true. Elytis enters the mind of the poem in wonderment, and grows that wonderment by bringing together several of the major Western myths that have defined our culture. The poem becomes increasingly elusive and jubilant, even as the speaker laments the loss of the very myths he celebrates. Charting the transition in Western culture from a Pagan reality to a Christian reality, Elytis has created a poem that evades the mind’s desire to understand such a transition concretely. This poem is meant to inspire the imagination and reconnect the reader to her Western origins, thereby “divining” the past into the present.

The title of the poem, “Aegean Melancholy” serves to place the poem in the Aegean sea, specifically the Greek islands, and to also beckon to the time when Greek mythology was the dominate system of belief. The poem begins:

What linking of soul to the halcyons of the afternoon!

What calm in the voices of the distant shore!

The cuckoo in the trees’ mantilla,

And the mystic hour of the fisherman’s supper,

Ending with exclamation points, the first two lines plunge the reader into the speaker’s wonderment for the Greece. “Halcyons” refers to a bird named after Alcyone, a woman who, according to Ovid’s rendering in The Metamorphoses, threw herself off a cliff and became a bird after learning her husband had died at sea. The gods, taking pity, turned her husband into a halcyon as well. According to myth, Alycone’s metamorphosis is marked each winter solstice by a period of seven days of calm, bringing us to the second line of the poem: “what calm in the voices in the distant shore”. “Voice” is a metaphor for history and memory entering the present in a mystical way: while the voices are audible, their distance impedes clear understanding. The voices are calm because they are in the halcyon period, on another day might they be enraged?

The next line, “The cuckoo in the trees’ mantilla” sounds as though nature is breaking into speech. Describing the trees’ leaves as “mantilla” is a way of giving the trees a female personification. The line between human and non-human is increasingly blurred. The last line, “And the mystic hour of the fisherman’s supper” can refer to Christ and the Last Supper, however it is more interesting if we let “fisherman” refer to both a common man and a god. Such a reading contributes to the poem’s impulse to see divinity in the prosaic, to essentially see both as part and parcel of each other.

While the landscape is certainly real, Elytis uses myth to make the land adopt a level of surrealism. The only way to describe the unnamable beauty of the land is to imbue it with mythological memory. Though I have given a literal break down of the first four lines of the poem, as much as possible at any rate, as the poem moves forward it becomes more squirrelly, almost impossible to pin down:

The long lament of the woman,

The lovely woman who bared her breasts

When memory found the cradles

And lilac sprinkled the sunset with fire!

This is where the ambiguity of the poem begins to be intriguing, and several myths begin to collide. “The woman” could refer to Alcyone mourning her husband’s death, it could refer to Mary (if we are to maintain that the fisherman refers to Jesus), or it could refer to Diana. The end stop after “the woman” is followed by two enjambed lines, lending them a breathless, urgent quality, so that the exclamation point at the end comes with maximum impact. The last two lines of the stanza evade interpretation. Yes, “cradle” can be linked to baby Jesus, and lilacs can be symbolic of a funeral . . . but some kind of magic happens if we do not try to force a literal interpretation. It is better to let these lines manipulate our imaginations, rather than try to manipulate the images. We live in a culture that shuns the unbelievable and that demands rationalism, but in his Nobel lecture Elytis stated:

it is in the inside of this world that the other world is contained, that it is with the elements of this world that the other world is recombined, the hereafter, that second reality situated above the one where we live unnaturally. It is a question of a reality to which we have a total right, and only our incapacity makes unworthy of it.

Elytis is using myth and imagery to invoke that “other world,” which is no less real than the tangible world. We live “unnaturally” in this world because we try so hard to square the mysteries. It is so easy to want to rationalize the mind of the poem, and yet by doing so, we destroy the experience of the poem and reveal our incapacity to live with that which is indefinable.

