Monday, 21 August 2017
The area of Monastiraki is busy spot in the heart of Athens. Here is flea market, a busy square and metro station, and shopping streets and restaurants that are a continuation of the Plaka and that offer spectacular views of the Acropolis, especially at night, and many of the other classical sights of Athens, including the Agora, Hadrian’s Library, the Tower of the Winds and the Temple of Hephaestus. The area takes its name from the church and monastery that stood in this neighbourhood from the 10th century. Most of the monastic lands were lost as a consequence of the major archaeological excavations that began in the 19th century, and with the monastery’s land-holdings and property rapidly the area being depletd, the area itself became known as Monastiraki, or ‘Little Monastery.’ However, the Church of Pantánassa or the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, which was built in 1678, still dominates Plateia Monastiraki or Monastiraki Square, towering above the street artists, the stall holders and the commuters. But just a few steps away, the small Church of Kapnikarea is a more unusual and charming church, and is stranded in the middle of Ermou Street.
The Church is known in Greek as Εκκλησία της Παναγίας Καπνικαρέας, or simply as Καπνικαρέα, Kapnikaréa, is one of the oldest churches in Athens. The unusual name may be derived from the kapnikon, a tax imposed in the Byzantine era, or from the name of the Kapnikares family. Other names given to the church in the past include Kamoucharea, from the luxurious Byzantine textile kamoucha, which was made in the nearby workshops, Chrysocamouchariotissa, and Panaghia tis Vasilopoulas (The Virgin Mary of the King’s daughter). This tiny, 11th century church was built around 1050. It stands right in the middle of Ermou Street which links Kerameikos and Monastiraki at its western end with Syntagma Square at its eastern end. The church was built over the ruins of the Greek temple of a goddess, either Athena or Demeter. Its dome is supported by four Roman columns, and inside it is beautifully decorated with mosaics and Byzantine frescoes. Kapnikarea may have been the katholikon of a monastery originally. The building is now made up of by a complex of three different units attached together. These units were built in succession: the largest south church dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple; the chapel of Saint Barbara on the northern side; and the exonarthex with the propylon to the west.
The larger of the two churches, the south one, is a domed complex and is cross-in-square shape. It has been dated to just after the middle of the 11th century. Ermou is a busy and bustling shopping street, and the church was once threatened with demolition, standing in the way of the planners’ dreams of a straight street that would run all the way from the Parliament in Syntagma Square to the port at Piraeus.
In the 19th century, the church had fallen into a bad state of repair after the Greek War of Independence. It was in such an ugly state, that even today Athenians may say that an ugly old woman looks like Kapnikarea.
King Otto I had brought the Bavarian architect Leo von Klenze to Greece to draw up plans for a new city plan in Athens. The church was stood in the way of one of those streets and was designated for demolition in the 19th century. However, the king’s father, King Ludwig I of Bavaria, objected to the decision. The church was rescued and restored. Since 1934, the church belongs to the University of Athens. It remains a curiosity and the city’s most unique traffic island. In Monastiraki, I also visited the Church of Aghios Philippos or the Apostle Philip on a corner opposite the entrance to the Ancient Agora, between Monastiraki and Thesseion. The church is built like a three-aisle vaulted basilica with a simple gallery and a steeple. It is built on the site of an earlier Christian basilica that was destroyed by the Turkish army under Kutahi Pasha (1826-1827) during the siege of Athens. In 1912 the church was renamed to Aghios Philippos Vlassarous as it merged with the nearby church of Panaghia Vlassarous, which was demolished during the excavations at the ancient Agora in 1932-1937. The present church of Aghios Philippos was built in 1961.
The iconostasis or icon screen was made in 1849 and came from an older church. The relics in the church are said to relics of the Apostle Philip, and the church also has icons from the demolished church of Panaghia Vlassarous.
Sunday, 20 August 2017
As I climbed the Acropolis in the summer sun on Saturday afternoon [19 August 2017], I stopped a number of times to admire the other sites that illustrate how this place was essential to the life and culture of ancient Athens.
They include, for example, the Theatre of Dionysus and the Herodium or Theatre of Herodes Atticus.
While I was in Crete in June and July, I blogged regularly about Greek words that we have adapted and integrated into the English language. But climbing up the Acropolis on Saturday, I was reminded too that words such as theatre, drama and tragedy are derived from Greek and the cultural life of classical Athens.
The word theatre comes from the Ancient Greek θέατρον (théatron), ‘a place for viewing’, itself from θεάομαι (theáomai), to see, to watch, or to observe.
Modern Western theatre comes owes its ideas, concepts and inspiration to ancient Greek drama, and borrows technical terminology, classification into genres, and many of its themes, stock characters, and plot elements.
Our concept of theatre originated in the city-state of Athens, where theatre was part of a broader culture of theatricality that included festivals, religious rituals, politics, law, athletics, the gymnasium, music, poetry, weddings, funerals, and symposia.
Taking part in the City Dionysia was mandatory for citizens of Athens,, either as member sof the audience or as participants, and was an important part of citizenship. Civic participation also involved the evaluation of the rhetoric of orators in the law courts and political assembly, both of which were analogous to the theatre and came to absorb its dramatic vocabulary.
The Theatre of Dionysus was the site of the great drama competitions, where tragedies and comedies by the great playwrights were performed before audiences of 15,000 people, with the engraved marble seats in the front rows reserved for the priests of Dionysus.
The Greeks also developed the concepts of dramatic criticism and theatre architecture. Actors were either amateur or semi-professional.
The theatre of ancient Greece consisted of three types of drama: tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play.
Aristotle was the first theoretician of theatre, and his Poetics (ca 335 BC) is the earliest work of dramatic theory. Aristotle considered drama as a genre of poetry in general, and he contrasted the dramatic mode with the epic and the lyrical modes.
He traced the origins of the theatre in ancient Greece to the festivals that honoured Dionysus. The performances took place in semi-circular auditoria cut into hillsides and seating 10,000 to 20,000 people in the audience. The stage consisted of a dancing floor (orchestra), dressing room and the scene-building area (skene).
Since the words were the most important part of the play, good acoustics and clear delivery mattered. The actors, who were always men, wore masks appropriate to the characters they represented, and each actor might play several parts.
Athenian tragedy – the oldest surviving form of tragedy – is a type of dance-drama that formed an important part of the theatrical culture of Athens. It emerged in the 6th century BC, flowered in the 5th century BC, and continued to be popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period.
The word τραγῳδία (tragoidia), which gives us the word ‘tragedy,’ is a compound of two Greek words: τράγος (tragos) or ‘goat’ and ᾠδή (ode) meaning ‘song,’ from ἀείδειν (aeidein), ‘to sing.’ This etymology indicates a link with the practices of the ancient Dionysian cults.
We have no surviving tragedies from the 6th century BC, and only 32 of more than 1,000 that were performed in the 5th century BC have survived, with complete texts for plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
The origins of tragedy remain obscure, though by the 5th century BC it was institutionalised in competitions (agon) held as part of the festivities celebrating Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility.
The Dionysian competition was the most prestigious of the festivals to stage drama. Playwrights were required to present plays that usually consisted of three tragedies and one satyr play. The performance of tragedies at the City Dionysia may have begun as early as 534 BC, when Pisistratus, the ruler of Athens, formalised the Dionysian festivals into full drama competitions that took place each year.
The first competition was won by Thespis, who is remembered for his innovation of the solo narrative. He gives his name to the word thespian, and the role he created is now known as the protagonist.
Most Athenian tragedies dramatise events from Greek mythology, although the notable exception is The Persians, which tells of the Persian response to the news of their military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. When Aeschylus won first prize for it at the City Dionysia in 472 BC, he had been writing tragedies for more than 25 years. However, this tragic treatment of recent history is the earliest example of drama to survive. His Oriestea tells of the house of Atreus, the most dysfunctional family in ancient Greece.
Aeschylus, who is regarded as the ‘Father of Tragedy,’ introduced the second innovation with the antagonist. Sophocles, who defeated Aeschylus in 468 BC, introduced a third innovation – a third character. Only seven plays by Sophocles have survived, and his reputation rests on the three plays in the Theban tragedies: Oedipus Rex, which is still considered the greatest masterpiece of tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.
After the age of great tragedy, Aristophanes, the greatest comic playwright, brought a breath of fresh air to Athenian drama. His raunchy, hilarious Lysistrata is one of the great anti-war protests of all time. The play tells of how the women of warring Sparta and Athens refused to sleep with their husbands until they stopped fighting.
Athenian comedy is usually divided into three periods, ‘Old Comedy,’ ‘Middle Comedy’ and ‘New Comedy.’ Old Comedy survives today largely in the 11 surviving plays of Aristophanes, while Middle Comedy is largely lost. New Comedy is known primarily from the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander, whose statue stands in front of the Theatre of Dionysus.
Aristotle defined comedy as a representation of laughable people that involves some kind of blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster.
Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. Considered as a genre of poetry in general, the dramatic mode has been contrasted with the epic and the lyrical modes ever since Aristotle.
The word drama comes from the Greek word δρᾶμα (drama), meaning action, and which is derived from the verb δράω (drao), to do or to act. In Ancient Greece, however, the word drama encompassed all theatrical plays, tragic, comic, or anything in between.
The two masks associated with drama represent the traditional generic division between comedy and tragedy, and are symbols of the ancient Greek Muses, Thalia, and Melpomene. Thalia was the Muse of comedy (the laughing face), while Melpomene was the Muse of tragedy (the weeping face).
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a late addition to the Acropolis. It was built on the south slopes of the Acropolis in the year 161 AD by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy Roman, in memory of his wife Regilla. For almost 2,000 years, this amphitheatre was the premiere showcase for the performing arts in Athens.
The theatre was excavated in 1857-1858, and was restored between 1950 and 1961. In summer months, it is now a venue for summer festivals, concerts and plays.
Strolling through the Plaka on Saturday [19 August 2017], I wanted to see the old mansion that had been home to Sir Richard Church, the Irish-born Philhellene, while he lived in Athens.
During this search, I came across the oldest house in Athens, which dates back to the 17th century.
The Mansion of Benizelou, the oldest surviving house in Athens, is located at 96 Adrianou Street, in Plaka. This house once belonged to the aristocratic family of the Athenian leader, Angelos Benizelou, his wife Sirigi Palaiologina, and their daughter Regoula. Their names indicate they were from old Venetian and Byzantine families.
Regoula Benizelou was widowed at a very young age and decided to dedicate her life to charity by becoming a nun as Sister Philothei. She founded a monastery and her charitable work among both Christians and Muslims attracted the attention of the Ottoman powers and led to her martyrdom. She is now revered as Saint Philothei.
This is one of the few Athenian noble mansions. The house dates back to the 16th century, although most of what we see today dates from the late 17th and early 18th century. It had many characteristics of Ottoman architecture of its day, with a loggia, a patio and a well.
This house has been restored in recent years by the Ministry of Culture and the Archdiocese of Athens and opened as a museum earlier this year [February 2017].
The remains of what might have been the second oldest house in Athens also stand in the Plaka. The Mansion of Logotheti stood at what is now 14B Areos Street. All that has survived are the gate, the fountain and a small section of the yard. These once belonged to a magnificent mansion built in the 17th century.
This villa was once the home of the British consul in Athens, Spiridon Logothetis, and his family. They hosted Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, when he visited Athens.
I was on my way to join a guided visit to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum, so it was interesting to hear that it was at this house the Parthenon Sculptures spent their last nights in Athens before they were shipped to London.
Because the gardens but not the Logothetis mansion have survived, the second oldest surviving house in Athens is the Tower of Church, on the corner of School Street and Epicharmou Street in the Plaka.
This three-storey tower was fortified, and this distinguishes it from all other buildings in the Plaka. It is one of the few Ottoman buildings in Athens that to have survived to this day.
This house was built in the 18th century, and was used by the Ottomans as a fortified post, before being sold in 1835 to the Scottish historian and Philhellene George Finlay (1799-1875). Finlay gave the house to his friend and comrade, Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), the Cork-born general, and so it is known as the Tower of Church.
In the 1920s, it was also known as House Dialisma, and was feted in a painting by the Greek artist Yannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989). But, despite recent renovation work, the house is closed up today, is covered in graffiti, and there are signs or plaques to indicate the important role it played in the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century.
Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), who lived in this house, has been described as the ‘liege lord of all true Philhellenes.’ Church was born in Cork into a Quaker merchant family. In his youth, he ran away to join the army. His Quaker parents were disowned or excommunicated for buying him a commission and so they became Anglicans. He arrived in Greece in 1800 as a 16-year-old ensign serving under Sir Hudson Lowe from Galway. Lowe, who is remembered as Napoleon’s jailer, was the second-in-command in the expedition to the Ionian Islands.
Church took part in the capture of Kephalonia, Ithaki, Lefkhada, Zakynthos and Kythera. He wrote home: ‘The Greeks, who are slaves to the Turks and are Christians, are ... a brave, honest, open generous people.’
Church soon began providing military training for Greek revolutionaries, including Theodoros Kolokotronis, who became the pre-eminent general in the Greek War of Independence. Church recruited the Greeks troops who captured Paxos and the town of Parga on the mainland, and assisted in the negotiations for the surrender of Corfu. By then, he had become ‘more Greek than the Greeks.’
At the Congress of Vienna, he argued for an independent Greece. But he was ordered to disband his Greek regiments, the Ionian Islands became a British colony, and, in an act of treachery, Parga was sold to Ali Pasha (1740-1822). A disappointed Church left Greece for a military career in Austria and Italy. But when the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Kolokotronis and Edward Blaquière, a Dublin seaman of Huguenot descent, campaigned to bring Church back to lead the armed forces.
Two weeks after Church married Elizabeth Augusta Wilmot, who was sister-in-law of the Earl of Kenmare and related by marriage to Byron, the Greek government invited Church to take command of the army. After an absence of 12 years, he returned to Greece in 1827 to a hero’s welcome. He played a decisive role in uniting the Greek factions and in the election of Ioannis Kapodistrias as President, and Church was sworn into office on Easter Day, 15 April 1827.
One of his first actions was a disastrous attempt to drive off a Turkish force besieging the tiny Greek garrison in the Acropolis in Athens. But he soon rallied his forces and stirred a fresh rebellion across the northern Peloponnese. A major turning point in the War of Independence came at the Battle of Navarino, the last sea battle of the age of sail.
Thanks largely to the actions of Church and Gawin Rowan Hamilton, an Irish officer in the British navy, a large Turkish naval force was defeated in a four-hour battle in October 1827. Turkey’s naval power was broken and Church rejoiced at what he called ‘this signal interposition of divine Providence.’
Church found it increasingly difficult to work with Kapodistrias, resigned and left Greece. But he soon relented, returned to Greece permanently, and became a Greek citizen. In 1834, he and his wife moved into a house in the heart of the Plaka, beneath the Acropolis in Athens.
King Otho (r. 1832-1862) restored Church to the rank of general and appointed him Inspector-General of the army. But Otho was a despot, and in 1843 Church played a key role in a coup d’état, presenting the king with an ultimatum that demanded reforms or his abdication. Otho later took his revenge on Church, dismissing him from his post as Inspector-General. But Church remained a life senator and during the Crimean War (1853-1856) he was recalled as a general. A popular revolt in 1862 finally forced Otho to abdicate.
When Church died in his ninetieth year on 27 March 1873, he received a public funeral and was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, close to Kolokotronis and the heroes of the War of Independence. In his oration, the Greek Ambassador to London, Ioannis Gennadios, described Church as ‘the truest Hellene, the most steadfast and most affectionate of the sons of Greece.’
Church often travelled with nothing more than his Bible and his sword. He believed the Greek struggle was a holy war. This connection between his faith and action is seen in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, Athens, where two sets of windows to his memory use Old Testament imagery to represent the Greeks as the chosen people and Greece as the Promised Land. Church is represented as Caleb who helps them capture the land from the Gentiles, and as David who, despite his stature, defeats the Philistines. The inference is that the Turks were Amalekites or the Philistines who deprived the Chosen People of the Promised Land.
Church’s grave is marked by a tall slender column with his carved profile, and topped with a Greek cross and a laurel wreath. The simple inscription reads: ‘Richard Church General who having given himself and all that he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation lived for her service and died amongst her people rests here in peace and faith.’
Later in the afternoon, I walked along Tzortz Street (Οδός Τζορτζ), in a depressed corner of Athens off Kanigos Square and Akadimias Street. When he was writing in Greek, Church spelled his name Τζορτζ. It is such a pity that the English transliteration of the street name is not properly rendered as Church Street.
Saturday, 19 August 2017
The streets of the Plaka are lined with tourist shops, selling icons, souvenir reproductions, colourful trinkets and cheap T-shirts. But popular items also included colourful characters from Karagiozis or Karaghiozis (Καραγκιόζης), the shadow puppet theatre that takes its name from a popular character in Greek culture and folklore.
All these colourful puppets are two dimensional and are seen in profile, made in either wood or cardboard, with their torso, waist, feet and arms as separate pieces that are joined together with pins and that are moved with sticks attached to their backs.
Karagiozis is a well-loved figure in Greek folklore, performed at folk feasts, festivals and on television. In Greek daily speech, the name Karagiozis is also used as an insult more or less like clown. But, while Karagiozis can be violent, mischievous, a liar and an anti-hero, he is also good-natured and faithful.
Everyone in Greece loves Karagiozis, and recalls with affection the regular, weekly Karagiozis shows on Greek television in the 1980s, which showed Karagiozis living out some Greek myths or visiting the moon and other planets.
