In the Ruins of an Ancient Temple

by Yannis Ritsos

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

“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: “Foreign, peaceful, silent intimacy—years on years.” Like the ruins, the fragment has no verb to animate it. Time is stopped, spanned, to suggest the long years that have gone into the easy relationship between these people and their ancient landscape. The Greeks go about their business, as they have for thousands of years, without undue respect for the archaeological and artistic ruins around them.

The final sentence’s complex structure fits the complexity of the poem’s conclusion. Fishermen carry on their heads “broad baskets full of fish,” but it is “as though” they are “long and narrow flashes of light:/ gold, rose, and violet.” These are the same colors as the “richly embroidered veil of the goddess” carried in a procession, which the communal “we” have cut up “to arrange as curtains, and tablecloths in our emptied houses.”

As in many of Yannis Ritsos’s poems, the simplicity of the description is deceptive. Each of the actions carries symbolic cargo made more substantial by the reality of the activity being described. In the end, a texture of meaning has accrued, so that one understands, however vaguely, that something of importance has taken place before one’s eyes, even in the simplest of scenes.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

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, whose job is to protect by observing, moves, though minimally. Silence and stillness dominate the second stanza.

In both stanzas, however, color is used to contrast the vibrancy of the present with the colorlessness of the temple ruins. The oleanders give color to the statuesque water, while the underpants give color back to the statue of Hera. The fish in the baskets illuminate the landscape with “flashes of light,” and the veil of the goddess, like the fish of “gold, rose, and violet,” illuminate the interiors of the houses.

Ritsos never uses imagery or metaphor for mere decoration. Each stanza’s symbolic significance turns on a metaphor: “as though” the marble and the sheep were the same; “as though” the fish and the goddess’ veil were identical. These are finely observed details, but they are also optical illusions, symbolic sleight of hand, which turn one thing into another, alluding to traditional religious symbolism, both pagan and Christian.

Ritsos avoids using these symbols for didactic purposes. His technique is to suggest an ambiguity inherent in the thing itself. By working up a visual and symbolic texture, he allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the poem’s meanings.

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