Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1074
Greece produced at least three world-class poets in the mid-twentieth century: George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, and Yannis Ritsos. The first two received the Nobel Prize and are bourgeois; Ritsos received the Lenin Prize and was a communist. Yet it would be entirely wrong to call him Greece’s leading leftist poet...
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- Critical Essays
Greece produced at least three world-class poets in the mid-twentieth century: George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, and Yannis Ritsos. The first two received the Nobel Prize and are bourgeois; Ritsos received the Lenin Prize and was a communist. Yet it would be entirely wrong to call him Greece’s leading leftist poet or even a political poet. His range is so immense, his career so diverse, the traditions from which he draws so eclectic that these or any other labels distort his contribution. Though the leftist element is clearly present in Ritsos’s work, he shares with bourgeois poets an interest in nature, in personal anguish, even in Christianity, and he participates as fully as they do in pan-European movements such as Surrealism and folklorism. In sum, Ritsos speaks not only to one camp but also to all humanity.
On the other hand, it is clear that Ritsos found his first voice only because he had aligned himself with the political Left. It was communism that transformed him, in the decade 1926-1936, from an imitator of others in content and style to a unique singer of revolution. Epitaphios provided the breakthrough. A dirge gasped out by a simple mother over the body of her son, slain by police in a labor dispute, this poem modulates from the dirge itself to the mother’s thirst for revenge and finally to her solidarity with the oppressed working class. Every aspect of the poem—not merely its content—is intended by the author to make it accessible to the common people and not only about them. Thus, it exploits diverse elements from their cultural storehouse, primarily their Greek Orthodox liturgy and their folk songs, melding a call to revolution with the Christian hope for Resurrection, and voicing all this through the tone, metrics, and imagery of the demotic ballads that were produced by anonymous folk poets throughout the centuries of Turkish rule. Ritsos did not do this self-consciously in order to erect a bulwark of tradition that would fortify national identity, but almost naïvely; the liturgy and the demotic ballads were friends with which he had grown up as a child. What he sought to avoid, and conversely to accomplish, is best expressed by his estimation of Hikmet in Meletemata: “His poetry is not just . . . ‘folkloristic’ (that is, extremely . . . ‘aesthetic’ on a so-called popular plane—hence nonpopular) . . . but essentially popular because of participation . . . in popular forces, which it expresses not in their static, standardized forms . . . but . . . in their dynamic motion.”
To tragoudi tes adelphes mou
It is characteristic of Ritsos’s own dynamic motion that the mode of Epitaphios was never to be repeated. The poet broadened his range immediately—owing to the external circumstances of Yannis Metaxas’s censorship, which confined Ritsos to nonpolitical subjects—but even when he returned to political poetry after the dictator’s death early in 1941, Ritsos did so in a different way, if only because he had liberated his technique in the meantime from the constraints of rhyme and strict stanzaic form. To tragoudi tes adelphes mou is the chief fruit of the Metaxas period. The first of many extended elegies about family members or others, chiefly women, overcome by misfortune, it matches Epitaphios in that it shows how pain can lead to illumination, here the lamenting poet’s conviction that poetry itself—the very act of singing of his sister’s insanity—will save both him and her:
The poem has subdued me.
The poem has granted me the victory. . . .
I who could not
save you from life
will save you from death.
Poetry thus joins revolution as a wonder-working power for Ritsos, who in his espousal of an “aesthetic solution” joined hands with his bourgeois colleagues throughout Europe.
In the many short poems written during this same period, Ritsos learned to escape the stridency still present in both Epitaphios and To tragoudi tes adelphes mou; he learned to distance himself from his material, to be laconic, to have poems “be,” not merely “say.” This he achieved chiefly through a painterly technique whereby motion, time, and sound were transfixed into immobility, space, and sight. Consider these lines:
Lone chimes speak silence,
memories in groups beneath the trees,
cows sad in the dusk.
Behind the young shepherds a cloud was bleating at the sunset.
In this Keatsian, cold pastoral, sound is frozen into a composition, time is spatialized. It is no wonder that the poem is titled “Engraving.”
“The Burial of Orgaz”
Similar techniques are more difficult to apply to longer works, which cannot help but evolve in time. One of Ritsos’s most successful works is an extended political poem written in September and October, 1942. Titled “The Burial of Orgaz,” it employs El Greco’s celebrated painting Burial of the Conde de Orgaz (1586-1588) as a static, two-tiered composition, holding in place the extraordinarily varied figures of the poet’s political vision: on the earthly level, mutilated veterans of Albania, resisters executed by the Germans, innocent Athenians dying from famine; on the heavenly, in place of El Greco’s John the Baptist kneeling at Christ’s feet, robust workers building a new road—a Marxist paradise. Because of the painterly technique, the emotions are frozen into beauty; life is transformed into art. Later in his career—as in Philoktetes, for example—Ritsos was to achieve the same control over the mad flow of life’s images by superimposing them on a myth rather than on a painting.
“The Burial of Orgaz” treats war tragically. It is ironic that Ritsos could treat it exultantly only after his side had met defeat in the second round of the Civil War and had then begun to suffer systematic persecution. Mortified at the discrediting of the Resistance by the Greek Right, he determined to apotheosize the heroes (communist or not) who had opposed the Axis throughout the Occupation period and to insist on their patriotism. In Romiosyne, written between 1945 and 1947 but obviously not publishable until much later, he therefore amalgamated his twentieth century heroes with the historical freedom fighters in the Greek War of Independence and the legendary stalwarts who had harassed the Turks in preceding centuries. Ending as it does with the hope of a peaceful, loving tomorrow, the resulting ode combines visionary transcendentalism, realism, and epic exaggeration into a blend that energetically celebrates—along with The Lady of the Vineyards, written at the same time—Greece’s most difficult years.