The name Karagiozis or Karaghiozis (Καραγκιόζης) comes from the Turkish Karagöz (‘dark eye’). Karagiozis may have come to mainland Greece from Anatolia at the 19th century, during Ottoman rule. Karagiozis was Hellenised in Patras at the end of 19th century by Dimitrios Sardounis, also known as Mimaros, the founder of modern Greek shadow theatre, and soon became popular throughout Greece.
There are several legends about the arrival of Karagiozis in Greece and his growth in popularity in Greece. Some stories say that Greek merchants brought the art from China and others say that it was a Greek who created the legend under Ottoman rule to entertain the sultan. Others say it began in real events involving two masonry workers, named Karagöz and Haci Ivat, who were building a mosque in Bursa in Turkey in the early 14th century.
Karagiozis is a poor hunch-backed Greek, with a long right hand, clothes that are ragged and patched, and bare feet. He lives in a poor cottage (παράγκα) with his wife Aglaia and their three sons under Ottoman rule. The scene shows their cottage on the left, and the Sultan’s Palace (Sarai) on the far right.
Because of his poverty, Karagiozis uses mischievous and crude ways to find money and to feed his family.
There are many tales, including one-well known one that involves Alexander the Great and the accursed snake, and others that tell of Karagiozis the doctor, the cook, the senator, the scholar, the prophet, the fisherman, the gorilla or even the ghost.
The traditional stories follow a pattern that remains in many of the shows to this day.
Karagiozis appears with his three sons, dancing and singing. He welcomes the audience and has a comical dialogue with his children. He then enters his cottage.
The Vizier reports that he has a problem and needs someone to perform a deed. Hadjiavatis obeys and keeps on announcing the news until Karagiozis hears it.
Karagiozis sees an opportunity to make money and sometimes asks Hadjiavatis to helps him.
Karagiozis sets out either to help the vizier or to fool him. The regular characters appear one-by-one, with an introducing song. Karagiozis has a funny dialogue with them, mocks them, fools them, or becomes annoyed and throws them out violently.
Finally, Karagiozis is either rewarded by the vizier or his mischief is revealed and he is punished, usually by Veligekas, the vizier’s bodyguard.
The main character, Karagiozis, is a trickster and a poor man whose main interests are sleeping and eating. He is close to Hadjiavatis – sometimes they co-operate, but sometimes Hadjiavatis falls prey to Karagiozis abd his schemes.
Kollitiria (Κολλητήρια), Karagiozis’ three kids, are sometimes named as Kollitiris, Svouras and Mirigkokos.
Anglaia (Αγλαΐα), Karagiozis’ wife, is usually not seen, but her nagging voice can be heard coming from the house.
Hadjiavatis (Χατζηαβάτης) is Karagiozis’ friend and sidekick, an honest and serious figure but often ends up being caught up in Karagiozis' schemes. He flatters the powerful and can be subservient, unlike Karagiozis.
Barba Giorgos (Μπάρμπα Γιώργος, ‘Uncle George’) is a crude villager from the mountains, a shepherd or dairy farmer who comes to town on business. He is sometimes a Vlach from Rumeli, knows little about urban life, is broad and strong in build, and dresses in traditional clothing. Although he believes his nephew is a crook, he helps him out and beats all the opponents black and blue with his staff.
Stavrakas (Σταύρακας) has a long independent arm. He represents the mangas culture in Piraeus and the Rebetiko tradition, and Karagiozis teases him rather than bullying him.
Sir Dionysios (Σιορ Διονύσιος) is an Italian aristocrat from Zakynthos who sings cantades and speaks in Ionian Greek with a lampooned accent.
Morfonios (Μορφονιός) is ugly, with a huge head with an extremely large nose. But he thinks he handsome and is always falling in love.
Solomon (Σολομών), is fast-talking rich Jew from Thessaloniki. Despite his frail build, Karagiozis calls him ‘heavy arms.’
The Vizier (Βεζύρης), sometimes called the Pasha (Πασάς), lives in the Sarai. He begins each new tale by announcing the trials, deeds and tests in which Karagiozis becomes entangled.
Fatme (Φατμέ) is the Vizier’s beautiful daughter. She causes trouble by opposing her despotic father or by showing her dislike for Karagiozis or one of the heroes.
Veligekas (Βελιγκέκας), an Albanian guard in the Sarai, is always on the lookout for Karagizis and never loses an opportunity to give him a good beating. But then he is usually gets beaten by Barba Giorgos. Sometimes, he is replaced by Peponias (Πεπόνιας), a fat officer in the Sarai.
Puppeteers often devise their own tales, but there are many traditional tales, handed down from earlier puppeteers and form a ‘canon,’ although there may be variations, and usually there is interaction with the audience.
The stories of poverty and of the oppressed man overcoming the domineering oppressor have many resonances in Greece today, which explains a revival in the popularity of Karagiozis. But I wonder if today’s economic woes are considered by tourists as they look with curiosity on these colourful characters that are a unique part of Greek culture and folklore.
After late afternoon and evening strolls through Monastiraki and the Plaka in Athens, two of us had dinner last night [18 August 2017] below the northern slopes of the Acropolis last night at Antica on Adrianou Street, the street that runs through the heart of Monastiraki and the Plaka.
After an absence of over a decade, I renewed my acquaintance with some of the archaeological and historical sites that fill this part of the Greek capital, including the Agora, the Stoa of Attalos, Hadrian’s Library, the Tower of the Winds, the Monument of Lysikrates, Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of the Olympian Zeus.
Earlier in the afternoon, we had lunch in Mouses, close to the Flea Market, Hadrian’s Library, and the Church of Saint Philip, listening to live Greek music.
Last night, I slept with a panoramic view of the Acropolis from this apartment on Karaiskaki and woke to a similar view in the sunlight this morning.
As I looked at the Acropolis lit up against the night sky last night, I thought once again of the poem Moonlight Sonata by Yánnis Rítsos.
Earlier this year, I missed a performance of Moonlight Sonata in the Long Room Hub, TCD, to mark Greek Independence Day in Dublin [25 March 2017]. This world premiere was performed by the actors Mários Iordánou and Sofía Kazantzián, under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and organised by the Hellenic Community of Ireland, in conjunction with the Greek Embassy in Ireland and the Department of Classics, TCD.
Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990), the poet of the Greek left, is considered one of the five greatest Greek poets of the 20th century, alongside Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933), Kostis Palamis (1859-1943), Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971) and Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996). The French poet Louis Aragon once described him as ‘the greatest poet of our age.’
Ritsos published 120 collections of poems, nine volumes of prose, and several translations of Russian and Eastern European poetry. Many of his poems have been set to music by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. His poetry was banned at times in Greece for its left-wing politics and sympathies. His great works include Tractor (1934), Pyramids (1935), Epitaphios (1936) and Vigil (1941/1953). Although his poems are marked by their strong political content, one of the exceptions is his 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.
Yannis Ritsos was born in Greece in the old walled town of Monemvassia on 1 May 1909, the last child in a noble, land-owning family. During his youth his family was devastated by economic ruin after his father went bankrupt, the unexpected early death from tuberculosis of both his mother and his eldest brother, and his father’s lengthy spells in a psychiatric unit. Yannis Ritsos spent four years between 1927 and 1931 in a sanatorium with tuberculosis. The experience of these tragic events marks his work and shaped him as a poet and as a revolutionary.
Ritsos lived most of his life in Athens. In his early 20s, he became involved in left-wing politics, and he spent many years in detention, in prison and in internal exile.
He published his first collection of poetry, Tractors, in 1934, follwed by Pyramids in 1935. These two collections achieved a fragile balance between faith in the future and personal despair. His epic poem Epitaphios (1936) uses the shape of the traditional popular poetry to express in clear and simple language its moving message of fraternity, solidarity and hope in the future. Later, the setting of Epitaphios by Mikis Theodorakis in 1960 sparked a cultural revolution in Greece.
The Metaxas regime tried to silence Ritsos from August 1936, and his Epitaphios was burnt publicly. But he continued writing. The Song of my Sister (1937), Symphony of the Spring (1938), and The Lady of the Vineyards (1945-1947), inspired the Seventh Symphony by Theodorakis (1983-1984), also known as Symphony of the Spring.
After World War II, during the Greek civil war, Ritsos fought against the fascists, and spent four years in various detention camps, including Lémnos, Ayios Ephstratios and Makronissos. Despite this, he published his collection Vigil (1941-1953), and a long poetic chronicle of that terrifying decade: Districts of the World (1949-1951), the basis of another later composition of Theodorakis.
Romiossini (‘Greek-ness’), first published only in 1954 and set into music by Theodorakis in 1966, is a proud and shattering hymn to the glory of a once-humiliated Greece and its freed people.
His mature works include The Moonlight Sonata (1956), The Stranger (1958), The Old Women and the Sea (1958), The Dead House (1959-1962) and a set of monologues inspired by mythology and the ancient tragedies: Orestes (1962-1966) and Philoctetes (1963-1965).
