Yannis Ritsos (1909-90) is generally considered to be – along with Cavafy, Seferis and Elytis – one of the most significant Greek poets of the last century. His life was, to say the least, troubled. From an early age, he was dogged by the tuberculosis that killed his mother and brother. His father and sister suffered breakdowns and spent time in institutions.
His poem Epitaphios (1936), a lament for a young man shot dead by the police during a tobacco workers’ strike, was publicly burned by the Metaxas regime and his books banned. During the post World War Two civil war – because he sided with the left – Ritsos was arrested and sent to prison camps. Then, in 1967, when the Papadopoulos military junta took control of the country, he was again arrested, again his books were banned, again he spent time in prison camps, before being confined to house arrest on the island of Samos.
David Harsent's versions in A Broken Man in Flower (Bloodaxe Books, 2023) are of poems written by Ritsos while in prison and under house arrest. The book also includes the text of an illuminating and vivid letter sent by Ritsos to his publisher in 1969 while under house arrest on Samos describing his life – and the lives of Greeks – under the repressive rule of the Colonels.