C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems
Translated, with introduction and commentary, by Daniel Mendelsohn
(Alfred A. Knopf, 624 pp., $35)
C.P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems
Translated, with introduction and commentary, by Daniel Mendelsohn
(Alfred A. Knopf, 144 pp., $30)
Greece, as a nation-state, has only existed since 1832. The Greece that most of us have at the back of our minds, that of archaic and classical antiquity, consisted of a collection of quarrelsomely independent city-states, united only by language, cult, and a contempt for the Barbarian Other. They boasted, rightly, of having fought off the Persian menace, but then spoiled the picture by themselves succumbing in turn to Macedonia, Rome, Byzantium, the Franks, the Venetians, and the Ottoman empire, of which they formed a subject province for some four centuries. Yet they never forgot Marathon and Salamis, much less the extraordinary, and quite unique, cultural efflorescence of the Periclean Age. When, after independence was won, the London Committee, a decidedly dodgy group of British philhellenes and speculative investors, tried to arrange repayment of the enormous loans that had helped finance the Greek War of Independence, they were supposedly told, with hauteur, that this had been not a loan, but a partial payment for the incomparable legacy that the new state's Hellenic ancestors had bequeathed to the world. The debt was in fact never repaid, and liquidated only in 1878.
As independent Greece started, so it went on: its process of self-invention (still in progress) has always tended to involve noisy, and sometimes disastrous, assertions of aggressive nationalism. This mood has been reflected, at varying levels, in the extraordinary literary renaissance accompanying the emergence of a Hellas that, for the first time, could boast--despite persistent domestic bickering--that it had political as well as linguistic and religious unity to go with its newly won freedom. In 1823, with the Greek revolutionaries split by serious rivalries, the poet Dionysios Solomos published, as a rallying cry, his famous "Hymn to Liberty," the first two stanzas of which still form the text of the Greek national anthem. Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) not only wrote the "Hymn for the Olympic Games," but was also a pioneer in the fight to free Greek literature from its adhesion to the artificial "purist" language (katharevousa, an attempt to revive ancient Attic), and to promote the literary use of the vernacular (demotike). A passionate nationalist, his funeral in German-occupied Athens was the occasion for a vast anti-Nazi protest.
A prominent speaker at that funeral was the poet Angelos Sikelianos, who had seen the danger of losing Greece's classical heritage along with the "purist" tradition, and worked hard, not least by means of a glitzy Delphic Festival, to reconcile antiquity with the new demotic ideal. The polyglot and highly intellectual diplomat-poet George Seferis, modern Greece's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was a passionate nationalist who in 1956 broke off relations with his old friend Lawrence Durrell over the British stance on Cyprus (an island that had strikingly renewed his poetic creativity). Odysseus Elytis, the twentieth-century Greek poet who also won the Nobel Prize, had fought in Albania in World War II, and used his wartime experiences in a great poem, the Axion Esti, or Worthy It Is, a moving tribute to the Greek landscape and the perennial Greek struggle for freedom, which appeared in 1959. Some of its best-known verses, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, have become a kind of unofficial second national anthem.
All these, in their various ways, fitted in with a political vision that has dreamed--and in 1921-22 did more than just dream--of re-conquering Ionia and Constantinople, and which promotes Alexander the Great as a strictly heterosexual and wholly Greek national hero--an icon in whom the Orthodox Church, no less than bellicose irredentists and army recruits, can take proper pride. But the Greeks have also always been eager to have the Western world, and above all the English-speaking world, acknowledge the justice of their cause, and how better to do this than through their undeniably dazzling modern literary renaissance?
Here, however, they came up against a curious, and initially embarrassing, stumbling block. Though some of their best poets, most particularly Seferis, had achieved limited fame, and translation, among Western intellectuals, it could hardly be said that they had made a deep or lasting impression on the Anglo-American educated public. That achievement had been improbably reserved for Constantine Cavafy, a rather seedy homosexual domiciled in Alexandria in Egypt, who visited Greece only four times in his life, spoke Greek with a marked British accent (until the age of nine, Seferis claimed, English was Cavafy's only language), and wrote nostalgic poems about memories of one-night stands with beautiful rent-boys. The poet's surname was derived from kavaf, Arabic-Turkish for a hawker of cheap shoes, while his given name honored the Christianizing founder of the Byzantine empire. When he wrote poems about classical Hellas, which was seldom, he stressed not its glories but its ironic failures.