Between 1967 and 1971, the military junta deported Ritsos to Yaros and Leros before sending him to Samos. But he continued writing: Persephone (1965-1970), Agamemnon (1966-1970), Ismene (1966-1971), Ajax (1967-1969) and Chrysothemis (1967-1970) – both written during his internal island exile – Helena (1970-1972), The Return of Iphigenia (1971-1972) and Phaedra (1974-1975).
Ritsos also wrote several short poems that reflected his people’s living nightmare. In the 1980s, he also wrote novels. Nine books are united under the title of The Iconostasis of the Anonymous Saints (1983-1985), which has been translated in three volumes by my good friend, Amy Mims (Athens: Kedros, 1996-2001), who has also published a critical biography of Ritsos in Greece.
The poems in his last book, Late in the night (1987-1989), are filled with sadness and the conscience of losses, but preserve a sense of hope and creativity.
During the last decades of his life, he was active in the peace movement. He received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1977 and the International Peace Prize in 1979. In 1986, he was a founder with Theodorakis of the Greek-Turkish Friendship Society. Shortly before his death, he declared: ‘Man’s inclination is towards well-being, happiness and peace. There must be peace throughout the world because you cannot yourself be at peace when your brother is being wronged.’
These are words that for me have a real ring of truth to the them considering the present violence being stoke by Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the far-right in the US, all with the tacit approval of Donald Trump.
Ritsos was unsuccessfully proposed nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. When he won the Lenin Peace Prize, he declared: ‘This prize – it’s more important for me than the Nobel.’
Despite his often tragic view of life, Ritsos was not pessimistic: ‘I love life, and especially I love beauty.’ He died in Athens on 11 November 1990.
Moonlight Sonata: the setting
After its publication over fifty years ago in 1956, Moonlight Sonata won the National Poetry Prize of Greece. It was soon translated into French by Aragon, who first introduced Ritsos to literary Europe. It has been translated into English by Peter Green and Beverley Ardsley of Austin, Texas (1993), and by Marjorie Chambers of Queen’s University Belfast (2001), and is included in many anthologies.
The scene is set in a dark, decaying, haunted family mansion in the Plaka in Athens, full of memories, old furniture and collected bric-a-brac, its plaster flaking off and its floorboards lifting and cracking. Because this crumbling house appears to be close to the steps of the Church of Aghios Nikólaos Rangava, I imagine the crumbling mansion described by Ritsos is similar to the crumbling mansion on Adrianou Street that was once home to the great Irish-born Philhellene, Sir Richard Church.
The former glory of this house and her failure to maintain it have become major burdens for the Woman in the Black, who is the narrator of this poem.
The Woman in Black might be an early version of Ismene or Elektra. She lives with a gnawing loneliness and is losing her battle against age and death. Yet in her acute erotic awareness of the young male visitor in the house, she prefigures the more intense eroticism of Phaedra. Trapped in her house of memories, she longs to escape the cloying house and her past and to embrace some real human connections, to embrace the present and the future. Constantly her refrain ends sadly with the persistent line: Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ... ‘Let me come with you.’
But can there ever be an escape from the past?
Η Σονατα του Σεληνοφωτοσ – Γιαννησ Ριτσοσ
Ανοιξιάτικο βράδυ. Μεγάλο δωμάτιο παλιού σπιτιού. Μια ηλικιωμένη γυναίκα, ντυμένη στα μαύρα, μιλάει σ' έναν νέο. Δεν έχουν ανάψει φως. Απ' τα δύο παράθυρα μπαίνει ένα αμείλικτο φεγγαρόφωτο. Ξέχασα να πω ότι η Γυναίκα με τα Μαύρα έχει εκδώσει δύο-τρεις ενδιαφέρουσες ποιητικές συλλογές θρησκευτικής πνοής. Λοιπόν, η Γυναίκα με τα Μαύρα μιλάει στον Νέο:
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου. Τι φεγγάρι απόψε!
Είναι καλό το φεγγάρι, – δε θα φαίνεται
που άσπρισαν τα μαλλιά μου. Το φεγγάρι
θα κάνει πάλι χρυσά τα μαλλιά μου. Δε θα καταλάβεις.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Όταν έχει φεγγάρι μεγαλώνουν οι σκιές μες στο σπίτι,
αόρατα χέρια τραβούν τις κουρτίνες,
ένα δάχτυλο αχνό γράφει στη σκόνη του πιάνου
λησμονημένα λόγια δε θέλω να τ ακούσω. Σώπα.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου
λίγο πιο κάτου, ως την μάντρα του τουβλάδικου,
ως εκεί που στρίβει ο δρόμος και φαίνεται
η πολιτεία τσιμεντένια κι αέρινη, ασβεστωμένη με φεγγαρόφωτο,
τόσο αδιάφορη κι άυλη
τόσο θετική σαν μεταφυσική
που μπορείς επιτέλους να πιστέψεις πως υπάρχεις και δεν υπάρχεις
πως ποτέ δεν υπήρξες, δεν υπήρξε ο χρόνος κι η φθορά του.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ....
Θα καθίσουμε λίγο στο πεζούλι, πάνω στο ύψωμα,
κι όπως θα μας φυσάει ο ανοιξιάτικος αέρας
μπορεί να φανταστούμε κιόλας πως θα πετάξουμε,
γιατί, πολλές φορές, και τώρα ακόμη, ακούω τον θόρυβο του φουστανιού μου
σαν τον θόρυβο δύο δυνατών φτερών που ανοιγοκλείνουν,
κι όταν κλείνεσαι μέσα σ αυτόν τον ήχο του πετάγματος
νιώθεις κρουστό το λαιμό σου, τα πλευρά σου, τη σάρκα σου,
κι έτσι σφιγμένος μες στους μυώνες του γαλάζιου αγέρα,
μέσα στα ρωμαλέα νεύρα του ύψους,
δεν έχει σημασία αν φεύγεις ή αν γυρίζεις
κι ούτε έχει σημασία που άσπρισαν τα μαλλιά μου,
(δεν είναι τούτο η λύπη μου η λύπη μου
είναι που δεν ασπρίζει κι η καρδιά μου).
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Το ξέρω πως καθένας μοναχός πορεύεται στον έρωτα,
μοναχός στη δόξα και στο θάνατο.
Το ξέρω. Το δοκίμασα. Δεν ωφελεί.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου....
Τούτο το σπίτι στοίχειωσε, με διώχνει –
θέλω να πω έχει παλιώσει πολύ, τα καρφιά ξεκολλάνε,
τα κάδρα ρίχνονται σα να βουτάνε στο κενό,
οι σουβάδες πέφτουν αθόρυβα
όπως πέφτει το καπέλο του πεθαμένου
απ' την κρεμάστρα στο σκοτεινό διάδρομο
όπως πέφτει το μάλλινο τριμμένο γάντι της σιωπής απ' τα γόνατά της
ή όπως πέφτει μιά λουρίδα φεγγάρι στην παλιά, ξεκοιλιασμένη πολυθρόνα.
Κάποτε υπήρξε νέα κι αυτή, – όχι η φωτογραφία που κοιτάς με τόση δυσπιστία –
λέω για την πολυθρόνα, πολύ αναπαυτική, μπορούσες ώρες ολόκληρες να κάθεσαι
και με κλεισμένα μάτια να ονειρεύεσαι ό,τι τύχει
– μιάν αμμουδιά στρωτή, νοτισμένη, στιλβωμένη από φεγγάρι,
πιο στιλβωμένη απ' τα παλιά λουστρίνια μου που κάθε μήνα τα δίνω
στο στιλβωτήριο της γωνίας,
ή ένα πανί ψαρόβαρκας που χάνεται στο βάθος λικνισμένο απ' την ίδια του ανάσα,
τριγωνικό πανί σα μαντίλι διπλωμένο λοξά μόνο στα δύο
σα να μην είχε τίποτα να κλείσει ή να κρατήσει
ή ν' ανεμίσει διάπλατο σε αποχαιρετισμό.
Πάντα μου είχα μανία με τα μαντίλια,
όχι για να κρατήσω τίποτα δεμένο,
τίποτα σπόρους λουλουδιών ή χαμομήλι μαζεμένο στους αγρούς με το λιόγερμα
ή να το δέσω τέσσερις κόμπους σαν το αντικρινό γιαπί
ή να σκουπίζω τα μάτια μου, – διατήρησα καλή την όρασή μου,
ποτέ μου δεν φόρεσα γυαλιά. Μιά απλή ιδιοτροπία τα μαντίλια ...
Τώρα τα διπλώνω στα τέσσερα, στα οχτώ, στα δεκάξι
ν' απασχολώ τα δάχτυλά μου.
