Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

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“In the Ruins of an Ancient Temple” is a poem about the role of the gods in the modern world, and the role of humans in their creation or perpetuation. It can be read as an ironic expression of how the gods—both pagan and Christian—have lost all color, life, and vibrancy in the modern world. Such a reading, however, turns the poem into a satire instead of an exploration of the role (even the responsibility) the imagination has in giving life to gods, statues, and poems.

Statues appear in many of Ritsos’s poems, almost always as a life-affirming reminder. “The Statues in the Cemeteries,” for example, “don’t copy us; they are alone too; they suffer; they contradict nonexistence.” One should keep in mind that the marbles in the landscape are not the gods themselves, but only works of art, sharing in the imaginative project that the poet himself is working on. If they have no life of their own, they remind readers that they are the ones who are alive.

The careless way the woman spreads her husband’s underpants on Hera’s shoulder is designedly comic. Far from showing a lack of respect, however, this easy familiarity is more in line with the ancients’ view of the gods than the modern-day museum mentality of reverence for anything classical. (The gods had no amnesty from the barbs of Aristophanes’ comedy, and Greek statuary was painted to make it appear more lifelike.) As the sheep animate the marbles, the cloth gives back to the statues some of their original coloring.

In the ancient fertility ritual of sparagmos, the god was “cut up” and distributed among the fields to ensure a bountiful harvest. Ritsos evokes the ritual of sparagmos in a political sense when the communal “we” cuts up the “richly embroidered” veil of the goddess and redistributes this aesthetic wealth to the people for “our emptied houses.”

The word “emptied” instead of “empty” is a political, or economic, choice. “Empty” would signify a simple lack, perhaps an ascetic renunciation of the material world, consonant with Christian orthodoxy, while “emptied” signifies a fullness that has been taken away. It is an indictment of those who have “emptied” our houses in the name of the gods to fill the coffers of the church or state.

In examining the museum guard, an employee of the state, standing as sentry at the beginning of the poem, one may ask What is he guarding? His casual attitude shows that there is nothing really to protect. It is not as though the sheep or the washer women are going to run off with the statues, which are, if not meaningless, valueless to them, except as mannequin drying racks.

The real riches are highlighted by the colorful patches in the poem. “The water’s thick nape” concealed “behind the oleanders” is more valuable to the people, both for its utility in their work and for its intrinsic aesthetic qualities. The fishermen bearing “flashes of light” have more power of religion, like Christ’s fishers of men, than the dead formalities and useless processions of the church.

These riches need no museum guard. These are the flashes of perception that Ritsos considered the job of the poet—living among the things of the world in a “Foreign, peaceful, silent intimacyyears on years”—to cut from the cloth of the “long, richly embroidered veil” of culture and to redistribute to the people to brighten their emptied houses.