Yannis Ritsos, truly a multitalented poet, used a lot of different ways of structuring his work: one format was the dramatic monologue. He wrote numerous poems using this format; his heroes were historical or mythological names as well as characters from daily life. All the masterpieces written in that format were published in one collective volume which he named Fourth Dimension. Evidently his most famous of all those was The Moonlight Sonata. Here, in this volume II of translations six dramatic monologues are included: A Dog in the Night, Public Garden, The Bridge, Philoctetes, Ismene, and Phaedra.
Ritsos’s mastery is evident in the poem A Dog in the Night when he begins his story of a dog with a reference to the dog’s master. He first uses the word κύριος (master) un-capitalized before shifting a few lines further to Κύριος, signifying a shift from the relationship between a dog and its master to that between a human being and the divine. This theocentric approach is evident when he invokes the image of “his Lord” as existing in the persona’s thought, in his inner voice, and in his search for the divine presence after a struggle with betrayal and death:
full of life
carrying the image of his Lord in his eyes
seeing the image of his Lord in everything:
The reference to a betrayal appears at the point when the poet talks about the dog:
… if one extends his hand
to caress its entwined hair, it turns its back to him and walks
away to vanish behind that hill. Perhaps it cries a bit further
away afraid to betray its master if it accepted the caress
of another man
Reading this, we cannot forget that, after the betrayal by Peter in the Bible, the Crucifixion came two days later. The poem prepares the reader for unavoidable betrayal and redemption after the redeeming image of the little boy with enlightened eyes reminds the dog of his former master.
Thus it leaves in the night, walks towards death
where it may meet his Lord.
The eyes of the blonde young man looked like his Lord.
The young men looked at it.
From this point on, the process of redemption begins. The poet speaks of a journey towards salvation and immortality through the eyes of a young child whose soul represents a world without sin according to Christ.
Haven’t you met this dog after all? Happy, I tell you,
and with a silent pride and modesty
alone and fulfilled, almost a puppy
with shining hair.
This is the happiness of the animal that faces the world again as if at the beginning, that returns to the world but now a new world, not that of betrayal but renewed and virginal. Here the poet leads the reader to the concept of the eternal, to the way out of death, to a world without war and futility, toward a world of joy and hope.
In 1959, when the poem Public Garden was written, and throughout the decades of the 50s and 60s, world history was considered to be at the end of one era and the beginning of another. It was named “the time of questioning.” 1959, in particular, was characterized by the prospect of endless possibilities; Greece seemed to have begun leaving behind some of the misery of post-war poverty and post-war syndromes. Famous events in the 1960s such as the Woodstock Festival, the murders by Charles Manson’s followers, and the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam marked those days as a time of reckoning. Ritsos clearly speaks of the decay that characterized those days when he writes in Public Garden:
Difficult times, truly difficult. The night, although silent
bites you hard. And those who show their white teeth
when they smile, they prepare to bite an apple, a neck, a mouth.
They will quieten down afterwards, since they will retain
an alive bite of flesh in their mouths.
The poem unfolds in the public garden of the title, where five men share a bench. A talkative member of the group offers a bun to each of the others, positioning each of them as a key figure representing a certain societal structure of the time. Two young builders, a student, and an unemployed man are his company. He constructs and deconstructs the era using numerous symbols of the last world war and of the Greek civil war that followed.
The buns symbolize the bread of justice, the cheapest and most important sustenance that everyone deserves and needs though it was so scarce in the war days.
He took his bun out of his pocket, he wiped the elements
of tobacco and other dirt and brought it to his mouth.
It had dried up a little, but perhaps for that he found it tasty,
as if this was his only and the most unpretending deed
in the whole world …
In this concluding verse we feel the poet’s alternation between a world that has passed and the new world which is being reborn.
Representative of this mix of deterioration and hope for regeneration is the following verse:
They stay like that half-dressed in the forest and grass
and clover start growing on their skin.
Despair succeeds perdition, and after this, a screaming silence follows.
our only protection
is silence — not even that.
The poet takes on his shoulders the pain of the world, the burden of the innocent.
No one knows what to do. The victor for who they waited,
kneeling, at the edge of the forest, erect in his nakedness,
without a shield, passed humbly covering his genitals with
his hand. He didn’t even see them.
