Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)