An anthem confined to home


YANNIS RITSOS, the great poet of the Greek left, was born on May Day 1909. And Epitaphios, the epic that became the stirring anthem of the Greek left, was written 60 years ago, in May 1936.

Some 60 years later, despite being set to music by Greece's two leading composers, Hadzidakis and Theodorakis, and performed "throughout Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, Epitaphios still waits to be translated into English and is largely unknown outside the Hellenic world. Yet it has its own mystique and stirs the hearts of every Greek who hears it read or sung.

In May 1936, the northern town, of Thessaloniki was paralysed by a widespread strike against wage controls. When workers in a tobacco factory took to the streets, the police were called in and opened fire on the unarmed strikers. Within minutes, 30 people were dead and 300 were wounded.

The next day, the Communist daily, Ritzospastis, published a front page photograph of a mother dressed in black and weeping as she knelt over the body of her slain son in the street.

Moved by the photograph, Ritsos locked himself up in his attic and set to work immediately. In two days and two nights of intense creativity, his greatest poem, Epitaphios, was produced.

The Epitaphios Thrinos is the lament chanted in Greek Orthodox churches on the evening of Good Friday. But Ritsos's poem moves at the end from crucifixion to Resurrection, and an abiding hope that grave injustices can be conquered.

At first the bereft mother, like Mary with her crucified son, grieves inconsolably. She extols her son's virtues and recalls hi gifts. She cannot understand why he died, nor can she understand his political convictions. But she gradually changes and begins to apply his local struggle to the universal struggle for social justice. Her grief is sustained as she how her son pointed her to the beauties of nature and of all creation, she challenges the values of a society that can claim to be Christian, while killing those struggling for justice.

But darkness turns to light as the realisation unfolds that her son lives on in the lives of his comrades as they continue his struggles. At the end, her vision is of a future in which all shall be united in love, and in a stirring finale she vows to take up her, son's struggle and to join his company.

The poem first appeared as a work of 44 verses in Ritzosoastis: on May 12th, 1936, with a dedication to the workers of Thessaloniki. Soon after, a fuller version of 224 verses appeared in an edition: of 10,000 copies. Ritsos later told the newspaper To Vima that by the time he had sold 9,750 copies of Epitaphios, Kostis Palamas, the patriarch of Greek poetry, was selling only 300 copies of his works.

The strike in Thessaloniki was part of the unrest that led to the Metaxas dictatorship seizing power in the weeks that followed the publication of Epitaphios. The regime banned the poem and publicly burned the last 250 copies in front of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus in Athens.

Epitaphios was not seen again in print until the 1950s. In the intervening years, Greece suffered under German occupation and went through two civil wars, and Ritsos was held for four years in concentration camps and forced into internal exile.

The final, text was published in a second edition in 1956 and runs to 324 verses divided into 20 parts or cantos, each with 16 verses in eight couplets, except for the last two, which run to 15 verses in nine couplets.

Robert Frost has said a true poem memorises itself, and so it could be said a true lyric sings itself and harks after a melody. Epitaphios is lyrical and Ritsos achieved its lyricism by grafting his earlier elegiac mode and his political fervour on to the root stock of Greek folk son the demotikti traghotidi. He 15 syllable lines and, rhymed couplets, reaching back into the racial; and mythical past of a people continually invaded, cheated and raped.

In 1958, Ritsos sent Epitaphios to the composer Theodorakis in Paris. Theodorakis set the epic to music, employing the quintessential instrument of the people, the bouzouki, and using rhythms drawn from the klephtic ballads, the songs of Epiros, the dirges of Mani, the songs and dances of the islands, and the rizitikas of Crete. At the time, the bouzouki was out of fashion among middle class - Greeks, who associated it with brothels and hashish dens.

Ritsos was apprehensive when he heard that Epitaphios, with its sacred allegories expressing ta Aghia ton Aghion ("The Holy of Holies"), was going to enter the music halls and night clubs of Greece. "I thought it would be a sacrilege ... I was wrong.

But the seeing by Theodorakis also, stirred intense debate in all sections of Greek society. Set to music, and recorded by artists such as Grigoris Bithikotsis and Yiannis Thomopoulos, the poem quickly acquired apolitical career of its own, becoming the anthem of the Greek left.

IN 1963, once again in May, and once again in Thessaloniki, the young left wing deputy Grigorios Lambrakis lay dying in hospital after a murderous assault that provided Costa-Gavras with the drama for his movie Z. Hundreds of people kept vigil on the streets, and they were joined by Ritsos and Theodorakis as they sang Epitaphios in their martyr's honour, vowing to ensure his struggle would live on. After the funeral in Athens, the dirge was sung once again by the crowds in the streets, and graffiti began appearing on the walls "Lambrakis Lives".

When the colonels seized power in 1967, Ritsos was quickly arrested and sent into exile on Samos. The poetry of Ritsos and the music of Theodorakis were banned once again, but Epitaphios was soon being presented at readings and concerts throughout Europe as a rallying poem and anthem of opposition to the junta. The political force of Epitaphios had acquired a new dimension directly from its lyricism.

Surprisingly, Epitaphios has, never been translated into English, although shorter poems by Ritsos have been translated by Nikos Stangos, Nikos Germanacos, Peter Bien, Kimon Friar, Kostas Myrsiades and Edmund Keeley. Last year, a bilingual (Greek English) commentary on the poem was published privately in Cambridge by Dr Nicholas Voliotis. But the fact that Epitaphios has still not been translated into English almost six years after the death of Ritsos leaves a major gap in the vast oeuvre of a major figure of the 20th century, Greek literary renaissance.