The victors fail to rejoice; they have all become pawns in the great chessboard of the war games. Only women and children and teenagers mail their sad, secret letters, struggling to reach an unreachable mailbox.
and if by chance a child
comes who can’t reach to put the letter in the mailbox,
it lowers its shoulders a little or it kneels
and you’d think that it will deliver all these letters
into the hand of God one day.
The poet entrusts to the children and to God his hopes for a future without war, mourning bells, without maniacs who drown kittens in buckets of water and soldiers who lose their lives on the battlefield. Indeed, the poem begins with this vision of a peace that is now beginning to establish itself but remains difficult to assimilate into the wounded world.
It’s nice here — pleasant breeze, indifferent
as if it doesn’t know any of us, as if it’s unknown to us …
It concludes with the silence that always follows a great disaster, with the quietness that follows a storm.
In The Bridge, the poet talks implicitly about the daily violence people contend with in the context of the conventional ethics of his days and the ideological coercion that some impose on others. He borrows the voice of the rightminded person — “Our first goal is peace, our first freedom is comradeship” — and then urges solidarity and brotherhood using the symbolism of a safe:
The mouth of the safe stays open during the night while
in its depths piles of strange coins from various eras and
places shine, gold bars like big nails for the crucifixion;
piles of money resemble playing cards which to a degree
represent the very people who, as coins of different eras,
teach us their own story.
Through the individuality of their needs, people should be headed toward the collective because only through the collective good of sharing the bread of justice and freedom with all on a fair and equal footing can humanity be led to the fulfillment of its purpose as a small part of the universal, exercising its divine goal of being the universal priest, founder of the peace. As the poet tells us, it is “impossible to live and live well without the necessary.”
Ritsos speaks eloquently of this need when he writes:
Our humble needs don’t humiliate us;
on the contrary, they save us; they give us ground
to walk again, to stand erect, to work, and
our knowledge and acceptance of them is our brotherhood,
it is the beginning of our profound freedom,
it is that sacred truthfulness …
These needs are the grounds of creation and humbleness, of coexistence within a collective entity beyond a selfish, self-centered life.
Despite this quasi-Marxist view, the poet still professes that any offering is an eternal duty that achieves a divine honesty when it overcomes vanity and individuality:
I believe that the first step to progress is the correct
distribution of bread,
I believe that the first step to progress is the increase in
the production of bread for all
I believe that our first duty is peace,
I believe that our first freedom isn’t our loneliness
but our comradeship; as for the rest, there will always
be time for them too, but only from there on.
It was about this bridge that I wanted to talk to you …
The poet builds an indestructible bridge by using his faith in a common good accomplished through “the correct distribution of bread,” that is, brotherhood and justice, and the abolition of the social classes that have created a pyramidal structure of society. The poet magnanimously removes chaos by bridging today with tomorrow through the confession of humbleness and compassion.
At the end of the poem, the signatures of the comrades on white paper constitute their agreement and promise to complete their work in a consistent and responsible manner with companionship and integrity. With the phrase “and feeling with a startling clarity that they had finished something and they had started something,” the poet bridges the gap between the individual and the collective, signifying the concept of a common duty. The poem ends with optimism, transcending the “shadow of war” and narrow national boundaries through the humanism of “lighting with repeated luminous/ circles the sleep of the big, trustworthy city and the whole world.”
Ritsos’s Philoctetes transforms the story of its central figure’s isolation on the island of Lemnos into a subtle narrative that replaces the unstoppable speech that we find in Sophocles’s tragedy with a meditative silence. The purpose is to rescue human autonomy; the archer turns into a solitary ascetic. The poem, narrated by Neoptolemus, highlights the benefits of liberation from attachment to others, self-concentration, and self-examination, while lamenting the futility of war. Philoctetes, far away from those who rejected him but now want him back to help them win the Trojan War, converts the negative elements of his exile into positives. His utter isolation becomes an opportunity for reflection, the means of turning loneliness, hunger, and poverty into asceticism, physical pain into alertness and control of the senses and the mind. Recognizing this, Neoptolemus says:
For this reason, do come with us. I promise never to reveal,
to anyone, the graceful suffering of your lonely sainthood.
No one will ever comprehend the unstained glory of your freedom
or will ever be frightened by it.
The only resemblance to Sophocles’ Philoctetes is the hero’s long isolation on the island of Limnos and the need of his assistance to secure victory against the Trojans. The wound from the snakebite is absent, along with its painful consequences, since the hero is described as a handsome, mature, masculine, and spiritual figure.
