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Yiannis Ritsos

Posted On 11 Jan 2016
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Yiannis Ritsos (Γιάννης Ρίτσος; 1 May 1909 – 11 November 1990) was a Greek poet and left-wing activist and an active member of the Greek Resistance during World War II. Born to a well-to-do landowning family in Monemvasia, Ritsos suffered great losses as a child. The early deaths of his mother and eldest brother from tuberculosis, his father’s struggles with a mental disease, and the economic ruin his family marked Ritsos and affected his poetry.  In 1931, Ritsos joined the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). He maintained a working-class circle of friends and published Tractor in 1934. In 1935, he published Pyramids; these two works sought to achieve a fragile balance between faith in the future, founded on the Communist ideal, and personal despair. The landmark poem Epitaphios, published in 1936, broke with the shape of Greek traditional popular poetry and expressed in clear and simple language a message of the unity of all people. In August 1936, the right-wing dictatorship came to power and Epitaphios was burned publicly at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. Ritsos responded by taking his work in a different direction: he began to explore the conquests of surrealism through the domain of dreams, surprising associations, explosions of images and symbols, a lyricism illustrative of the anguish of the poet, and both tender and bitter souvenirs. During the Axis occupation of Greece (1941–1945) Ritsos authored several poems for the Greek Resistance. Ritsos also supported the Left in the subsequent Civil War (1946-1949). Because of his Left political beliefs he will be exiled many times in various prison camps, mostly in small islands in the Aegean Sea. In the late 60s he travels to Samos and he spends there the last two decades of his life. As his health becomes worse, he leaves the island writing the – somehow prophetic – poem “Last Summer”.

In the 1950s ‘Epitaphios’, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, became the anthem of the Greek Left. Today, Ritsos is considered one of the five great Greek poets of the twentieth century. He was unsuccessfully proposed nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature but when he won the Lenin Peace Prize (also known as the Stalin Peace Prize prior to 1956) he declared “this prize is more important for me than the Nobel”.

One of his most important works is Moonlight Sonata:

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,

alone to faith and to death.

I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.

Let me come with you.

—from Moonlight Sonata. Translation by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley

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