Not surprisingly, Cavafy's appearance on the literary scene provoked vigorous initial opposition from the ultra-patriotic supporters of Palamas. (The least suggestion that prominent figures from Hellenic history may have been homosexual can still provoke riots among the Greek faithful, for whom the classical past has been subtly imbued with Orthodox Christian morals.) But in Greece as elsewhere, in the long run nothing succeeds like success. Most modern Greek poets are lucky to get their collected works translated into English once. The 154 poems that constitute Cavafy's official "canon" have so far, by my count, garnered ten versions, and I see no reason to believe that Daniel Mendelsohn's new translations will be the last. As early as 1926, Cavafy was awarded the Silver Star of the Order of the Phoenix for services to literature, a tacit Greek condonation of his more inflammatory subject matter. True, it was bestowed on him by Theodore Pangalos during the latter's brief military dictatorship, at about the same time as he tried to reduce inflation by ordering all banknotes cut in half--but still a bridge had been crossed, and from then on, to the discomfort of conservative moralists, Cavafy has been acknowledged by the country he so seldom visited as one of its greatest modern literary figures.
Thus the recognition that Greece sought so long from the English-speaking West has been lavished on a poet who quietly opposed or undercut almost everything that Hellenizing propaganda stood for and continues to uphold today. Famous poets from Auden to Heaney have written about Cavafy, introduced his translations, and acknowledged his influence on their own work. The texts of Cavafy's unfinished poems, now translated by Mendelsohn for the first time, were pieced together from fragmentary successive drafts by the Italian scholar Renata Lavagnini, with the minute care--and the same technique--normally lavished only on the papyrus scraps of a major classical author, and their retrieval was hailed as a major literary discovery. If the Greeks, as is sometimes alleged, invented irony, this has to be an almost unrivalled example of it. What, we may well ask ourselves, has been the secret of this marginal Hellenist's astonishing and unprecedented success in the Anglo-American literary world?
Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy was born, the youngest of seven brothers, in Alexandria, on April 29, 1863. His ancestry, in which he took great pride, included several distinguished Phanariots, that is, high Greek officials in the service of the Ottoman government and the Patriarchate at Constantinople. Many Phanariots boasted of their illustrious Byzantine ancestry, and several of Cavafy's poems show a strong emotional sympathy with the aristocratic emperor (and subsequent monastic theologian) John VI Kantakouzenos, who reigned in the fourteenth century. This is not the kind of background liable to produce strong Marathonian instincts. In an early poem Cavafy paid lavish (and I suspect tongue-in-cheek) tribute to all those upright souls who set themselves to guard Thermopylae, quietly undercutting their stance with the acknowledgment that in the end--patriotic virtue notwithstanding--the Medes will always break through.
Cavafy's center was never in the Greek homeland. When, in his poem "In Church," his thoughts turn "to the great glories of our race," he is not thinking of Periclean Athens. He is stirred, rather, by what Mendelsohn translates as "our illustrious Byzantinism." It is the Byzantine patrician in Cavafy that we hear when he remarks, cuttingly, as quoted by E.M. Forster: "Aristocracy in modern Greece? To be an aristocrat there is to have made a corner in coffee in Piraeus in 1849."
Cavafy's father preferred to make his corner in exporting Egyptian cotton, successfully enough to run a large luxurious home in the most fashionable quarter of Alexandria, and to move, with his wife Charicleia, in the city's smartest social circles. Then, in 1870, unexpectedly and prematurely, he died. His eldest sons, inexperienced in the business, made unwise investments, and a hemorrhage of capital left them unable to maintain their Alexandrian lifestyle. In 1872 the family moved to England, where Cavafy & Co. had offices. But by 1876 the situation was so bad that the company had to be liquidated, and a year later Charicleia brought her brood back to Alexandria, now as impoverished apartment-dwellers in the city where once they enjoyed both wealth and cosmopolitan social status. Young Constantine was nine years old at the time: the transience of happiness, nostalgia for lost greatness, stoic resignation-- these were strong emotions seared into his mind at a highly impressionable age. To Forster, years later, he remarked, "Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital." That one came from the heart.