Και τώρα θυμήθηκα
πως έτσι μετρούσα τη μουσική σαν πήγαινα στο Ωδείο
με μπλε ποδιά κι άσπρο γιακά, με δύο ξανθές πλεξούδες
– 8, 16, 32, 64, –
κρατημένη απ' το χέρι μιας μικρής φίλης μου ροδακινιάς όλο φως και ροζ λουλούδια,
(συγχώρεσέ μου αυτά τα λόγια κακή συνήθεια) – 32, 64, – κι οι δικοί μου στήριζαν
μεγάλες ελπίδες στο μουσικό μου τάλαντο. Λοιπόν, σου λεγα για την πολυθρόνα –
ξεκοιλιασμένη – φαίνονται οι σκουριασμένες σούστες, τα άχερα –
έλεγα να την πάω δίπλα στο επιπλοποιείο,
μα που καιρός και λεφτά και διάθεση – τι να πρωτοδιορθώσεις ; –
έλεγα να ρίξω ένα σεντόνι πάνω της, – φοβήθηκα
τ' άσπρο σεντόνι σε τέτοιο φεγγαρόφωτο. Εδώ κάθισαν
άνθρωποι που ονειρεύτηκαν μεγάλα όνειρα, όπως κι εσύ κι όπως κι εγώ άλλωστε,
και τώρα ξεκουράζονται κάτω απ' το χώμα δίχως να ενοχλούνται απ' τη βροχή ή το φεγγάρι.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Θα σταθούμε λιγάκι στην κορφή της μαρμάρινης σκάλας του Αϊ-Νικόλα,
ύστερα εσύ θα κατηφορίσεις κι εγώ θα γυρίσω πίσω
έχοντας στ' αριστερό πλευρό μου τη ζέστα απ' το τυχαίο άγγιγμα του σακακιού σου
κι ακόμη μερικά τετράγωνα φώτα από μικρά συνοικιακά παράθυρα
κι αυτή την πάλλευκη άχνα απ' το φεγγάρι που 'ναι σα μια μεγάλη συνοδεία
ασημένιων κύκνων –
και δε φοβάμαι αυτή την έκφραση, γιατί εγώ
πολλές ανοιξιάτικες νύχτες συνομίλησα άλλοτε με το Θεό που μου εμφανίστηκε
ντυμένος την αχλύ και την δόξα ενός τέτοιου σεληνόφωτος,
και πολλούς νέους, πιο ωραίους κι από σένα ακόμη, του εθυσίασα,
έτσι λευκή κι απρόσιτη ν' ατμίζομαι μες στη λευκή μου φλόγα, στη λευκότητα του σεληνόφωτος,
πυρπολημένη απ' τ' αδηφάγα μάτια των αντρών κι απ' τη δισταχτικήν έκσταση των εφήβων,
πολιορκημένη από εξαίσια, ηλιοκαμένα σώματα, άλκιμα μέλη γυμνασμένα στο κολύμπι, στο κουπί, στο στίβο, στο ποδόσφαιρο
(που έκανα πως δεν τα 'βλεπα)
– ξέρεις, καμιά φορά, θαυμάζοντας, ξεχνάς, ό, τι θαυμάζεις,
σου φτάνει ο θαυμασμός σου, –
θε μου, τι μάτια πάναστρα, κι ανυψωνόμουν σε μιαν αποθέωση αρνημένων άστρων
γιατί, έτσι πολιορκημένη απ' έξω κι από μέσα,
άλλος δρόμος δε μου 'μενε παρά μονάχα προς τα πάνω ή προς τα κάτω.
– Όχι, δε φτάνει.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Το ξέρω η ώρα είναι πια περασμένη. Άφησέ με,
γιατί τόσα χρόνια, μέρες και νύχτες και πορφυρά μεσημέρια, έμεινα μόνη,
ανένδοτη, μόνη και πάναγνη,
ακόμη στη συζυγική μου κλίνη πάναγνη και μόνη,
γράφοντας ένδοξους στίχους στα γόνατα του Θεού,
στίχους που, σε διαβεβαιώ, θα μένουνε σα λαξευμένοι σε άμεμπτο μάρμαρο
πέρα απ' τη ζωή μου και τη ζωή σου, πέρα πολύ. Δε φτάνει.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Τούτο το σπίτι δε με σηκώνει πια.
Δεν αντέχω να το σηκώνω στη ράχη μου.
Πρέπει πάντα να προσέχεις, να προσέχεις,
να στεριώνεις τον τοίχο με το μεγάλο μπουφέ
να στεριώνεις τον μπουφέ με το πανάρχαιο σκαλιστό τραπέζι
να στεριώνεις το τραπέζι με τις καρέκλες
να στεριώνεις τις καρέκλες με τα χέρια σου
να βάζεις τον ώμο σου κάτω απ' το δοκάρι που κρέμασε.
Και το πιάνο, σα μαύρο φέρετρο κλεισμένο. Δε τολμάς να τ' ανοίξεις.
Όλο να προσέχεις, να προσέχεις, μην πέσουν, μην πέσεις. Δεν αντέχω.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Τούτο το σπίτι, παρ όλους τους νεκρούς του, δεν εννοεί να πεθάνει.
Επιμένει να ζει με τους νεκρούς του
να ζει απ' τους νεκρούς του
να ζει απ' τη βεβαιότητα του θανάτου του
και να νοικοκυρεύει ακόμη τους νεκρούς του σ' ετοιμόρροπα κρεββάτια και ράφια.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Εδώ, όσο σιγά κι αν περπατήσω μες στην άχνα της βραδιάς,
είτε με τις παντούφλες, είτε ξυπόλυτη,
κάτι θα τρίξει, – ένα τζάμι ραγίζει ή κάποιος καθρέφτης,
κάποια βήματα ακούγονται, – δεν είναι δικά μου.
Έξω, στο δρόμο μπορεί να μην ακούγονται τούτα τα βήματα, –
η μεταμέλεια, λένε, φοράει ξυλοπάπουτσα, –
κι αν κάνεις να κοιτάξεις σ' αυτόν ή τον άλλον καθρέφτη,
πίσω απ' την σκόνη και τις ραγισματιές,
διακρίνεις πιο θαμπό και πιο τεμαχισμένο το πρόσωπό σου,
το πρόσωπο σου που άλλο δε ζήτησες στη ζωή παρά να το κρατήσεις
καθάριο κι αδιαίρετο.
Τα χείλη του ποτηριού γυαλίζουν στο φεγγαρόφωτο
σαν κυκλικό ξυράφι – πώς να το φέρω στα χείλη μου;
όσο κι αν διψώ, – πως να το φέρω ; – Βλέπεις ;
έχω ακόμη διάθεση για παρομοιώσεις, – αυτό μου απόμεινε,
αυτό με βεβαιώνει ακόμη πως δεν λείπω.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Φορές-φορές, την ώρα που βραδιάζει, έχω την αίσθηση
πως έξω απ' τα παράθυρα περνάει ο αρκουδιάρης
με τη γριά βαρειά του αρκούδα
με το μαλλί της όλο αγκάθια και τριβόλια
σηκώνοντας σκόνη στο συνοικιακό δρόμο
ένα ερημικό σύννεφο σκόνη που θυμιάζει το σούρουπο
και τα παιδιά έχουν γυρίσει σπίτια τους για το δείπνο και δεν τ' αφή – νουν πιαν να βγουν έξω
μ' όλο που πίσω απ' τους τοίχους μαντεύουν το περπάτημα της γριάς αρκούδας –
κι η αρκούδα κουρασμένη πορεύεται μες στη σοφία της μοναξιάς της,
μην ξέροντας για πού και γιατί –
έχει βαρύνει, δεν μπορεί πια να χορεύει στα πισινά της πόδια
δεν μπορεί να φοράει τη δαντελένια σκουφίτσα της να διασκεδάζει τα παιδιά,
τους αργόσχολους, τους απαιτητικούς,
και το μόνο που θέλει είναι να πλαγιάσει στο χώμα
αφήνοντας να την πατάνε στην κοιλιά,
παίζοντας έτσι το τελευταίο παιχνίδι της,
δείχνοντας την τρομερή της δύναμη για παραίτηση,
την ανυπακοή της στα συμφέροντα των άλλων, στους κρίκους των χειλιών της, στην ανάγκη των δοντιών της,
την ανυπακοή της στον πόνο και στη ζωή
με τη σίγουρη συμμαχία του θανάτου – έστω κι ενός αργού θανάτου –
την τελική της ανυπακοή στο θάνατο με τη συνέχεια και τη γνώση της ζωής
που ανηφοράει με γνώση και με πράξη πάνω απ τη σκλαβιά της.