The next stanza again resumes the Alcyone myth, tempting the reader to again rationalize the poem:

With caique and the Virgin’s sails

Sped by the winds they are gone,

Lovers of the lilies’ exile;

These lines can be read as Alcyone and her husband disappearing into the winds, “lovers of the lilies’ exile.” The first line clearly references a sailboat—perhaps the boat that Alcyone’s husband went down in? The punctuation is again subdued, allowing Elytis to again build momentum later on into the stanza. The next lines return to a heightened surrealism:

But how night here attends on sleep

With murmuring hair on shining throats

Or on the great white shores;

“Sleep” informs the reader that Elytis is consciously returning the poem to a dream like state. The line “With murmuring hair on shining throats” could refer to any woman, even the reader. But while the woman is sleeping and defenseless, the land remains powerful: sleep attends “on the great white shores,” suggesting that while humans are inherently impermanent, land is inherently lasting. Land evolves over time, and is witness to the memories of the world. Next the poem shifts to another myth, and this time the poem exitss the land and enters the cosmos:

And how Orion’s gold sword

Is scattered and spilled aloft

Dust from the dreams of girls

Scented with mint and basil!

According to myth, Diana, prompted by her brother Apollo, accidentally killed Orion while he was swimming. In grief, she placed his body in the stars. “Orion’s gold sword” refers to a vertical cluster of stars beneath Orion’s Belt. “Dust from the dreams of girls” could refer to Diana’s desirous dreams of Orion. “Scented with mint and basil!” is a way of grounding the poem back to the land. And yet, even as I make these declarations, I destroy their mystery, and therefore their purpose. As readers, we don’t really know exactly what is happening in these lines. We are feeling our way through. We intuit the primitive place in our selves to whom the poem speaks; we intuit that the poem is beckoning us to a place and time now lost to us. In this way “Dust from the dreams of girls” is our dust, our dreams. We have only fragments of memory of a world that now eclipses our narrowed imaginations.

The next stanza invokes a fully realized Aegean world where Diana is struggling to retain her identity:

At the cross road where the ancient sorceress stood

Burning the winds with dry thyme, there,

Lightly, holding a pitcher full with the waters of silence,

Given the reference to “virgin” and “Orion”, and now “ancient sorceress,” I think it is safe to assume that “ancient sorceress” refers to Diana, or at the very least, a priestess of a Diana cult. We are at the crossroad between a pagan world view and a Christian world view. A kind of ritual is being performed that involves “burning the winds with dry thyme,” an image unimaginable, yet beautiful. “Thyme” can also double as “time,” making the image that much more elusive. I imagine Diana standing at a literal crossroad summoning an inexplicable power, the winds blowing around her, and also “holding a pitcher full with the waters of silence.” Again, the line eclipses me. Is she holding the future, the time when pagan knowledge will be silenced? Is she attempting to silence the impending Christian view? At any rate, I am left with the impression that she is trying to prevent the loss of her identity. Diana and Mary, representative of monotheism and polytheism, cannot coexist. As the stanza continues, a communion of Diana’s followers is described:

Easily, as though they were entering Paradise,

Supple shadows stepped . . .

And from the crickets’ prayer that fermented the fields

Lovely girls with the moon’s skin have risen

To dance on the midnight threshing floor. . .

This part of the stanza is a celebration of pagan respect for women. Women are honored for their participation in the rites of Diana. The lines are written in the past tense, suggesting that this dream is of a time long past. The cricket’s prayers “fermented the fields” and let the girls resurrect from earth to “dance on the midnight threshing

floor. . .”. These images are beautiful and jubilant, and without end stops express the excitement of embracing life. The girls have “moon’s skin,” another reference to Diana,who is goddess of the moon. The ellipses have an interesting affect on the stanza. They create expectation and add to the dream-like quality of the stanza, making the speaker sound like he is imagining the celebration, rather than witnessing the celebration.

The poem has been marked by a tone of reminiscence and celebration, until now, when it transitions into a tone of desperation:

O signs, you who pass in the depths

Of the mirror-holding water—

Seven small lilies that sparkle—

The speaker is seeking help and lamenting the loss of the Aegean world. He shifts from addressing no one in particular, to speaking directly to inanimate objects, as in “O signs.” Perhaps the signs are seen in the “mirror-holding water,” previously referred to as the “pitcher full of waters of silence.” The future can be foretold in the water, but the future cannot speak for itself. “Mirror” is an interesting word choice because it implies that the future is the reflection of the consequences of human actions. “Seven small lilies that sparkle” probably refers to the seven daughters of Atlas. Orion sought the affection of these seven women, and in distress the women prayed to the gods to change their form. Their prayers answered, they became the constellation of Pleiades. However much we anylize these lines though, they remain somewhat disorienting. The speaker is referencing a reality most readers are no longer identify with, for as Elytis indicts, we are distanced from the “second world.” The stanza continues:

When Orion’s sword returns

It will find poor bread under the lamp

But life in star’s embers.