Anglicized, and schooled, in Liverpool and London, a declasse polyglot bookworm with poetic yearnings, Cavafy was to spend most of the rest of his life in Alexandria. Though he knew virtually no Arabic, and counted no Egyptians among his friends (even his rent-boys would seem to have belonged to the large Greek community), the city became his home and, eventually, one of his most haunting symbols. Urban to the core, Cavafy took no interest in scenery. Convalescing--shortly before his death--in Kifissia, a northern suburb of Athens, with a stunning panorama visible beyond his window, including the mountains of Parnes and Pendeli in the background, his only comment on the view was: "It bores me." What held his heart were the shabby streets, the run-down cafes and billiard halls, the cheap rooms (linked indelibly in memory with sex long past but never forgotten) of the Greek quarter. Not even his one youthful expedition to Constantinople, where he had his first physical homoerotic experience, was preferable. Refusing an invitation to Athens, he wrote: "Mohammed Aly Square is my aunt. Rue Cherif Pasha is my first cousin, and the Rue de Ramleh my second. How can I leave them?"
Until her death in 1899 he lived with his mother, whom he referred to affectionately (and accurately, to judge from surviving photographs) as "the Fat One." He finally settled in an apartment over a brothel at 10 Rue Lepsius (re-christened the Rue Clapsius by wartime troops). There, surrounded by a hodgepodge of old furniture, rugs, vases, and endless bric-a-brac, which reminded one Greek friend of a secondhand furniture store, Cavafy spent the rest of his life: working mornings as a clerk for the Egyptian Third Circle of Irrigation; entertaining chosen friends by dim candlelight (an especially beautiful face would get the silent tribute of an extra candle); reading voraciously in Hellenistic and Byzantine history; mulling over his own and the Hellenic diaspora's past until they became indistinguishable in his mind; calling up nocturnal visions of historical charmers, former lovers, and himself when young; writing and circulating the poems that would one day make him famous.
He hated growing old (though the laryngeal cancer that killed him was due to his lifelong addiction to cigarettes). Even his earliest poems testify to this obsession. He persisted in handing out photographs of himself taken years before. He dyed his hair. The melancholy that he ascribes to a fictitious poet in Commagene in the year 595--"The aging of my body and my looks/is a wound from a terrible knife"--must surely reflect his own pain, and the transient, youth-obsessed nature of the relationships he so memorably celebrated. And the poem's end--"Bring on your drugs, Art of Poetry,/which make it impossible--for a while--to feel the wound"--reveals, with stoic clarity, one of the driving forces behind his work. Seferis contended that outside his poetry Cavafy was completely uninteresting, did not exist, and Mendelsohn's investigation of the poet's life leads him to a very similar conclusion. Yet at least in a psychological sense, Cavafy's life is surely one of extraordinary interest, and not only because of the poetry it generated.
The traditional account of Cavafy's literary development, sketched out by Seferis and largely followed by Mendelsohn, goes like this. As an eager young litterateur and Orthodox Christian, overly conscious of his Phanariot ancestry, well read in Hellenistic and Byzantine history, writing reviews and essays as well as verse, and struggling to find his own poetic voice, Cavafy was an ordinary and even undistinguished figure. Heavily influenced by the Parnassian movement of the 1860s onward, he embraced the cause of Art for Art's Sake (a concept he never abandoned), and particularly its harking back to ancient Mediterranean models. Then came Baudelaire and Symbolism, the idea of the poet as belonging to a rarefied and enchanted elite, and the mild dottiness (shared by Yeats) that dabbled in second sight, telepathy, and extrasensory perception. The aestheticism of the Esoterics and the Decadents added an exotic relish, and encouraged Cavafy's anti-industrial, retrospective nostalgia for the past.
