The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

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“Miniature” is a free-verse poem of fourteen lines. The title, especially in Greek, denotes a small-scale drawing of the type that Yannis Ritsos is known to have drawn on hundreds of stones and on the backs of Greek cigarette boxes. While the title self-consciously limits the size of the poem, it is deceptive in that it does not indicate its scope.

The poem captures an awkward moment in which two people who are about to have tea are unable to connect. A woman of indeterminate age stands at a table, slicing lemons. The slices, with sections like spokes, are compared to the wheels of a carriage in a fairy tale. A young officer is sitting nearby, “buried” in his armchair. A tangible distance separates them. Instead of looking at her, he lights a cigarette with a trembling hand.

Time stands still, in the “heartbeat” of a clock. The moment passes, and it is “too late” to act upon the unspecified “something” that has been “postponed.” The chance for the two to connect has been lost. Instead of facing each other, they escape into a mundane activity: “Let’s drink our tea.”

The poem concludes with a series of rhetorical questions. At first glance, these seem unrelated to what has happened, or rather to what has not happened, since the focus of the poem is on the absence of action. “Is it possible, then, for death to come in that kind of carriage?” Evidently, there has been a death, as though life not seized, a desire not acted upon, is not merely the absence of life, but death.

The exact nature of the desire, like the exact relationship between the woman and man, is unspecified. Perhaps she is his mother, wife, sister, or lover. Perhaps he is returning from or going to war. (The date of the poem’s composition coincides with a terrible era of Greek history, immediately after the Nazi occupation and during the civil war.) The urgency of life, like the presence of death, stymies them.

In the end, all that remains of the moment is the metaphor of the carriage, created by the woman only to be left behind “for so many years on a side street with unlit lamps.” Perhaps the lamps are “unlit” because they missed connecting with the officer’s match. Finally, after many years, the moment reappears in “a small song, a little mist, and then nothing.” Perhaps the memory of the carriage has inspired the small song of the poem itself, which is followed by an obscure melancholy before it disappears again into the nothingness of forgetfulness or death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

Ritsos’s strength is in the simplicity of his language, so his work suffers relatively little in translation. He is a prolific and popular poet—his more than ninety volumes have been widely translated, and many of his poems have been successfully put to music—whose work speaks simply to human experience and emotion.

Relatively unconcerned with complexities of form, syntax, or allusion, Ritsos depends on the emotional impact of ordinary objects lovingly observed. In a 1966 poem called “Insignificant Details,” Ritsos suggests that common objects are the poet’s sacred text: “their secret meaning (beyond gods and myths,/ beyond symbols and concepts) only poets understand.” It is the poet’s job to cast them in such a light that anyone can be made to understand by feeling their significance.

Ritsos’s populist realism is suffused with a magical quality, a result in part of the influence of Surrealism, but his poetry owes its dreamlike effects not to the psychic automatism or the unconscious, but to experiences grounded in the everyday life of the body. In “Miniature,” for example, he appeals to the childlike free play of the imagination, in which semblances instantaneously become similes. The thin slices of lemon are “like yellow wheels for a very small carriage/ made for a child’s fairy tale,” and the clock “holds its heartbeat.”

Ritsos’s poems are more visual (and visceral) than intellectual. Motifs from sculpture and painting are common. Often, he creates a sort of optical illusion in which metaphor replaces reality. In “Abstracted Painter,” a poem that recalls the optical illusions of the artist M. C. Escher, a painter draws a train, and one of the carriages cuts away from the paper to return to the carbarn, with the painter inside. Something similar occurs in “Miniature” when the reader is left not with the human situation, but with the metaphor of the carriage, with death inside. Imaginative symbol replaces experience.

Ritsos gives his poem a dramatic context, as though implying that the magic of metaphor erupts in the midst of the most mundane human activities. The reader is given only a parenthetical scene in a larger drama and is invited to speculate about the nature of the tension of desire and restraint between the woman and the man, the “somethingpostponed” that is unspoken and unenacted. The dramatic conflict is not overtly expressed in their actions; the conflict must be discerned beneath their actions.

Within the two adults are two children who are illuminated by the yellow of lemon slices and match flame. The woman performs her household chores while dreaming of escape, like Cinderella, in a magic carriage (here made of a lemon rather than a pumpkin). The officer is a boy afraid of love, romantic or maternal. His nervous hand holds the match, its warm glow highlighting his “tender chin and the teacup’s handle,” which connects him with the woman.

It is difficult to say whether “Miniature” is a sonnet or merely a lyric that happens to contain fourteen lines. Ritsos’s early work used all the conventions of rhyme and meter, but later he abandoned them for free verse. “Miniature” can, however, be read as an ironic twist on the tradition of the sonnet, with all the trappings of missed connection and imaginative consolation.