The speaker looks forward to a time when we are again able to live with mystery, able to embrace the myths that Western civilization sprung from. “When Orion’s sword returns” suggests that the accidental death of Orion has something to do with the transition from pagan mythology to Christian mythology. Orion was mortal man, so perhaps Elytis is suggesting that “when Orion’s sword returns,” we will be able to return to Aegean values. However, once again this line is meant to stimulate the imagination. It is doubtful the star s will fall from the sky, and yet we are somewhat in empowered by letting ourselves fall into the mystery, by letting ourselves believe the unbelievable. The speaker wants to pull the reader into his mythology, because by doing so the gods will become a little more enlivened. “Poor bread” might refer to the “bread of Christ,” with “poor” implying that our new mythology is less enriching to our souls. However, the speaker wants the reader to know that we can look to the stars to find life, rather, that “second co-existing world” which we so easily deny.

The end of the stanza continues to describe how we must look to the cosmos to discover our Aegean roots:

It will find generous hands linked in space,

Abandoned seaweed, the shore’s last children,

Years, green gems . . .

“When Orion’s sword returns” it will find little but “poor bread” on earth, but looking to the stars it “will find generous hands linked in space.” Those “hands” are then described as “abandoned seaweed,” then described as “the shore’s last children” and finally as “years, green gems.” Elytis is not listing separate entities that will be found in the sky, but is giving different metaphors for the same thing. What exactly that “thing” is remains the most elusive part of the poem. When “Orions’s sword returns” we will find an unnamable, disregarded, abandoned part of our humanity. The discovery will make us more human, and will be reclamation of lost years, as valuable as “green gems.”

The “green gem” takes on even more mystique in the last stanza:

O green gem—what storm-prophet saw you

Halting the light at the birth of day,

The light at the birth of the two eyes of the world!

Suddenly the green gem is held responsible for the death of polytheism. “Green” is suggestive both of fertility and greed, which explains why the green gem is first heralded, and then incriminated. “Green gem” is symbolic of the successes of the Ancient Greeks, and yet also implies that their greed led to their demise. When the speaker asks “what storm prophet saw you” it is as if he feels that the “storm-prophet” could have prevented the fall of polytheism. “Halting the light at the birth of day” indicates that the Greek pagan world was just coming into its own as it was forced to die. The green gem halted the emergence of “the two eyes of the world”, rather the sun and moon, perhaps the eyes of Diana and her brother Apollo, the God of sun.

So what is the reader to make of the collusion of this small handful of myths: Alcyone, Orion, Diana and Mary, and then “the two eyes of the world”? Certainly while the speaker is filled with ebullience for his land, he is also filled with remorse, with “Aegean melancholy” because the magic inherent in his land is overlooked in a contemporary world so desperate for rationalization. He is mourning the transformation of Diana into Mary, and grieving the loss of mystery that resulted from that transformation. By divining the past into the present moment of the poem, Elytis gives us a glimpse into our lost Greek gods and goddesses.

However, my “rational” explanation of the poem falls short of explaining wonderment that Elytis builds into his poem. While some specific truths can be gleamed from the allusion to the myths referenced, the more important role of the myths is to inspire the reader’s imagination and to give an uncontrolled, free-wheeling depiction of the Aegean world. Though the urge to interpret cannot be entirely denied, any urge to somehow make language more manageable reduces the surrealistic affect of the poem. The reader does not have to have in depth knowledge of classical mythology to appreciate “Aegean Melancholy.” The wonderment created through dream-like images speaks to an intuitive place in the reader. Elytis manages to invoke the unreal in the real, thereby making “the second world,” as he calls it, a viable reality.