In the Ruins of an Ancient Temple Analysis

Yannis Ritsos

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In the Ruins of an Ancient Temple” is a free-verse poem in two stanzas of nine and six lines. The title shows a concern shared by much modern Greek poetry with its ancient inheritance, although here that concern is ironic and unromanticized.

The first stanza presents a series of short, declarative sentences, almost one per line, describing the life of common people in a modern Greek rural setting. These straightforward statements set the tone of the down-to-earth life depicted. Each subject has its own verb, just as each worker has his or her own distinctive action to perform. The museum guard observes, the women wash, the blacksmith hammers, the shepherd whistles.

When the animal and mineral worlds are introduced, the lines are longer, enjambed, and colored with metaphor. Responding to the shepherd’s whistle, “The sheep ran to him/ as though the marble ruins were running.” The water of the river is personified, its “thick nape/ shone with coolness.”

The final sentence of the first stanza is more than two lines long and focuses on a woman hanging clothes to dry. She spreads them on “shrubs and statues,” her husband’s underpants hung from the shoulders of a statue of the goddess Hera. Her action might appear satirical (imagine someone hanging their underwear from a crucifix), except that it is an action, not a gesture.

The second stanza consists of only two sentences. The first is a fragment:...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

In the Ruins of an Ancient Temple Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s thematic tension between ancient and modern is developed through a series of contrasts. From the very beginning, the tension between dead stone and living flesh is established. Yet their identity is suggested in the off rhyme of the lines’ endings: marmara (marbles) and mantra (sheepfold). This contrast is fused, if not erased, when the sheep’s movement makes the marbles appear to be moving also. The image is a simple metaphor on the surface, but the optical illusion has the surrealistic effect of making the ordinary landscape magical.

The dualities the poem addresses are embodied in the two-part structure. In the first stanza, ancient and modern collide and merge, like overlapping transparencies: the museum guard “in front of” the sheepfold; the sheep “among” the marbles; the water’s sculptural nape and marmoreal coolness “behind” the oleanders. In the second stanza, the duality is less visual than temporal (years “on” years). Spatial positioning gives way to symbolic layering: fishermen “on” the shore with baskets “on” their heads; the procession “bearing” the veil; the curtains and tablecloths “in” our houses.

In the first stanza, Ritsos uses sound and movement to contrast the ancient-contemporary scene. The present is animate with the sound and motion of work: the plash of washing in the river, the beat of the hammer, the whistle of the shepherd. Even the museum guard,...

(The entire section is 425 words.)