In Ritsos’ss Philoctetes choice becomes a matter of personal responsibility. The hero isn’t convinced by the divine word arriving as a Deus ex Machina but by the words of Neoptolemus — representing the next generation who will wage war — and the song of the warrior-sailors. Neoptolemus convinces Philoctetes to fight even if all will be in vain. He tells him that he must follow him wearing the “ultimate mask,” which is not that of silence but of action and the free choice to participate in the upcoming new world order. A man, created in the image of God, can rise to the absolute logos when he realizes the value of his fate and, having logos at his disposal, turns it into action for the sake of humanity as a whole in its dual existence: the individual and the social.
Who really is Ritsos’s Philoctetes, and why does he return to Troy? He is yesterday’s exhausted, abnegated fighter who, at some point, has experienced the futility of his efforts to better the lives of people, both at the individual and collective level. This impasse frustrates him and has made him choose isolation and meditation. Now his desire is only to preserve his integrity and authenticity, his essence in whole. However, when he realizes that his absence and isolation are leading him and others toward death, he chooses, despite his reservations, to act again. He chooses to participate when he realizes the futility of the ten-year war:
the hypothetically categorical justice of unavoidable errors
the necessary loss, the unavoidable ten years.
After Philoctetes discovers his inner peace and tranquility, he decides to return to society to advance the collective good. He hides incomparable spiritual secrets in his silence. Christ himself emphasizes the simplicity of a person’s initial release and the subsequent path that leads to larger and more complex horizons where the fundamental simplicity reappears in this complexity.
Philoctetes’s asceticism, his holiness, as Ritsos says, helps him rediscover himself and then, renewed, help his fellow human beings rejuvenate themselves. “How can we solve our problems if we can’t master ourselves?” Asceticism means self-transcendence, self-denial, self-rule, self-sacrifice, altruism. Philoctetes has to lose his ego to discover himself. This is the key point of asceticism. Thus, in his isolation, the poet perceives the grandeur and the endlessness of the world”
Thank you, God, that we remained alone
and sad, serene and immense
Here ends this wonderful poem in which a time of silence becomes the time of transcendence and freedom. Ritsos expresses through this poem his views on a multitude of human and eternal issues with a fundamental optimism despite the omnipotence of death.
Seeing through the eyes of Ismene in the dramatic monologue of that title, Ritsos recreates not just the character but the deeper essence of her sister Antigone, revealing new dimensions of her idealism. Ismene shatters Antigone’s image and, with it, her sacrifice, which she sees as a mere longing to escape, a denial of life. She shatters not only her sister’s symbolism but also an entire ideology, essentially the Judaeo-Christian ideology based around asceticism and sacrifice. Nevertheless, Ismene eventually follows Antigone’s pattern, deciding to commit suicide. She refuses to accept the young officer to whom she had confessed and, instead, makes up her face and “her big, black eyes” and, wearing her sister’s dress, takes a pill to die. So who is Ismene? Is she the person she described herself as to the young officer, or is she defined forever by her final act?
What is clear is that, by wearing Antigone’s dress, Ismene identifies with her sister in her desire for death and recognizes her lack of courage. Ritsos appears to have created his Ismene as a portrayal of a balanced person who possesses Antigone’s courage and common sense with the addition of humor. For the poet, Ismene takes a leading role and acquires another true self: the inexistence that resides “in the depths of the depths”
I never told her. She never found out. I felt sorry for her.
She was hungry too, and she knew it; perhaps she was in love too.
She couldn’t allow herself to bow to her own desire, that, of course,
was her choice, her decision. No, only her death, only at the time
of her death she could choose. And she did. And her words,
unlamented, unsung, unfriended were her only acknowledgment,
her first true prostration, her only womanly bravery,
her last and only truth, with which she somehow justified
her sad arrogance. For this reason I forgave her …
Between 1974 and 1975, Ritsos, inspired by Euripides’s tragedy Hippolytus, writes Phaedra. The focal point of this amazing love poem is the famous legend of the daughter of king Minos and Pasiphae who falls in love with Hippolytus, the son the goddess of chastity and hunting of Theseus and Antiope. The handsome Hippolytus, dedicated to Artemis, prefers his hunts to the love suggested by his stepmother, Phaedra, who, prompted by the goddess Aphrodite, falls in love with him herself. After being rejected by Hippolytus Phaedra tells Theseus that his son tried to rape her and Theseus ostracizes the young man. According to another tradition, Theseus asks Poseidon to avenge him and the god of the sea enlists a sea-monster (or in other versions a wild bull) to stampede Hippolytus’s horses and drag him to his death. Phaedra, consumed by remorse, commits suicide.
