Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1254
Yannis Ritsos was born into a wealthy landowning family of Monemvasia, but he did not have a happy childhood. His father’s fortunes declined because of the land reforms under Eleftherios Venizelos in the early 1900’s, and their wealth was obliterated by the Asia Minor campaigns between 1919 and 1922, when labor was unavailable for the harvests. In addition, Ritsos’s father gambled compulsively, accelerating the family’s decline. As if this were not enough, Ritsos’s older brother and his mother died of tuberculosis when Ritsos was only twelve—a prelude to the hardships and suffering that would mark his adult life.
Upon his graduation from high school in the town of Gythion, Ritsos moved to Athens; the year was 1925, a time when that city was desperately trying to assimilate a million and a half refugees from Asia Minor. He managed to find work as a typist and then as a copyist of legal documents, but in 1926 he returned to Monemvasia after coughing blood. There he devoted himself to painting, music, and poetry, completing a group of poems that he called “Sto paleo mas spiti” (in our old house). He returned to Athens in 1927, but a new crisis in his health confined him to a tuberculosis sanatorium for three years, during which, while continuing to write poems, he also began to study Marxism. By 1930, he had committed himself to the communist cause. Transferred to a sanatorium in Crete, he found conditions there so abominable that he exposed the facility’s managers in a series of newspaper articles; this led to the removal of all the patients, including Ritsos, to a better facility, where his disease came under temporary control.
Back in Athens, Ritsos directed the artistic activities of the Workers’ Club, appearing in in-house theatricals and also on the stage of the Labor Union Theater. Meanwhile, his father was confined to an insane asylum. While eking out a living as actor, dancer, copy editor, and journalist, Ritsos published his first two collections, Trakter (tractor) and Pyramides (pyramids). His career took a leap forward when, in May of 1936, he composed his Epitaphios immediately after the slaughter of twelve tobacco workers by Thessaloniki police during a strike. Issued in ten thousand copies, this became the first of Ritsos’s poems to be banned. The Metaxas dictatorship, when it came to power in August, publicly burned the 250 unsold copies at the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
In this same year, Ritsos composed To tragoudi tes adelphes mou (the song of my sister), after his sister Loula was committed to the same asylum that housed their father. This private dirge, balancing the public one for the slain strikers, so impressed Kostis Palamas, Greece’s most influential poet at the time, that he hailed the young poet as his own successor. Ritsos suffered a brief recurrence of his tuberculosis, requiring another period in a sanatorium, after which he worked again as an actor, all the while publishing new collections of verse.
During the period of the Albanian Campaign, the German invasion, and the Axis Occupation of Greece (1940-1944), Ritsos—now confined to bed almost continuously—wrote without respite but was unable to publish freely. Among the works produced was a long novel burned during the second round of the Civil War (December, 1944) and another prose composition, never published, titled “Ariostos o prosechtikos aphegeitai stigmes tou biou tou kai tou ypnou tou” (careful Ariostos narrates moments from his life and his sleep).
After the second round of the Civil War, Ritsos fled to northern Greece with the defeated communist forces. While in Kozani, he wrote plays for the People’s Theater of Macedonia. The Varkiza Accord (February 12, 1945) enabled him to return to Athens, where he regularly contributed poems, prose pieces, translations, and dance criticism to the periodical Elefthera grammata, as well as collaborating with the artistic branch of the communist youth movement. It was at this time that he began to write Romiossini: The Story of the Greeks and The Lady of the Vineyards, his twin tributes to the Greek Resistance.
In 1948, Ritsos was arrested because of his political activities and sent to various concentration camps on Greek islands. Under the worst of conditions, he nevertheless wrote about his privations, burying manuscripts and notes in bottles to hide them from the guards. Naturally, his work was banned. An international protest by figures such as Pablo Picasso, Louis Aragon, and Pablo Neruda led to his release in August, 1952. Free again in Athens, he joined the newly founded party, the EDA (United Democratic Left), wrote for the left-wing newspaper Avgi, married Falitsa Georgiadis in 1954, and became the father of a daughter in 1955. The following year, he visited the Soviet Union, traveling outside Greece for the first time. Epitaphios was reissued in a twentieth-anniversary edition, and The Moonlight Sonata brought him his first public recognition since Palamas’s early enthusiasm, in the form of the State Prize for Poetry. This, in turn, led to international acclaim when Aragon published The Moonlight Sonata in Les Lettres françaises, accompanied by a flattering notice. In Greece, the publishing firm Kedros began to bring out all the work that could not be published earlier and planned for a multivolume collection of Ritsos’s poems.
In 1960, the popular composer Mikis Theodorakis set eight sections of Epitaphios to music, making Ritsos a household name in Greece. In 1962, Ritsos traveled again, this time to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, as a result of which he became acquainted with the Turkish poet Hikmet and his anthologies of Balkan poets. Despite a relapse of his tuberculosis, Ritsos composed prolifically during this period. In May, 1963, he journeyed to Thessaloniki to participate in the vigil for the parliamentary deputy Gregory Lambrakis, who had been mortally wounded by right-wing thugs. The following year, Ritsos himself stood for parliament as an EDA candidate. In 1966, he traveled to Cuba. Theodorakis set Romiosyne to music, again with immense popular success.
On April 21, 1967, the day of the Colonels’ Coup, Ritsos was arrested and again sent into exile on various islands, his works once more under ban. Protests poured in from around the world, leading to his transfer to house arrest in his wife’s home in Samos. A group of seventy-five members of the French Academy and other writers, including several Nobel laureates, nominated him for the Nobel Prize. Translations of his poetry multiplied, especially in France.
Offered a passport by the junta to attend a poetry festival in England in 1970—on the condition that he refrain from all criticism of the regime—Ritsos refused, but later in the same year, owing to his health, he was allowed to return to Athens to undergo an operation and to remain there. In 1971, he joined others in publishing in Ta nea keimena in defiance of the regime. After the relaxation of censorship in 1972, Ritsos’s works written in exile came out in a flood of publication that increased after the junta’s fall in 1974. Thereafter, Ritsos continued to write poetry, but largely of a different sort; in the absence of a police state and finally out of prison, his concerns turned to more lyric and personal works. He produced some of his best work in this mode—attesting to the difficulty of pigeonholing him as a political poet.
He died in Athens, Greece, on November 11, 1990, fatefully on Armistice Day as well as the eve of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Despite his communist politics, Greece’s president Constantine Mitsotakis announced that this nationally mourned poet would be buried with full state honors.
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