But then, in Seferis's words, "something extraordinary happens." With so private a person it is hard to be specific, but it would seem that from about 1890 onward Cavafy was struggling with a number of internal conflicts, intellectual, emotional, and erotic. He had begun to read Gibbon, whose humanist ironies attracted him, but whose contempt for Byzantium and its religion he found profoundly antipathetic. He was undergoing a sexual crisis--perhaps precipitated in part by the death of his mother (the same period witnessed the deaths of half a dozen other relatives, as well as those of two good friends)--which resulted, from about 1916 onward, in a far more open and explicit treatment of homosexuality in his work.
This psychological turning point, dated by Cavafy himself to 1911, had been preceded by a ruthless pruning and weeding out, based on what he termed a "philosophic scrutiny," of his existing work. Cavafy now repudiated many of his early pieces, or at best allowed them to survive unpublished. (Mendelsohn, ignoring Cavafy's verdict, has included them all, the repudiated as well as the unpublished.) It was at this moment, we are told, that Cavafy, as a poet, rose from mediocrity to greatness. Hitherto, the argument runs, he had been just another fin de siecle literary versifier, with strong, if deeply concealed, Wildean passions. A comparison is regularly made with Proust, who, in Mendelsohn's words, "similarly underwent a profound but invisible metamorphosis that, by his late forties, had transformed him from a dabbling litterateur into a major artist."
This parallel is reinforced by the undoubted truth--Mendelsohn is absolutely right here--that, as with Proust, "Cavafy's one great subject, the element that unites virtually all of his work, is Time." But otherwise the notion of Cavafy re-inventing himself in middle age (he was almost fifty in 1911) comes up against an interesting and significant obstacle. There is fairly general agreement as to what constitute his best, and best-known, poems: the lists will almost always include "The City" (1894), "Waiting for the Barbarians" (1898), "Thermopylae" (1901), "Ithaca" (1910), "The God Abandons Antony" (1910), and "Alexandrian Kings" (1912). The only possible later poem that might qualify for entry to this list is "Young Men of Sidon (400 A.D.)" (1920), and even that is debatable. In other words, most of the poems for which Cavafy has become famous were conceived before the metamorphosis that allegedly turned him into a great poet.
What are we to make of this? It would seem that the idea of Cavafy as a mysterious late bloomer is greatly exaggerated. True, much of what he wrote early on was poor stuff; the same is true of many great poets. Yet he also produced, while still in his thirties, at least three of the great poems by which he first won wide recognition. They heralded the appearance of a new and unique voice in European literature: quiet, reflective, philosophical, but at the same time disconcertingly subversive of age-old conventional wisdom. For two millennia the West had seen Rome as the bastion of civilization against encroaching barbarism. In "Waiting for the Barbarians"--a title that has passed into the language as a euphemism for a kind of enervated acceptance of defeat--we instead see emperor, consuls, praetors, orators, all in their finest attire, passively, indeed eagerly, expecting the arrival of these crude but energetic outsiders. Nothing could better symbolize the played-out and decadent quality of an ancien regime. When the rumor of their coming proves to be false, the news is greeted not with jubilation, but with despair: "And now what's to become of us without barbarians?/These people were a solution of a sort."
"Ithaca" looks, at first sight, to be less disruptive of accepted ideas, a haunting discourse on the old proverb that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The addressee in the poem is famously exhorted to make the trip a lifelong one, in summer mornings to "put in to harbors new to your eyes," to buy exotic goods, to gain wisdom from Egyptian sages. But look again. The original, iconic traveler to Ithaca was Odysseus, and his goal was return to his kingdom, to reunite with his wife Penelope. He wanted home. When he stretched the journey out, it was mostly in the arms of other women. He had trouble with the Cyclops, with the Laestrygonians, with Poseidon. But for Cavafy, the Ithaca-bound traveler will avoid all these "so long as your thoughts remain lofty." This cannot be said of Odysseus's thoughts. And when Cavafy's traveler finally makes it to Ithaca, the little island "has nothing left to give you." Penelope and home have been silently written out of the picture. "Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey" is the poem's most unforgettable and plangent line. We forget that, for Cavafy, Ithaca can give you nothing else. "Ithaca" gained a certain sort of worldwide fame when, in 1994, Maurice Tempelsman read it, very movingly, at the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I have always wondered which of its multiple implications he had in mind.
