Exhibition photo, Yannis Ritsos
Photo of the exhibition “Homage to Romiosini’s poet, Yannis Ritsos”. Credit: Cycladic art museum

When Yannis Ritsos died on November 11, 1990, the world lost one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

Prominent and prolific Greek poet with international influence, Ritsos belonged to the so-called 1930s generation. Epitaphios, Romiosini and Moonlight Sonata are three of his best-known works. In 1975 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The French poet Louis Aragon once said that Ritsos was “the greatest poet of our time”. When Ritsos won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975, he said that “this prize is more important to me than the Nobel”.

During his lifetime, he wrote over 100 collections of poetry, nine novels and four plays. He has also written countless articles and made numerous translations of other works.

Beginning of the life of the poet, Yannis Ritsos

Ritsos was born in Monemvasia on May 1, 1909. He was the youngest of four children of wealthy landowning parents Eleftherios Ritsos and Eleftheria Vouzounara. The same year he entered high school in Gythéion in 1921, he lost his mother and brother to tuberculosis. In 1924, he published his first poems in the journal “Edification of Children” under the pseudonym “Ideal Vision”.

In 1925, he finished his secondary studies and left for Athens with his sister Loula. During this time his father had become impoverished and the poet was forced to work for a living, first as a typist, then as a copywriter at the National Bank of Greece.

In 1926 he was also infected with tuberculosis and returned to Monemvasia until the fall of the same year, when he was enrolled in the law school of Athens, without being able to attend. He continued to work as a librarian and editorial assistant at the Athens Bar Association.

In January 1927, he was hospitalized and spent three years in the Sotiria sanatorium. There he met several Marxists and intellectuals of his time and wrote several poems which were published in the literary appendix of the Pyrsos Encyclopedia.

In October 1931, Ritsos returned to Athens and took charge of the artistic division of the Labor Club, where he directed and performed plays. His health gradually improved, as did his finances. The following year, his father was admitted to Dafni Psychiatric Hospital, where he died in 1938.

In 1933, Ritsos collaborated with the leftist newspaper “Pioneers” and worked as an actor in a theater company. In 1934 he began to write articles for Rizospastis, the newspaper of the Greek Communist Party, and he also became a member of the party, to which he remained loyal until his death. He published his first collection of poems entitled Tractor under the nickname Sostir (anagram of his family name, meaning savior).

In 1935, he published his second collection of poems, entitled “Pyramides”, and was recruited as editor-in-chief of Govostis publications.

The greatest poet of his time

On May 9, 1936, a workers’ strike in Thessaloniki led to bloody riots. The next day, Ritsos saw a photo in Rizospastis showing a mother weeping over her dead son, who had been killed by police during the riots.

This episode was the inspiration for one of his most popular poems, Epitaphios, which has published 10,000 copies. During the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas (1936-1940), the last 250 copies were burned by the regime in the columns of Olympian Zeus in central Athens.

Yannis Ritsos
Photo exhibition, Homage to Romiosini’s poet, Yannis Ritsos. Credit: Cycladic art museum

In 1937, he was again hospitalized at the Parnitha Sanatorium. At the same time, overwhelmed by the illness of his beloved sister Loula, he wrote “My Sister’s Song”, some of the finest lyrics in modern Greek writing.

In 1938, “Spring Symphony” was published and Ritsos was hired at the National Theater. Two years later, he was hired as a dancer at the National Opera.

During the German occupation, Ritsos was bedridden most of the time, but he participated in the educational activities of the National Liberation Front (EAM). After the defeat of the left-wing People’s Liberation Army of Greece (ELAS) in December 1944, he followed the guerrillas to Lamia, where he met their leader, Aris Velouchiotis.

He then went to Kozani where he directed his play “Athens in arms”. In 1945 he wrote “Romiosini” (“Greek”), considered another of his masterpieces, for which Mikis Theodorakis composed the music for an opera in 1966.

During the Civil War (1946-1949) he was exiled due to his leftist activities, first in Limnos (1948), then in Makronisos (1949) and Agios Efstratios (1950-1951). In 1952, he returned to Athens and became a member of the United Democratic Left (EDA). In 1954 he married pediatrician Fillitsa Georgiadou from Samos and they had a daughter, Eri, in 1955.

In 1956 he went to the Soviet Union as a member of a delegation of intellectuals and journalists, and in the same year he received the State Prize for “Moonlight Sonata”. When the French poet and writer Louis Aragon (1897-1982) read it, he said he felt “the violent jolt of a genius” and determined that the creator was “the greatest poet of our time”.

In 1960 Mikis Theodorakis wrote the music for “Epitaphios”, marking the beginning of the era when Ritsos’ works became known to the general public. In 1962, Ritsos visited Romania and met Nazim Hikmet, whose poetry he translated into Greek.

He then went to Czechoslovakia where he finished the “Anthology of the poets of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic”. In 1964 he stood for election as an EDA member in national elections.

The last years of the poetic genius of Yannis Ritsos

During the coup d’état of April 21, 1967, his friends advised the poet to go into hiding, but he did not leave his home. He was arrested and detained at Faliro Racecourse and was then taken to Gyaros political prison camp, before being transferred to Leros.

In 1968 he was hospitalized in Agios Savvas in Athens, then sentenced to house arrest at his wife’s home in Samos. In 1970, he returned to Athens, but after his refusal to compromise with the regime, he was again exiled to Samos until the end of the year. In 1973, he took part in the Polytechnio uprising.

After the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, he spent most of his time in Athens, where he continued to write at a steady pace. In 1975 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Thessaloniki and received the Alfred de Vigny Prize for French Poetry. The following year he received the Lenin Prize in Moscow.

In the years that followed, he lectured at various universities, including Birmingham (1978), Karl Marx of Leipzig (1984) and the University of Athens (1987). In 1986 he received the United Nations Peace Prize for Poetry.

Yannis Ritsos died on November 11, 1990, leaving behind 50 unpublished collections of poetry. He was buried three days later in his hometown of Monemvasia.