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Ritsos, Yiannis

Category: Poet

Yiannis Ritsos (Greek: Γιάννης Ρίτσος; 1 May 1909 – 11 November 1990) was a Greek poet.  Today, Ritsos is considered one of the great Greek poets of the twentieth century. 

Ritsos was a Communist and his poetry was banned at times in Greece due to his left wing views. But what makes him interesting is that he was not an atheist, his poems resound with belief, belief not in a father figure God who will make everything alright, but belief in a power which perhaps was beyond our comprehension, for which reverence was due.

And he had every reason not to believe in this benign Father figure, because he suffered adversity of a most horrendous kind.  Not only was he a child when a series of tragic blows struck his family, including the death of his mother and eldest brother from TB, but he himself suffered his entire life from tuberculosis as well.    Yet another example of a poet who saw that sometimes we have to have been in hell to create heaven.

From the Introduction to Selected Poems - Peter Bien

Ritsos's value lies not so much in those particularly successful poems, large or small, which will become or have already become anthology pieces, as in the totality of his work including the slighter poems, for this totality is what demonstrates most unmistakably his extraordinary aesthetic drive: the artist's urge to observe life, record it, and transform everything into beauty.

Awards and recognition


From Yiannis Ritsos – Selected Poems

Ritsos received a great number of international distinctions, the main one being the Lenin Prize for Peace which was awarded to him in 1977. Others include:

  • Le Grand Prix International de la Biennale de Poesie du Knokke-Le Zout (Belgium, 1972),
  •  Honorary Doctorate from the School of Philosophy, University of Salonica ( 1975),
  • Le Grand Prix Francais de la Poesie 'Alfred de Vigny' (Paris, 1975),
  • the International Prize for Poetry 'Etna-Taormina'( 1976),
  •  the International Prize for Poetry 'Seregno-Brianza' ( 1976),
  •  Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Birmingham ( 1978),
  •  Premio Letter- ario Internrzionale'Mondello'( 1978),
  • Silver Medal of the Ministry of Culture (Cypius, l979),
  • The International Peace Prize for Culture (The World Peace Council, 1979), etc.

Ritsos is a Golden Wreath Laureate of the Struga Poetry Evenings for 1985.

The International Lenin Peace Prize was a Soviet Union award named in honour of Vladimir Lenin and awarded by a panel appointed by the Soviet government, to notable individuals whom the panel indicated had "strengthened peace among comrades".

From the Introduction to Selected Poems - Peter Bien

…….. Ritsos’s simplicity is deceptive, and perhaps his most characteristic poems are precisely those in which apparent lucidity coexists with mystification. If he is a realist he is equally a  surrealist; indeed, one of his favourite practices is to give us a perfectly observed scene which suddenly, at the end, turns insane: for example a seaside 'barbershop' where fishermen walk  in one door to be shaved, and then walk out the other with 'long reverent beards'. Or we have the deliberate confusion of historical eras, or poems in which the realistic element is more or less effaced in favour of dream-vision or nightmare.


Yannis Ritsos was born in Monemvasia, Greece in 1909.

From the Introduction to Selected Poems - Peter Bien

The great calamity of Greek life, the defeat in Asia Minor, occurred in 1922, when Ritsos was thirteen years old. His father, a well-to- do landowner in Monemvasia, was ruined by this event, and Ritsos spent his adolescence in the decaying family mansion (cf The Dead House) in an atmosphere of sickness and death. His mother and brother both died of tuberculosis a year before the Asia Minor catastrophe; after it, his father went insane, as did one of his sisters, somewhat later.

He spent his adolescence with relatives until he went to Athens in search of a job.

From the Introduction to Selected Poems - Peter Bien

Ritsos, having finished his secondary schooling, moved in 1925 to an Athens swollen with destitute refugees from Anatolia, all looking for work. After short spells as a typist in a law firm, a clerk for a notary public, and a calligrapher producing law diplomas, he too contracted tuberculosis and was forced to spend three years in the Sotiria Sanatorium in Athens [1927–1931], followed by an additional cure in Crete. Returning to the capital and unable to secure any other employment, he finally placed himself - ashamedly –as a dancer in a theatrical troop. But these setbacks did not debilitate Ritsos's spirit. At a time (1928) when another Greek poet, Karyotakis committed suicide out of despair with himself and the world, Ritsos was finding ways to sustain himself.