These poems have a significant feature in common, which, considering the aspect of Cavafy's work that is currently most emphasized, should be of particular interest today. In 1927, he identified three main thematic areas in his poetry: the historical, the philosophical (in which he clearly included the didactic), and the sensuous, of which by far the largest sub-division was the erotic. These categories regularly overlapped. Of the poems listed above, five qualify as didactic, and four as historical--but unless we count the "voluptuous perfumes" of "Ithaca" ("heady," in Mendelsohn's version), not one of them, by any stretch of the imagination, could be categorized as sensuous, let alone erotic. The clear conclusion would appear to be that his "metamorphosis" was closely bound up with Cavafy's remarkable emergence, in the last two decades of his life, as a brilliant pioneer in the poetic portrayal--precise, often matter-of-fact, always psychologically acute--of homoerotic passion.
Yet a close inspection of the published corpus of the "canon" shows that this emergence turns out to have been cautious to a degree--not surprisingly, given the hostility of the Palamas clique, and the still stringent laws against homosexuality. The unidentified longings (epithymies) in the poem of that name, in 1904, go unfulfilled. The student Myrtias declares in "Dangerous" (1911): "My body I will give to pleasures,/to diversions that I've dreamed of,/to the most daring erotic desires,/to the lustful impulses of my blood"--but we are not told what they are. When we do begin to get unmistakably erotic scenes, in a series of poems from 1914 onward (many protected by their historical setting), Cavafy's Greek again and again cunningly leaves the gender of his characters indeterminate, in a way that English, which is ineluctably gender-specific, cannot replicate.
As a result, Anglo-American translations tend to give the false impression that Cavafy's open references to homosexuality are considerably more frequent than was in fact the case. First-person narratives (except for those using a historical persona) avoid explicit homoeroticism: "Body Remember" (1918) is a good example. "To Pleasure" (1917) disclaims interest in "any routine enjoyment of desire," but that is the nearest we come to an open declaration. That this reticence was calculated becomes obvious when we turn to the unpublished and unfinished collections, where the situation is very different. There Cavafy (or his first-person persona) speaks openly again and again (yet the sex of the beloved often remains obscure). A pair of such poems describe visits to brothels. In one, "On the Stairs" (1904), two clients exchange sad glances as they pass: "Our bodies sensed and sought each other out; our blood and skin understood./But we hid from each other, we two, terrified." The other, "And I Got Down And I Lay There in Their Beds" (1915), sheds an interesting, if ambiguous, light on Cavafy's sense of himself as an artist:
The rooms I went to were the secret
the ones they think it shameful even
But for me there was no shame--
for if there were
what kind of poet, what kind of
craftsman would I be?
Better to abstain completely. That
would be more in keeping,
much more in keeping with my poetry
than going to the common parlor for
But all his life he seesawed between self-restraint (he wrote agonized notes to himself about masturbation) and the full acceptance of sensual pleasure as the matrix of his creative genius, with the latter generally winning. As he wrote in "Comprehension" (1918):
In the dissolute life I led in my youth
my poetry's designs took shape;
the boundaries of my art were drawn.
That is why regrets were never firm.
And my resolutions--to master myself,
would keep up for two weeks at the
For that irresolution we should be eternally grateful. In a series of vividly etched vignettes, Cavafy gave memorable and public expression to a world of deep but transient passions that had hitherto lacked any true voice, let alone so remarkable a poetic endorsement. Intensely, almost exclusively, physical, fleeing the realities of family or daily life (Cavafy notes one youth's mended underwear without thinking to ask himself who mended it), these phosphorescent mayfly relationships envisage no future beyond the sexual epiphany itself. Loss, separation, and nostalgia follow. Beauty fades, but preferably somewhere else. I cannot see Cavafy's protagonists holding out for same-sex marriage.