In Ritsos’s Phaedra, the heroine is a plaything in the hands of Fate. The poet states this in the poem’s epigraph from Sophocles’s Hippolytus: “It’s natural for humans to err when the gods wish it.” Phaedra succumbs to an erotic fury that Aphrodite instils in her. Her passion has no psychological causes, unlike Medea, for example, who is overwhelmed by jealousy when betrayed by Jason. Pheadra’s love is divinely inspired.
As for Hippolytus who regards all love with disdain, he too becomes a victim of Aphrodite.
In Ritsos’s poem Phaedra’s logos is strikingly lustful, erotic, untamed. She is totally consumed by her desire and surrenders to it completely, but she has to hide her passion behind a mask, trying in vain to hide her true face:
It’s getting dark. I can’t see your face. Better.
I don’t see
your mask (you too wear a mask; call it sainthood, call it
purity, call it mask;) better this way. I guess your horror
in the darkness. Oh, foolish mortal — remember this: those
who suffer a lot know how to take revenge, even if they know
their irresponsibility and that of the others.
Phaedra embarks on a long monologue while the young man remains silent, a feature of the poem that leads us to Moonlight Sonata, Ritsos’s best-known dramatic monologue, in which an older woman also asks a young man to leave her.
The same motif is repeated in Phaedra:
I called you here. I don’t know how to start. I wait for the evening
to come, the shadows to grow long in the garden, the shadows
of the statues and trees to enter the house, to hide my face, hands,
to hide my words, unspoken, hesitant yet — the words I don’t
know and I’m afraid of.
Here the shadows are past ghosts, a deadly element Ritsos experienced himself and often describes in his poems, but in this case, Eros, this great god of life and youth, annuls all deadly elements, even death itself. In Phaedra Ritsos writes:
Is the childbirth really
the goal of a woman? Or perhaps her unintentional love? The
suffering and glory of man.
At the end Phaedra angrily tells Hippolytus:
Go then. Why do you stand there petrified? Go to your bath,
go to cleanse yourself of my pointless words, my unholy
eyes, my red, muddied eyes.
Perhaps in there,
you too can remove your mask for a while, your glass
armory, your frozen holiness, your murderous cowardice.
Ritsοs brings out the roles of Ismene, Philoctetes, and Phaedra, who, as we have seen, reveal through their spiritual conquests the unconquered element in the human and natural worlds. These mythical characters oppose the Fate that dwells in the ancient Greek cosmos, hoping thereby to find their true selves and pursue their self-knowledge, their inner power.
Ritsos’s poetry is purely humane and existential, but also deeply lyrical. It speaks boldly about the revolution, about the adventures of the social vision, about love and the beauty of life — about everything human — in an unparalleled, universal tongue. For this reason his poetry will survive forever, working miracles in people’s minds and souls. Ritsos was called a “poet of Romiosini” for expressing more lyrically than anybody else the longings and suffering of all Hellenes. The Australian Archbishop Stylianos called him “a giant of art, patience, and love” because, despite the exuberance of his work, he remains indomitable and unchallenged.
It is said that the more spiritual a person is, the more difficult it is to decipher his deepest mystery. Perhaps this is why Ritsos’s struggle was to say as much as he could. He confesses, in his way, his assurance of how “the miracle of life remains intact and unblemished. Ritsos’s poetry is the poetry of the marginalized, yet he never hated the affluent or complained about his own deprivation despite his experience of exile and incarceration. A fundamental feature of Ritsos’s poetry is its commitment to the service of humanity and its love for Hellenism. This compassion, love, and simple kindness are the essence of Ritsos’s poetry. As long as oppression and deprivation are widespread in the world, his poetry will remain, timeless and alive. Despite the suffering he faced defending the humanitarian ideals of freedom, justice, and peace that he expressed so eloquently in his work, he inspires not only the youth of Greece but also the youth of the whole world. Ritsos’s work will be a constant tribute to human dignity.
Theologean, poet, writer, literary critic
Read Ritsos in English
‘YANNIS RITSOS: POEMS’ Selected Books Vol II
-Translated by Manolis Aligizakis