Throughout his life Ritsos was repeatedly persecuted because of his political left-wing sympathies. Epitaphios ( 1936), a lament inspired by the assassination of a worker in a general strike in Salonika, was burned, along with other books, during the Metaxas dictatorship, in a 'ceremony' enacted in front of the Temple of Zeus in Athens, in 1936.

After the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the National Resistance Movement, Ritsos, along with thousands of others, was sent into internal political exile for four years (1948-52) to the islands of Lemnos, Makronissos and Ayios Efstratios; his books were banned and he was not allowed to publish again until 1954.

When Ritsos was released in 1952 he returned to Athens to begin a crucial period of happiness in his personal life and development in his artistry. In 1954 he married and in 1955 welcomed an infant daughter into his household and sang her arrival in a 'small  encyclopaedia of diminutives' called Morning Star, the first poem addressed to a member of his immediate family that was not a  dirge.

The period from 1953 to Ritsos's re-arrest in 1967 was an  extremely productive one in which he published no less than  twenty-eight separate collections of new work, not to mention  three large volumes of his Poems 1930-1960 and nine volumes of  translations. In 1956 he received official recognition - a tardy complement to the unofficial recognition awarded him earlier by the public and by critics such as Palamas and Kleon Paraschos - when his Moonlight Sonata won the National Prize for poetry.  The Prize also gained him recognition outside Greece.

As a result, Ritsos suddenly found himself an international celebrity at least in the socialist world. In 1956 he journeyed to the Soviet Union, after that to Hungary Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Germany; in 1966 to Cuba.  It is hardly surprising that the poet was among those arrested on the very first night of the Colonels' Coup d'Etat,in 1967  or that his writings were promptly banned.

Once more he found himself in various detention camps, this time for a period of a year and a half, deported to the island of Yaros, then Leros, and subsequently kept under house arrest in Samos until 1970, where contact with the outside  world was denied him and he was prevented from accepting  invitations extended by the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto,  for example, or the Arts Council of Great Britain.  His works were banned until 1972.

Yannis Ritsos, a heavy smoker, eventually died at his home in Athens late Sunday, on 11 November 1990, with his family near. He was 81.  He was banished to the island of Samos off the Turkish coast in 1968, allegedly as a security risk. He lived there until he was permitted to return to Athens in 1971. 


Ritsos was an absolutely prolific poet.  He published over eighty-five collections, mostly of verse. Selections of his poetry have appeared in translation in forty-five languages and he is the most widely read poet in Greece.

The works that have been translated [see below] only brush the surface.  When we realize the extent of Ritsos's writing (the three- volume Poiinata 1930-1960 runs to 1500 pages and is itself only a selection) we can appreciate the various translators’ difficulties in choosing what to include.

Ritsos’ first book of poems , Tractors, was published in 1934, and it brought him to the forefront of the new poetic movement in Greece. Other notable works by Ritsos include Pyramids (1935), Epitaphios (1936), Vigil (1941–1953), Romiosini (1954) and 18 short songs of the bitter Motherland  (1973). Several composers have set poems by Ritsos to music, most notably Mikis Theodorakis who has composed songs from Epitaphios, Romiosyni and Eighteen Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland:

His landmark poem Epitaphios was inspired by a photo of a dead protester during a massive tobacco-workers demonstration in Thessaloniki in May 1936. Published the same year, it broke with Greek traditional popular poetry and expressed in clear and simple language a message of the unity of all people.


In the late 1930s Ritsos became interested in surrealism and ways of incorporating what was an essentially visual, symbolic and dream like artists’ movement into poetry.  During this period he published The Song of my Sister (1937) and Symphony of the Spring (1938).