Μα ποιος μπορεί να παίξει ως το τέλος αυτό το παιχνίδι ;
Κι η αρκούδα σηκώνεται πάλι και πορεύεται
υπακούοντας στο λουρί της, στους κρίκους της, στα δόντια της,
χαμογελώντας με τα σκισμένα χείλη της στις πενταροδεκάρες που της
ρίχνουνε τα ωραία κι ανυποψίαστα παιδιά
(ωραία ακριβώς γιατί είναι ανυποψίαστα)
και λέγοντας ευχαριστώ. Γιατί οι αρκούδες που γεράσανε
το μόνο που έμαθαν να λένε είναι: ευχαριστώ, ευχαριστώ.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Τούτο το σπίτι με πνίγει. Μάλιστα η κουζίνα
είναι σαν το βυθό της θάλασσας. Τα μπρίκια κρεμασμένα γυαλίζουν
σα στρογγυλά, μεγάλα μάτια απίθανων ψαριών,
τα πιάτα σαλεύουν αργά σαν τις μέδουσες,
φύκια κι όστρακα πιάνονται στα μαλλιά μου – δεν μπορώ να τα ξεκολλήσω ύστερα,
δεν μπορώ ν' ανέβω πάλι στην επιφάνεια –
ο δίσκος μου πέφτει απ' τα χέρια άηχος, – σωριάζομαι
και βλέπω τις φυσαλίδες απ' την ανάσα μου ν' ανεβαίνουν, ν' ανεβαίνουν
και προσπαθώ να διασκεδάσω κοιτάζοντές τες
κι αναρωτιέμαι τι θα λέει αν κάποιος βρίσκεται από πάνω και βλέπει αυτές τις φυσαλίδες,
τάχα πως πνίγεται κάποιος ή πως ένας δύτης ανιχνεύει τους βυθούς ;
Κι αλήθεια δεν είναι λίγες οι φορές που ανακαλύπτω εκεί, στο βάθος του πνιγμού,
κοράλλια και μαργαριτάρια και θυσαυρούς ναυαγισμένων πλοίων,
απρόοπτες συναντήσεις, και χτεσινά και σημερινά μελλούμενα,
μιαν επαλήθευση σχεδόν αιωνιότητας,
κάποιο ξανάσαμα, κάποιο χαμόγελο αθανασίας, όπως λένε,
μιαν ευτυχία, μια μέθη, κι ενθουσιασμόν ακόμη,
κοράλλια και μαργαριτάρια και ζαφείρια,
μονάχα που δεν ξέρω να τα δώσω – όχι, τα δίνω,
μονάχα που δεν ξέρω αν μπορούν να τα πάρουν – πάντως εγώ τα δίνω.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Μια στιγμή, να πάρω τη ζακέτα μου.
Τούτο τον άστατο καιρό, όσο να 'ναι, πρέπει να φυλαγόμαστε.
Έχει υγρασία τα βράδια, και το φεγγάρι
δε σου φαίνεται, αλήθεια, πως επιτείνει την ψύχρα;
Άσενα σου κουμπώσω το πουκάμισο – τι δυνατό το στήθος σου,
– τι δυνατό φεγγάρι, – η πολυθρόνα, λέω κι όταν σηκώνω το φλιτζάνι απ' το τραπέζι
μένει από κάτω μιά τρύπα σιωπή, βάζω αμέσως την παλάμη μου επάνω
να μην κοιτάξω μέσα, – αφήνω πάλι το φλιτζάνι στη θέση του,
και το φεγγάρι μια τρύπα στο κρανίο του κόσμου – μην κοιτάξεις μέσα,
έχει μια δύναμη μαγνητική που σε τραβάει – μην κοιτάξεις, μην κοιτάχτε,
ακούστε με που σας μιλάω – θα πέσετε μέσα. Τούτος ο ίλιγγος ωραίος, ανάλαφρος θα πέσεις, –
ένα μαρμάρινο πηγάδι το φεγγάρι,
ίσκιοι σαλεύουν και βουβά φτερά, μυστιριακές φωνές – δεν τις ακούτε ;
Βαθύ-βαθύ το πέσιμο,
βαθύ-βαθύ το ανέβασμα,
το αέρινο άγαλμα κρουστό μες στ' ανοιχτά φτερά του,
βαθειά-βαθειά η αμείλικτη ευεργεσία της σιωπής, –
τρέμουσες φωταψίες της άλλης όχθης, όπως ταλαντεύεσαι μες στο ίδιο σου το κύμα,
ανάσα ωκεανού. Ωραίος, ανάλαφρος
ο ίλιγγος τούτος, – πρόσεξε, θα πέσεις. Μην κοιτάς εμένα,
εμένα η θέση μου είναι το ταλάντευμα – ο εξαίσιος ίλιγγος. Έτσι κάθε απόβραδο
έχω λιγάκι πονοκέφαλο, κάτι ζαλάδες ...
Συχνά πετάγομαι στο φαρμακείο απέναντι για καμμιάν ασπιρίνη,
άλλοτε πάλι βαριέμαι και μένω με τον πονοκέφαλό μου
ν' ακούω μες στους τοίχους τον κούφιο θόρυβο που κάνουν οι σωλήνες του νερού,
ή ψήνω έναν καφέ, και, πάντα αφηρημένη,
ξεχνιέμαι κ ετοιμάζω – δυο ποιος να τον πιει τον άλλον ; –
αστείο αλήθεια, τον αφήνω στο περβάζι να κρυώνει
ή κάποτε πίνω και τον δεύτερο, κοιτάζοντας απ' το παράθυρο τον πράσινο γλόμπο του φαρμακείου
σαν το πράσινο φως ενός αθόρυβου τραίνου που έρχεται να με πάρει
με τα μαντίλια μου, τα στραβοπατημένα μου παπούτσια, τη μαύρη τσάντα μου, τα ποιήματα μου,
χωρίς καθόλου βαλίτσες – τι να τις κάνεις;
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...
Α, φεύγεις; Καληνύχτα. Όχι, δε θα έρθω. Καληνύχτα.
Εγώ θα βγω σε λίγο. Ευχαριστώ. Γιατί, επιτέλους, πρέπει
να βγω απ' αυτό το τσακισμένο σπίτι.
Πρέπει να δω λιγάκι πολιτεία, – όχι, όχι το φεγγάρι –
την πολιτεία με τα ροζιασμένα χέρια της, την πολιτεία του μεροκάματου,
την πολιτεία που ορκίζεται στο ψωμί και στη γροθιά της
την πολιτεία που μας αντέχει στη ράχη της
με τις μικρότητες μας, τις κακίες, τις έχτρες μας,
με τις φιλοδοξίες, την άγνοιά μας και τα γερατειά μας, –
ν' ακούσω τα μεγάλα βήματά της πολιτείας,
να μην ακούω πια τα βήματα σου
μήτε τα βήματα του Θεού, μήτε και τα δικά μου βήματα. Καληνύχτα ...
(Το δωμάτιο σκοτεινιάζει. Φαίνεται πως κάποιο σύννεφο θα έκρυψε το φεγγάρι. Μονομιάς, σαν κάποιο χέρι να δυνάμωσε το ραδιόφωνο του γειτονικού μπαρ, ακούστηκε μια πολύ γνωστή μουσική φράση. Και τότε κατάλαβα πως όλη τούτη τη σκηνή τη συνόδευε χαμηλόφωνα η ‘Σονάτα του Σεληνόφωτος,’ μόνο το πρώτο μέρος. Ο νέος θα κατηφορίζει τώρα μ' ένα ειρωνικό κι ίσως συμπονετικό χαμόγελο στα καλογραμμένα χείλη του και μ' ένα συναίσθημα απαιλευθέρωσης. Όταν θα φτάσει ακριβώς στον Αη-Νικόλα, πριν κατέβει τη μαρμάρινη σκάλα, θα γελάσει, - ένα γέλιο δυνατό, ασυγκράτητο. Το γέλιο του δε θ' ακουστεί καθόλου ανάρμοστα κάτω απ' το φεγγάρι. Ίσως το μόνο ανάρμοστο να είναι το ότι δεν είναι καθόλου ανάρμοστο. Σε λίγο ο Νέος θα σωπάσει, θα σοβαρευτεί και θα πει: ‘Η παρακμή μιάς εποχής.’ Έτσι, ολότελα ήσυχος πια, θα ξεκουμπώσει πάλι το πουκάμισό του και θα τραβήξει το δρόμο του. Όσο για τη γυναίκα με τα μαύρα, δεν ξέρω αν βγήκε τελικά απ το σπίτι. Το φεγγαρόφωτο λάμπει ξανά. Και στις γωνίες του δωματίου οι σκιές σφίγγονται από μιαν αβάσταχτη μετάνοια, σχεδόν οργή, όχι τόσο για τη ζωή, όσο για την άχρηστη εξομολόγηση. Ακούτε; Το ραδιόφωνο συνεχίζει.) ...
Here is Yannis Ritsos reading the poem (with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the background):
The translation by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley in The Fourth Dimension (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1993) reads:
A spring evening. A large room in an old house. A woman of a certain age, dressed in black, is speaking to a young man. They have not turned on the lights. Through both windows the moonlight shines relentlessly. I forgot to mention that the Woman in Black has published two or three interesting volume of poetry with a religious flavour. So, the Woman in Black is speaking to the Young Man:
Let me come with you. What a moon there is tonight!
The moon is kind – it won’t show
that my hair turned white. The moon
will turn my hair to gold again. You wouldn’t understand.
