“Bitter Knowledge” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990). It can be found in the collection “Late into the Night: the Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos”.
Consider reading my analysis of Ritsos’ poem “Maybe, Someday” before this one. These two poems can be read together, and it makes more sense for the other one to come first.
As with any analysis of a poem, we should begin by reading it in its entirety first, and appreciating it as a whole.
by Yannis Ritsos (translation karlóvasi, 6-30-87)
Stay in this sheltering half-light with folded hands.
There’s nowhere for the lame night-watchman to sit.
The chairs were sold off two weeks ago. Out front,
they’re hosing out some large barrels. Barges
lie beached in the harbor. The newscaster’s voice
carries from across the street. I don’t want to hear.
I sweep the charred moth wings off the table
from the night before, knowing only
that all their weight is in their weightlessness.
The tone is depressed, wistful and resigned. A number of images point to giving up or feeling powerless: the “folded hands”, the “lame” watchman with nowhere to sit, the charred wings. The images also create a deep feeling of emptiness or lacking purpose: The barrels, being hosed out, empty; The watchman, nowhere to sit; The barges beached on the harbor, inert; The moth wings, discarded, burned, brushed from the table. The images in this constellation all show loss: a loss of purpose or function.
The overall impression created is one of sadness, emptiness, and loss.
Watson’s tone analyzer confirms this reading, identifying sadness and fear as the prevailing moods.
Ritsos is talking about his life as a poet. He is the “lame night-watchman”, powerless as death (“night”) approaches. The “bitter knowledge” of the title concerns his life’s work.
Late into the night of his life, he is reconsidering his contributions, weighing the value of his life’s work. The charred moth wings “from the night before” are the totality of his life’s work: insubstantial, charred, fragile, crumbling at the slightest touch. Their value: nothing, except proving their “weightlessness”.
Ritsos devoted his entire life to poetry. He hoped that he might share the beauty of the world as he saw it, through his poetry. This was his driving passion: to end the loneliness of living in his private world; to bridge the divide between separate beings; to commune with others through his craft. At the end of his life, he came to dismiss his life’s work -sweeping it from the table- as a total failure.