Owing to the special circumstances surrounding the development of Cavafy's erotic poems, there has always been a temptation to treat them as an independent phenomenon, something apart from his ironic musings on the vicissitudes of Alexandrian, Byzantine, or classical history. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Edmund Keeley, one of Cavafy's best translators and interpreters, has remarked, Cavafy's whole corpus constitutes "a collection of historical epiphanies in verse." Like Proust, Cavafy set out to capture significant moments from the past. His temps retrouve embraced ancient kings and modern working youths. Beauty, passion, devotion, the perfection of a youthful profile, the incandescent moments of one's early twenties: all were as evanescent--and in the same way--as the crumbling dynasties and historical failures of antiquity. (Cavafy would surely have endorsed Auden's famous, and later repudiated, aphorism: "History to the defeated/may say Alas but cannot help or pardon.") The retrieval of these epiphanies, by recourse to texts, statues, photographs, or treasured personal memories, was the best one could hope for. Even the parting of young lovers forever has its plus side: they will remember each other as the exquisite twenty-somethings they were at the moment of separation.
Despite his pragmatic ironies and his bare-bones verse, Cavafy can thus be seen as a crypto-romantic, whose worship of the flesh sometimes (as translators know to their cost) can slip into sentimental cliche, and who, for all his repeated assertion that he was a poethistorian, could not--any more than some other modern advocates--resist the temptation to redesign Graeco-Roman antiquity, complete with fictional case-histories, as a dreamworld in which homoeroticism was the norm. Yet these remain minor flaws in a most powerful and consistent worldview. Cavafy is the supreme modern poet of nostalgia, of the brevity and the transience of all human aspirations and affections. More stoic than Thomas Nashe, he knows brightness will fall from the air, but sets himself to catch it in a ring of words before it fades.
When we survey Cavafy's wide-ranging historical and religious themes, a very interesting fact emerges. He is regularly described as a marginalist. Seferis, again, set the tone: "His world is located on the edges of places, men, and ages." But in a literary sense he began at the familiar center, and only progressively moved further out. Odysseus and Ithaca, Achilles' horses, the death of Sarpedon, a Trojan lament: all these would be familiar to readers of Homer (the repudiated poems contain similar items). His first expansion into the Hellenistic world came by way of Plutarch's Lives, still reasonably familiar territory for the educated. But the more the voracious autodidact explored the world of the Seleucids and Ptolemies, and the medieval byways of Byzantinism (surely the most esoteric subject matter out of which great poetry was ever made), and what he described in "Philhellene" (1912) as the dubiously Hellenic regions "behind the Zagros, beyond Phraata," the further he departed from any mythic or historical context immediately appreciable by the non- specialist, and the longer and more frequent Mendelsohn's excellent explanatory notes have to grow, sometimes morphing into extended commentaries.
Except when these later poems have a touch of emotional universalism--as in, say, the use of colored glass for jewels at the coronation of the penniless John Kantakouzenos--they are not the stuff that generates worldwide popularity. It seems increasingly clear that what first established Cavafy's extraordinary reputation was a nexus of his famous early poems, and what confirmed it was his unique new genre of homoerotic vignettes, some of the best of which have emerged, comparatively recently, from the unpublished and unfinished work that he left behind at his death.
Every autodidact, someone once claimed, can be guaranteed to have a bee in his bonnet somewhere, and this was certainly true of Cavafy, whose bee (pursued in no less than a dozen poems, five of them unfinished) was the improbable figure of Julian the Apostate. It might be thought that a poet who glimpsed the old gods winging it over Ionia would welcome an emperor who aimed to put them back officially on their pedestals; but in fact Cavafy reveals a visceral distaste and contempt for Julian. G.W. Bowersock, in two characteristically erudite and incisive essays in his wonderful new collection From Gibbon To Auden: Essays on the Classical Tradition, pinpoints exactly why. The poet was at some pains, on accepting his homosexuality, to reconcile it with his Christianity by assuming a tolerant world where "pagans and Christians could associate easily with one another in unhindered pursuit of the sensual life. It was the avowed aim of Julian, the ascetic pagan, to put an end to all that." Exactly. Julian is skewered as humorless, pompous, hypocritical, and ridiculous. But Cavafy is also, in an erotic sense, Sir Toby Belch confronting Malvolio: "Dost think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" It is enjoyable to see this professional ironist, for once, shaken out of his ironic detachment and going for the jugular.