Let me come with you ...
When there’s a moon the shadows in the house grow larger,
invisible hands draw the curtains,
a ghostly finger writes forgotten words in the dust
on the piano – I don’t want to hear them. Hush.
Let me come with you
a little farther down, as far as the brickyard wall,
to the point where the road turns and the city appears
concrete and airy, whitewashed with moonlight,
so indifferent and insubstantial
so positive, like metaphysics,
that finally you can believe you exist and do not exist,
that you never existed, that time with its destruction never existed.
Let me come with you ...
We’ll sit for a little on the low wall, up on the hill,
and as the spring breeze blows around us
perhaps we’ll even imagine that we are flying,
because, often, and now especially, I hear the sound of my own dress
like the sound of two powerful wings opening and closing,
and when you enclose yourself within the sound of that flight
you feel the tight mesh of your throat, your ribs, your flesh,
and thus constricted amid the muscles of the azure air,
amid the strong nerves of the heavens,
it makes no difference whether you go or return
and it makes no difference that my hair has turned white
(that is not my sorrow – my sorrow is
that my heart too does not turn white).
Let me come with you ...
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 ...
This house is haunted, it preys on me –
what I mean is, it has aged a great deal, the nails are working loose,
the portraits drop as though plunging into the void,
the plaster falls without a sound
as the dead man’s hat falls from the peg in the dark hallway
as the worn woolen glove falls from the knee of silence
or as moonbeam falls on the old, gutted armchair.
Once it too was new – not the photograph that you are starting at so dubiously –
I mean the armchair, very comfortable, you could sit in it for hours
with your eyes closed and dream whatever came into your head
– a sandy beach, smooth, wet, shining in the moonlight,
shining more than my old patent leather shoes that I send each month to the shoeshine shop on the corner,
or a fishing boat’s sail that sinks to the bottom rocked by its own breathing,
a three-cornered sail like a handkerchief folded slantwise in half only
as though it had nothing to shut up or hold fast
no reason to flutter open in farewell. I have always has a passion for handkerchiefs,
not to keep anything tied in them,
no flower seeds or camomile gathered in the fields at sunset,
nor to tie them with four knots like the caps the workers wear on the construction site across the street,
nor to dab my eyes – I’ve kept my eyesight good;
I’ve never worn glasses. A harmless idiosyncracy, handkerchiefs.
Now I fold them in quarters, in eighths, in sixteenths
to keep my fingers occupied. And now I remember
that this is how I counted the music when I went to the Odeion
with a blue pinafore and a white collar, with two blond braids
– 8, 16, 32, 64 –
hand in hand with a small friend of mine, peachy, all light and picked flowers,
(forgive me such digressions – a bad habit) – 32, 64 – and my family rested
great hopes on my musical talent. But I was telling you about the armchair –
gutted – the rusted springs are showing, the stuffing –
I thought of sending it next door to the furniture shop,
but where’s the time and the money and the inclination – what to fix first? –
I thought of throwing a sheet over it – I was afraid
of a white sheet in so much moonlight. People sat here
who dreamed great dreams, as you do and I too,
and now they rest under earth untroubled by rain or the moon.
Let me come with you ...
We’ll pause for a little at the top of St. Nicholas’ marble steps,
and afterward you’ll descend and I will turn back,
having on my left side the warmth from a casual touch of your jacket
and some squares of light, too, from small neighbourhood windows
and this pure white mist from the moon, like a great procession of silver swans –
and I do not fear this manifestation, for at another time
on many spring evenings I talked with God who appeared to me
clothed in the haze and glory of such a moonlight –
and many young men, more handsome even than you, I sacrificed to him –
I dissolved, so white, so unapproachable, amid my white flame, in the whiteness of moonlight,
burnt up by men’s voracious eyes and the tentative rapture of youths,
besieged by splendid bronzed bodies,
strong limbs exercising at the pool, with oars, on the track, at soccer (I pretended not to see them),
foreheads, lips and throats, knees, fingers and eyes,
chests and arms and thighs (and truly I did not see them)
– you know, sometimes, when you’re entranced, you forget what entranced you, the entrancement alone is enough –
my God, what star-bright eyes, and I was lifted up to an apotheosis of disavowed stars
because, besieged thus from without and from within,
no other road was left me save only the way up or the way down. – No, it is not enough.
Let me come with you ...
I know it’s very late. Let me,
because for so many years – days, nights, and crimson noons – I’ve stayed alone,
unyielding, alone and immaculate,
even in my marriage bed immaculate and alone,
writing glorious verses to lay on the knees of God,
verses that, I assure you, will endure as if chiselled in flawless marble
beyond my life and your life, well beyond. It is not enough.
Let me come with you ...
This house can’t bear me anymore.
I cannot endure to bear it on my back.
You must always be careful, be careful,
to hold up the wall with the large buffet
to hold up the table with the chairs
to hold up the chairs with your hands
to place your shoulder under the hanging beam.
And the piano, like a closed black coffin. You do not dare to open it.
You have to be so careful, so careful, lest they fall, lest you fall. I cannot bear it.
Let me come with you ...
This house, despite all its dead, has no intention of dying.
It insists on living with its dead
on living off its dead
on living off the certainty of its death
and on still keeping house for its dead, the rotting beds and shelves.
Let me come with you ...
Here, however quietly I walk through the mist of evening,
whether in slippers or barefoot,
there will be some sound: a pane of glass cracks or a mirror,
some steps are heard – not my own.
Outside, in the street, perhaps these steps are not heard –
repentance, they say, wears wooden shoes –
and if you look into this or that other mirror,
behind the dust and the cracks,
you discern – darkened and more fragmented – your face,
your face, which all your life you sought only to keep clean and whole.
The lip of the glass gleams in the moonlight
like a round razor – how can I lift it to my lips?
however much I thirst – how can I lift it – Do you see?
I am already in a mood for similes – this at least is left me,
reassuring me still that my wits are not failing.
Let me come with you ...
At times, when evening descends, I have the feeling
that outside the window the bear-keeper is going by with his old heavy she-bear,
her fur full of burrs and thorns,
stirring dust in the neighborhood street
a desolate cloud of dust that censes the dusk,
and the children have gone home for supper and aren’t allowed outdoors again,
even though behind the walls they divine the old bear’s passing –
and the tired bear passes in the wisdom of her solitude, not knowing wherefore and why –
she’s grown heavy, can no longer dance on her hind legs,
can’t wear her lace cap to amuse the children, the idlers, the importunate,
and all she wants is to lie down on the ground
letting them trample on her belly, playing thus her final game,
showing her dreadful power for resignation,
her indifference to the interest of others, to the rings in her lips, the compulsion of her teeth,
her indifference to pain and to life
with the sure complicity of death – even a slow death –
her final indifference to death with the continuity and knowledge of life
which transcends her enslavement with knowledge and with action.
But who can play this game to the end?
And the bear gets up again and moves on
obedient to her leash, her rings, her teeth,
smiling with torn lips at the pennies the beautiful and unsuspecting children toss
(beautiful precisely because unsuspecting)
and saying thank you. Because bears that have grown old
can say only one thing: thank you; thank you.
Let me come with you ...
This house stifles me. The kitchen especially
is like the depths of the sea. The hanging coffee pots gleam
like round, huge eyes of improbable fish,
the plates undulate slowly like medusas,
seaweed and shells catch in my hair – later I can’t pull them loose –
I can’t get back to the surface –
the tray falls silently from my hands – I sink down
and I see the bubbles from my breath rising, rising
and I try to divert myself watching them
and I wonder what someone would say who happened to be above and saw these bubbles,
perhaps that someone was drowning or a diver exploring the depths?
And in fact more than a few times I’ve discovered there, in the depths of drowning,
coral and pearls and treasures of shipwrecked vessels,
unexpected encounters, past, present, and yet to come,
a confirmation almost of eternity,
a certain respite, a certain smile of immortality, as they say,
a happiness, an intoxication, inspiration even,
coral and pearls and sapphires;
only I don’t know how to give them – no, I do give them;
only I don’t know if they can take them – but still, I give them.
Let me come with you ...
One moment while I get my jacket.
The way this weather’s so changeable, I must be careful.
It’s damp in the evening, and doesn’t the moon
seem to you, honestly, as if it intensifies the cold?
Let me button your shirt – how strong your chest is
– how strong the moon – the armchair, I mean – and whenever I lift the cup from the table
a hole of silence is left underneath. I place my palm over it at once
so as not to see through it – I put the cup back in its place;
and the moon’s a hole in the skull of the world – don’t look through it,
it’s a magnetic force that draws you – don’t look, don’t any of you look,
listen to what I’m telling you – you’ll fall in. This giddiness,
beautiful, ethereal – you will fall in –
the moon’s marble well,
shadows stir and mute wings, mysterious voices – don’t you hear them?
