Yannis Ritsos was born on 1 May 1909 in Monemvassia, Greece, as cadet of a noble family of landowners. His youth is marked by devastations in his family; economic ruin, precocious death of his mother and eldest brother, internment of his father suffering of mental unrests. He spent four years (1927-1931) in a sanatorium to heal a tuberculosis. These tragic events marked his youth and followed him obsessively in the rest of his life. He was to become a revolutionary poet.
Since 1931, he was close to the Communist Party of Greece (K.K.E.). He adhered to a working circle and published Tractor (1934), inspired of the futurism of Maïakovski, and Pyramids (1935), two works that achieve a delicate balance between faith in the future and personal despair.
His epic poem Epitaph (1936) expressed a message of fraternity, with which the Greek nation could identify, irrespective of parties. Theodorakis (1983-1984) was to put music to Epitaph in 1960. The constrains of Metaxas' dictatorial regime forced Ritsos to explore the indirect language of surrealism with its symbols and allegories. Excerpts of works from this period constitute the basis of Theodorakis' Seventh Symphony, so-called Of the Spring. In Romiossini (Greecity, published only in 1954, set into music by Theodorakis in 1966) Ritsos articulated his attachment to the Greek space, as holder of the historic memory that will fill all his future work.
During the Greek civil war, Ritsos committed in the struggle against the fascists, and was sentenced to spend four years in detention in various camps of so-called 'rehabilitation': Limnos, Agios Efstratios, and Macronissos. In spite of this, he achieved an important production collected in Vigil (1941-1953), and in a long poetic chronicle of this decade: Districts of the World (1949-1951), the basis of another later composition of Theodorakis. Later followed his mature period: The Moonlight Sonata (1956) which gave him the National Poetry Award, When Comes the Stranger (1958), The Old Women and the Sea (1958), The Dead House (1959-1962), which introduced the set of the long monologs inspired by mythology and the ancient tragedies: Orestes (1962-1966),and Philoctetes (1963-1965).
Between 1967 and 1971, the military junta constrained him to a new deportation at Yaros and Leros, and an assignment to residence at Samos. This didn't stop him from enriching again his vast œuvre and to prolong the inspiration of the Greek antique: Persephone (1965-1970), Agamemnon (1966-1970), Ismene (1966-1971), Ajax (1967-1969) and Chrysothemis (1967-1970), both written on the islands of his deportation, Helena (1970-1972), The Return of Iphigenia (1971-1972), Phaedra (1974-1975).
Fourth Dimension regroups all texts that have the shape of the theatrical monologue and that are inspired by the ancient myth. The heroes of these works are often before a conflict or at the doorstep of the death, at the moment where they are about making the balance of their life. While addressing themselves to some mute character, they launch themselves in a speech full of digressions and anachronisms. In fact, all these poems are a meditation on the old age, the death, the time, the familiar dilapidation, history and existences taken between personal requirements and collective imperatives, solitude and the crisis of revolutionary movements.
Ritsos also wrote several sets of short poems who reflect in a moving way his people's awake nightmare: Stone, repetition, bars (1968-1969), Gestures, papers; The Wall in the mirror (1967-1971), Passageway and staircase (1970), 18 little Songs of the bitter Homeland (1968-1970), put in music by Theodorakis in 1973, and The Sounder (1973). From 1970, the poetry of Ritsos takes the shape of long syntheses where oniric ruptures, awake dream, and the surreal constantly intervene in the daily life with strange presences of people and a continuous displacement in the time and in the space. A world is created in To Become (1970-1977), The Buffer (1976) or Song of Victory (1977-1983) which celebrate the beauty of life, while Erotica (1980-1981) is a vivid hymn to love in all its dimensions. The Monochordeses (1980) show the extreme concentration, which Ritsos expressivity has reached.
In the 1980s, Ritsos also wrote novels. Nine books are united under the title of Iconostase of the Anonymous Saints (1983-1985). The prose puts to profit the poet's conquests: liberty of metapher, alternation of the real and the onirique, sudden ruptures, daring language, blossoming of senses opening on an erotic universe, where times and ages always coexist.
The poems of his last book: Late in the Night (1987-1989), filled with sadness and the conscience of losses, the humbly poetic way by which Ritsos restored life and the world around him, preserves a gleam of hope in an ultimate start of creativeness.
However, the poet grievously experienced the downfall of his health and the reduction of his political ideals. Internally broken, he died in Athens, 11 November 1990.