Discussing the problems facing him as Cavafy's translator, Mendelsohn remarks in his introduction, quite correctly, that "it is by now a commonplace that Cavafy's language, because it generally shuns common poetic devices--image, simile, metaphor, specialized diction--is tantamount to prose." This notion (like so much else) goes back to Seferis and has encouraged more than one translator in the belief that turning it into English would therefore be comparatively simple. In fact, Cavafy's language is something rich and strange. It was brilliantly described by Patrick Leigh Fermor as "a unique and cunning alloy in which the fragments of legal diction and ancient Greek and inscriptions on tombs and old chronicles ... are closely haunted by the Anthology and the Septuagint; it is contained in a medium demotic perversely stiffened with mandarin and beaten at last into an instrument of expression which is austere and frugal in the extreme." Much of this intricate complexity has been ignored, not only by largely Greekless critics such as Auden, but also, unfortunately, by more than one translator.
There is also a vague public assumption, first started by Forster, who should have known better, that Cavafy never uses rhyme. This is completely untrue. Many of his poems (including a number of sonnets) have complex, and in a few cases really recherche, rhyme schemes. How many English readers, I wonder, know that so familiar a work as "The City" is constructed, in the Greek, round an ABBCCDDA stanzaic pattern? Like Italian (to Dante's great benefit), modern Greek has a huge range of inflected terminal homophones, increased still further, since late antiquity, by the progressive reduction of vowels (u, e) and diphthongs (oi, ei) to the ee sound of modern iota, a shift known as iotacization. Just how easy this makes rhyming can be seen from a tour de force such as "A Great Feast at the House of Sosibius" (1917), in which all the rhymes are not only homophones but also actual puns: lian/leian, kope/kopoi, and so on. It is only too easy to see why translators into English have for the most part silently discarded these exotica; but the result has created a measurable gap between Cavafy's original text and what most Western readers are offered in its place.
We have a great deal to thank Daniel Mendelsohn for. He has provided us--especially through the inclusion of versions of the thirty poems still in draft form--with as complete a Cavafy collection as we are ever likely to get. His notes are full, accurate, and always helpful; and his theoretical understanding of Cavafy's metrics was badly needed, and shows subtle insights. (Who before him ever bothered to point out that the questions in "Waiting for the Barbarians" are all written in the old-fashioned fifteeners popular in Greek demotic songs--and familiar to us from George Chapman's Homer--whereas the answers come in crisp, tight tragic iambics?) In a few illuminating pages Mendelsohn shows how Cavafy used different meters to highlight dejection, disappointment, or frustrated desire: how in a line suggesting Nero's self- indulgent excesses he pads out the five-beat rhythm with five extra syllables. He skillfully traces the cunning juxtapositions of demotic, mandarin, and classical Greek. He has carefully sorted the various stages of composition and circulation that the poet went through (Cavafy never regarded any work, even when published, as absolutely final). He even highlights Cavafy's use of puns to create emotional linkage: the heart of the wretched young man in "The City" is "buried" (thamene), and in the next line his mind "will remain" (tha menei) stuck in its current morass.
As a critic and an exegete of Cavafy, Mendelsohn ranks with the best. Unfortunately, when he sets about putting all this theoretical knowledge to practical use, he does not do as well. His translations, for all his expert metrical knowledge (and sometimes, I suspect, because of it), have an oddly flat and constrained quality. His iambic imitations do not feel rhythmically comfortable, and to my mind he gives up far too easily in his search for rhymes, offering instead "off-rhymes, assonance, consonance, and slant-rhymes when strict rhymes were difficult to achieve in English." His laudable aim is to let the reader "feel the formal elements of Cavafy's verse," but the actual result not only fails to do this, but unintentionally creates a series of jarring irritations. He is, predictably, at his best in the unrhymed poems of emotion:
Body, remember not just how much
you were loved,
not just the beds where you have lain,
but also those longings that so openly
glistened for you in eyes,
and trembled in voices--and some
chance obstacle arose and thwarted
Now that it's all finally in the past
it almost seems as if you gave
those longings too--remember how
they glistened, in eyes that looked
how they trembled in voices, for you;
Yet even here there are avoidable flaws--the flat shift of Cavafy's careful "in the voice" to "in voices," of "how they glistened,/remember" to the prosaic "remember how/they glistened," eyes that "looked" rather than "gazed."