From the Introduction to Selected Poems - Peter Bien

It may be most helpful to think of Ritsos as a painter rather than a writer. If nothing else, the printed  words on a page speak much more to our eyes than to our ears……. Even when sounds are evoked, the similes employed tend to be visual…….  Normally the tiredness of language and of our own powers of observation prevents us from hearing, seeing, or touching as well as we might. But when a metaphor or simile convincingly relates ‘before unapprehended’ elements of seemingly incongruity when for example, a shriek remains

               ..nailed in the dark corridor like a big fishbone in the throat of an unknown guest  

We hear that shriek see that corridor and feel the sound’s entrapment as never before.     …. many of his poems are graphic scenes from hellenic life -  I called them ‘snapshots’ earlier , but they are much more like paintings  than photographs, because Ritsos's language adds texture and because he is able to arrange line and colour to suit his own aesthetic needs, his aim never being simply to reproduce external reality as such. Even when these scenes are complex and have a narrative plot, so that one might wish to speak of Ritsos as a story teller or dramatist rather than a painter, the poems are still essentially graphic and relate more to the pictorial than the theatrical arts 

The Fourth Dimension

One of the most extraordinary of his books contains a series of dramatic monologues that he called The Fourth Dimension.  The book is intended, and I quote, “to present a timeless poetic paradigm of the condition of Greece, past and present.”  For example, it includes “the grim history of Mycenae and its royal protagonists”. It is from this book that the famous, and much-anthologized, "Moonlight Sonata" comes. 

Moonlight Sonata: [Translation by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley]

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.

Ritsos, rightly, regarded The Fourth Dimension as his finest achievement and in 1993, a translation was made by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley , meaning it was available  to English- speaking readers for the first time in its entirety.  It is highly recommended

From "Philoctetes"

All the speeches of great men, about the dead and about heroes. Astonishing, awesome words, pursued us even in our sleep, slipping beneath closed doors, from the banqueting hall where glasses and voices sparkled, and the veil of an unseen dancer rippled silently like a diaphanous, whirling wall between life and death. This throbbing our childhood nights, lightening the shadows of shields etched on white walls by slow moonlight.

No, no atheist he.

from 'The Meaning of Simplicity' 1946,

  I am behind simple things, hiding, so that you may find me; if you do not find me, you will find the things, will touch what I touched with my hand; the tracks of our hands will converge.



  • Subterranean Horses, tr. Minas Savvas, illustrations by the author (1980)
  • Chronicle of Exile, tr. M. Savvas (1977) [select poems]
  • Eighteen Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland, tr. A. Mims, illus. Y. Ritsos (1974) [Greek and English]
  • Exile and Return, tr. E. Keeley (1985; repr. 1987, 1989) [select poems]
  • Gestures and other poems, 1968-1970, tr. N. Stangos, illus. by the poet (1971)
  • Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses, tr. E. Keeley (1990)
  • Selected Poems 1938-1988, tr. K. Friar, K. Myrsiades & others (1989)
  • Selected Poems, tr. N. Stangos (1974)
  • The Fourth Dimension, tr. P. Green, B. Bardsley (1993)
  • Late Into the Night: The Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos, trans. Martin McKinsey
  • Diaries of Exile, Archipelago Books
  • Petrified Time: Poems from Makrónissos, trans. Martin McKinsey and Scott King
  • Twelve Poems About Cavafy, tr. Paul Merchant (2010)
  • Monochords, tr. Paul Merchant ( 2017)

The translation we have used for observations is Selected Poems, tr. N. Stangos (1974).  Of all the collections this one is one of the few to provide a general and representative selection of Ritsos's work which aspires to give a sense of this poet in his totality. As such although we have provided only a small sample of observations, the book is recommended as a whole.
 “Mr Stangos has attempted to span the poet's entire career in a more subtle way: aesthetically and thematically instead of chronologically. The poems offered here as representative have been chosen to show the diversity of Ritsos’s forms - in particular, the interesting combination of short poems and extremely long ones; the variety and range of his modes- elegiac, lyric and narrative; the fluctuation, yet deeper constancy, of his attitudes

The paintings illustrating this page are by Konstantinos Maleas (Κωνσταντίνος Μαλέας) (Constantinople, 1879 - Athens, 1928) considered by many to be one of the most important Post-impressionist Greek painters of the 20th century. 


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