Deep, deep the fall,
deep, deep the ascent,
the airy statue enmeshed in its open wings,
deep, deep the inexorable benevolence of the silence –
trembling lights on the opposite shore, so that you sway in your own wave,
the breathing of the ocean. Beautiful, ethereal
this giddiness – be careful, you’ll fall. Don’t look at me,
for me my place is this wavering – this splendid vertigo. And so every evening
I have little headache, some dizzy spells.
Often I slip out to the pharmacy across the street for a few aspirin,
but at times I’m too tired and I stay here with my headache
and listen to the hollow sound the pipes make in the walls,
or drink some coffee, and, absentminded as usual,
I forget and make two – who’ll drink the other?
It’s really funny, I leave it on the windowsill to cool
or sometimes drink them both, looking out the window at the bright green globe of the pharmacy
that’s like the green light of a silent train coming to take me away
with my handkerchiefs, my run-down shoes, my black purse, my verses,
but no suitcases – what would one do with them?
Let my come with you ...
Oh, are you going? Goodnight. No, I won’t come. Goodnight.
I’ll be going myself in a little. Thank you. Because, in the end, I must
get out of this broken-down house.
I must see a bit of the city – no, not the moon –
the city with its calloused hands, the city of daily work,
the city that swears by bread and by its fist,
the city that bears all of us on its back
with our pettiness, sins, and hatreds,
our ambitions, our ignorance and our senility.
I need to hear the great footsteps of the city,
and no longer to hear your footsteps
or God’s, or my own. Goodnight.
The room grows dark. It looks as though a cloud may have covered the moon. All at once, as if someone had turned up the radio in the nearby bar, a very familiar musical phrase can be heard. Then I realize that ‘The Moonlight Sonata’, just the first movement, has been playing very softly through this entire scene. The Young Man will go down the hill now with an ironic and perhaps sympathetic smile on his finely chiselled lips and with a feeling of release. Just as he reaches St. Nicolas, before he goes down the marble steps, he will laugh – a loud, uncontrollable laugh. His laughter will not sound at all unseemly beneath the moon. Perhaps the only unseemly thing will be that nothing is unseemly. Soon the Young Man will fall silent, become serious, and say: ‘The decline of an era.’ So, thoroughly calm once more, he will unbutton his shirt again and go on his way. As for the woman in black, I don’t know whether she finally did get out of the house. The moon is shining again. And in the corners of the room the shadows intensify with an intolerable regret, almost fury, not so much for the life, as for the useless confession. Can you hear? The radio plays on:
ATHENS, JUNE 1956
For an earlier essay on Yannis Ritsos and his epic poem Epitaphios see: here
Friday, 18 August 2017
I am taking a short city break in Athens, thanks to a very generous present last Christmas. I am spending the next three days in a fifth-floor apartment on Karaisaki Street in the Psiri area, only five minutes walking distance from Monastiraki metro station, and close to the Acropolis.
I travelled on an early-morning Ryanair flight from Dublin and arrived in Athens late at lunchtime.
I have been in Greece, on average, three times every two years since the 1980s, and this is my third time in Greece in the space of 13 or 14 months, including holidays in Crete in June and July. But this is my first visit to Athens since 2006.
I first visited Athens in 1989, and when I was working as a journalist I was a regular visitor to Athens, sometimes visiting the Greek capital twice a year, writing for The Irish Times on political, cultural and religious life.
Later, I visited Athens for family reasons, to research the lives of Irish Philhellenes, and during stopovers on visits to Church and mission projects in Egypt. Later still , I even contributed to the late-lamented Athens News in 2009 before it closed in 2012, and from Rethymnon in 2013 to EnetEnglish, a division of the Athens-based newspapers, Eleftherotypia (Ελευθεροτυπία).
A lot has changed since 2006. I have booked a visit to the new Acropolis Museum tomorrow morning, and a walking tour of the Acropolis, all within walking distance of the apartment.
Although this is supposed to be a city break, I hope to see at first-end the effects of the Greek economic crisis on the streets of Athens, to see the work of Canon Malcolm Bradshaw and the parishioners of Saint Paul’s Anglican church on Athens with refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.
I am also conscious, with the ugly displays of the far-right on the streets of America in the past week, that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the coup that brought an end to democracy in Greece and brought the colonels to power in 1967 with the active intervention of the CIA and American might.
I am thinking this evening of the heroic resistance of political, artistic, musical and literary figures who stood up fascism in their own country and responded to the moral compunction to take a stand at great personal cost.
Later this year, the great Greek singer Maria Farantouri (Μαρία Φαραντούρη) celebrates her 70th birthday on 28 November 1947. She was one of the many notable voices that was active against the junta (1967-1974), when she worked with Greek composers such as Mikis Theodorakis, and poets such as George Seferis.
During the weekend, I may also get to see two streets in central Athens names after two Irish Philhellenes. Despite its spelling, Tzortz Street (Οδός Τζορτζ), often transliterated as George Street, is named after Sir Richard Church from Cork, who was commander-in-chief of the Greek army and a senator. This street is off Akadimias Street (Οδός Ακαδημίας) close to Omonia and the Polytechnic.
Eduardo Lo Street, off Panepistimiou Street (Οδός Πανεπιστημίου, ‘University Street’), is named after Sir Edward Law, who was born in Rostrevor, Co Down, and spent his childhood in Dublin. He was the Greek Finance Minister in the late 19th century is credited with rescuing Greece from one of its early economic crises.
I am also a short distance from Richard Church’s house in Adrianou Street in the Plaka, on the northern slopes of the Acropolis, from his grave, and from Saint Paul's Church, where there are windows and memorials dedicated to his memory.
I am thinking of having dinner somewhere in the Plaka this evening. Join me over the next few days as I walk around the streets of Athens and get to know the city again.
For six years or more, I have occasionally taken photographs of old post boxes and pillar boxes that predate the formation of the Irish Free State and a separate Irish postal service in 1922.
They are spread throughout the country, from Co Mayo to Co Wexford, and from Co Louth to Co Wexford.
I have not gone in search of them with any purpose or method, so my collection of almost four dozen photographs, from eleven counties, is representative only of places I have visited in recent years, and of how alert I was on any particular day.
Most of these post boxes and pillar boxes are embellished with royal monograms. The simpler boxes inserted into walls, have plain ‘VR’ initials with crown insignias, while the stand-alone tubular pillar boxes often have the ‘VR’ initials in a cursive flourish, but despite the decorative approach have no crowns.
The initials become more elaborate in the calligraphic flourishes that adorned them during the reign of Edward VII, but they return to more simple fonts in the reign of George V reflecting not only the harsh times of World War I and the War of Independence but also the design and development of new typefaces for typography and printing that emphasised clarity and legibility.
The green post box, in various shapes and sizes, is a familiar sight on city streets and country roads throughout Ireland. But all the post boxes illustrated here were originally painted in Post Office Red, and the embossed crowns were painted in gold, as may have been the lettering.
The post box was introduced over 160 years ago by the novelist, Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office in Ireland for several years. He wanted to make it easier for people to post their letters and make it unnecessary for them to have to wait for a post office to open.
The first boxes appeared on the streets of cities like Dublin, Belfast and Cork over 150 years ago and they were introduced to other towns and villages from the 19th century on. The big pillar boxes were soon joined by smaller boxes that fitted into walls and later by lamp boxes that were cheaper to make and could be attached to lamp and telegraph poles.
The first letter boxes were first put in place in 1855, when five boxes were erected in Belfast, Ballymena and Dublin. The first Dublin box was rectangular in shape and is now on display in the National Museum in Kildare Street, Dublin.
By early 1857, pillar boxes had been placed in many Irish cities. The Post Office went on to put wall boxes in place throughout the island, and the cylindrical boxes were introduced in March 1879. A new design was introduced in 1887, incorporating the royal cypher on the door and the words ‘Post Office’ on the collar below the rim of the roof.
Most of the early pillar boxes were painted dark bronze green throughout the United Kingdom, but in 1874 the Post Office decided to make pillar boxes more obvious by painting them a striking royal red. All the boxes illustrated here were originally painted in red, but after Independence the Irish Post Office changed their colour to green.
A number of these old post boxes remain in use today and they are an elegant feature in many towns and suburbs. But many are neglected, left to rust, blocked up, and in some cases the royal insignia has been wilfully razed or filed away.
They are an important element in the street architecture of Ireland, and it would be a shame if they were lost because of neglect or wanton abandon.
The reign of Queen Victoria:
These letter boxes date from 1887 to 1901:
The reign of Edward VII (1910-1910):
The reign of George V (1910-1922):
The simplicity of the lettering on these boxes is enhanced by the royal ciphers. Although the boxes from the previous reign bore the initials EVIIR, these boxes bore the initials GR rather than GVR. It is almost like a premonition that an older order was passing that there would be no GVIR, or EVIIIR for that matter.
Post boxes without royal cyphers
The royal monogram or cypher has been filed away with intent on these three letter boxes, although in two cases the words ‘Post Office’ have been lift on the lid.