At least as far as Cavafy's "canon" of 154 sanctioned poems is concerned, it seems likely that the long-established version by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, together with Evangelos Sachperoglou's more recent bilingual edition for the Oxford World's Classics series, will continue, deservedly, to hold the field. Where Mendelsohn will remain indispensable is for his thorough critical annotations, and--for the time being, at least--for his first-time translations of the "unfinished" poems. "Unfinished" is, in fact, a misleading description, since (as opposed to the papyrologists, who thrive on supplementing lacunae) Lavagnini had in each case at least one, and often several, complete drafts to work from. Her task was not to fill gaps, but to decide between endless scribbled corrections, between alternative lines or phrases. Even so, her "ultimate texts" (teleftaia keimena), as she well knew, remain hypothetical recreations. (For this reason, and given the general inaccessibility of Lavagnini's Greek keimena, it is hard to understand why Mendelsohn's slim volume was not--like Keeley-Sherrard, like Sachperoglou--first published as a bilingual.)
The "unfinished" poems themselves will bring no radical surprises--indeed, they will bring a considerable sense of deja lu--to those familiar with the "canon." The only mildly astonishing discovery is perhaps the degree to which Julian figured as Cavafy's particular bugbear during the last decade of his life. No less than five pieces deal with the Apostate, including a spooky borrowing from Procopius's Secret History that has him wandering round the palace at night minus his head, and thus clearly a demon in disguise. Several poems wittily target degenerate Ptolemies or Seleucids: the obese Ptolemy known as Potbelly, Antiochus Cyzicenus who played with giant marionettes. A smart young Italian studying rhetoric in Smyrna muses on his debts and parties while a famous sophist waxes emotional over a famous incident in the battle of Marathon. Gentle fun is poked at the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (they fall asleep again from boredom while being harangued in the new Christian world). "Remorse" and "Nothing about the Lacedaemonians" both feature a speaker advising the avoidance of excessive sincerity or self-blame: which side the poet is on remains artfully ambiguous.
Some of these poems are tartly effective. They come across, like most of Cavafy's late work, as clever rather than inspired. The best of them are the modern erotica, which constitute about a third of the whole. Both "Birth of a Poem" and "It must have been the spirits" highlight Cavafy's remarkable ability to conjure up, from past random memories, passion recollected in anything but tranquillity. "The Photograph" and "The Item in the Paper" stress the powerful hostility, name-calling, and contempt directed, by newspapers and public opinion, against "degenerates" and "deviants," together with a resolute determination on the part of their targets not to "let any foolish shame/get in the way of their love."
For me, however, the most delightful, the most truly Cavafian, of the new poems is "Abandonment," in which an elegant young socialite refuses to treat being dumped as "some great tragedy":
After all when his friend had said to
him, "We two
will have love forever"--both the one
who said it,
and the one who heard it, knew it for
He was far too elegant, and far too
to take the matter tragically;
and far too beautiful--both face and
for his carnal vanity to be touched at all.
That does not possess the universalism of the great early poems; but in its elegant irony, its rueful realism, and its wry humor, it remains a brilliant miniature, and we are lucky to have it. The old Alexandrian's reactions are always hard to predict; but in whatever afterlife he and his straw hat have ended up--still, of course, at a slight angle to the universe--I think he might be pleased at the way his reputation has fared. As Mendelsohn rightly observes, with the addition of these poems "his work has, at last, been truly finished."
Peter Green's translations from modern Greek include The Fourth Dimension by Yannis Ritsos. He is currently Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor at East Carolina University.
By Peter Green