Bitter Knowledge, by Yannis Ritsos

“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.

Bitter Knowledge
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.

Yannis Ritsos, “Maybe, Someday”

“Maybe, Someday” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. Before we do any analysis, we should read the poem in its entirety:

“Maybe, Someday” by Yannis Ritsos (translated by Edmund Keeley):

I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.
But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?

Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,
so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone. And really,
there’s nothing over there where I pointed.

Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.

But I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you, he said,
because if you too don’t see, it will be as if I hadn’t –
I’ll insist at least on not seeing with your eyes –
and maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.


The tone is wistful. We sense loneliness and a desire for human connection. The poem ends with a slight glimmer of hope but a prevailing feeling of resignation, sadness, and doubt.

The IBM Watson tone analyzer confirms this tonal analysis (I’m not averse to automated analysis of poetry): According to Watson, Sadness is the only likely emotion -by a wide margin- and the language style is tentative.


I read this poem as expressing the author’s drive to write poetry, which is, for Ritsos, fundamentally about forging human connections. The action of the poem unfolds internally, dramatizing an interplay of emotions and competing impulses, as Ritsos’ urge to share his private vision runs up against the intractable divide that separates us from each other.

Ritsos uses a series of images to symbolize the inner turmoil of wanting to express the inexpressible, and of being painfully aware of the limitations of language and the gulf that divides us.

The “he” in the poem I take to be a stand-in for Ritsos, writing about himself in the third person.

Narrative Structure

The poem is a complete story with a three act structure. It tells the story of how Ritsos is driven to write poetry, but conflicted because of the impossibility of the task; He wants to express his vision, but he is acutely aware of the limitations of language.

Components of the narrative structure in “Maybe, Someday”:

  • Motivation: showing the “rose clouds”.
  • Conflict: “It’s night”. (So the rose clouds can’t be shared).
  • First plot-point: “I have no choice but to see with your eyes”. (Decision to give up).
  • Rising action: third stanza, as Ritsos’ negative emotions accumulate.
  • Climax: “wilted wildflowers”, echoing the “rose” from his original vision, and symbolizing its loss.
  • Second plot-point: “I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you.” (Decision to commit to showing the rose clouds).
  • Falling action and conclusion: “[…] maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.”

Detailed Analysis

When we hear the words “rose clouds” we might picture clouds in the sunrise taking on a pink hue. But Ritsos is not speaking literally. After all, it is night, so the rose clouds aren’t really there, and Ritsos admits as much: “there’s nothing over there where I pointed”. The rose clouds are a symbol for Ritsos’ private vision -something beautiful he has seen. The “rose” here stands for beauty, or at the very least something worth sharing, and may also stand for love; the “clouds” convey some combination of heaven, spirituality, nebulosity, or being beyond reach.

Ritsos has witnessed some sort of hidden, special, or unreachable beauty that he is compelled to express to someone that he cares about. The rose clouds could stand for the sublime, but they needn’t -they are something that he wants to share.

Ritsos goal is to share what he has seen:

“I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.”

But the person with whom he would like to share can’t see. Ritsos laments,

“But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?”

The darkness of night stands for the intractable divide that separates our distinct perceptions of the world, preventing us from seeing the world as others do. Preventing Ritsos, in this case, from sharing the rose clouds.

Ritsos would like to bridge that divide with his poetry. By the end of the poem, he will make a commitment to that endeavor. But not before he gives up. This occurs in the second stanza:

“Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,”

He confesses, “there’s nothing over there where I pointed”, thereby abandoning his vision. (And also reinforcing, in case it was not clear enough, that the vision he has seen exists in his own mind, not in the natural world). He has done this because he believes -at this moment in the poem- that abandoning his private vision will allow him to connect with other people, instead of distancing himself by living in his own private world:

“so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone.”

Ritsos implies that by giving up on his vision, he can be together with other people -not by connecting them to his private world, but instead by joining with them in the ordinary world of the “night”, without the rose clouds. In the third stanza, we see Ritsos’ emotional reaction to abandoning his vision. When he looks at the sky he sees:

Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.

There is a steady accumulation of emotional imagery imposed on the stars. Of course it is not the stars that feel this way, but Ritsos. A feeling of disappointment, hunger, sadness, and “wilting wildflowers”. Ritsos’ personification of the stars illustrates his disappointment at abandoning his vision. He is dissatisfied with life, unhappy, sees nothing worth singing about. The “wilted wildflowers”, the final image in this accumulation of symbolism, calls us back to the “rose” of the beginning. It is echoic of the central metaphor of the rose clouds; The thing wilting is his vision. This is the climax in a growing feeling of disappointment, sadness, and emotional hunger, all deriving from abandoning the rose clouds.

In reaction to his own emotional downturn of the third stanza -and to the wilting of the wildflowers- Ritsos commits, in the fourth stanza, to sharing his vision:

“I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you”.

He has made his commitment to share the rose clouds.

This poem is fundamentally about connecting with other people. It opens and closes with a desire to share something with another person. The vehicle for that sharing is poetry.

In the final stanza, Ritsos comes to a realization about loneliness: the connection he sought with other people in the second stanza (by abandoning the rose clouds) was a false one. Ritsos says,

“maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.”

To say “we will meet” is to imply that they have not yet met (and will not, until he successfully shows the rose clouds). The implication is that you cannot meet someone by abandoning your private vision, by pretending to see with their eyes. For two people to really meet, they must connect in the realm of deeper shared visions. In Ritsos’ terms, you must learn to show a rose cloud in the night. This is the aim of his poetry. To forge a bridge between people, so that we can share our disparate visions, and finally meet.

At the close of the poem, Ritsos is confined to a state of loneliness and separation from others. He is alone in his seeing; the “rose clouds” still exist in his vision alone. But he is committed at least to trying to share what he has seen, trying to show the rose clouds in the night. It could be that the task is impossible. After all: “It’s night – what can one see?” But Ritsos has not given up all hope. He thinks that it could possibly be done, “maybe, someday”.

Is it possible to share rose clouds in the night? Maybe, as readers of poetry, it’s up to us.

Final Words

I hope you liked this poetry analysis. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.

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